Excerpt: Banzai Smackdown - by Jack McCoy

Stu Nettle
Swellnet Dispatch

What price do you put on taking a breath of fresh air, something you do every day without much thought?

Probably not much to be honest. If you live a long life to, let’s say, eighty years of age, you will suck in about 672,768,000 breaths without giving them a thought. That invisible elixir of life is considered rather worthless when you don’t even think about it, but it's priceless when in some precarious, unexpected moment, your access to that all important breath is denied. 

Iconic surf cinematographer Jack McCoy experienced such a moment at the Pipeline in the ‘70s - his life and thoughts consumed by those moments of denied access - when he was pinned to the bottom grasping a 16mm movie camera with one hand, trying to survive. The camera was seriously protected by a cumbersome plexiglass water housing, but he wasn’t protected by anything but sheer luck and good providence. Isn’t it amazing how we protect our replaceable stuff as much as humanly possible, but not ourselves?

Up until a few seconds before the breath-denial moment, Jack was going for ‘the shot’. You know the one, that perfect shot that projects the photographer into the public eye and forever forges the reputation of the surfer. Unfortunately for this intrepid adventurer, an unfriendly set of circumstances saw Jack facing his demise. His exciting and turbulent life receding away, as his rapidly dwindling oxygen supply becomes a frightening reality. 

Only a small percentage of the world’s population will ever experience an aquatic predicament of such life-threatening quality, so let’s explore what it’s really like to be there. Let's let’s find out how the hell this amazing guy handled the moment. Let’s hear about the real deal from the man who lived to tell about that death-defying moment. 

Jack remembers it clearly: “They say before you die, your life flashes before your eyes and this was so true during my death-defying experience."

“It’s the action-packed winter of 1975/76 - the famous ‘Bustin’ Down the Door’ year on Hawaii’s North Shore. Previously my business partner Dick Hoole and myself were distributing surfing films in Australia and although we had been shooting a lot of still pictures as cub reporters for Tracks, I’d never shot a roll of 16mm film until early November 1975. However, while I was recovering from a skiing accident, Dick handed me a Bolex 16mm camera and said with conviction, "We know what our audiences want - let’s make our own films!" And that’s what we did.

“In preparation for our first big work trip overseas, we’d taken a crash course in how to run the camera correctly, and had bought some great lenses to make it happen the way it should. We planned to spend winter at the famous home of the biggest rideable waves in the world, and were amped to capture the incredible feats of the extremely brave men who rode them. We bought a water housing for the Bolex and Hawaii would be the first chance I’d have to use it. I was excited at the chance to make it work.

Jack, at centre, with then-business partner Dick Hoole, and to Jack's left is the plexiglass water housing.

“I had already captured a lot of water shots with this plexiglass rig for the past month or so, then the day of my reckoning finally came. I’d shot still photos from the water in Australia and Indonesia before, however, 16mm filming in Hawaii is a completely different deal when it comes to water photography - especially with a funky and crude plexiglass housing to keep my beloved Bolex dry. The Banzai Pipeline’s second reef was capping and the inside was a solid, gurgling, growling 10 - 12 foot Hawaiian-size.

“Looking forward to capturing the late afternoon surf session, I sense the swell building and take stock of myself - mentally and physically - as it fast becomes obvious that I’m facing my biggest challenge so far this winter. Just getting off the beach and out through the rip to the lineup is an art form in itself, but I’ve done this many times, both surfing and body surfing, however, with this awkward lump of water housing onboard, the art form I’m used to is multiplied ten fold. The key is to sit on the water’s edge about 100 yards south of the main take-off spot and watch the rhythm of the ocean as waves come toward the reef in sets. All this water-force rolls relentlessly in, firstly toward the beach, then naturally channels itself back out next to the wave zone to come at you again.

“As a big set approaches, my aquatic studies indicate to me that this particular day will deliver four wave sets and as the swirling mass of saltwater rushes toward the channel, I run down with my swim fins ready and attached and jump into the current just as the fourth wave breaks out onto the reef. My aim is to time my swim perfectly, so all the water moving along the beach shoots me into the channel and out to the wave-zone beyond, with hopefully just the right lull - a stoppage in the action - to get me to my preferred destination before the next set hits and the whole violent aquatic cycle begins again.

