Legendary pro surfer Kelly Slater added “hero” to his long list of accomplishments after he helped save the lives of a woman and her young son who were knocked over by a rogue wave in Oahu on Wednesday.
Sarah White, wife of Australian surfing photographer Chris White, was pushing the couple’s 22-month-old son, Van, in a stroller along the Rock Piles footpath by the Kamehameha highway on the island’s east coast on Wednesday afternoon. The footpath edges along a beach that has been getting pummeled by winter swells intensified by El Niño. Suddenly a ten-foot-tall rogue wave came smashing over a sea barrier, submerging Sarah and Van and sweeping them across the heavily-trafficked highway.
Slater, who was at a nearby lifeguard tower, later described the wave to Chris as a “tsunami” traveling at high speed. He yelled to get the pair’s attention, but he couldn’t reach Sarah and Van in time to prevent them from getting hit. In the deluge, Van’s stroller somersaulted across the pavement before coming to rest against a fence. Slater and two lifeguards rushed over. By the time Slater was able to get the broken stroller upright, Van had swallowed salt water and had sand in his nose, ears, and mouth. Sarah had cuts and bruises on her back, and she’d lost her cell phone, sunglasses, and camera. “None of the material goods mean anything,” Chris told Outside. “We’re just so thankful that we have our boy!”
It was Chris and Sarah’s 14th season at Oahu (Van’s first), and they were on the island for a month-long holiday and photography expedition. Chris was shooting the surf at Waimea Bay when the incident occurred, and he remembers that the waves were particularly big that day despite the clear weather. “While this was happening [to Sarah and Van], I witnessed lifeguards at Waimea save the lives of two people who were close to drowning,” he told Outside. “Big thanks to Slater and the North Shore Lifeguard Association. They are all heroes in my book.”
For his part, Slater wrote on Instagram that he hopes to eventually be able to laugh about the incident with the Whites someday. “Van’s first wave was a huge one! Definitely a WA baby!” he wrote.
Slater was in the area taking advantage of the epic swells. Apparently Waimea was so big that Slater couldn’t paddle into it. “First time I’ve had a #WalkOfShame at #Waimea,” he wrote on Instagram.