Every winter, the Pacific Ocean produces massive swells that roll across the open sea and crash into the Hawaiian island of Oahu. For more than 50 years, the surf world has gathered here, on the North Shore, along a stretch of legendary beaches that are collectively known as the Seven Mile Miracle. A lot of drama is to be expected: epic rides, agonizing wipeouts, and every so often, a heroic rescue. In this episode, we share two stories from the latter category. One comes from photographer-filmmaker Jeff Johnson, who, back in the day, was a young lifeguard at Sunset Beach, determined to prove himself. The other is from big-wave rider Kohl Christensen, a North Shore local whose work to safeguard the lives of other surfers recently ended up saving his own.
Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast.
Michael Roberts (host): Every winter, the Pacific Ocean produces giant swells that roll across the open sea and crash into the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
For more than half a century, the surf world has gathered here, on the North Shore, where big waves descend on a stretch of legendary beaches that are collectively known as the Seven-Mile Miracle.
A lot of drama goes down between December and February. Often, the most talked-about moments take place during professional surfing’s Triple Crown, a series of contests that begins at Sunset Beach and concludes at Pipeline. These are among the most famous breaks in surfing for good reason: incredible rides, incredible wipeouts, and every so often, a pretty gnarly rescue.
For today’s episode, producer Alex Ward brings us two stories from the latter category. One from a young lifeguard who was determined to prove his mettle on a big stage. The other from a North Shore veteran whose work to safeguard the lives of other surfers ended up saving his own.
Alex Ward (producer): When Jeff Johnson was 16, he and a friend were on vacation in Hawaii and they made a pact on a Hawaiian beach that they would move there from California after they graduated high school. They worked through the next couple summers, saved up the money, and in 1987, arrived on Oahu island.
Jeff Johnson: You get off the plane, you get in the car, and you drive over the island. When you come over the middle of the island through this town called Wahiawa, you’re in the sugarcane fields and you can see the whole north shore laid out in front of you. You're just coming down into this Mecca, this playground in this almost as a war field or something. And, you know, if there's waves, you can just see the reefs breaking way out there, you know, and, and you get those butterflies.
Ward: That’s a really interesting analogy, that you say it’s like this playground but also a war field. Those are two totally different things
Jeff: Yeah, totally. And I see it more as a playground because even when it gets big, it's still a playground, if that's what you're into, you know? But yeah, there can be moments where it can be like a war zone, you know?
Ward: After moving to the North Shore, Jeff started taking pictures of the surfing scene.
Now, almost 35 years later, he’s an accomplished photographer, writer, and filmmaker. He became Patagonia’s first staff photographer, when he was hired to help launch the brand’s surfing line, and he’s gone on to write books and direct acclaimed documentaries about climbing and surfing.
But before all that, back in 1994, Jeff was just a young, unproven lifeguard on Oahu’s North Shore. It was his first winter season working at the hallowed Sunset Beach and he was eager to prove himself with a real rescue.
And on the day when he got his chance, he was working alongside a legendary figure in Hawaiian surfing, a tough and intimidating Vietnam veteran named Roger Erickson.
Johnson :I knew it was going to get pretty heavy because I'd been listening to the buoy reports. Back then we didn't really have surf reports, we just had weather radios. I would wake up, I would set my alarm for the 2:00 AM buoy because whatever happens at 2:00 AM will happen on the North shore about eight hours later. The buoy reading was like, 18 feet, 25 seconds or something like that. So it was a really big swell that was coming.
I showed up the next morning early to set up the tower at sunset beach and I knew I was working with Roger and I knew the waves were going to get big. It was one of those early in the morning, it was one of those really easy inviting days at sunset where there's a lot of guys out. The waves were pretty, pretty mellow. I'm pretty clean and I just knew the shit was going to hit the fan because it does really quickly on the North shore. You can see it go from head-high surf to gigantic closing out surf within an hour or two. So things can happen really fast there. And, and I knew it would. So a day like this day is something that you're kind of excited about.
