At The Mexican Pipeline’s Mercy

Jamie Mitchell on being caught inside at Puerto Escondido with a broken sternum

On Friday, Jamie Mitchell spent close to ten minutes trapped in the impact zone at Puerto Escondido, unable to raise his hands or his voice because of a broken sternum, wearing set after set of peaks on the head. Even as today’s big-wave surfers are ever trained in and prepared for worst-case scenarios, Mitchell’s bad dream — possessing the head-knowledge to get out of a detonation, but being physically incapable of doing much except floating — was more of a nightmare. The Australian’s poise under pressure allowed him to safely reach the shore, and he’s thankfully on the mend in Southern California as he awaits further tests to determine his recovery timeline. We reached out to Mitchell the day after he touched down in LAX and asked him about what it was like to be in trouble and defenseless at one of the world’s heaviest beachbreaks.

Can you walk us through what happened?

I literally had just flown in the night before, I was going to stay for the whole week, for that whole run of swell. I was just going to post up and surf for seven days straight. I was one of the first guys out that next morning. I went out on a 7'6", and I misjudged how big it was. I got one wave in the morning, and I decided to get a bigger board, so I came in, grabbed a 9'0", ran back out, and then surfed for another couple of hours.

It was sort of toward the end of the day when that little bit of onshore flow starts to hit Puerto. There weren't too many people in the water. I took a wave that wasn't giant by any means – it was 6-8 foot. I pulled into the barrel, and it ran away from me. Really no different from any wipeout out there. But in the process of getting tumbled, I felt this massive impact hit my chest. It basically went straight into my chest bone. Instantly, I knew something was wrong. I could feel an indent in my chest. I could feel it tightening up. When I finally rose up to the surface, I tried to take a breath, and I felt like I was having a heart attack. I went to breathe, but it was like everything was constricting and I couldn't get air. I'll admit, for a split second, I really panicked. I thought, "I can't breathe and I'm in the impact zone at Puerto.”

It went from an injury to the real possibility of drowning. I was just getting recycled in the zone there at Puerto. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t yell, I couldn't put my hands up to get someone’s attention, I couldn't do anything. I was stunned. I saw people in the lineup looking at me, but it didn’t look like I was panicking because I was floating there doing nothing, so nobody really came over to check to see if I was okay. The lifeguards must not have seen me, either. At that stage, I knew that I was one my own. I was going to be the one to get myself out of the situation.

After three or four minutes of trying to relax, I knew what I was doing wasn't working. I was slowly starting to get more air back, but it was hard and painful to breathe, and I wasn't getting full breaths. I wasn't making any progress.

I'd duck underwater just as the wave would break, and let the wave suck me back over and push me toward the beach. I slowly started doing that out the back. When I got to shore, and it got shallow, I eventually ended up feeling the bottom and getting myself to the beach. It was around 10 minutes from when I got the injury to when I got to the sand. After I got to the beach, and with the drowning aspect out of my mind, I started checking my chest wondering what I'd done, whether I had possibly broken any ribs. That's when the lifeguards came and got me.

It was a close call. For what it was, it was a little too close for comfort.

How did this situation compare to some of the other close calls you've had in your career?

This was the closest I've thought to being in real trouble. I've been in some bad wipeouts, and the violence and being pushed deep down has been real before. But being hit so hard and then trying to breathe and not being able to, and then trying to process it and realize that you have to deal with it yourself — This was probably the most scared I've ever been for my life. This wasn’t a fire drill. This is the real deal.

There’s a frightening balance you had to find when you’re getting rolled out there in an impact zone like Puerto’s: you need to convey a sense of urgency so other surfers can see you, but you’re also trying not to panic.

Yeah, I could make eye contact with a few of the guys and could see that they were sort of looking, but I didn't look like I was panicking at that time. I felt I needed to reserve every ounce of energy within myself to survive. If I try to wave to these guys, then it might take away the energy I need for a breath to survive the next wave that's coming. From the first impact, I could hardly get anything, any breath at all, but slowly it got better, and I could get a little more air. It slowly got easier and easier.

But as I'm getting pushed closer to the beach, I'm thinking, Do I have a collapsed lung? Am I going to black out? All of those thoughts are going through your mind, but I was just trying to stay relaxed and get to the shore. I tried to find this happy medium of slowly getting in consistently without conserving too much energy, or potentially rupturing something else that could have been wrong. I look back now and think that, even though I’m in some pain, I got off really lightly. The board could've hit me in the head. The fins could've gouged my face. There are so many things that could have happened, but didn't. I just got lucky.

How do the prospects for the rehab look?

I've got a doctor friend of mine who's in Manhattan Beach, I'm going to see him tomorrow. He's going to do a full run of chest X-Rays, MRIs, just to triple-check everything. Once I get a diagnosis, I'll probably go to Costa Mesa and see another specialist. He works with a lot of surfers and motocross guys.

I've got a baby coming September 1st. My wife is pregnant and at home with our two-year-old daughter right now, so it's bad timing, but I've got to heal as fast as I can to get back with them. I'm going to spend a week here and really get on top of the rehab, try to quicken the recovery process.

But I've had a lot of people reach out to me through social media, saying, "Don't push this injury." I had some guy on Facebook tell me that now I know what it's like to have open-heart surgery [Laughs] That’s what they do: they crack your chest bone open. It was a pretty severe blunt force injury.