"The plan is excellent and the conditions are friendly to carry it out, but as any seasoned surfer knows, the ocean doesn’t always love you back!

Jack and water housing, swimming at Pipe during more sedate conditions

“My adrenaline accentuates according to my sense of the ocean’s aerated bubbles against my sweaty skin and my heart starts pumping like a steam train going uphill. I only have one free arm to swim with, the other arm is tightly gripping the buoyant water housing of the camera. Under no circumstances is that prized possession going to suffer a scratch if I can help it. Swimming under these restrictions with both legs kicking like crazy, the whole event feels like driving with the handbrake on. But that’s OK, I’ve done this before. I’m OK. I’ve timed it just right! I’ve got this!

“The usual four-to-five knot rip-current is moving at shopping-mall escalator speed and I’m motoring along, gripping the housed camera and the 25mm lens I’d chosen for my mission. My game plan to swim into what I think is a safe enough position, to put my right eye up to the back of the camera and peer through the reflex to site my shot is a good one and I choose the first of the set. It’s such a pretty wave and Rory Russell was launching into it just right. Rory is one of the absolute heroes of the time and Lightning Bolt Surfboards stablemate to Gerry Lopez, and here he is, right in my sights.

"As Rory flew by, confident I got my shot, I turn and notice the next wave, a couple of degrees larger than the first, swinging much wider off the reef and I immediately sense I’m in an extremely vulnerable position right now. I decide to swim as hard and as fast as I can and decide this is probably the key to my survival here, but with a floating water housing the size of a watermelon, life was, shall I say, becoming a little difficult at this particular moment. I’m witnessing the next giant wave rear up on the reef at me. A couple of the duelling surfers were jostling for position at the take-off area and I’ve been dragged into the impact zone by the first wave. A lot further into the problem than I realise and I have a shallow lava reef below and a huge wave feathering above, with only four feet of water to potentially cushion the oncoming concussion I was about to experience.

"With my flippers profusely kicking beyond their capacity and my scrotum noticeably tightening, it’s obvious I’m in the wrong spot at the wrong time, about to be caught inside the wave’s lip and be severely dealt with by the first point of contact. I wasn’t loving the ocean right now and she could tell!

“The entire force of the wave’s energy detonates about a foot in front of me and with my water housing floating like a cork I'm afforded no underwater penetration. So with my old grand-pappy’s voice whispering loudly in my ear - 'It’s time to front up Jack and take it like a man!' - I bring the housing up to my belly, wrap both arms around it like we’re in love and pull my body into a foetal position to take the horrific pounding that’s got my name on it. The turbulence throws me around like I’m in a washing machine rinse cycle and my stress level is reaching max output in anticipation of hitting one of the anvil-shaped coral heads that are in abundance on the ocean floor.

“The pounding I’m experiencing is taking an unusually long time and it seems like forever before anything eases up. But now the wave’s starting to dissipate enough for me to open my eyes and look for some light shining through the action above me, while my lungs are well and truly starting to feel the pressure of the situation.

“I’m alright. I’m alive. I’m breaking the surface of the water for a well-earned breath of air, but I only receive a quarter of a tank before wham! The third wave of the set has me victimised and it gets me really good, impacting directly on my head. I instantly feel the important quarter-breath cruelly wrenched from my possession and I have the wind knocked out of me as I again absorb a gnarly pounding from a wave that is obviously a lot bigger and more powerful than the last one. I feel my body forced into one of the rock valleys in the reef - unbelievably, I’m pinned down but facing up - with the sensation of ten Samoans sitting on top of me. I can’t go up, can’t go down, can’t go sideways, can’t go anywhere, and I solemnly realise I’m here for the duration.

“Again, I think to myself: 'OK, I can do this! I’ve been training for this very situation since I was a kid, watching surf movies and reading surf magazines that never avoid the hard stuff, the death-defying stuff all surfers must face at some time in their lives. I know I must relax - yeah right! I must conserve whatever oxygen I have left in me - which is easier said than done - as every cell in my body is now demanding air immediately and there is none available and none in the offing.