When Roger arrived at the tower, I told him, “Hey Roger, you know that the buoys really jumped last night. It's going to get big really quick.” And then when we finally set up the tower and I sat in there with him, we just sat there not talking. He was just in one of his moods. Roger was kind of one of those guys. He was a moody, moody character and he was totally stoic, you know, bearded guy, kind of super strong, always fit, always working out. And I said, “Hey, um, can I get the first rescue today?” And he didn't even look at me. He goes, “You can have every damn rescue you want.”
Ward: So Jeff, you wrote an essay about this experience for Outside a couple years ago, and one of the things you touched on in it is this tension between the new arrivals like you and the old locals that were already there. What was it like to drop into that?
Johnson: Well, the North shore was really the wild West. It changed a lot in the early 2000s. It's always been kind of an outlaw kind of on the fringes type out there. And in the 90s that sentiment was definitely still alive on the North shore.
I moved to the North shore in the spring of 1990 and, you know, I was a total newbie, just learning how to surf. And it really took me a long time to get used to the atmosphere there. Not only the surf, but the locals and the guys that were running the show at the time. I felt I was jumping into the big ring there, you know, and when I first started lifeguarding back then you couldn't graduate training and go directly to the North shore. It wasn't even an option. So you had to spend time paying your dues. So prior to this, prior to 1994, I had already done a year on the West side of Oahu and kind of paid my dues for a year out there. And then this was my first winter on the North shore, my first winter season.
You know, it was a tough neighborhood. The local Hawaiians, you had to really watch your step and give them a lot of space and respect. And a guy like me from California, you know, a blonde kid in his early twenties, you're kind of their worst nightmare, so you really have to watch your step and keep quiet.
Being a lifeguard in Hawaii and on the North shore, you get to fill in the shoes of some of the greats, and you get to share space with some of these guys that are working the tower with you. So you spend all day in the tower with these guys, eight hours a day, sitting really close to each other. Back then the towers were really small. It only fit like a couple of guys.
Ward: Jeff was squeezed into the tower with his partner Roger. And, among the legendary North Shore lifeguards, Roger stood out. He was a tough character, and to a young guy like Jeff, very intimidating.
Johnson: Roger's one of those guys I always looked up to. He's kind of one of these, the original north shore hard men. He was a big wave rider all the way from the 60s up through the 80s and into the 90s. He's a two time Vietnam vet and he survived the Tet offensive, which was just a bloody battle with not a lot of survivors and, you know, I think the first tour he did, he got drafted during the kind of the hippie era, summer of love. And when he came back, things had changed. It's kind of one of those classic stories where he came back and everybody's wearing flowers in their hair and dropping LSD and all this stuff, and he didn't quite fit in with the new scene.
He got into biker gangs. There's a story of him getting into a big brawl where he actually went to jail for leveling a cop. Totally stoic, bearded guy, always fit, always working out. You never knew what kind of mood Roger would be in. Sometimes you'd sit in a tower with him for eight hours and you wouldn't even talk to you.
Ward: Going back to the morning of the rescue, you’re in the tower with Roger that day, and you know a big swell is coming. What did the water look like?
Johnson: Well, this day was a really clean waves, really nice weather, sunny, the wind was offshore and the waves were about double overhead. So there's a lot of guys out there that were kind of just feeling their way out at sunset. They're kind of new to the game out there.
I did my first rescue and brought a guy and he was really excited about that. He was watching through his binoculars. And so I did my first rescue that day early on before it got really big. But a set kind of came in and within about an hour of us being at the tower, you could see a couple of bigger sets come in and with these sets you see guys scrambling a little bit.
And then within an hour and a half to two hours, we had a huge set come in and just kind of wipe out the whole lineup. And that cleared almost everybody out. That big set came in and it was probably four or five waves. And there was a bunch of guys in the channels with broken boards and all this stuff. So I had to go out and I had to actually rescue one guy and came in. I can tell he perked up a bit.
Roger's attitude changed when the shit started to hit the fan. So he was super grumpy, not even talking to me.
Ward: You mean once he saw the broken boards and saw people out of their element, he got excited?
Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. It was like, he perked up a bit, you know, it was like this is the stuff he loves, and I think he was getting a kick out of me watching me do my first rescue. I kinda got everybody in and no one was in the water. And we put up high surf signs and tape across to keep the tourists out. And I got up in the tower and I said, you know, okay, well at least we got everybody. And he's looking out there with his binoculars. And he goes, no, it ain't over yet
And he gave me the binoculars and there's a kid way out to sea about three quarters of a mile out there waving his arms. And there wasn't even a question. I was going to have to go out and get this kid.
[music intensifies then stops]
It was so big at that point, it really closed out that I kinda got butterflies, but I was also really excited at the same time. I'd never done a big rescue like this on a board. So you have your rescue board, which is this big 11 foot surfboard, and then you have your swim fins on and then your rescue buoy around your neck. And so you have a bunch of gear with you, and you gotta get out there to them.
When I was standing there looking at the shore break, you know, it's this big, huge pounding shore break. And I had to time it to get out past the shore break and into the ocean. I have all my stuff with me, and I run down there and I jump on the board and I start paddling and I mistimed it. And I got caught by this big set right on the shore and It just blasted me up the shore. I mean it was just a total yard sale. My swim fins, my buoy, my board, just got blasted up the beach and I was kinda collecting all the stuff with my head down and there's all these tourists on the beach watching me.
I looked up in the tower and Roger had a big smile on his face and he's pumping his fist into the air, and he was just a totally different guy from a couple hours ago where he was just being super grumpy. He was shaking his fist and he was giving me the look at my eyes like he's going to make the call for me because he could see better from his vantage point. So I sat up there and I waited for him to give me the call. And when he saw a clear way to get out, he just pointed me to go. And then I rushed out there and I made it past the shore break.
It took a while to weave my way out into the outer reefs, and the outer reefs are about a half a mile to three quarters of a mile out there. And luckily I was able to get out to the kid with my board and everything. I say kid because we filled out paperwork later, he said he was 17 years old at the time. He was definitely in trouble. He was drifting in a current, going out to see, and he was definitely in over his head.
I paddled up to him and I kind of had to fake this confidence, like I'd done this a million times. When I got to him, I was just acting like this was no big deal, like, Oh Hey, what's going on? Cause I really just did my first rescue about an hour and a half before then, so this is like my second rescue and it was much bigger surf.
I told them, hey, we've got to paddle you back up at sunset. Cause by now we're drifting down the coast a little bit. And so I started paddling with him -- he was holding onto the back of my paddleboard and he was kinda trying to paddle too. And I realized he was just dead weight. He couldn't paddle. He was so tired. So we got rid of his board and he jumped on the rescue board.
So now we were two on the board and we were in the outer reefs. Sunset was totally closed out. And then I sat up on the board and it was almost like the music stopped. It was like the record stopped. I was like, Holy shit. I just realized I've never done this before. You know, I did it an hour earlier, but it was in smaller surfing, it was really close to shore.
And it really started to set in, you know, I was looking towards land and all I could see was the backs of these huge waves. And um, and I was like, okay. And I knew Roger was watching me with the binoculars.
Ward: He’s like this spectre up in the tower in the background the whole time.
Johnson: (laughs) Yeah and it's almost like, it's not even the kid I'm worried about. I gotta make sure I do this for Roger. You know, it's like it's a big test, you know? And I can almost feel him breathing down my neck.
When you do the training in lifeguard training, you practice these rescues in a calm bay. You know, they don't really go out in huge surf to do these rescues -- you do these practice rescues in small surf or just flat water. So there's no real answer to how to do it; I just had to figure it out on my own. What I did basically is I told the kid, look, you know, the board has these big handles on the front. And I said, when I say paddle, you paddle as hard as you can, but when I say stop, you got to hold onto these handles and just don't let go. And he said, you know, he said, okay. And I could tell he was scared and, but I was still trying to pretend like this is nothing, you know.
So what I did is I waited for a good set to come in and we paddled for it and we paddled and we paddled and paddled and we were caught in it just about ready to drop. And I was almost tempted to just ride the wave, but that could have been disastrous. So what I did is as soon as we were about to take off on it, I just dug in my legs and let the wave pass us.
