“I’m no jetski maintenance expert, but that machine is going to need a tune-up.” That was my flippant line as I commentated on the last five minutes of the Nazare Tow Challenge in Portugal last week. We’d just seen Alex Botelho and Hugo Vao’s ski get crossbowed 15 feet in the air, and then watch on as the riderless ski be hurled over the falls.
With both surfers unsighted, ours, and the camera’s, sightlines were drawn to the 500-kilogram machine being hurled around like a bath toy. Two minutes or so later though the flippancy turned to horror. My co-commentator Pete Mel identified one of the surfers. “That’s a body!” We didn’t know which surfer it could be, the black singlet meaning it could be either Hugo or Alex.
The next few minutes were increasingly unreal as the rescue played out on the screen and I tried to relay the situation. Of course, the full emergency and safety crews went into overdrive, and there was rightly no communication to the broadcast. The sole and only focus was on trying to save Alex’s life. Early on that seemed impossible. As we saw surfers recoil in tears it looked like I was broadcasting the worst possible outcome.
We cut to break and tried to process what had happened. Pete had been in the boat when Mick was attacked by the shark and was rattled. Soon though the word came through from the head of Water Safety that Alex was both conscious and breathing.
If we felt relieved, imagine Nic Von Rupp. The pair had traveled the world for the last decade, first on the QS, and more recently chasing their own big wave dreams in the own backyard. “I was traveling back in the car to the harbour, but we had the CB radios on with the safety guys,” Nic told me afterward. “We had a minute of silence when they working on him, and silence isn’t good. I was praying for the first time in my life. Then when we heard he was back, the feeling was euphoric. It swerved from the worst day of my life to the best.”
With Alex safe, it felt like the broadcast could continue. We were already recalibrating the rights and wrongs of what it means to film these big wave events when the possibility of death is always there. That was a few hours before Albee Layer cut to the chase with his Instagram comment on the WSL Instagram feed of the rescue. “Our lives are clickbait.”
It’s a conversation that has to be had. The surfers, like Albee, ultimately have to decide. Although later that night at the Awards Night, it was comforting to hear Sebastian Stuednter, with remarkable clarity and composure, relay a message directly from Alex. The gist was that he was safe and that he’d had one of the better days of his life, until it went wrong. Both he and Hugo, two of the most experienced Nazare surfers understood the risks and were prepared to take them.
However having been unconscious and underwater since the time he came off the ski as his lungs filled with water, the fact he could relay message at all changes the whole discussion. It was another close call and it seems eventually the ending will be tragic. Surfers, broadcasters, and spectators have to be prepared for that scenario.