"My first thought to relax and go with the flow quickly abates as reality kicks in and I forget relaxation and fight the hold-down, attempting to break out of the hole that’s not showing any signs of letting me up. What seems like tons of water from above is washing around me and has a hold on me like a giant’s handshake as it slowly squeezes the life out of me. I’m doing my best to reposition my feet underneath me, so I can push off the bottom, but have no luck with that. I’m being hit by another shockwave before I get used to the last one and...oh no, a surfer’s nightmare comes into reality as a two wave-hold down initiates my fear.

"I don’t know if I can take it as this one feels more powerful than those it followed and I’ve now been underwater far too long for my liking. I brace myself as best I can only to again cop another severe thrashing before I’m back to square one, conscious of being pinned to the bottom with no options.

“Even though I know it’s useless and I also know it’s the worst move to make, I start to panic. I’m now in desperate need of air and starting to see my life flash before my eyes - literally. My parents, my brother and sisters, there they are, as kids, me being big brother no longer to anyone. There’s my first ridden wave, my friends, and what are they going to think of me drowning of all things? I’m actually talking to God, seriously pleading for his divine intervention in whatever form that takes to get back my life.

"I suddenly realise I must be weaker now as a feeling of quiet peacefulness is wrapping itself around me and I’m OK with that. I really am. I’m experiencing a dream-like state of total surrender. Not like I thought dying would be, but euphoric. My struggles have passed as I’m calmly resigning myself to the fact that I’m being held within the whims of a force much greater than myself, and surprisingly, I’m OK with that as well. I’m expiring, the life is leaving me and I’m floating...but where to? The giant’s hand must have scooped me up with no assistance from myself whatsoever, gently lifting me toward the light of the ocean surface for a sweet, sweet breath of air. Maybe I’m getting a second chance at life! That’s cool. I’m OK with that too!

Rory Russell at Pipeline by Jack

“Wow! I’m up out of the depths and seeing stars as I taste the sweet breath of life. I take another, and then another, and then another breath, and I’ve never felt so good! I notice I’ve been washed way inside the impact zone and I only have to go under some four or five feet of whitewater to be free of the fear, but hey, compared to what I’ve just been through, I know I can do it. I can live. Subconsciously not wanting to let go of my new baby, I notice my aching arm still hanging onto the camera that will hopefully have my shot of Rory that triggered this entire life-enhancing, life-saving experience. Exhausted, I let the current wash me up the beach in front of the lifeguard tower before attempting the crawl up the steep incline. Normally I wouldn’t let my camera near the sand, however, this is not normal and at that moment I’m not fazed as to what happens as the camera is now being dragged behind me by my spaghetti arm. I can’t believe I hung onto this baby the entire time. I’m finally up on the beach and once I realise the waves cannot wash me back down into the water, my body gives up and I collapse. I thank God I survived the frightening smackdown, my first life and death experience at the Banzai Pipeline!

“To say I was totally shook-up by this experience would be an extraordinary understatement. That night, before going to sleep, I replayed the afternoon’s events, the whole harrowing experience ran unabated through my mind as I took valuable time out to acknowledge the supreme fact that fresh air is everything: the elixir of my life and all its surroundings, never to be taken for granted again by me. I took a few more of those beautiful deep breaths before dropping into a deep, deep sleep.

"Oh yeah, and you know what? I never got the shot of Rory that day, but ten days later redemption was mine. The comeback became complete when brother Rory and I positioned ourselves to produce a gem!

// JACK MCCOY AND CHRIS GUDENSWAGER

The above story was taken from Chris Gdenswager's two-volume set, 'Does The Ocean Love You Back?' Click to order online.

Comments

ringmaster's picture
ringmaster's picture
ringmaster commented Monday, 28 Sep 2020 at 12:27pm

Great read!!!

If it was me, the camera and housing would have been discarded a millisecond after realising I was gunna cop that first one on the head.

