I had planned a nice little piece on Water for this week. A large SW swell had been making it’s way towards Ventura, and the subject seemed rather appropriate. Teahupoo in Tahiti had gotten it earlier in the week. Mass carnage, as surfers turned media whores, went for the liquid hammer that was a pretty much unrideable swell, were it not for jet assist. Cool, and somehow not…

I left the office late in the day for a drive down coast, and as I pulled into my normal checkout spot for one of those remote waves that rarely breaks, a white Ford Focus 4 door sort of cut me off. As I nosed my car in to a stop, I watched a woman get out, and look around in bewildered fashion.

Standing on the cliff I watched as a big set loomed and then fired down the rocky point. A double overhead barrel throbbing with energy from that distant storm which spawned it, was remarkably impressive.

Turning, I saw the woman get back in her car. The sight was one that sort of made me shake my head. Something just seemed wrong. Eyes went back to the surf. A moment later and in a glance left, I saw the white car do an abrupt right turn, accelerate at the berm on which I stood, and fly over the cliff. I was running immediately, dialed 911 and gave an operator the details.

Below me lay the crashed car, engine running, perched on it’s driver side. Looking down, I realized I was wearing thongs. “Shit” I slipped them off and clambered down. The car seemed to be safely pinned against a large boulder. The passenger side was high in the air. Fluids leaked from the destroyed front end, and remarkably the engine was still running. Not good. It looked like it would roll over and into the water if I tampered with it.

A quick look at the wedge points, and I decided it was reasonably safe to go in. The driver’s window was down about 6-8 inches. The airbag had deployed and the woman was laying against the glass, not moving, with a tuft of auburn hair blowing in the breeze.

I reached in and checked her. She was out. Pulse was steady. I could not reach the key to turn off the engine, no matter how I maneuvered myself. She began to stir and I began talking to her, stroking her hair, and told her where she was, what had happened, that she was going to be okay.

In process, she said she needed to reach her mother and made motions to the passenger seat with her arms, as if she was trying to grab a hold of something. No one was there. The car was filling up with smoke and exhaust fumes and I knew that if I could not get the engine off, she would not last long. I saw a rock. But it meant the back window, and climbing in. I did not want to do that.

“You need to turn your car off. Reach up and turn the key!” I said it loudly. Repeatedly. She was out of it. Not cognitive. “Shit” I went to the back of the car, resigned to get the rock and remarkably, the car shut off. Happy. A group of bystanders was cliff side and cameras were out.

I could hear sirens. Maybe ten minutes had elapsed since my call. That was fast, I thought. I went back and checked on her and she was out again. Elderly woman. Maybe 65 0r 70. Once more I told her that help was on the way. I then climbed back up the cliff, slipped into my sandals, went to my car and shot three frames.

I moved my car down from the scene and got out, just as the first fire truck arrived. I stayed for a few minutes and shot a few more images. Then headed down coast. Not wanting to be anywhere near the place, as traffic began to pull over and new hazards began to develop. I have never understood why people do that.


Soon I was at another break, and camera in hand, decided not to make the trek down to Malibu. I felt like being alone. But as is typical of this stretch of coastline, a few people saw my lone car parked, and pulled over. The large RV behind my car with five people, each with cameras in hand looking at me, said it all. Bleah. Dangerous place to stick a family and RV, on the narrow shoulder. My car was nestled far offroad. Their’s was not. People sometimes seem to have little regard for the consequences of their actions.

A much larger set broke up coast and as I suspected, the real sets were spaced approximately 20 minutes apart. One of my friends, an expert waterman and swimmer, told me he had almost drowned surfing that morning. I had been talking to some of the other water photographers in my network, warning them about this swell. It was going to be risky to swim due to the way the energy would sequence in, from two separate directions, with long and relentless, wave rich sets, that would recycle you back into the impact zone.

Big swells are funny. It is as if people get intoxicated by all the energy being released, and can do things similar to what one would see a drunk person engage. I shot a few more remarkable waves, as the Pacific unloaded in all it’s glory, the light turned deep amber, and flared down.

Driving back up Hwy One I saw emergency vehicle lights, two sets and locations now, not just the first airborne incident. “Shit”

Here is something I hope no one will ever need to use. How to escape from a sinking car.

I spoke with my son Jon on the phone as I pulled into my driveway and flicked on the carport light. “Man Dad, I am glad you are home safe. That sounds crazy” he responded to my little story of the evening’s events. “Yea it sorta was Jon. Hope she made it. I think she will. ”

Ringing off, I went in to start dinner for Donna and I. The cats were glad to see me. Outside, some birds sang in the last bit of waning light. A few days earlier I had watched online while up in SF, as Teahupoo in Tahiti unloaded on this very same swell we had here at the moment. A few were doing the unthinkable, and being launched into death barrels that would slap shut mercilessly. Carnage and confusion reigned in the clips I watched. I did not spend much time with it, as what I saw, made me feel ill.

I am all about life’s challenges. But I swear, when cameras come out and our tech gets used to elevate and facilitate the exercise of inordinate stupidity in order to achieve media coverage, I feel somewhat ashamed of the human race. I like what Bruce Irons, one of the few people thoroughly qualified to ride Teahupoo,  pointed out, as he called it quits. “I have a family, my kids, wife, they come first. But then again, we are surfers.”

At the end of the day, your choices,  knowledge, and application of your skill (or lack thereof) will have been illustrated. Life is about living, and learning. That part never stops: the learning. I am not sure if the woman in the car had attempted suicide. Could be. Maybe not. But she was alive when I left her. I hope that as we move further into what I am convinced will be a very active year in terms of challenge, that we realize collectively,  our actions can affect many.


5 Responses to Airborne

    • It was a good lesson for me on the one hand Ed, yet one which Shawn had tutored me and the rest of us in. Always be watching. Head on a swivel. Amazing what one sees if you just watch.

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