With 30 plus years of surfing under my belt, I’ve had my share of injuries. A few stitches here and there, gashes, bruises, near drownings, multiple broken boards, and so far none have kept me out of the lineup for a long time. On March 7th, 2020 my luck ended.
The story starts a month before, when I had booked a flight to Morocco for a surf adventure. The plan was to spend a week in Tagzahout, renting a car to check out the multiple right hand point breaks an hour’s drive to the north and south. The rooms had been reserved, the boards we would rent when we got there so we would have more mobility when travelling to Fes and Marrakech. I was really looking forward to this trip and my travel buddy was frothing to go, too.
In Costa Rica in March it’s hot. And dry. So for the last three weeks the temps were in the 90s and I would wake up sweating and go to sleep sweating. I was imagining the cooler sea breeze of the Moroccan coast, donning a 3/2 to paddle out to the chillier lineup. My suitcase was packed.
That Saturday my friend Sara was celebrating her birthday and wanted to go surfing. The waves weren’t too big, but the winds and tides were not right in Dominical during most of the day and it was mostly closing out, so I suggested driving to the point to check it. It looked perfect, a dropping tide and wind, and no one out. The waves were waist to chest high, and the paddle out was one of the easiest I’ve attempted in 20 years of surfing there.
Once we were out, we marveled at the beauty of the late afternoon. The sun was setting over a glassy ocean, casting a golden glow over the verdant rainforests draping the mountains to the east. The only sounds heard besides the waves were the toucans in the trees and us hooting each other into waves. We could not believe our luck at being out there trading waves. I kept paddling out a little further so my friend could have all the waves on the inside and I could catch some of the bigger sets that came through.
I knew the tide was dropping, but did not anticipate how much more it had dropped out in the hour that we were out there. The point breaks off a rocky shelf, with some sharp rocks sticking above the surface at dead low tide. I remember sliding off my board and feeling how deep it was with my feet when I first got out, but I forgot about it after catching a few waves. That was a disastrous mistake.
This spot I have surfed over 100 times in all sizes and at all tides. I could see the boils and take off on most waves without worrying about the consequences. There was about 30 minutes left of daylight, a beautiful sunset, and I dropped in on a nice left, did a couple of snaps and then jumped off my board when I thought it was getting a little too shallow.
The white water was pushing me towards the shore and as I instinctively turned my body so my head was close to the surface, but my right knee and my left foot smacked into one of the rocks underwater. I felt the pain immediately and that was followed by the greater pain of thinking ‘What the **** did I just do?’. I reached down to my knee to feel how deep the cut was – and I felt the bone of my knee cap. That was not a good sign.
I was on the inside while Sara was still sitting in the lineup waiting for another wave. I called out to her and when she saw me I signaled that I was headed to the beach. That was not going to be easy, as I was still about 100 yards out and there was another 10-20 yards of slippery rocks to climb over before getting back to the truck. Luckily my body was going in to shock so besides what felt like a searing burn in my knee and to a lesser extent my foot, I did not feel too much pain.
Somehow I paddled to the beach and slid over the rocks and limped up to my ride still clinging to my surfboard. I had a large bottle of water for rinsing off and used most of it to rinse off the blood coming from the gash in my knee and foot. I was able to get my rashguard off and use it as a tourniquet on my thigh to staunch the bleeding. My friend caught her wave and was paddling in, which was comforting because I was getting faint. The pain was getting worse, it was throbbing and I applied pressure to my knee using my beach towel.
My friend returned to the truck, stoked from a fun birthday session, oblivious to what happened to me. When she saw my face and how white it looked, she immediately offered to help by driving me to the hospital. She threw her board in back, helped me into the passenger seat, and in the last moments of daylight we sped off on to the highway.
We had to go by my house first to get my passport and wallet and from there it was a straight shot to the emergency room entrance 25 miles away. I was in a lot of pain when we pulled up as the shock wore off. I told Sara where my things were and she grabbed a pair of shorts and a t-shirt for herself because all she currently had was her bathing suit. My neighbor brought our boards inside and I called my travel partner to let her know the situation.
She was in disbelief. “Are you sure you won’t be able to go?” she asked. I am an optimist, but in this case I still didn’t even know if I had any broken bones. My knee was swollen and my foot was dripping blood on the floorboards. I tried to move my toes and couldn’t. I was afraid to remove the towel from my knee to see how deep the cut was. I told her I would call again when I got home from the hospital.
In a few more moments we were back on the highway, racing northward. Of course the entire way we were stuck behind the slowest drivers on the road. Since it is only two lanes with limited passing opportunities the trip seemed to take forever. My friend kept up a light conversation just to make sure I was still conscious. We were joking that this was exactly the way she envisioned her birthday evening.
After an eternity we made it to the hospital entrance and Sara hopped out and asked a security guard to bring a wheel chair. I hopped in and he rolled me inside where they took my basic information and vital signs. I was impressed with their kindness and efficiency and felt guilty that I was dripping blood from my foot on to the light beige tile floor. After getting signed in I waited in a second room that was half filled by patients and their families, each casting a curious glance at me, wondering why a gringo was here and what did he do to himself?
