One Moment I Was Kitesurfing in Maui, the Next I Was Fighting for My Life
As a professional mountain guide, Jeff Evans is no stranger to close calls, and freely admits he’s skirted death more than once. But nothing he’s experienced has been as terrifying as the minute-plus he spent submerged under an onslaught of crashing waves.
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On November 10, 2017, Jeff Evans went kitesurfing with a friend at Baldwin Beach on the north shore of Maui. The 48-year-old was making his way out to the break, about a mile offshore, when he attempted to crest a large wave. Instead of getting over the lip, he wiped out, and then endured a violent thrashing that broke his will to live. His story is the latest in our survival series.
Evans is a Colorado-based physician assistant, motivational speaker, and professional mountain guide—he has also long been the primary adventure partner of Erik Weihenmayer, who became the first blind man to summit Everest while guided by Evans. Together, they’ve had several close brushes with death—“we’ve entered one shitshow and exited that and then entered the next shitshow”—but Evans says this kitesurfing accident was the scariest outdoor experience of his life. “This event in Maui was the only time I’ve given up. The only time I’ve quit.”
Here’s his full story, as told to Outside.
I’ve become pretty close friends with several guys who live on Maui year round and who kitesurf and surf 300 days a year. They’re in the water all the time and are super capable and confident. The day that this happened, the waves were between ten to 12 feet—pretty average for my friends, but not for me. There’s a break that’s just west of Jaws called Baldwin Beach. And my buddy Gray said to me, “let’s go, just the two of us, let’s go out there and get into these waves.”
It was probably hubris that took me there that day. I didn’t want to say no; I wanted to see if I could do it. My skills probably were not sharp enough, but I often put myself in these situations and they pan out. So, I was like, all right, let’s just see what I can do.
I’d never surfed in waves that big before. Gray was in front of me, cutting and turning, and on my very first tack out there, I got into the body of the main break. I went out to my right. And the first big, massive wave crested in front of me, maybe 50 or 60 feet away.
There’s a moment of no return, where you have to either turn and ride it or charge and go over it, and I hesitated. Instead of either changing my feet on my surfboard and turning back so I could ride the wave, or committing by going over it, I paused. And you just can’t do that.
It was just dark and black and violent. I got held down for what ended up being more than a full minute.
I got sucked up the face of the wave and then dropped from the top. My board was gone, but I still had my kite attached to me and it was fully powered, about 70 feet above me. This was a reef break, not a beach break. It occurred to me while I was in the air that there was a good chance I was going to smash onto the reef. So I put my hands over my head, and balled up as small as I could to try to protect myself. Then I hit the water, and I felt the wave hit me.
And then the immense power of the ocean took over. It was just this absolute feeling of helplessness. Any surfer who’s been tossed by the waves knows this. I had no body control, no direction, no orientation, and no concept of up and down. It was just dark and black and violent. I got held down for what ended up being more than a full minute.
I do breath work in my training, so I can hold my breath for a couple minutes sitting in a meditative pose. But when you’re getting smashed around, even one minute under water is a long, long time. Your capacity is more like 30 seconds, 45 seconds when you’re getting blasted. I was fortunate enough to take a last big deep breath before I hit the water.
When you’re attached to a kite with a harness, like I was, the system allows you to release from it. The harness wraps around the front, and then there’s a steel bar that attaches to this thing called a chicken loop. That’s a safety mechanism designed so when an accident like this happens, you can reach up and and grab this little plastic ring and push it away from you. It moves the whole bar away, which de-powers the kite, so that the kite won’t fly but you’re still attached to the line.
I was getting tossed so hard that I could not bring my hands to my waist to push the ring. There was just so much force and power and violence. I wasn’t hungry for air yet. I thought I was going to surface soon. It had been maybe 30 seconds. Then I felt another massive pull.
It was like a rocket ship—bam, just blasting me in one direction. It could have been pulling me down to the center of the earth, for all I knew. But it was another wave that had hit my kite, which was in the water.
I still thought I was going to surface soon, but then it happened again. Bam! The next wave hit, I accelerated, and once again, I could not bring my hands forward to release the kite. I started to panic. I had been under water for more than a minute at this point. I was trying to fight so hard. It’s emotional to remember, trying to get my hands to my waist to grab that release ring and I could not do it.
My wife is going to be so pissed at me, I thought. All these things that I have done, all these situations that I have been in, and I’m going to die in the ocean, kitesurfing, of all things.
And then, I don’t know if I went limp, but the struggle stopped. I quit. I still think of that moment: how soft I must have been at that moment. How dare I even consider not fighting? But I just submitted to it, and gave in to it.
And then, I felt a pop. Like a reverberation through my body. A snap went through my waist and harness. I didn’t know what it was, but I saw sunlight and I came up in the foam of the break. I took a big breath, and half of it was sea foam. I coughed, and I cried. This crazy primal cry-laugh thing happened, and I started choking on the foam. Then Gray came over and said, “Holy shit bro, I kind of expected to see you face down, man. Are you all right?” And I said, “I don’t know. I think so.”
We were a mile offshore, and my board was long gone. I started pulling in my kite line, and when I got to my bar, it was in two pieces.
That pop I had felt was this carbon fiber bar breaking in half under the pressure of the wave pushing my kite. I still have the bar. I kept it. The only reason I’m alive is because that bar broke. I’ve told this story to a lot of kite folks and showed them the picture of the bar, and no one has ever seen a broken bar. You could run over a car with it, and it wouldn’t break. It’s made for crazy forces. And it snapped.
The kite had a cut in it and was deflated. It took me two hours to swim back to shore. It was a tense couple hours.
Gray offered to tow me in, but I’m a stubborn dude. And I was ashamed and embarrassed. I’ll own that. I figured if I got myself into the problem, I’d get myself out of it. After years of doing search and rescue in the Alaska range and in the Himalayas, I feel very adamant that people getting themselves into issues should be capable to at least try to get themselves out.
The whole thing was on me! It was hubris that got me into it. It was lack of talent that made it worse. And then it was stubbornness that required me to swim in all the way.
All these things that I have done, all these situations that I have been in, and I’m going to die in the ocean, kitesurfing, of all things.
I could barely stand when I got back to the beach. I was tremulous, and a bit of a wreck emotionally. I slept all day and all night after, recovering from the adrenaline dump. It was the longest sleep I’ve ever had. Gray was very understated, the same way I would be in the mountains if someone else had just had this massive experience—I’d be like “cool, you’re good.” Gray was like “You’re squared away. Bummer your kite’s torn up and you can’t find your board, but you’re good.”
The next day, I was not keen on going back out. I was still a little shaken, and Gray was like, “It’s no big deal.” He wanted to go and rent me another kite and board. So we went out—to the normal break, the itty bitty one that I’m used to. It was what I needed, getting back on the horse the very next day.