Right about the same time southern California was getting rocked by the biggest swell of the year, waves of far more consequence were lashing the boulder-strewn shore of Jaws (aka Pe'ahi) on the North Shore of Maui. Charging headfirst into the 25-foot-plus (Hawaiian-style measurement) surf was a dedicated crew of surfers hell-bent on getting the biggest waves of their lives. Among them was 24-year-old Hana resident Dege O'Connell. Dege, who's been surfing Jaws for several years now, was on a borrowed 10-foot, 6-inch board and caught exactly one wave that session—and it ended up being the worst wipeout of his life. Here, he dishes on what happened.
Tell us about that day at Jaws …
When we got down there I had this, like, 1991 single fin I was going to ride because I didn't have a board. Then I texted Matt Kinoshita from Kazuma Surfboards and he told me that he had a board for me. The swell was really west and there was a west wind to it that makes the surface look smooth, but creates bumps in the trough of the wave. I was going to ride this 9-foot, 9-inch, then we saw this big set, and he's like, “You should take my 10-foot, 6-inch!” So I grabbed that, watched it for a little bit, and paddled out at around 8:30.
What did the wave look like as it approached you? Was it bigger or thicker than the others you saw?
It was weird because that day, there were just one-wave sets. That thing came in and I was kind of sitting inside of the pack. The wave kind of snuck under everyone and had this weird double up on it. Nobody else was paddling for it so I just whipped around and went for it. I got a nice chip shot into it, but then had to go over this big lump. That's when it hit the reef and got big. Water was sucking up the face and I hit like two or three chops on the way down. I was trying to hold on and set the rail but when I got to the bottom I had no speed, looked up, and knew the lip was coming down on me. I hit the eject button and just jumped off.
Was it the biggest wave you've ever paddled into out there?
What went wrong?
I think if I could have gotten my rail into the wave and set a different line down the wave I could have maybe made it. But the chop I hit just flattened my board out and I just couldn't set my rail. So I jumped off and the wave exploded me up and into the barrel—I shot up into it and was totally weightless. When I was coming back down I pulled the cord on my inflatable vest and got tossed around in the whitewash. That's when the board hit me in the leg. It immediately went numb, and I thought it was broken. I came up and my vest had popped, and I took another one on the head. After that I started waving for the Jet Ski, then got pounded again by another wave. I was almost in the shorebreak when the ski got to me. I looked at my leg and saw muscles flapping around but I could move my ankle so I knew it wasn't broken. It was pretty gross, though. It cut my lower calf and punctured behind my knee. The fin actually hit my knee bone and took a big chunk of cartilage out of it.
What do you expect to be back in the water?
It's hard to say. If I get surgery again, it could be three to four months. Anyway, I'd like to thank the rescue team for doing such a good job, Shane Dorian for the blow-up vest, and everyone who keeps us safe out there.
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