Heavy Water: Gerard Butler recounts the two-wave hold-down that nearly ended his life during the filming of Chasing Mavericks
As told to Zander Morton
It all started as we were shooting a scene padding out over these massive waves, and I wasn't meant to actually be surfing at the time. In this scene, Jay [Moriarity] is watching me, but I don't know he's watching me; it's supposed to be the first time he's seen Mavericks. He's watching from the bluff, and we're paddling out and the waves are crazy. So we were filming—just paddling out and going up over the crest of the waves—and we were getting a little close into the rocks. Now it's kind of my fault because I was saying, "No, let's go there, look how big they are over there," and I'm telling everyone, "It's fine, let's go," and I'll admit I had no business saying that.
All of a sudden, a huge set came in. And I knew it was always a risk doing this, there was always the chance I was going to get caught inside. So the four of us are out there, and Greg Long turns around and starts screaming, "Paddle, Gerry, paddle!" I saw this wave coming from, Jesus, half a mile away, and I was paddling, paddling, paddling. By the time it got to me, I was exhausted. I had already been out for six hours, in the freezing cold water of Mavericks—doing shot after shot, paddling over waves. And like I said, I'm not a surfer, and I'm definitely not a big-wave surfer. And then it got me, and it took me down. Immediately I thought, "This is weird," because I wasn't being pulled in any particular direction. I was just tumbling. And then, I felt for my leg and realized I lost my board. My leash had snapped.
I was just spinning. I wasn't going anywhere, and I was taking in water. The water just kept going into my mouth and I was thinking, "Why is that happening? I don't quite understand." I already had no breath, and I knew I needed to get up. I needed to get up fast, but I wasn't going anywhere. It was starting to get really uncomfortable, and then I heard this loud smash as another wave went over me and the tumbling started again.
And then I thought, "Oh my God." I had just done a scene earlier where I was talking about a two-wave hold-down and about how fear and panic are the difference between life and death. When you panic out there you die. Our second unit director kept saying, "Buddy, this is Mavericks. You panic, you die!" The next minute I'm underwater and I'm thinking that if I panic in any way, I'm gone. All I could think was, "Shit, there's a whole film crew up there going, 'I think Gerry's in some serious trouble.'" I could feel things going from the moment where they would think, "Okay, this is pretty intense," to the moment where they'd start going, "Oh shit, this might be it. Gerry might not be coming up."
And then finally, when I did come up, I was only up for a few seconds before being sent back down again. The next wave came, and Grant Washburn was trying to get to me on a Jet Ski, but he just couldn't. I was about five feet away from him, but the next wave came and he had to turn and go. And I knew what was going on, the wave would have got him, but when he turned I could see the fear in his face. I had already been in a couple of hairy situations filming, and Grant had been so cool, he had been right there for me. This time, it's not that he wasn't cool, he was amazing, but to see him that freaked out…he wasn't freaked out for himself, he was freaked out for me. So I'm going back down thinking, "If he's looking like that, this is not a good situation."
And then I finally came back up, and Peter Mel was over to the side, trying to tell me, "It's okay, don't worry! Be cool, it's okay!" But then yet another wave came and that took me down and into the Boneyard, and just as it was about to go from very bad to even worse, Grant grabbed me and took me in.
And you know, I feel like I used every bit of wisdom and courage that I've picked up in life on this movie. If I hadn't known the importance of staying absolutely calm, I would have been screwed. Because even as the water was going in and I wasn't going anywhere, and as it became so painful, I told myself, "Remember what this movie is about. Fear is healthy, panic is deadly." And because of that thinking I survived a two-wave hold-down, and it sounds cool just to say that.
Afterwards, Zach Wormhoudt sent me a note. He came in the ambulance with me, and he was amazing. All the surfers were amazing, they were all really cool. But Zach came in the ambulance with me, and he was just like, "Hey man, it's all good, no worries." And then he sent me an e-mail the next day saying, "You know what? Very few people can ever know what it feels like to be down for that long and to be so powerless. They can think they do, but they don't, and now you do." It was very poetic. He said it's like asking a dancer in a dance what she felt. And she can't necessarily put the feeling into words; she just dances, just feels it. And nobody can know until they've done that dance. When he said that, it really made sense to me, it was really beautiful. And that was what I was constantly surprised about—how eloquent and poetic a lot of these surfers are—the way they view life and the way they view the sea, surfing, and their craft. I was really taken aback by them. I could listen for days.