When it comes to water safety, the Tahitian Water Patrol team is the best in the business. Just last week, their decisive response to Kevin Bourez's accident during the Air Tahiti Nui Billabong Pro Trials helped ensure his safe return to shore. According to a statement from his brother, ASP World No. 5 Michel Bourez, Kevin is now stable.
Of course, Kevin Bourez's rescue wasn't the water patrollers' first. The team members routinely put themselves in the impact zone in some of the world's heaviest surf, risking their lives to keep surfers safe. With a daunting forecast for the 2014 Billabong Pro Tahiti, rescue ski lifeguard Patrice Chanzy, a 15-year veteran of the break, offered his unique perspective on what it means to be a member of this elite team.
What makes Teahupo'o such a dangerous wave?
It's a big wave that breaks in shallow water, over sharp reef. Sometimes the lip is twice as big as the depth. That makes it a really heavy wave. If you fall, you have no control and the first time you hit the reef, you hit it hard. It's sharp and you get cut. It's everything bad that can happen in a wipeout, that's Teahupo'o.
What was it like working during the Code Red swell?
Code Red, that was crazy! It was really huge and we said 'Ok, the contest is off but we still have our personal skis,' and decided we should go out because shit happens. Maya Gabeira (BRA) got pounded and almost drowned. Poto went to grab her and she was almost unconscious when he got to her.
He managed to bring her into the flats where I jumped on the sled to talk to her and take her life jacket off so she could breathe. She was in shock and almost unconscious, it was important to be able to talk to her, to keep her alert. As lifeguards, we are never off duty. It's dangerous out there and something is always going to happen so its good to be there to help.
What has been your scariest rescue out there?
There isn't one single moment that stands out, everything is scary but you are prepared for it. We are certified and qualified to do this job, and we specialize in reef breaks, particularly Teahupo'o. We know the break and we know how it works because we surf here all the time.
How do you make the decision to go or not to go when there's a surfer in the impact zone and a 12-foot wave bearing down on you?
It's a judgment call based on years of experience. You know immediately if you have to rescue someone but, if there's a wave coming, you only have a few seconds to decide if you go or not. If you are too late, you are not going because you will get pounded by that 12-foot wave. You have to be ready to go when it's the right time. It's really important to communicate with your partner, the driver because two lifeguards on the ski make four eyes. Sometimes they don't see but you look back and you see that wave coming and you say, 'Hey there is one big one behind, let's wait a little.' You don't put yourself in danger, you do the rescue and you do it at 100 percent, that's good timing. We have to make the right decision to go or not.
How many seconds do you have to get in, pick up the surfer and get out before the next wave breaks on top of you?
It depends, if we grab a guy we can go straight into the lagoon so it's fast, it only takes a couple of seconds to pick someone up and a minute to get back into the lineup. The jet skis we have are really powerful so you don't lose time. Sometimes the surfers choose not to go on the ski and duck dive instead but that takes much longer. Sometimes it's better and safer to get on the ski, because you're not on the dry reef so we communicate a lot.
Everything is scary, but you are prepared for it.
How many people make up the water patrol team?
There are 13 guys on our team; eight in the impact zone who do the rescues and the other guys are taxis and security for the line. Most of them are all good surfers. They know the wave and are all qualified lifeguards.
What is the importance of having two water patrollers on the rescue skis?
The jet skis with the sleds are rescue skis with two lifeguards, one is driving and the other guy on the back is always looking. When the driver turns you help him to turn left or right. When you go and pick up a surfer, you have to watch where he is so you can get ready to jump or not or know when to grab him. Sometimes there is so much current that you have to be really close to him, if you're not close enough you have to grab the sled and get to the guy and get him on. So it's not only the driver, it's also you on the back too, doing the job. Both guys are really important on the rescue skis to perform a safe and successful rescue.
Why do you put your own lives at risk to save others?
That's our life, that's our passion. We are lifeguards, it's in our blood and we are here to perform rescues if needed. We take preventative measures as much as possible but if something goes wrong, we are there to do the rescue and to perform first aid. That's what we are here to do, that is our life. We couldn't just watch it, you just go, it's automatic. When it is big, it's dangerous but you cannot stay on the beach and wait, you feel better taking care of everybody. You always take care of prevention first to avoid an accident. That's our job, safety first, but if they go for a big one then rescue first.
How are you feeling about the predicted 15-to-18-foot swell for next week?
Excited! That's what we are here for. The contest is going ahead so we know were are going to do some rescues, we are prepared and we are confident about it. When at the end of the day everything goes well, that's a good day.