A Pound of Flesh

According to the January, 2007 issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine a surfer can look forward to about 13 acute injuries for every 1000 hours surfed. I estimate I have surfed over 5000 hours in total since beginning to surf in April, 2002. Based on the Journal of Sports Medicine’s estimate of injury frequency that means I’ve had the potential to incur more than 65 acute injuries while surfing thus far. I’m ecstatic to report that this has not been the case.

Sure, I have had plenty of minor lacerations while surfing, including several that could have used a stitch or two as evidenced by the series of eye-shaped gouges that run down my right shin. There was also the time I needed eight stitches to pull my scalp back together after my board landed tail-first on the top of my head. The worst injury I’ve had to date (knock on wood!) was a herniated disc in sloppy, blown out three-foot mush. That injury took a long time to heal, so maybe I paid a healthy portion of my surfing injury dues that way.

Two days ago, in anticipation of a Northwest swell that I’d been monitoring on Surfline, I drove the three hours to the west coast of the peninsula. It had been well over a month since I’d ridden any really good surf. The season is over here until next April and the winds have been blowing since early November. I’ve been itching for a good swell like the one on the way.

I arrived in time for a short evening session, but the swell had yet to arrive and the wind chop was messing with the little bit of swell that was coming in. So I cracked a cold Pacifico and watched from a friend’s palapa as the sun dropped out of the sky and disappeared into the vast ocean. I prayed for clean conditions and good surf the following morning. I was in bed before 10 that night.

As a rule I’m not an early riser, but, in anticipation of what boded to be some great surf, I was up, powered down a smoothie and was on my way to the beach by 7:30am. The spectacle at the beach was all I’d hoped for – glassy conditions and perfect A-frame waves breaking in series a long way down the beach. It was big, with some of the set waves a good 10 feet on the face. The bigger waves were closing out, so I stood on the beach to assess where I should surf and where to paddle out before going out. As I pulled on my shorty wetsuit, excitement and anticipation of a day of surfing surged through my body. It was all I could do to hold myself back from running to the water and jumping on my board without waiting between sets.

The water felt good and I felt strong. The pain and stiffness in my shoulder was completely gone. Half way out to the take off zone, a set arrived and I began to duck dive the first, smaller waves. When I felt myself going backwards on the first dive, I reminded myself that I was in the Pacific Ocean now, not the gentle Sea of Cortez. I had to dive deeper. After a couple of successful dives, a set wave appeared well outside of where I was. As I prepared to dive, I saw another surfer’s board fly up into the air and braced myself for what was clearly a powerful wave. My timing was off and the white water was on me faster than I’d expected. I dove, but too late, and the force of the whitewater ripped the board from my hands and sent me tumbling underwater. After the wave passed, everything went calm, the water bubbled and foamed around me and I began to float back up to the surface. But the calm was short-lived and WHACK! Something hit me hard on the jaw. I knew immediately it was serious and implored the powers that be, “Please don’t let my jaw be broken, please don’t let my jaw be broken.” I floated to the surface and tentatively touched my jaw where the board hit it. Another wave was breaking outside and I had to dive under it as I tried to assess the damage. My jaw was intact. “Thank God,” I thought. I got back on my board and began paddling to the outside where my friend Alec was sitting. The waves kept coming. The sets must have been eight or nine waves in total. Between waves I touched my jaw and looked down to see blood. As I continued paddling I saw a large drop of blood fall from my face into the water. “Not good,” I thought. Alec confirmed  my thinking. “Yeah, probably needs two or three stitches,” he said, “you better go in.” I figured regardless of how bad it was, he and the other surfers didn’t want me sticking around. The men in the grey suits would be getting a whiff of “injured animal,” aka “dinner” before long.

But there was no way I was going to paddle in – the waves were perfect. I had to catch at least one. With encouragement from the guys sitting near me, I took off on a wave and rode it to the beach.

Cursing my shitty duck diving skills, I got dressed and headed to the local clinic. I was glad that unlike at home it was only a 15 minute drive away.

On the way to the hospital it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t have any money. My wallet was locked in the house where I was staying, my friend was in the water surfing and I didn’t have a key. But I thought, “This is Mexico, not the United States,” and figured the doctors would trust me to return with payment after they treated me.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover there were no other patients in the Emergency wing of the small hospital. After being escorted to the exam room, I told the doctor about my financial conundrum. To my dismay his face turned from concern to doubt as he told me he would have to talk to the hospital administrator. The administrator appeared promptly and began telling me they couldn’t treat me when I stopped him mid-sentence and offered him my iPod as collateral against my bill. To my great relief, he agreed without hesitation.

Before long I had six stitches expertly sewn by a baby-faced Dr. Pablo Gonzalez, an x-ray indicating that I had not fractured my jawbone, a prescription for antibiotics and a bill for 2241 pesos ($162 US ). I handed over my iPod and headed back to the beach with a plan to get some crazy glue and get back in the water.


Before: It looks pretty minor all cleaned up.
After: Six puntos (Spanish for stitches) and a lot of swelling the following day 
Keala Kennelly after her face got up close and personal with the Teahupoo reef. In comparison, my board gave me a kiss.

At the beach it was apparent word had gotten out that I’d messed myself up. Everyone I asked seemed to think it would be unwise to get back in the water. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off I began to believe they were right. I was spent from the pain and excitement of the morning. Plus the doc had said I had to stay out of the water until the wound closed completely. “Anywhere from seven to ten days,” he said, “otherwise the wound could open up.” I gave it a second thought and pictured my beautiful sutures ripping out of my face to leave behind a ragged bloody mess that would never heal nicely. I looked at the picture perfect peeling waves and then down at the gaping scars on my shin. My attachment to a relatively unscarred face won out. Had the wound been anywhere else on my body I would have paddled back out.

Tell me what you think. Seriously. I can take it.

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