On the evening of the 11th of May, five surfers lost their lives at Scheveningen, in the Netherlands. The men, aged between 22 and 38, were all experienced surfers and watermen and were closely involved in the tight-knit surfing community. Three of the deceased were qualified lifeguards and worked as surf instructors at the well-known surf spot.
While an official investigation is still under way, many local surfers believe it was an unusual build up of sea foam that potentially caused the tragedy.
Scheveningen is the closest beach to The Hague, a city of 1 million and the country's seat of government. It is not only where surfing first started in the Netherlands, but also provides its best waves. While it is estimated that there are only 5,000 regular active surfers in the country, around half of those live and surf near Scheveningen.
"The wave is a 15-minute bike drive from my house," said Eveline Hooft, one of Europe's brightest surfing prospects who is currently ranked 32 on the QS.
"Depending on the conditions we surf either on the north or south side of the harbour. The boulevard with all the surf schools and restaurants are on the north side of the harbour. That was where the accident took place."
The harbour's rock walls provide some protection from the winds that are needed for the waves to break and help shape the short period North Sea swells.
Around five pm that fateful day, local surfer and musician Pat Smith had checked the waves at the north side of the harbour. Smith had grown up surfing in the area and had recently been appointed the Nachtburgemeester, or "Night Mayor" for The Hague. That's a publicly-elected role to represent the nightlife and culture of the city.
"The surf looked a bit messy and the tide wasn't right," Smith told the WSL. "I went training instead and left my phone in the car. When I came back I had 70 or 80 missed calls. I rushed to The Shore, the surf shop and hangout on the beach, and saw that a search and rescue operation was underway for the missing surfers."
Among the missing were three local surf instructors, Pim, Joost and Sander, plus two surfers, Max and Mathijs, both students at the local Delft University of Technology. Pim, Joost and Sanders were all internationally-certified lifeguards and local surf instructors with over 10 years of surfing experience each.
They spent most days on the beach and regularly bodysurfed the stretch to check the banks and the currents to aid in their surf lessons. Under the Covid-19 restrictions in Holland, surfing and swimming had always been permitted, but only on an individual basis. On that Monday, those restrictions had been eased and group exercise has been allowed with social distancing measures in place. The three instructors had grabbed their swim fins and had been joined by a few others for a bodysurf.
Not long after they entered the water the alarm was raised that they, plus a group of surfers, were in trouble. The surf wasn't huge --Smith describes it as three-to-four foot. But there had been strong onshore winds all day. There was also a large amount of sea foam.
This is a regular seasonal occurrence. As the water temperature rises in Spring, the algae blossom and release proteins which float on the surface of the water. Foam then forms as this organic matter is churned up by the surf.
"We have the sea foam every year"
"We have the sea foam every year," explains Smith, "but that day I had never seen it so thick. It was crazy." The foam had been blown by the onshore NNW wind into the corner of the beach near shore. Toward evening, as the wind turned more offshore towards NNE, it was pushed back into the sea.
Once the alarm was raised the Royal Netherlands Sea Rescue Organisation (KNRM), the fire department and police were all called in. With word getting out, friends and family of the missing surfers gathered on the beach.
Around 7 pm, rescue workers pulled three surfers from the water. One survived, but the two others could not be resuscitated. Two more bodies were recovered early on Tuesday morning. The body of the fifth victim was seen in the sea, but could not be retrieved and the search is ongoing.
"People here know that the sea gives and takes, but the manner in which so many young lives has been cut off is unimaginably cruel," The Hague Mayor Johan Remkes told a news conference. He described the victims as "fit, young, sporty people who know the water there like the back of their hands."
A formal investigation in the tragedy has been announced and with the search still continuing, the full names of the victims have yet to be released. However the cause of death of five experienced surfers at their local break has been the subject of much conjecture. Many locals have pointed to the presence of the sea foam as a likely cause.
"We will need expert analysis, but we think they got caught in the foam and became disorientated," says Smith. "If you can imagine swimming with just your head above the water and then there is a two-metre layer of foam above, it means you can't see and you can't breathe."
While the exact cause of death is unknown, the loss of five young men has ripped a massive hole in the fabric of an extremely tight-knit surf community.
On Monday the 18th, funerals were held for Joost and Sander. The next day friends again gathered to remember Max and Pim. A surfers' paddle out is hoped to be held soon.
This came after a week of more traditional rituals: As they have done for centuries in the old fishing town, the church bells have been ringing every night at 7pm to mourn those lost at sea. Vigils have also been held under the statue of the Fisherman's Wife. She stares at the waves of the North Sea, waiting for her beloved fisherman husband to return to shore.
"All of us are completely shocked and sad. My thoughts are with their family and friends and all the heroes involved in the rescue," concluded Hooft. "These guys should be remembered forever."