Gutsy work Jack. No wonder you were so good!

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain commented Monday, 28 Sep 2020 at 3:10pm

I was almost gasping for breath reading this.

1173

Solitude's picture
Solitude's picture
Solitude commented Tuesday, 29 Sep 2020 at 8:26am

Yes bloody terrifying.

MacLaren's picture
MacLaren's picture
MacLaren commented Tuesday, 29 Sep 2020 at 12:01pm

Near-death wipeouts are truly fearsome things to consider, and leave those who experience them altered, for a lifetime. A near-miss of my own, none too far down the coast from where this harrowing tale occured. My own lucky day was New Years Day, 1973. Two-wave holddown. I've had people tell me that my own story had them holding their breath, too, and your remark about that, zenagain, is what prompted me to chime in. If you like stories about near-drownings, you'll probably like this one too. Mods, please delete this comment if it crosses the line into blogspam, ok? My intent is to simply add another, personal, point of view to the subject of near-death wipeouts, and I'm no fan of self-promoters, so, yeah, wipe the slate clean if I've overstepped my bounds, pretty please.

ringmaster's picture
ringmaster's picture
ringmaster commented Tuesday, 29 Sep 2020 at 1:42pm

Thanks for posting the link to your story MacLaren. Incredible story and even more so as there was NOBODY around anywhere!

After surviving that your personal threshold for the 'limit' that you would be prepared to go out in must have gone through the roof!

For me that happened when I got caught inside by a 6 to 8 wave set at solid 12ft Ulu outside corner in 1988 and washed halfway to Padang (nearly all of it underwater) before I crawled in over the reef with just the tail of my board hanging off the leggie. I remember it vividly because it's the one time in the surf I really thought I was going to die and still the worst flogging I've ever had.

Doesn't hold a candle to what you went through though! Fucken hell........

MacLaren's picture
MacLaren's picture
MacLaren commented Wednesday, 30 Sep 2020 at 2:17am

Interesting point that you bring up ringmaster, and it caused me to reflect just a tiny bit farther into things, and in so doing, I gained one more tiny little bit of interesting information about myself, and I have been given a whole new world of inquiry to explore, and for that I am in your debt, and for that, I thank you very very much.

I shall take your above as indication of interest in what surrounds the original story, and on those grounds I shall here elaborate on things a bit, and hopefully it won't be too much Bullshit From MacLaren as I take myself just a few steps farther down my own road of self-understanding, and also, perhaps, an understanding of the people I share the world with, including people who have endured Grave Situations in Real Waves, such as yourself (half-way to Padang, getting beaten violently and deprived of sensible oxygen the whole way sounds, very much so, dire) and this constitutes a shared bond which people who have not endured similar, whether surfing or elsewhere, will never be able to enter in to.

My own personal "through the roof" moment occurred following a wipeout, as it did for you, (and this causes me to wonder as to the particulars regarding the psychology and physiology of “through the roof” moments, both in surfing and elsewhere, and whether it always requires harsh punishment to achieve, and if so, why?) and my own “through the roof” wipeout also occurred at Waimea, but it was not the wipeout in the story I linked to in the comment I made, which you replied to.

It occurred prior to the wipeout in the story, and it now becomes plain to me that I need to write myself a new story, regarding my own “through the roof” moment. And I shall do so. And what I’m thinking is that we’re now seeing the first rough draft of that story, in raw form. Which will be cleaned up, later. And I again give thanks and credit to you, ringmaster, for providing me with that which was needed to further open my own eyes, even if only just a little bit.

So anyway, back to the original point, which of course requires another damned story.

I arrived on Oahu on Oct. 3, 1972, wide-eyed, fresh and green, age 21, from Florida, having never surfed anywhere in my life north of Port Canaveral, nor south of Monster Hole, for a total period of 8 years.

Which means it was a pretty significant step upward from my original lowly position on the globe, when I arrived on Oahu.