So we coasted down the back of the wave and then I said, start paddling again. And so we started paddling and started paddling. And I just hear this great crash behind us, and I remember having a moment where I thought that was so peculiar. In surfing, you’re never in that position. So I just said, hold on. And he held on and I leaned back on the tail of the board to keep the nose up and we just got swallowed up by this whitewater. And I totally wrote us off, you know, I said there's no way we're gonna come out of this with the board. We're just gonna get ripped apart here. It was like being inside of a rocket ship.
Miraculously, we got shot out of the wave and onto the flats. We're bouncing onto the flats and then the wave kind of gobbles us up again and then shot us out again. We'd just got this total hell ride all the way to the inside. When we got close to the sand, I just pushed him into this little wave and the wave pushed him up into the crowd cause there was a bunch of tourists behind a tape, we'd taped off the beach. He just flew up into the crowd and the whole crowd cheered and everything.
It was such a great feeling. I felt like a hero. I felt like I really saved this kid's life. I got back up in the tower and about 15 minutes later, I looked outside and a huge outer reef wave broke right where we just were -- like a giant, giant wave. If I had been, you know, 20 minutes later, we would have been out there riding, it would have been a really bad situation, so we just made it in in time.
Ward: Yeah, Roger might have had to finally get out of the tower and actually get in the water.
Johnson: (laughs) Yeah and come get me. But it's funny too, you know, it was one of the greatest feelings I ever had to be able to save somebody's life like that. And all the training that you do and all the thought that you put into it, that it actually worked out
Ward: What was Roger’s reaction when you guys finally washed up on the beach in front of everyone?
Johnson: You know, I don't really remember what his reaction was then. A little while later, I was eating lunch and he was sitting next to me and he's still not talking much. I forget the conversation. I said something and then he gave me a compliment that was huge for me. He said, you know, that was textbook, that was textbook.
And for me, that was like the biggest compliment I've ever had. You know, it was just like, so Roger, he just kinda quietly mumbled that. [laughs]
As a lifeguard, when you work at Pipeline, you’re there all day, from 9 to 5 basically. You’re seeing guys just pulling their clothes out and wiping out all day. The Hawaii lifeguards are some of the most incredible people in the world and some of the best lifesavers I've ever got to know. Being a lifeguard it's definitely not, they're definitely not in it for the money, you know? It's some of the most rewarding work you could ever do.
Ward: Coming up after the break, we’ll hear from the other side of a rescue -- from a surfer whose wipeout on the North Shore was almost his last.
Ward: The Hawaiian North Shore has changed a lot since 1994, when Jeff Johnson did his first rescue at Sunset Beach. So has surfing. There’s been a huge influx of money and big-name sponsors, and organized professional competitions have become a global industry.
This summer, Surfing will at last make its Olympic debut in Tokyo, over 50 years after Hawaiin surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku first pushed for its inclusion.
The sport’s rising popularity has brought more and more attention to the North Shore in recent decades, where, every winter, the big waves still arrive, beckoning each new generation.
The swells come and go, the barrels roll along, and the wipeouts keep folks humble. This is true even for surfers that have been riding waves here their whole life.
Kohl Christensen: The ocean is ever changing. There's no moment where it's the same.
Ward: Kohl Christensen is a North Shore local and well-known big wave surfer. He’s surfed just about everywhere there’s good waves since he was a kid.
Christensen: You get variations and different feelings from that experience. But the wave itself will always be different. Those who commit a lifetime to it will reap the rewards...or not.
Ward: This past New Year’s eve, about a mile down the beach from where Jeff Johnson saved his first life, Kohl nearly lost his own.
When we talked for this story, he was sitting at his farm in Kailua recovering from emergency brain surgery.
Exactly a month before our conversation, Kohl and a friend had gone out to surf Pipeline, one of the world’s most tantalizing waves.
Christensen: There's a special wave that we all know that we're looking for out there. It's a big tube ride and there's certain waves that do it and there's a lot that don't.