I speak Spanish fluently and answered the questions posed to me by one of the attendee’s kids. This 8 year old was explaining to me all the reasons why I was lucky to be there, all the infections I could have gotten from the salt water and the rocks, and every injury he had since he could remember. I welcomed the entertaining conversation, taking my mind off the pain and acknowledging that I was in fact pretty lucky.
Costa Ricans are used to waiting, and I had plenty of experience with slow service in this country and many others. Surprisingly my name was called only 20 minutes later and I was wheeled into a second room after a short interview with the doctor. I was given a codeine-laced drip which immediately helped with the pain and a second drip to help rehydrate me. This room was more somber as the patients inside all looked to be in discomfort, and in one of two emergency rooms an ancient women was lying immobile on her death-bed. Members of her family were coming and going in tears, paying their last respects.
I was taken for X-rays for my knee and foot, which was still trailing droplets of blood on the table as I apologized profusely while wrapping it in paper towels. Luckily those came back negative, nothing was broken. And after another hour of waiting, singing Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb and keeping Sara in good spirits, I made it into the second emergency room to get my cuts cleaned and stitched up. Thankfully they shot my knee and foot up with Novocain first since they really got inside the wounds to scrub out any bacteria.
In the end I was given 15 stitches right below my right kneecap and another 5 in my left foot. I really didn’t know which side to limp on, but the bandage wrapped around my knee also kept it straight so I couldn’t reopen the injury. The total bill, about $180.00. I was happy to pay it and thanked everyone profusely for helping me before we left. Sara was a trooper, driving me home and helping me inside as it was almost midnight. I fell asleep lamenting how the day started so well, yet ended so poorly. And what was I going to do about my Morocco surf trip, only 3 days away?
I had to cancel all of it. The flights, overnight hike in the Atlas Mountains, hotels, train tickets and rental car. It all came unraveled. I stared at my computer screen at the last flight to cancel, from San Jose to Washington D.C., where I was going to stay with my brother’s family the day before the trip. One more button to press, and I couldn’t do it. I felt that maybe it would be easier to heal up in Virginia, and the weather would be a lot cooler. I already envisioned a few weeks out of the country, and in that time I could hang out with my nephews and ride down to see my parents in Virginia Beach.
So that’s what I did. Southwest gave me handicapped access on the flight so my walking around the terminal was minimal and I had the front row on each flight. I was in some pain and a lot of discomfort for the first few days, but eventually I fell into the routine of changing bandages and cleaning the wounds each time. My travel buddy forgave me for cancelling the trip, but due to the Coronavirus and border closings everywhere our trip would have ended early anyways. Morocco closed their beaches in mid-March, right when we were to get there. I spent two weeks at my brother’s house, getting the stitches removed but still limping from the foot injury that was healing more slowly. Then I rented a car to drive to my parents’ house in Virginia Beach, and they were overjoyed I would be there for awhile.
The first things I did were buy a 4/3 wetsuit, some booties off Craigslist, and a floaty shortboard at a pawn shop. The water temps were in the low 50’s but I was ready to try surfing again after 4 weeks of being out of the water. I was lucky. By April 1st all of the beaches in Costa Rica and many beaches in the U.S. and around the world were on lockdown due to the pandemic. Virginia’s governor kept the ocean open for surfing since it was exercise.
The first few sessions were painful and exhausting, but I was elated just to get back in the water. Eventually I could put more weight on my knee and as the swells diminished I switched to my longboard and caught a bunch more waves. At the jetty where I surfed the pack of locals generally took turns while dolphins played just outside of the lineup. It was not the tropical paradise I had been surfing, but given the situation I felt quite fortunate.
The down side was that now I could not get back home. I left behind a house I had been renting for the last three years, my 17 year old cat who was probably pissed as hell, a small farm where I had started to plant fruit trees and had hopes to build a home, and my friends who I felt were my extended family. The issue was and is that I did not have residency and only residents who left the country before the lockdown could return. Costa Rica originally set the reopening date for April, but since has extended that date four times. Now it is June 30th.
Each time I had made flight arrangements for the day after the border would re-open and each time I have had to cancel the flight. Luckily, airlines are offering no change and cancellation fees so it has not cost me more than the first ticket. Meanwhile I have been enjoying time with my parents. I go sailing with my dad on his 22’ Catalina in the Chesapeake Bay near the Naval base. A few times we have gone golfing with his old Navy buddies. Since my mom is less mobile, we watch TV together and work on puzzles, or I will go shopping with her so she gets her steps in. And my parents’ chocolate lab, Choco, is thrilled to have his brother home. We’ve been around the block at least 100 times for walks and sometimes I let him off the leash to run around an empty field near our house.
No, I cannot stay in Virginia Beach forever. Costa Rica is calling me back. But this surfing accident has changed my life. It gave me a chance to appreciate the time with my parents, appreciate my health, appreciate the freedom I have to go surfing, and appreciate my friends – especially those who looked out for me when I could not help myself. And is there a lesson or two to be learned? It was definitely a reminder to never surf alone since you never know when you are going to need help. And next time I’m about go on a big trip, I’ll just stick to the small sandy beach breaks.