Earlier this morning, North Shore local and Pipe expert Eli Olson posted a photo on Instagram featuring him, Makua Rothman and others carrying a clearly injured Nahuel Amalfitano, a surfer from Argentina, up the beach. Yesterday Amalfitano had fallen on a wave, hit the reef, injuring both of his ankles. Olson, who was waxing his board up for a session noticed something wasn’t right with Amalfitano and ran immediately into the water to help. Amalfitano ended up with fairly minor injuries, but Olson took the opportunity to remind surfers how dangerous a wave like a Pipeline can be–even for experienced surfers like himself–and why surfers of all levels should be prepared for emergency situations. We called up Olson this morning to hear more about the rescue and to get advice on what average surfers can do to better their water safety knowledge if something goes awry in the lineup.
Walk me through what happened yesterday at Pipe.
We knew the waves were going to be big and pretty good, but we went out there the next morning at dark but there was morning sickness. We were kind of waiting because we knew it was going to get better—and it was dangerous you know? I was setting up a new board and I was watching the waves. I can't help it, but I'm always watching people and trying to be alert. When Nahuel came up, I saw that he didn't just hop on his board right away and I could read his body language that something was up. I just dropped my board and ran down, yelling to whoever was listening, ‘Hey he's hurt, he's hurt!’ I was in my clothes–dry shorts, a t-shirt and a jacket with my phone and my wallet–and I jumped in the water with everything. But I mean, I'd do it 10 out of 10 times and not even question it. He was conscious and talking clearly and was saying ‘it’s just my legs, it’s just my legs,’–which is a really good thing because it wasn’t a neck or head injury. I was taught to approach situations as if they have a neck injury because it's so dangerous to just grab someone and make something worse. But he was clear and alert so I grabbed him from behind and rested him on my chest and the boys grabbed his legs. He said he couldn't feel his legs so he must have slammed super hard. It was around 8 in the morning so the lifeguards weren't on duty yet—or else they would've been on it even faster.
It’s crazy how every winter Pipe seems to remind us all just how dangerous it can be–at any size.
Oh yea. Sometimes the water can be 3 or 4 feet deep in certain places, so if you fall you're 100% going to slam into the reef. I tell people that I think more people get hurt out there on medium-to-small days because they let their guard down and think it's not that bad. I've been around the world and I think Pipe is one of the most dangerous waves in the entire world, not only because the reef but because the power is stronger than most places. Then you have the crowd. People are positioning themselves in really bad places just to be deeper to get the right away. The crowd makes it a lot tougher. Even as locals, being born and raised there and being able to sit where we want, I still catch myself way out the back or too deep trying to hold it down. It's so dangerous because people let their guard down when they see sunshine, rainbows and perfect barrels.
In your Instagram post you took the time to emphasize just how important it is for surfers to be all-around waterman who can help other people out when something goes wrong in the lineup.
Yea I can't stress how important it is for everyone to learn water safety or put in a little extra effort if they want to be a true professional athlete or watermen. In a way, because Nahuel is perfectly fine, maybe this can open people's eyes so they realize that we all need to learn some water safety. I'm trying to tell people that you could use this in real life scenarios one day–or you could have the knowledge and never have to use it your entire life but it's better to know how to react in these things. Also it could be used on a family member at home—maybe one morning something goes wrong, you've got to be able to react. And why not put in a little extra effort to have that knowledge? You feel better looking after people while surfing and you also feel safer as well if other people are looking after you. I feel safer surfing with my friends because I know they are going to have my back.
Do you think surfers of all levels—whether they surf soft, longboard-able peelers or pumping Pipeline—should be equipped with safety knowledge and be able to act in case something goes wrong?
100 percent. I've seen some of the gnarliest injuries ever at a tiny wave like Malibu. I've seen a longboarder get run over and end up with a huge gash on his thigh. No matter what size waves you surf, I feel like everyone should put in the work and be prepared. Because you never know—even if someone isn’t a big-wave surfer but they’re on the beach looking at the waves and something bad happens, he could still help by being there.
What are some basic steps surfers can take this year to become more prepared for emergency situations that might happen in the water?
I think a good start would be talking to a local lifeguard. Most surfers are going to know a lifeguard, so I’d say reach out to a lifeguard and ask, ‘Hey, on one of your days off could you just teach me the basic CPR and how to check people's pulse?’ I’ also recommend surfers look into taking a BWRAG course [Big Wave Risk Assessment Group have classes to educate surfers on ocean safety and response protocals]. They do a course at Turtle Bay and they are starting to do courses all over the place. I feel like taking that class is the absolute best thing a surfer can do. Both of those are a really good start for people. Even just knowing to call 911. People just sit there in certain situations, in shock, and the first step is just making the call.
You’ve been on hand during some heavy situations and seem to respond calmly and urgently–is that a result of growing up on the North Shore?
I was really blessed to grow up around so many watermen and I did junior guards forever. I just love everything about the ocean but I’ve also been exposed to so many heavy, real-life scenarios where I had no choice but to react and it was life and death situations. I was there a couple years ago in Fiji when Aaron Gold was held under for a long time, had no pulse and was unconscious and was purple. That was one of the first super heavy situations I was a part of and seeing how well the guys reacted and worked on him. There's no panicking, no questioning, no waiting around, you just have to react. Since then I've seen a handful of super heavy situations and I'm glad I just reacted, just like yesterday morning. I had seen that something was wrong, I didn't wait around and look, I just ran down–even if he were fine and just stubbed his toe or something. People shouldn't feel worried about running down and jumping in the water. It's better to be over-prepared than underprepared.