The Worst Wipeout of 2017: Wilem Banks, Mavericks

As voted by you, the readers

We like to think the chain of reactions in a wipeout — the vague sense that your muscle memory forgot a step, the notion that something is going terribly wrong, the surrender to physics, the popped ear drums — is relative. But a fall at your local beachbreak is categorically unlike the five nominees for this year’s Worst Wipeout. These falls were in another class. So we put the schadenfreude to a vote, as we do around SURFER Awards season, to decide a clear winner.

And the winner was clear. Receiving over half of your votes, Wilem Banks of Santa Cruz took the honor for Worst Wipeout of 2017 after his five-story freefall with the Mavericks lip in January.

A few things about Wilem. He’s a standout at The Lane. He’s on the cover of the latest volume of The Surfer’s Journal, studying a mysto-reef at low tide in Scotland. He won the Big Wave Awards Wipeout of the Year in April. And contrary to what the footage of his wipeout suggests, he’s alive and well. He was in San Diego’s South County when we called him about the news.

Congratulations! How are you not dead?

It kind of looks like it's the end of Wilem, doesn't it? [Laughs] I guess staying calm and having some charging experience, and definitely a bit of luck played into the scenario, too. I think everything just worked in my favor. The way it shot me up from 30 feet deep to the surface, facing the wave after it, and knowing that I could get a quick breath in before the next whitewater was important. It wasn’t a two-wave hold-down, which was definitely a blessing. Things might have been different if it was a two-waver. I think I would've been under a minute, at least. Maybe I would've survived it, I don't know. I'm very glad that I got a breath before that next one. From the initial impact, I got pretty rag-dolled, but I didn't get smashed up or anything. It just sent me so deep in such a quick time, and basically shot me back up. Compared to how it looks, it's almost like I was in the right air pocket or something and I got lucky with the slam.

Walk us through when you were paddling for it, and give us a play by play of what happened.

I hadn't been out there for a few months. The last time I was out at Mavs, I had actually torn my meniscus, so I was still recovering. I was going to play it mellow. I watched it for 20-30 minutes and started to ease my way into the lineup. There was quite a bit of current that was sucking you deeper into the pit, and I kind of went with it, because after watching it, I knew there were some of the most perfect Mavericks waves I'd ever seen coming through.

I found myself right in the pit where I've seen guys sit in past sessions, where you can chip in, get into it early, and bottom-turn underneath where it's tubing – I was looking for one like that. That wave came, and I found myself in a spot where I could get momentum paddling. I think I should’ve been paddling a little earlier, or I just shouldn't have gone at all, because after watching the clip, I was obviously way too deep. As that huge lump of water came through, I saw myself getting the biggest wave of my life, the best wave of my life, and I put my head down and went to flip it, no hesitation.

Initially, when I was paddling, I thought I had enough momentum to get in it, but since I had never been on that crazy of a wave before, I didn't really notice that I had this full double-up lurch in front of me that made it stand up and thicken up another 15 feet – I was basically way out of place, considering the f—kin power of that particular wave. You notice Alex Martins is there next to me, and he got into it perfectly. There was this extra amount of force. The wave was not wanting to be ridden. It shows that I wasn't in the spot, because I was deeper than 20 of the best big-wave surfers in the world.

I stood up, and realized I was on top of that double-up, and I felt the lip take my board. I thought, "Sh-t, I'm going over the falls on this 50-footer. Stay calm." [Laughs] I remember I was in the lip, and I could actually see the offshores going by my eyes the whole time as I was free-falling in the lip. When it detonated, I thought I was going to get exploded into smithereens. But actually, it was calmer than I thought, being in the lip.

I went with the lip so far down that I felt so much pressure – I knew I was 30 or 40 feet deep. After that, I was getting washed around and doing dome somersaults, not really coming up. All of a sudden, a huge air pocket took me up from 30 feet deep to the surface in a second. I think that's why I had some blood vessels pop in my lungs. I was coughing up some blood. But I was glad it popped me up, because I came up just in the nick of time before the next wave hit me, that second one, which was almost a longer hold-down. That wave seemed like more of a brutal beating, because I was so gassed from that wipeout before. It made the experience that much gnarlier.

[Footage courtesy of Powerlines Productions]