I think around 9:30 or so or 10, whenever it was, it was mid morning, the sun started to kind of come out. The winds started filling in and we knew it was probably cleaning up and looking better. So we blasted back down to Pipeline and it looked like it was starting to get good. So I jumped off, I paddled out and it was beautiful. Light winds, sunny. There were still some big second reef waves. And I was stoked.
To get a great wave at Pipeline is something that takes a lifetime unless you get super lucky. There’s a pecking order in the crowd. There's only so many good ones and it's only good, really good a handful of times a year, maybe a couple handful of times a year depending on the year. But it's a lifelong relationship.
Ward: Pipeline’s majesty comes from the fact that the things that make it a perfect wave are the same things that make it difficult. Weather conditions need to be just so, you need to be in the right spot at the right moment, and the reefs are ever present, looming just beneath the surface.
Christesen: So it's just a combination of being in the right spot in the water, being lucky, or just being in that moment and having that wave come to you, and d it just all kinda just harmoniously working out for you.
Ward: In some areas around Pipeline, the water is only a few feet deep when it meets the reef. Which means if you wipe out in the wrong spot, a wave is pounding you straight onto jagged coral.
So, the heavier the swell, the heavier the consequences.
Christensen: I was talking to my buddy Kalani Chapman right before this set came. Kalani Chapman, I think it was two years ago, also hit his head and drowned and was rescued by the lifeguards and revived on the beach. So it was interesting that I was sitting there talking to Kalani right before I caught this wave.
This wave came and it was an okay wave, but I could catch it from outside and ride it through. I knew it wasn't going to be a lifetime wave or one of the ones I was really looking for, but it was a good warm up, you know, get my feet on the board…
I rode it in to the inside and it kinda walled out and I felt like I could pull into the tube and go for a while and then, you know, whatever -- it wasn't the best one.
Ward: In a video from that day, you can see Kohl drop in, and then almost the moment after he locks into the tube, the wave stretches out ahead of him and closes out. He pumps his board to move faster, but the wave swallows him up.
Christensen: And I fell and I feel like I just went straight to the bottom. The way it broke, it kinda pulled back to a really shallow part of the reef, right between pipeline and backdoor. So we're talking like, feet deep right there.
The last thing I remember was pulling into that tube. And the next thing I remember was laying on the flat board with an oxygen mask looking up at the North Shore lifeguards.
Ward: The wave had thrown Kohl headfirst into the reef, knocking him out and gashing his head open.
After being pulled out of the water and stabilized by the lifeguards, Kohl was rushed to the Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu.
The trauma doctors found that Kohl had a fractured skull and an epidural hematoma, meaning he was bleeding in-between his skull and brain.
In some medical circles that’s known as a talk-and-die, meaning a patient can be talking and acting normally until suddenly the bleeding becomes fatal.
After hospital staff notified his wife, herself a doctor at a different hospital, Kohl was rushed into surgery.
Christensen: You've seen the movie Hannibal? Where they cut the guy's skull off? I didn't know this until the post op appointment, I think out of protection of myself. But he told me and showed me pictures of what they did, but it was the size of like a large egg or a baseball that he cut around the circumference of the spiderweb fracture and removed the whole plate, the circular plate of my skull, cleaned out all the blood, sutured up the dural layer that was torn and then replaced the plate and butterflied it in with five or six metal plates on the outside with little screws and then put plates on some of the larger fractures on the inside.
And I was like, wow. Really? [laughs]
Yeah, I was kinda blown away. I'm glad I didn't know what he did until three weeks later.
Ward: So now you've been in, you've been recovering for like a month. It seems it's going well. What's, what's that been like this, these past few weeks?
Christensen: Yeah, it's been interesting. I mean a lot of the immediate questions, will I ever surf Pipeline again? Do I want to keep surfing big waves? Those things kind of have around in and out of my head. And I feel oddly at peace with myself right now and the surf and, I'm just going to take it day by day. I don't think I need to answer that question to myself right now. I feel happy. I feel the power of being present with my daughters and my family. The waves, by the way, have been going off -- the Pipeline has been good, again. Usually I would feel, what do we call it, FOMO? I would feel a strong sense of FOMO. But I’m just kinda laughing. I almost feel like a buzzing. And just being present and being alive and being able to spend this bonus time with my daughters that I might not have been here for.
