Wild Rides

Sometimes the interesting part of a surf experience has nothing to do with how well a wave was ridden, or if one was surfed at all

Mike Parsons has seen his fair share of wipeouts, but he claims this one at SF's Ocean Beach was the worst. Photos: Rowedder
Mike Parsons has seen his fair share of wipeouts, but he claims this one was the worst. Photos: Rowedder

By Todd Prodanovich

On an unseasonably warm January day in San Francisco, all the elements of wind, swell, and sand had converged to turn Ocean Beach into the cold-water cousin of Puerto Escondido. The first surfers in the water, Mike Parsons and Taylor Knox, took turns scratching into solid 12-foot drainers on 8-foot guns for four hours straight. With enormous barrels held open by howling offshore winds, it was “as good as waves get,” according to Parsons. But as perfect as they were, big, barreling waves have a knack for humbling the best of us. Even a man with a 77-foot wave on his resume isn’t immune to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I remember everything about that wave,” says Parsons. “It was the third wave of the set and it looked perfect so I started paddling really hard. I thought I had it, but when I felt the wave lift me up I realized I didn’t. I had too much momentum to pull back, so at the last second I said, ‘Screw it, I’m going.’”

As Parsons rose to his feet, a battle commenced between the hard offshore winds and gravity. Eventually gravity won out and Parsons free-fell 10 feet from the lip into the trough, where the impact caused his legs to give out, sending him face first into the flats. Over the years, Parsons has taken more than his fair share of aquatic beatings—and often in waves much bigger than 10 feet—but on this particular wave, a far worse fate waited for him just below the surface.

“As soon as I hit the water, my body went numb and I was just thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m paralyzed,’” says Parsons. “I instantly knew I had broken my neck. When I got to the surface, I couldn’t feel my left arm at all. It felt like my arm got ripped off my body, and I was tripping out looking at it just lying there next to me.”

Parsons was in shock. He lay motionless, screaming for help while his flotation vest kept him above water. Ironically, Parsons believes the vest was one of the causes of the injury. “I had a paddle vest with a little bit of flotation on my chest, and more flotation on my back,” says Parsons. “It doesn’t allow you to penetrate the surface of the water, and because of the way it sat around my neck, it put my neck in a very vulnerable situation heading into such a violent wipeout.”

As Parsons bobbed in the impact zone, another surfer spotted him, muscled him onto his board, and hauled him toward the shore. An ambulance arrived shortly thereafter and took him to the hospital. After a series of scans and x-rays, the doctors delivered the bad news: Parsons had a fractured C7, a partially collapsed disk at C5 and C6, torn ligaments at C4, a pinched nerve, and significant internal bleeding. His neck was so swollen from the trauma that swallowing food and drink was nearly impossible for the first week.

While it was a harrowing experience, Parsons dodged a bullet. The doctors explained that with careful rehabilitation, a lot of time, and a little luck, he would make a full recovery. Fast-forward four months and Parsons is back in the water. He’s taking it easy, getting his sea legs back on his longboard, and warming up on some forgiving Trestles peaks. At this rate, it won’t be long before Parsons can conceivably wax up his 8-foot gun and stroke into another bomb at some heaving beachbreak or menacing reef pass. But at a certain point the question stops being a matter of “can,” but instead a matter of will.

“That ride really shook me up,” says Parsons. “Not just physically, but mentally this was the worst wipeout I’ve ever had. The moment it happened, I was thinking I’d never surf again, and it was a wake up call. The doctors think I will make a full recovery, but I don’t know if my spine will be as strong. I honestly don’t know if I’ll end up riding some of the waves I was riding before. If I told you anything else, it just wouldn’t be true. I’ll definitely pick and choose the types of waves I ride for awhile and work my way up to the point where I am sure that I can withstand a wipeout. But laying in the water unable to feel the left side of my body was terrifying—I don’t ever want to hit the water that hard again.”