A talented surfer with a cat-like grace, Daniel Jones has an innate ability to make the very difficult look easy. Whether he’s in the water or out, the man seems to glide. But earlier this year, after a harrowing wipeout at Pipeline, Dan found himself out of his element when he nearly broke his neck. In the interview below, he takes us through the injury, his road to recovery, and back again to the lineup.
It felt like your injury last year sort of flew under the radar. Can you tell us what happened to you?
It all happened on January 28 at Pipeline, the day before the Volcom Pipe Pro. There were a few Second Reef sets in the morning and it had a little bit of funk on it. I actually surfed somewhere else that morning and when I came back, I saw that Pipe had actually turned on and there were just a few guys out who were getting some good ones. I grabbed a 7’8” and ran down there. On my way, the wind switched onshore and it got funky again. I decided to paddle out anyway just to get a few without the crowds. I was out there for about 45 minutes and was sitting a little bit deeper than normal. I was on a bigger board, so I figured I’d be okay and could get in early. To be honest, at that point, I just wanted to get one in. Everything went south from that point.
How did the actual wipeout go down?
I took off on a fairly solid set but hit a wind chop coming down, lost my rail, and then hit a step. So my line was off as I made it down the face and didn’t have any drive. So I straightened out and the whole wave broke right behind me. I figured I’d get pounded and just go in. Not that big of a deal, ya know? But it must have been a pretty bad beating. I don’t really remember much of it, but I remember waking up underwater. It was eerily calm as I came to. It was dark cause it was later in the afternoon. And when I woke up, I remembered that I was at Pipeline and started swimming to the surface. But then hit the bottom because apparently I was swimming in the wrong direction, which made me think I’d blown out my eardrum.
At that point, I passed out again. The next thing I knew I was on a bodyboard and this guy was telling me to paddle toward the shore. I remember I couldn’t move one of my arms very well. Somehow, I was able to get to the shore with the help of this bodyboarder. I guess I made it to the beach and just stood on the shore. Lucky for me, Mikey Bruneau, who’s a good friend and a lifeguard, just happened to come by on a bike. I said a few things to him and then I passed out again and woke up next to a fire truck and an ambulance. They took me to Queens Hospital in Honolulu.
You’re lucky you didn’t drown out there. What was the end prognosis?
Once I got to Queens, they kept me overnight and did the usual scans. It turns out that I separated some of the bones in my neck, but luckily I didn’t break anything and didn’t paralyze myself. From there, I went home and was basically told that they couldn’t do any more tests until all the swelling went down in my neck. I waited about month for the swelling to go down. Then they did some more tests and it turned out that the ligaments in my neck were really stretched and that my C-5 and C-6 vertebrae had “jumped” and that I would need to have neck surgery to fuse them back together. It was a pretty heavy thing to hear, especially when they explained how they do the procedure.
What does that entail?
Essentially, they make an incision in your neck and insert a piece of cadaver bone and titanium into the place where your vertebrae are supposed to be. The metal piece is smaller than a quarter shaped like a butterfly and holds your vertebra together. Eventually, the bone adheres to the metal. The surgery went really well, but it took almost six months of rehab before I could get back to normal.
I heard you had your first surf back after the whole ordeal the other day?
Yeah, it was sort of a random summer swell and I surfed Rockies on a single fin. It felt so good to be back in the water. It was crowded because it’s summer and I was paddling super slow but it felt amazing. Randomly enough, I saw the bodyboarder out in the lineup who helped get me back to shore. That was pretty cool to talk to him about the whole incident and to thank him for helping me.
Has this accident changed your mentality when it comes to surfing big Pipeline?
It’s a scary wave. It’s no joke. Every other time I fall at Pipe, I hit the bottom. Not always hard, but it happens a lot. When I first got injured, I wanted to surf it straight away to face that fear. But then, after being away from it for a little bit, I’m kinda wondering if it’s worth it. I don’t really need to battle 100 guys for waves that can kill me. There’s always a risk, but I feel good about it now. I guess I’m lucky I made it this long without getting hurt. This all happened the same week that the guys from Tahiti and Italy were injured out there, so it goes to show just how sketchy Pipe can be. That being said, when it’s good, it’s hard to turn away from it.