And above double-and-a-half, to just under triple-overhead, I would not go, and for that month of October, and the first short bit of the following November, everything from that upper limit all the way down to thigh-high was just fine and dandy with me, because I had arrived in Hawaii as an immigrant coming from wave-starved Florida, following an invite from a buddy who lived on Oahu, and I had zero intentions of ever riding anything Substantial, and instead intended to be a crumb-snatcher, with the hope of perhaps being able to get a few nice rides on waves that my self-acknowledged very low Florida standards would permit me to enjoy, even as those waves were dismissed out of hand as being unworthy of the time it took to ride them, by those who rode Real Waves at other places, at other times.

Really.

This was my actual self-acknowledged intent, and it worked just fine, and I caught a lot of fun waves at Velzyland, Kammieland, Pupukea, Gas Chambers, Rocky Point, small Sunset, and calm windless days on the Windward Side (the place I was staying at was in Punaluu), and the crowds were rarely an issue (Rocky Point excepted), and oftentimes it would be just me, or me and my buddy, and what’s to not like about that?

Until, that is, very early in the morning of November 3, 1972, (and for this ringmaster I literally can NOT thank you enough, because it took your prod, your goad, to cause me to examine the Goddard and Caldwell Data Set once again, and god DAMN is this ever the coolest shit that ever was, and no, I have no idea why I never thought of it before, and I really do not care anyway, because now I have the long-lost information, and it’s all because of you, ringmaster) I found myself in the passenger seat of my buddy’s aqua-colored Mustang convertible, driving past a completely washed-through-from-a-mile-out Sunset Beach, and on down the Kam Highway to a parking spot in the (empty) lot at Waimea Beach Park, and from there to a position standing on the sand over by the point, where, to the accompaniment of waves curiously peeling (instead of the far more common dump-and-backoff) across the right-hand side of the mouth of the Bay outside, with only four(!) people sitting in the lineup, I hear myself saying, “Ok,” to my Buddy’s excited imprecations to “Let’s go ride this! I’ve always wanted to surf Waimea Bay!”

I am easily led, it would appear.

And not just “easily led” but “easily led” into significantly dangerous situations as to question my own sanity.

And we paddled out, and we RODE, and it was glorious, and it might have been my second substantial wave, and it might have been one of the later ones, but whichever one it was, it was early in the surf session, and I’d made the drop cleanly, and I was down at the very bottom of the wave, and as I leaned into my bottom turn, I found myself continuing straight and true, towards the distant shoreline, even as the board turned neatly down the line, and continued on without me, and for a brief, to be everlastingly burned into my memory, clear and sharp as if it had happened only an hour ago, moment, I found myself shoulderblades-to-the-water, flat upon my back, looking upwards directly at the enormous mass of whitewater which was just about to engulf me.

Smashbang!

And it was a damn good thrashing underwater, and it was by FAR the largest wave I’d ever taken a wipeout on up to that point in time, and it was scary like a motherfucker, but not only did it not kill me, it also did not do very much of anything at all to me, and I resurfaced soon enough, and upon resurfacing I felt like fucking Superman because I had just handled a Proper Wipeout at Proper Waimea without incident, and THAT was my “through the roof” moment, and that was the moment that completely altered my whole approach to Waves On The North Shore, and really, my entire life thereafter, and I’d really love to hear about other people’s “through the roof” moments, since this is a subject I’m brand-new to, and know next to nothing at all about, and my curiosity has been set ablaze, and goddamnit, I WANT TO KNOW!

And, to further elaborate, ringmaster, the day following the day of the two-wave holddown at Waimea which set this whole long-winded discussion off, was a Day of Trepidation at Large Sunset Beach on January 2, 1973, showing as 15 feet on the GC Set, and I was very uncomfortable out there that day because I’d come too close the day before, and had gained an understanding of things that I did not have previously, and I knew for a fact that if I did not get back up on the horse that had thrown me, right away, I might very well find myself never riding this particular horse ever again in my life, and so I swallowed hard, hoisted the board under my arm, walked down to the water’s edge, and paddled out at Large Sunset (because the swell had dropped and Waimea was no longer sensibly breaking), and rode the sonofabitch, even though every fiber of my body wanted nothing whatsoever to do with any of it, and although I did not catch very many waves that day, I caught enough, and that put the matter behind me, and from then on I was ok, but for a while there….

