Jamie Mitchell recounts his near-death experience after breaking his sternum at Puerto Escondido.
A week ago, Jamie Mitchell survived the worst wipeout of his life. After going down on a moderate six-footer by Puerto Escondido standards Mitchell’s board speared him square in the chest. He didn’t know it at the time but the impact had crushed and splintered his sternum. Breathless, fighting for sips of air and unable to raise his arms or call for help he was recycled back into the impact zone for 10 minutes. As panic crept in he remained calm, floating against the violent undercurrents fighting for his life. Today’s big-wave surfers are prepared for these worst-case scenarios but his was an absolute nightmare for Mitchell. After washing up on the beach he was immediately rushed to hospital and is now in Southern California seeking second opinions on the extent of his injury and beginning an intensive rehab program. Tracks caught up with Mitchell and asked him what it’s like to survive a beating at one of the heaviest waves in the world.
Can you describe the conditions that day, was it a typical day at Playa Zicatela?
It was probably a 6-8-foot day with 10 foot sets. It was an inconsistent but nothing out of the ordinary. The wave I caught was your standard Puerto Escondido—it looks like you’re going to make it then it runs away from you. You would see that wave a million times. But for whatever reason I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time I guess.
Talk us through the wave that took you out?
I’d had a weird session that day. I’d been burnt twice and I was trying to get my last wave in. At Puerto you’ve got a window in the morning only when it’s offshore because at around 11 o’clock the sea breeze comes up and the conditions start to deteriorate. I was right on that time and a lot of people had gone and there were only a handful of us in the water.
I took off on a wave, a six-footer, it opened up really nice, I drove through a couple of sections and thing just ran away from me and in the aftermath of getting tumbled I just felt this impact to my chest. Instantly I knew my board had hit me and I felt chest constrict up and I felt my chest and could feel an indentation in it. I thought, ‘OK I know I’ve done something bad here but just get to the surface.’ When I got to the surface and I tried to breath I really couldn’t breathe. It was like I was having a heart attack. I went to breathe and my whole chest and everything was so tight I basically just got a sip of air then I had to take the next set on the head.
At this stage I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be serious.’ Because I’m in the impact zone at Puerto. And what happens at Puerto is that it recycles you and you get pushed away from the lineup. It pushes you and sucks you back out. I went from panic to just survival mode. All the thoughts are just going through your head but I couldn’t think about it I just had to think about not drowning.
I took my leash off my board after two more waves because I just wanted to control myself without getting dragged by my board you know? It took me about 10 minutes to get back to shore. I couldn’t wave at anyone or yell out because I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t put my arms above my head… I basically was just in survival mode trying to get any little air I could while I was going under all the waves.
You eventually got to the shore what happened when people realised you were in trouble?
Well the lifeguards came down and helped me up to the beach when I got to the sand. They didn’t help me when I was in the water [laughs]. But when I got to the sand they called the ambulance and I went to the hospital.
How did this incident compare to other heavy wipeouts you’ve had in your career?
It’s the closest one I’ve come to where I was thinking, ‘If I don’t pull this off, like really knuckle down I could drown here...’ I’ve had some bad injuries and wipeouts but nothing where you think this could be it. But there were a couple of times there. Right at the start when I came up and couldn’t breathe and I was in the impact zone. I had thoughts like, ‘Hey this is the real deal here you’re going to need all your experience to get you through this.’ In terms of wipeouts it’s definitely the worst and the most I’ve ever thought that this could be it.
You’ve been a standout at Puerto in the freesurfs and at the Big Wave World Tour stop last year. Can you tell us what is unique about the wave and how you need to approach riding it?
Puerto is a bit of a phenomenon, it’s a bit like Nazare. They have that deep canyon and then the swells roll through the canyon and just extenuate the size—and swell direction has a little bit to do with that as well. Puerto is one of the most dangerous waves in the world. The sand is so shallow and is compacted so hard. If you hit the bottom it’s like hitting concrete. Then it’s really hard because there are a lot of closeouts at Puerto. You see the really good guys like Greg Long who are really, really patient and are looking for the right waves. You definitely have to be patient out there. It’s like a big South Straddie [laughs].
For me, if you think you’re too deep out there you’re way too deep. You nearly have to paddle to the shoulder where you think you’re going to be too far in front of it but it puts you in the right spot. It’s usually the opposite as a surfer. You’re usually trying to get deep in the barrel but if you’re paddling too deep the water just runs away from you. There are not too many places where the undercurrent sucks you back out to the lineup to. That’s a tough one.
You mentioned Greg Long as being a standout at Puerto and footage from this past swell emerged of him on arguably the wave of the day. He reportedly waited three hours for that wave. Is that typical of what can happen when you’re waiting for that one?
Yeah…100%. What happens a lot of the time to is that it’s crowded, you’ve been waiting for a good one for two hours and the one that you probably don’t really want to go pops up and you get impatient and you take a bad wave. That happens a lot. Greg is one of the most patient big wave surfers and I’ve done the same. You can wait an hour, two hours or three to get that wave because you can go a bunch of waves but you might get 10 closeouts. The really, really good ones are few and far between. If you’ve been waiting a long time and the magic one comes then that guy like Greg, who’s been waiting a few hours, it’s his wave.
Not the photo I was hoping to post from #puertoescondido . Long story short is I'll be fine. I fractured my sternum and thanks to everyone who helped and reached out yesterday . Special thanks to @nnm.project and @coconogales for organising the best doctor to look after me . Also @gerglong and @neo.pirate for the amazing smoothie and while I was starving waiting to be released . I'm on the way to LA today to get some more scans and X-ray's and start the rehab process. Already looking forward to the next swell and surfing with all my brothers ❤️. #peaceout @nnm.project
Have you got an indication on how long your rehab will be and when you can get back in the water?
I’m going to go see my rehab guy in Newport Beach tomorrow and I think he will give me a better indication. I really haven’t seen anyone yet. I flew back in the other day and had to wait to get more x-rays and an MRI today. I’m hoping a month or six weeks at the most. I’m guessing it’s sort of like a rib injury from how it feels. I’m hoping that I can at least be back in the water doing something within a month.
What have you been diagnosed with up to this point?
I’ve basically crushed my sternum. Fractured it and just splintered it as it got crushed. There’s been a bit of swelling around my heart and lungs from the impact that I found out today too. Nothing horribly bad but my doctor just said, ‘You must have got hit really hard.’ It sucks but if it had hit me in the face, my eye or the temple it could have been a whole lot worse.
The big wave community is tight knit, especially when you guys are involved in these heavy situations. What kind of support have you received from your peers since they heard the news?
Everyone’s reached out and said, ‘Hey if you need anything let me know what I can do. I can pick you up, I can drive you…’ It’s pretty cool. You just realise that you’re going to be in that situation one day and you hope that they would be there for you like you would be there for them. It feels really nice and it helps your family too. My wife called me from the hospital and I FaceTimed her and she felt so bad because I was sitting there by myself but then 10 minutes later Coco [Nogales] turned up with some water then Greg [Long] came in with a smoothie and some tacos. So little things like that help a lot. Then Greg and Alex Grey packed my boards up and put them back in my storage for me so little things like that are really awesome.