Ward: Being a committed big-wave surfer like Kohl means that you know just how bad it could have been.
In 2011, Kohl’s friend Sion Miloski drowned after a wipeout at Mavericks, in California. According to a surfer that was there that day, a large wave that Sion was riding closed out on top of him, pushing him below the water, only to be held under by a second wave that crashed right after.
His body was eventually recovered almost a mile from where it happened.
It was a sobering incident among the community, and it led Kohl and his friend & fellow surfer Danilo Couto to a simple realization, that - as surfers - they were not professional life-savers but always found themselves in situations they might need life saving. That didn’t make sense. They should have the skills to perform the basic rescues they needed too.
[upbeat music starts]
Christensen: We started with a CPR class and in my barn. And then we sought out our mentor, and one of the most, if not the most highly qualified lifeguard water man in the world, Brian Keaulana, on the West side in Makaha. And asked him if he would share his knowledge with us and teach us how to rescue using jet skis, without jet skis, just teach us.
Ward: Brian Keaulana agreed to teach them what he knew, with one caveat - that he keep sharing his knowledge forward to everyone they could.
And they did. Over the next couple years, their efforts evolved into an organization called the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group, dedicated to educating and training surfers about the risks they take and how to be safe while doing them.
Eventually, they gave more and more presentations around the world. The goal to have more people in the water that could save a life became real.
But personally, for Kohl, it wasn’t until his fateful day Pipeline that it all came full circle.
Christensen: So back up about to the moment I was paddling out, jumping off the jet ski. Andrew Del Greco, another North Shore lifeguard came down on the jet ski to check the waves. He was supposed to be at Waimea, but he just kinda had this feeling like he wanted to come down cause if there was anything going to go down that morning, he felt like it was going to be at Pipeline.
Ward: Kohl and Andrew said hi to each other before Kohl paddled into the wave. When Andrew saw Kohl go down, he rushed in on his jet ski and saw Kohl floating face down.
Christensen: He recognized the fact that I needed some oxygen. So he jumped off the jet ski, lifted my head out of the water and started yelling my name. And as he was doing that, I took a breath.
If he had not jumped off the ski and got my head out of the water, I would have been in a CPR situation along with my fractured skull, which would have increased the odds for a lot of complications. It was a heroic maneuver by Andrew. It was pretty rad. I got to see him at our baby luau, we had our first baby luau for my youngest daughter last weekend and he came and it was pretty powerful.
I had never been on the rescuee side of a rescue. Until you’re there, it's hard to put into words the magnitude of the appreciation and feelings and emotions that come out knowing that you would not be here today if it was not for this other person rescuing you. I think being on the rescuee side, it's different than being on the rescuer side. And I had never felt this way. I had met a lot of the people that had been rescued. And you can see it in their eyes, you can see their appreciation, but until you're there you can't really quantify it or put it in words.
I'm feeling different. I am really excited about the years to come and, and how I can help spread the knowledge and save more lives.
Ward: It’s a funny thing, the cycle that risk goes through with sports like this. People push the boundaries of what’s considered possible, which leads to the evolution of better equipment and safer techniques.
And then once people get comfortable with the better equipment and safer techniques, they keep on pushing boundaries. And the cycle repeats. Wave after wave.
So while Kohl’s response to his friend’s death years ago might have felt small at the time - doing a CPR class in his barn - it might just have caused a ripple that became a lifetime wave at Pipeline.
Roberts: The Big Wave Risk Assessment Group is holding summits around the world at several locations this year. You can see the full schedule and register online at bwrag.com
This episode was produced by Alex Ward and edited by me, Michael Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver. Additional music by Holy Coast.
This episode was brought to you by the 2020 Ford Explorer. Learn more about what it can do and meet Modern Day Explorers like Mike Escamilla at outsideonline.com/explorers.
WE’LL BE BACK NEXT WEEK.