Surfer Yarns: Jim Banks On His Recent Near Death Wipe-Out At Uluwatu
By Jim Banks
I was having a pretty good day, spending most the morning playing guitar and working on a couple of songs that were developing nicely while waiting for the wind to settle down and for the tide to drop.
Around midday, I headed down to the cliff at Uluwatu with my 8’4” under my arm. First glimpse of the of the waves revealed a fairly solid medium-size well and fairly clean conditions. Down at the bottom of the cliff I could see two of my regular bombie buddies waiting to jump in. The ocean looked pretty calm and an easy paddle out.
But the minute they launched themselves into the water, sets started stacking up on the horizon and by the time Big Jim got out to the edge of the temple’s shelf, all hell was breaking loose. I watched as he copped a serious beating all the way across the shelf with very chunky, almost double overhead, dredging reef grinders unloading in almost no water in front of him. But Big Jim is not easily discouraged, and, finally, at the very end of Temples, he managed to sneak across the inside shelf and get into relatively clear water. But by this time he’d been washed way down and it was going to be a long, hard paddle against the current from where he was or another beating from the bombie shelf if he tried to head straight out.
Johnny D was not so lucky. Being a bit further back, he got pushed into the razor sharp shallows and was washed halfway down to the cave, never even getting a chance to punch through the temple shelf at all.
I sat and watched for a while, the ocean unleashed relentless sets, never letting up for a second, leaving me feeling very puzzled as to how I was going to get out.
I made my way down the cliff and along the shelf to the jump-off spot, watching out of control temples heaving and crunching onto its very shallow shelf. By the time I got to the jump-off, I still hadn’t seen a gap and was really wondering how the hell I was going to get out. I perched up on a ledge above the jump-off for a while, watching and waiting, but still no gaps. Figuring I had no other option than to get smashed across the Temples shelf and hopefully sneak out a the end, ala Big Jim. I resigned myself to my fate and got ready to jump.
But just as I was about to jump, a quiet little voice inside my head said, “Wait a minute.” Figuring I had absolutely nothing to lose but a severe beating from the Temples shelf, I waited. And then, suddenly, the little voice urged, “Go now!” And so I jumped in just as a huge back surge of water pulled off the reef and sucked me straight out almost to the edge of the shelf. And then again the little voice whispered, “Go wide.” And so I did, which allowed me to sneak around a mid-sized set that was marching down from a little further up the reef. Suddenly I was in clear water. I was out! I was so amazed and grateful that I stopped and gave a massive thanks to that little voice.
From here it was a cruisy paddle out to the Bombie take-off, as I long as I remembered to stay south enough to avoid getting picked off by the occasional larger set. One more chicken run across the Bombie outside peak impact zone and I’d be in the take off zone and cruising. It was a beautiful sunny day, clean offshores and only a small crew out. Most of the waves were between double to triple overhead sets and I ended up having a great session, getting a couple of longer ones and even one of the random bomb sets.
About half an hour before sunset, the tide started to move back in and the waves started getting a lot more water in them, making them really difficult to catch. I paddled for about five waves in a row, getting more and more frustrated as I failed to catch any of them. Finally the sun set, the moon lit up and it got more and more difficult to see. I’ve been caught out at the bombie so many times in the dark, and, to be honest, it’s really not fun. So as another set approached I paddled like crazy for the first wave. Thinking I was in, I jumped to my feet as it stood up, but I was way too late, getting stuck in the lip and free-falling down the face. I landed really hard on the side of my head and as I went back up and over the falls I was already feeling a bit disoriented from hitting the water so hard.
After a fairly standard bombie rinse, I finally got back to the surface, but the minute I lifted my head out of the water, the real consequence of what I’d just done to myself hit me. I’d burst my eardrum and so the horizon was now tilted at about 15 degrees, my vision was down to about 20 per cent and I could barely see in the seriously fast fading light. I was also so disoriented that I was having trouble working out which way was the shore and which way was the ocean.
But the ocean sorted that out really quick for me by slamming me almost instantly with the whitewater of the wave behind. The whitewater hit hard and pushed me down into the depths, where another massive fist of water clamped me in its grip and pulled me down deep, tumbling me over and around as it did so.
The seriousness of my situation kicked in big time. I was down way deep, the turbulence was showing no sign of letting me go and I had no idea which way was up. Instantly, I flashed on my buddy Jay who drowned here at Ulu Bombie just a few weeks before, and I wondered if this is what happened to him, as I realised that I could very easily drown here. Shit! I was going to drown on my birthday! Kinda fitting for me, I suppose, but not very appealing…
Finally the giant fist started to soften its iron grip, and I could start to consider breaking free of it. But now the horrible reality of the life or death situation that I was facing sunk in… I didn’t know which way was up! I didn’t know which way to swim! There’s been a few times in my life where I started to consider I wasn’t going to survive a situation, and I can tell you it’s a very chilling moment. Knowing that this could well have been the last decision I ever made, I stopped.
It was dark then, there was no light at the surface to swim to, I was extremely disoriented and seriously doubted my ability to make the right decision. Over to my left, I could see a slightly lighter patch in the water… and so I made my choice, knowing that if I was making the wrong one, this would be game over. The patch is further away than it appeared and I desperately hoped that I wasn’t just swimming parallel to the bottom towards a patch of trapped turbulence.
Finally I got close to it, swam through it and bingo! I was back on the surface… just in time for the next waves to hit me and repeat the process. But the next one didn’t hit as hard and I bobbed back up to the surface without too much trouble… just in time for the next one to hit me. And then again and again, as I got pounded all the way onto the inside shelf. Like an acid trip gone bad that wouldn’t stop, the ocean pounded me over and over again, all the way in to the inside shelf. Finally I got washed towards the cave where I staggered up the beach.
Seriously shaken, disoriented and exhausted, I sat down and counted my lucky stars to still be alive. That was one very serious and disturbing situation…
I’ve done my eardrum before, in Fiji, so I knew it’s just a waiting game, but for the following weeks my head felt really foggy, I felt very fatigued and had great difficulty in thinking clearly. Looking up concussion symptoms, it was pretty obvious that I was ticking the boxes for concussion. Once again, not much to do but take it easy and rest. But stilI, I just didn’t feel like I was getting any better and so finally I decided to get myself checked out.
Yep, eardrum was blown, nothing new there. Yep, concussion, already figured that. Swollen brain, hmmm, ok, was that part of the concussion or something else? But once again, nothing to do but slow right down and take it easy.
But here’s the kicker… air bubbles in my bloodstream! The bends! Do you believe that? I’ve never heard of anyone getting the bends from surfing before. It got me thinking, sometimes the pressure from the turbulence is pretty intense. Maybe it is just like diving really deep and then coming up too fast? Never thought about it before. I wonder how many other times we’ve copped the bends and never even realised. Makes you think, huh?
Anyway, I’m well on the road to recovery now. Ears still taking a while to come good, but the concussion, swollen brain and bends symptoms have passed. Not sure how this is going to unfold in the long term. Does feel like the ocean’s given me a message, but still, I do love being out there when it’s big. It really is something else.
In the meantime, while Jim Banks is out of action, he'll be building a small limited edition series of FLV versions of the Hit the Road model. You can read up on them on jimbankssurf.com. "Better grab one while I’m still around to build them! Ha!" Says Jim!
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