Celebration quickly turned to concern during the awards presentation at the Billabong Pipe Masters when a life-and-death situation occurred in the Pipe lineup. While Kelly Slater was on stage receiving his historic third Vans Triple Crown of Surfing trophy, the ensuing free surf session nearly ended in tragedy as 13-year-old San Clemente surfer Hayden Rodgers suffered a serious wipeout. Reportedly going over the falls and hitting his head on the reef, he was held underwater for two waves.
As Slater was on stage being interviewed by the WSL's own Joe Turpel, the ceremony hushed as the eleven-time World Champ quickly diagnosed the dangerous situation in the water. "We have a rescue going on, sorry ... I'm a little distracted," Slater told the captivated audience.
He struggled to regain his focus, but ultimately the dire situation became too much to ignore. "Everyone watch out!" Slater called out -- and the ceremony paused so the rescue operation could go underway without interference from the crowd.
All eyes turned to the beach during the rescue operation as the crowd looked on silently. And ultimately, after the situation was safely under control, the ceremony resumed.
Hawaiian Water Patrol legends Terry Ahue, Brian Keaulana and his son, Chad, had been working on a commercial shoot with Carissa Moore and had wrapped up early.
"We had just started heading back and saw that the contest was over, the competition buoys were in. Terry and I are always scanning the shoreline," Keaulana told the WSL. "I don't know how many times after Pipe we've had the same scenario happen and it was just that same feeling yesterday ... driving along, scanning the shoreline and the lineup."
With the Billabong Pipe Masters having wrapped just minutes prior, the scene was busy with activity. Ahue, and the Keaulanas were in the right place at the right time. A couple of young surfers who have undergone training through the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG) -- a program co-founded by Keaulana that teaches water safety, lifeguard and rescue techniques for situations just like this -- assisted in the rescue. Using hand signals taught in the course, these young surfers were able to help Ahue and the Keaulana locate and retrieve Rodgers' body underwater.
"There were two kids who probably went to a BWRAG course because we teach this technique: they had one hand straight up and one pointing in the direction of where to go and that's what sent me straight to where the kid was," Keaulana explained. "There was also a girl bodyboarder and she had the kid. I'd love to find out who she was. She was underwater trying to keep him afloat and his head up. You could tell he was not good."
Brought to the beach, City and County lifeguards immediately began to work on Rodgers. He was reportedly breathing, but had suffered lacerations and abrasions to his face. In case of a possible spinal cord injury, he was packaged up on a backboard before being transported to a nearby ambulance. Rodgers was then taken to Queens hospital for treatment. He is expected to make a full recovery.
The incident highlights both the dangers of surfing Pipeline, as well as the importance of water safety training. When we enter the ocean as surfers, having the knowledge and ability to save a life should the situation arise cannot be overstated. Thanks to the education that Keaulana and BWRAG was able to pass down to this next generation, Rodgers gets to enjoy another session.
"Everybody played a part. The parts made up the whole," Keaulaana continued. "Our whole Hawaiian family is the best at this, and we're still learning. We will use this as another learning opportunity to get better."