This story is featured in the June 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine, on newsstands now.
By Dave Shively
ALL THE TRAINING, ALL THE YEARS OF INSTRUCTION, ALL THE PRACTICE SCENARIOS IN his Wilderness First Responder courses, none of it really put the moment in context. But that moment and its must-react minutes suddenly became real for Matt Krizan at 9:52 a.m., on Saturday, Jan. 22—when he first spotted the body rag-dolling, facedown in the waves.
It was a big day at Mavericks. The iconic Northern California wave was breaking, on the bigger sets, at heights of more than 20 feet.
“To be on the water, watching the lips of these things curl over and explode into foam is really exciting,” says Krizan, a 6-foot-7 instructor with California Canoe & Kayak. “You hear a very low frequency whoosh, probably the air compressed as the top end of the big wave curls over and air explodes out the sides.”
That fearsome power and famously dark, cold water has made Mavericks a crucible for big-wave surfers, celebrated in films like 2004′s Riding Giants and made famous by the world-renowned surfers it has favored and humbled. Which raises the question: What was Krizan, 37, doing there alone in a 17-foot sea kayak?
“There’s visible reef that extends about a half-mile south into the water, behind which is the sheltered ‘lagoon’ that’s comparatively safe,” explains Krizan, who lives in nearby Half Moon Bay. He often surfs his kayak in the waves that refract around the ends of the reef and, on big days, push over it.
Seeing the tops of four “monsters” lined up “about quarter-mile” apart at 17 seconds, Krizan had no idea that in the pack of expert surfers beyond the reef, Jake Trette had his eye on the first wave of the set.
Trette, a 31-year-old unsponsored Southern California surfer, paddled for that first wave but didn’t catch it. That left him dangerously inside as the second, larger wave bore down. As other surfers left their boards to dive deep and avoid the wave’s breaking wrath, Trette clawed desperately for the lip, hoping the offshore wind would blow him over.
It didn’t. The wave sucked him violently backward over the falls.
From about 700 yards away, Krizan could clearly see surfboards flung from the crest of that second wave. When the third wave collapsed into a 15-foot foam pile and began tumbling two rider-less boards over the reef, Krizan knew something was wrong. He looked at his watch. It was 9:47.
Krizan began sprinting toward the reef, a quarter-mile distant. Charging through the whitewash as it re-formed into powerful, chaotic waves, he spotted Portuguese surfer Alex Botelho, who had also been wiped out and washed over the reef. Checking that Botelho was “not only unscathed, but smiling,” and that the surfer had recovered a wayward surfboard, Krizan continued scanning the water. Less than 100 feet east of the reef, he spotted Trette’s motionless body.
“That’s when I shifted into adrenaline mode,” Krizan says. He grabbed for his VHF radio, hurriedly putting in an emergency call on Channel 16, while simultaneously trying to wave his paddle in hopes that someone on shore might notice, only to realize, “If the guy’s unconscious, this isn’t helping him.”
“I grab him by the wetsuit at the nape of the neck,” Krizan says with the long pause that lets you know he’ll never forget the sight. “Turn him over and water pours out of his mouth and nose. No breathing, head flopped to the side.”
Krizan continued battling the relentless wash, letting go of Trette to keep himself upright. “There’s nothing I can do, but get him out of there,” Krizan says. “I knew there were jet skis around, so I started waving the paddle around again, holding it by one blade and putting the other one way up in the air.”
Australian surf photographer Russell Ord, surveying the carnage from his jet ski, spotted the movement and immediately gunned his throttle. “Jake could have been anywhere,” Ord says. “I thought he would have been at the opposite end where the waves actually wash down the lagoon, but as soon as I drove into the area, I saw Matt waving his paddle in the air.”
Ord pulled Trette out of the water while Krizan helped from his kayak to place Trette’s legs on the jet ski’s towed sled. Ord then picked up Botelho, still nearby in the water, to stabilize Trette on the sled as the trio powered to the beach—leaving Krizan to paddle the longest 1,000 yards of his life.
“I go into adrenaline aftershock, I’m tired, got a bitter taste in my mouth, and I’ve still got quarter-mile dealing with the foam piles, now coming from behind me,” Krizan says. The sour taste remained through the paramedics’ arrival on the beach, the helicopter evacuation to Stanford Hospital, and two sleepless nights. Then he began poking around online. He was “floored” to learn that Trette—who by Krizan’s watch had been held under for seven minutes—had not only survived, but was now conscious and in good spirits.
“I’m actually more healthy than I’ve ever been,” Trette says on an April morning from his home in San Clemente, Calif. Although he says he walks through life “a little slower,” it’s only to savor a renewed perspective, and time spent with his parents and young daughter. He works out feverishly, and talks about returning to catch one last big wave—even in light of Hawaiian big-wave veteran Sion Milosky’s March 16 death at Mavericks.
Trette’s doctors assured him that many things contributed to his survival—the 52-degree water, Ord’s jet ski and expert rescue, a medically induced coma—but he says that he owes his life to one decisive factor: Krizan. Ord agrees: “Every little second was critical and Matt certainly cut down a lot of time and no doubt saved Jake’s life.”
After Trette went back over the falls, “like a rollercoaster at Magic Mountain where you stomach gets sucked into your mouth,” he recalls hitting the ocean floor with his feet, and a blow to the head, presumably from his leashed surfboard. In the next flash of awareness, Trette recalls being deep underwater, then swimming to the surface (pictured opposite), where he believes the third wave knocked him out again, separating him from his board and bouncing him over the reef. Then something happened on the fringes of his consciousness.
“They say a chemical kicks in when you’re about to die. I didn’t have a ‘white light’ experience or anything, but there was that out-of-body feeling. I was just feeling good—in someone else’s hands, and that I’d be all right,” Trette says. “I thought it was God that was talking to me saying, ‘Everything’s going to be all right, you’re going to be all right.”
Turns out that was Krizan, speaking those words into Trette’s ear.