Earlier this month we brought you a potted history of pop-culture’s obsession with the concept of tsunami surfing; spanning appearances in old Hawaiian folklore, through TV ads and Hollywood cult classics, to an alleged feature in one of youtube’s first viral videos.
Here, we’ll tell the story of what it’s actually like to be surfing when a tsunami hits.
For what felt like an age, the ocean continued to surge fiercely back and forth, as the four remaining surfers paddled helplessly out the back of the reefs.
Eventually, after about the fifth, or sixth surge, the swirling maelstrom of debris and swell finally began to settle and the group decided to leave the safety of the deep water and head back to the boat. After wrestling to free the anchor, which had become lodged deep into the coral, they set off, tracing the back of the reefs east towards the camp.
“It was only when we got in line with the village that we got a sense of the damage on land,” remembers Tom. “One of the ﬁrst things we noticed was a pair of kayaks that had been snapped clean in half bobbing upright way out to sea. Then we saw the roof of the next door camp’s luxury restaurant ﬂoat past.”
Although desperate to get back and find the other guests, including Tom’s girlfriend Rachel and another of the group’s wife and kids, they decided to search the deep water first, in case anyone snorkelling or kayaking had been washed out when the water receded.
“After an hour we couldn’t see anyone,” says Tom. “But we found everything from tables, chairs, lizards on timber, roofs, walls, drinks, eskys, surfboards, board bags, dive gear, and most unbelievably, the two butane gas tanks from the restaurant spinning, bubbling and hissing as the gas escaped.”
Suddenly, amid a dense patch of debris, the motor of the boat lost power and the group were forced to grab anything they could find to use as oars to fight against the rip dragging them towards the reef. As the water began to recede again, they feared another surge may be imminent.
After a bit of panicked tinkering, Tim got the motor working and they were able to safely navigate back out to deeper water, where they sat idling, scanning the horizon for signs of another surge.
They watched as the water level swelled and dipped, grateful that the intensity seemed to be fading with each cycle. After another hour or so, the group agreed it was safe to go ashore.
As they approached the beach through a narrow gap in the reef, the scale of the devastation came into focus.
“There were no fales, restaurants, shops, bars or kitchens,” Tom remembers, “In fact the only things that were left standing were the coconut trees.”
“Bits of fale were spread 100 meters back from the sea and up into the bush.”
At the camp they found police, rescue workers and locals, but no sign of any of the guests who’d stayed behind. There was a rumour they’d got out, but no one seemed to have any concrete information. “It certainly wasn’t enough to be satisfied,” recalls Tom.
They were however happy to be reunited with all but one of the other surfers from their boat, last seen paddling off in the direction of the land before the first surge.
“They told stories of how they rode the 6 foot waves breaking on the shore up into the thick jungle and wrapped their arms around coconut trees,” says Tom. “They had to climb high into the canopy to stop from being sucked back out to sea.”
Desperate to get out of the village and up into the hills to search for their missing loved ones, some of the group tried frantically to start a hire car while others combed through the sprawling mass of rubble.
“I must have searched under roofs, bits of wooden walls and fallen coconut trees for a couple hours in the blistering heat,” Tom remembers, “not knowing if I would ﬁnd Rach or anyone else under them.”
After the battle with the vehicle’s saturated electrics proved fruitless, the group were relieved to see a car come rattling down the road towards the village. Inside were an English couple who’d heard about the devastation and wanted to offer help. After they explained their situation, the couple offered them a lift back up the mountain. They piled in and set off.
Ten minutes up a rough dirt road they came across a school and got out to ask those inside if they’d seen any of their lost party.
With no luck, Tom was just about to climb back into the car when to his amazement he spotted the last remaining surfer from the morning’s boat trip, huddled in the corner of a field.
“I was so glad to see he was good,” he remembers. “I said: ‘Jump in the car well take you back to Maninoa, everyone thinks your dead!’”
“As we drove back down into the village I noticed a red Jeep that belonged to some of the Kiwi girls who had been staying next door,” Tom continues. “And there was Rache, with all the others from our camp.”
“I was overwhelmed with emotions of everything that had happened in the day. I went over to Rach who was sifting through the remains and gave her a big hug.” The sense of relief was extreme; a punctuation mark on a day packed with the full spectrum of human emotions.
“We stayed in Apia [the island’s capital city] for the next few days, while trying to pick up the pieces,” Tom says. “We tried to dry out belongings, talk to travel insurance, sort emergency passports and try to come to terms with all that just happened.”
It turned out Rachel and the rest of the group had escaped thanks to the warning offered by the quake. After the earth stopped shaking, they looked out and saw that the reefs had all drained off. Thanks to the widely publicised tsunami of 2004, the group recognised the warning signs. They roused everyone from their beds, jumped in the Jeep and fled to the hills.
Sadly, in many coastal villages on the island, the residents hadn’t been so lucky.
In total, twenty settlements were completely destroyed along Upulo’s south facing coastline. 149 people were confirmed dead and 3000 more left homeless. And further afield, in American Samoa and Tonga at least 43 more lost their lives.
In the aftermath, a group of scientists determined that the tsunami had been triggered by an extremely rare event known as ‘doublet’, where at least two separate earthquakes occur in the same area in quick succession. The tsunami’s highest waves measured 14 metres (46 ft) as they slammed into the Samoan coast.
Tom still thinks about how lucky he is to be alive. Saved by the calm assessment of a fellow surfer and a few favourable quirks of seabed topography.
There’s no doubt had the conditions been different, and they’d opted for another reef pass, the outcome too could have been far graver. Instead, the group were allowed to walk away with nothing but a stark reminder of the size, scale and power of our ocean playground.
Cover photo: NOAA NCEI/Richard Madsen.