The Jaws Of Death By Matt Meola

Matt Meola at Jaws

Matt Meola | Jaws | Photo by Brent Bielmann

The Jaws Of Death By Matt Meola

Matt Meola recalls his harrowing wipeout on “the biggest wave ever”

As seen in the April 2013 issue of TransWorld SURF (subscribe today and get a free traction pad!)

Way in advance, the charts forecasted a good Jaws day, so a lot of people were ready. John John and Nathan Florence, Koa Rothman, and some of my other friends flew over from Oahu the morning it was meant to come up—but that day the weather ended up being shitty, and the swell wasn’t showing the way we thought it would. In the evening we drove down to Jaws to check it out, but it was a disaster getting down there. Tourist cars were stuck everywhere, all the traffic was backed up, and my truck didn’t have four-wheel drive, so I was freaking out thinking we wouldn’t get a chance to surf. We finally got down there, but it was shitty. It was 10 feet and windy, so I didn’t even paddle out. John, Albee Layer, and Billy Kemper all decided to go out, but I just sat on the beach and watched. To me, it wasn’t worth it. I only had my one Jaws board and wasn’t going to risk breaking it. That night, everyone was freaking thinking the swell wasn’t really going to show.

The next morning we got there super early, and Jaws was 15 feet and glassy. It almost looked playful, like it was going to be a really fun day. So we were psyching on the cliff getting ready, putting our inflatable suits on, and then as I was walking down the cliff with Billy a huge set came in. We stopped and looked at each other and just went, “Oh, shit. It’s f—king big today. This isn’t a joke.” Earlier, we were paddling out thinking it would be playful and then that set came in—it changed our thoughts about the session for sure. Billy and I paddled out together and we saw another big set, and he looked at me and just said: “Today we’re catching the biggest waves of the day—me and you.” And I looked at him and was like, “All right,” but really in my head I was thinking, ‘Yeah right, I just hope I catch one wave.’

So we got out there, and I was doing my routine. I always sit in the channel at first and relax, just to breathe and watch what’s going on. And for a while, there weren’t really any big ones coming through. I paddled over to the lineup and a few 15-footers came in, but nothing too crazy. I caught two waves, and I was actually content. I was thinking I could go in and be happy because I’d caught a couple really fun ones. And it was packed—by far the most crowded I’d ever seen it. It was chaos, so I was sitting on the left, because it’s a bit easier to pick off waves on the left when it’s crowded.

Before I paddled out, I had this weird feeling. I knew I’d be surfing the left, and I’ve eaten shit on the left before and had to swim all the way in. It’s a heavy experience. When you fall over there it’s easy for no one to see you. I called my buddy Jason and just asked, “Will you please, please come out on the left on your ski and do water safety for me.” He agreed, and I was so psyched. That made me feel a lot more comfortable. As I sat out there, it was slowly getting a little bigger and that wave came. I was sitting off from the pack, and for some reason, nobody went. Nobody was even paddling for it. Everyone was paddling over it, and I’m thinking, ‘This is the wave of the day so far, why isn’t anyone going?’ At that moment I didn’t realize it was as big as it was, and I just turned and went. I was dropping in, and it felt like I was dropping down a 50-foot vert ramp. I had no idea how massive it really was. I was going faster than I’d ever gone, and I was thinking there was no way I could make it. I got to the bottom and wanted to turn, but there was chop in the wave, and I couldn’t knife it. I looked up, and the whitewater was ready to kill me. It exploded me off my board, and I knew from the force it was going to be gnarly. For the first bit of the pounding I was being rag dolled beyond belief, and I didn’t want to pull my vest because I thought I wanted to keep surfing. But after a while, I realized I needed to inflate it. I pulled the cord, it inflated, but it wasn’t bringing me up. I was getting more and more worked. My leash wrapped around both of my feet and hog-tied them together—they were so tight, I couldn’t kick. And then the wave was just brutal—it felt like my suit might be ripped off at any moment, and the bubble I’d inflated was twisting around and coming over my shoulder. My face was hitting the bubble, and then it got under my armpit and wrapped around my stomach. I couldn’t move. At this point I’d been under way longer than I’d ever been down. I started wondering why I wasn’t floating up, I didn’t understand. I kind of figured I might be in for a two-wave hold down and tried to relax. All of a sudden my leash untangled and my feet came free, and I popped to the surface. I had less than one second, I exhaled and took one big breath, and the lip of the next wave landed directly on my face. You can’t dive down when you have that bubble inflated, so I just took it. That one held me down for so long I thought it was all over. I was close to blacking out—I could feel my throat and lungs contracting, desperate for air. I honestly accepted the fact I was about to die.

And it’s weird, but I started thinking about how Greg Long had a three-wave hold down and I should be able to survive this. I relaxed and felt all the energy leaving my body, and then I just came up. My buddy Jason was right there with the ski. I was trying to pull myself up on his sled, but I was too weak. On the inside of the left there isn’t a big channel, and Jason was yelling at me to get on because another wave was coming, but I had zero energy. I barely pulled myself up, and he started to drive away and my board was tombstoning behind, about to rip my leg off—and then finally the leash snapped. We got out of there and into the channel, and I broke down—just started shaking and crying. Jason was tripping; he’d never seen me rattled like that. No one had. I thought I’d been in heavy situations before, but never like that. I’d never come that close to dying. I was probably seconds away.

I got dropped in on the rocks, outside of the shorebreak, and the current was so bad I couldn’t get in. For 10 minutes, after all that, I didn’t go anywhere. I almost tried to swim all the way back out to the boats, but luckily a wave came and destroyed me onto the rocks and washed me in. I was so worked and exhausted, but I’d never been happier to be on land. I hiked to the top of the muddy cliff and just broke down again. I was in tears and couldn’t stop shaking for hours. I was embarrassed; people were watching me and I just wanted to be by myself. I wouldn’t even talk to anyone.

John John called me later and was all, “Have you seen the video of your wave? You’re my hero, you just caught the biggest wave ever.” And when he told me that, I finally smiled. He sent me the footage and I kind of snapped back to reality, it made me feel way better—like it wasn’t all for nothing and I’d accomplished something. When I saw the photo and the footage, it made me realize why I’d gotten so f—king pounded. The wave was huge.

But now, I’m not going back out there until I feel like I could laugh at a two-wave hold down. I actually got a small breath in between waves, and I can’t even believe Greg survived what he did. I wasn’t even close to being under as long as he was. I’ve fallen at Jaws so many times; I’ve been surfing there for years now. I couldn’t understand underwater why I was getting as pounded as I was, but I realize that’s just going to happen. Sometimes you get held down forever. I’m going to start really training, doing the breath-holding class, and I’ll be ready next time. I’m not f—king around out there anymore.—Matt Meola