On Monday of this week, a lone surfer jumped off a harbour wall for a surf in Hastings as solid 6-foot onshore waves pounded the shoreline.
Nestled way up the channel coast, in the south-east corner of Britain, Hastings isn’t exactly a surfing hub. But still a small community of wave riders exist there, waiting patiently for violent storms or howling wind swell to give them a chance to get amongst it.
At some point, the surfer in question’s leash snapped and his board was washed up on the beach prompting panic from onlookers. In a video released later, you can see him, swimming calmly, but board-less in an eddy just off the shore as a voice off-camera concludes that ‘he’s fucked.’
After he disappeared from sight, two lifeboats and a helicopter were dispatched to look for him. Eventually, he made his own way ashore, five miles east of where he entered the water, after what was no doubt a harrowing sweep down an uninhabited stretch of coast, under towering cliffs, through surging walls of whitewash, halted only by the relative safety of the next harbour. He was taken to hospital for a checkup and is reportedly pretty much fine.
As one of the lifeboats tried to return to Hastings it was captured being buffeted by the swell. The video was quickly posted online and has led to widespread condemnation of the ‘idiot’ surfer, who was deemed by the masses to have selfishly put the lives’ of his rescuers at risk.
Many called for him to repay the money he cost the RNLI. Others said he’d made his bed and they shouldn’t have bothered trying to rescue him at all. One furious tweeter even called from him to be charged with attempted murder.
Of course, there are a few details some news outlets and comment threads left out. While you wouldn’t want to be out yachting in Monday’s conditions, both crew and lifeboat are fully equipped to deal with navigating high seas. The boat in question is self-righting and therefore almost impossible to capsize. The crew were strapped in with helmets and all walked away unharmed. Was it hair-raising? Definitely, but life-threatening? Probably not.
The reaction is understandable from those glued to their keyboards during weather events; folks unwilling to drag themselves away from the warm glow of their screens and venture outside to feel a bit of wind and weather on their faces.
But the reaction from fellow surfers feels a little more like hypocrisy. What real surfer can honestly say they’ve never been out in conditions that are too big or sketchy for their experience and ability? Almost all of us have snapped a leash and had to make a swim for it in a situation that would cause a camera-wielding onlooker to decry us fucked.
Even if you can say, hand on heart, you’ve never misjudged your own ability enough to put yourself in danger, surfing serves up a festival of risk factors outside of our control and sometimes mishaps are unavoidable. The near-drowning of one of the most competent big wave surfers on earth on Tuesday at Nazare shows us that.
It’s also important to note that generally surfing is far less dangerous than it appears to the bystander. This incident is the exception that proves that rule.
Thousands of surfers tackled the stormy seas as Ciara hit, from Dorset, throughout the South-West, Wales, Scotland and all over Ireland, down the east coast, across the North Sea in Holland and all over Europe, surfers of all abilities tried their luck in a wide variety of conditions. From what we can gather, very few got into enough trouble to require the assistance of a lifeboat.
Taking to the waves, especially during a storm, offers a rare departure from the sanitised, commodified simulations of adventure that we’re so often offered. The ones that claim to provide all of the benefits of experiencing ‘the wild’, without any of the risks.
When you surf, you paddle out where you please, with no safety protocols, protective equipment or diligent risk assessments. It’s just you, your hard-won abilities and if you’re lucky – a few mates, or a brave lifeboat crew who will attempt to save you if something goes wrong. And sometimes it will.
But surely the freedom to take that risk is exactly what makes our pastime so special.
Cover photo: via Youtube