It was something to consider.

ringmaster's picture
ringmaster's picture
ringmaster commented Wednesday, 30 Sep 2020 at 12:44pm

"and I was very uncomfortable out there that day because I’d come too close the day before, and had gained an understanding of things that I did not have previously, and I knew for a fact that if I did not get back up on the horse that had thrown me, right away, I might very well find myself never riding this particular horse ever again in my life,"

THAT!

So true MacLaren! Ya have to suck it up and get back into it as soon as you can after an experience like that or it may hinder you for a long time......but it can be easier said than done.

Re: my experience I referred to in my post above: went back the next day with another board and it was still big but not as big as the day before. Solid 6 - 8ft with a few sly 10 footers in the mix. Like you, I felt a bit uneasy but knew I had to get back out there quickly. I had a nasty wipeout early on take off but nothing like the day before and my board remained intact and attached. I ended up having a really good surf and came in feeling a million $$$. I was 23 at the time and those 2 days were pretty significant for me raising my own limits from that point on.

Cheers to you!

bluediamond's picture
bluediamond's picture
bluediamond commented Tuesday, 29 Sep 2020 at 1:42pm

Unreal read Maclaren. That's a place few of us will ever go so it was great (and terrifying) to be taken there. Thanks for sharing and glad you made it!

MacLaren's picture
MacLaren's picture
MacLaren commented Wednesday, 30 Sep 2020 at 2:03am

Thank you ever so much for the kind words bluediamond, they are very much appreciated, and cause me to believe that perhaps, yes indeed, I really can write, and that is not a thing I take lightly. So again, my utmost thanks to you.

Chris Tacke's picture
Chris Tacke's picture
Chris Tacke commented Tuesday, 29 Sep 2020 at 10:06am

Amazing everyone who has nearly drowned has the same experience, euphoria and you hear music, and a sense of peace l wanted to drift of towards the light wasnt worried at all Hit my head at southside broke my C7 and 50 staples in my head severed a vein in my head, only thing that brought me back from drifting down the tunnel was my kids.would have gone other wise

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain commented Tuesday, 29 Sep 2020 at 10:57am

Farke...

Welcome back man.

1173

nozawaman's picture
nozawaman's picture
nozawaman commented Tuesday, 29 Sep 2020 at 1:18pm

He should have put in a few stories of when we worked at the Chevron in Surfers .

bluediamond's picture
bluediamond's picture
bluediamond commented Tuesday, 29 Sep 2020 at 1:43pm

Awesome read Jack McCoy. Had no idea about this story. Glad you made it through and we got a generation of sick surf vids because of it. Yew legend!

mick-burnside's picture
mick-burnside's picture
mick-burnside commented Wednesday, 30 Sep 2020 at 8:54am

Thanks for the great read Jack......I love the bit about cradling the camera. It is instinctive for me to do as well. It would be depressing to miss the post session slide show. With or with out the camera!!!! Aloha.

mick b

bellavista's picture
bellavista's picture
bellavista commented Wednesday, 30 Sep 2020 at 1:53pm

Always a cracker- JACK story teller

chook's picture
chook's picture
chook commented Wednesday, 30 Sep 2020 at 2:10pm

horrendous stories. i just can't even imagine the force of those hawaiian waves.

i had a couple of bad hold downs about 15 years ago.
since then, i've had the fear, can't shake it. i still go out a few times a week. but it takes a while out the back before i settle down.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain commented Wednesday, 30 Sep 2020 at 3:39pm

Regarding what McLaren and Ringy are talking about above, do you ever find yourself when nervous paddling out when it's really solid, you go and then on the first wave you get mauled and when you come up you think "well couldn't get much worse than that" and you end up charging your sesh?

That's happened to me many times in my surfing life. Getting flogged on the first or second wave, coming up ok and then going on to have a good time.

1173

frog's picture
frog's picture
frog commented Wednesday, 30 Sep 2020 at 8:55pm

Rory Russel shot became a Tracks cover tinted golden yellow.

Frogg