The Broadcast / "Mayday ~ Mayday"

"Mayday ~ Mayday"

Dougal Paterson is an accomplished and experienced big wave surfer. A stalwart of the South African big wave scene, his face is an ever-present in the line-up - whether charging liquid mountains or standing sentinel on the safety ski. Point is, he knows his stuff... and that makes the story below even more pertinent.

After a series of close calls, Dougal found a new purpose within his community. A role given, not chosen, but taken on with the same unwavering commitment he takes with him every time he enters the line-up at his beloved big wave breaks.


4 min read

“I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.

King Solomon

We were surfing big waves at an isolated deep water reef when my surfboard leash was snapped by a huge wave. Stranded in a dangerous position, I waved for my jetski safety driver to pick me up. But, instead of rescuing me, I watched in horror as he was knocked off his ski by a wall of whitewater. Now there were two of us in trouble. The third member of our crew (who still had his surfboard) made a mad paddle for the jetski as it teetered precipitously in the impact zone. But just as he was getting near, he too had his leash snapped as a wave rolled over him, tossing our ski even farther into the soup. Now all three of us needed rescuing. We were the only ones out there that day and were now floundering in an area known for its great white shark population. Our situation was dire. What followed was a long swim to recover our craft, then a frantic search to find my friends. By the time I did, Fabian had pulled a huge raft of bull kelp around himself in a comical bid to break up his outline against the sharks below. Our driver Tom, was red faced and apologising profusely. The rescue sled attached to the back of the ski had been snapped in half. We limped back to the harbour with our tails between our legs, knowing we were lucky that it hadn’t been worse.

This was to be the first of five incidents during which four good friends of mine, came close to dying. By the fifth rescue, I was experiencing PTSD symptoms, meaning that surfing had taken on a whole different slant. After years of throwing myself down saltwater mine shafts with little regard for the consequences, I was now constantly thinking...

"Who’s going to rescue me when I’m in trouble?"

As it was, I had been relying on training that I had gotten as a Boy Scout twenty-five years earlier. My first responder skill set was limited at best and I seriously doubted that some of my crew had any life saving skills at all...

I did a talk recently at my daughters' school where I articulated the role that I now get to play in our big wave community. What I told them was a colloquialism of the ancient text quoted above. I said that sometimes people get to make a noteworthy contribution, not because of their skill, speed, wisdom or intelligence, but because they’ve learned to solve problems in the school of hard knocks. I told them that I didn’t choose my role, instead, the role had chosen me. The role that chose me, was to initiate training days for Cape Town’s big wave surfers.

This past weekend I got to facilitate our second training day. It was attended by a knot of surfers with a thirty year age difference between the oldest and the youngest. We did jetski rescue drills, practiced loading a paralysed patient onto a rubber duck, taught everyone how to recover an abandoned jetski and agreed on basic hand signals.

Following that, Hanli Prinsloo did a breath hold training module that was specifically geared towards long hold downs in turbulent water. The youngest participant gave a testimony of how, as a twelve year old, he’d revived a drowned man with ten minutes of CPR. We finished with a CPR practice using dummies and an open discussion around the logistics of rescuing each other in high surf.

Big wave surfing is an individual sport. At times, it can feel like hand to hand combat as we compete for the biggest waves. There is a lot of ego, bravado and calling out… until things go wrong.

Then it becomes a team sport.

As I told the crew on the training day, I don’t care if you’re riding the biggest waves and pulling into the gnarliest barrels… if you don’t know CPR, then you’re a kook.


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