Saturday, January 16 was a big day for surfers in Hawaii. It's rare that a swell gets big enough to get a name. Big Wednesday. Code Red. The Century Swell. All days for the record books; all days that won't be forgotten. Saturday, January 16 has been dubbed "Super Swell Saturday," and for some people, it'll be remembered as the day they got the wave of their life. For Ryan Moss, though, it'll be remembered as the day he broke his back.
Super Swell Saturday was something out of a dream. The buoys were reading 22 feet at 17 seconds, almost unimaginably big. There was a breath of off-shore wind, gently blowing the foam from the top of each wave as it sprinted towards the Hawaiian coastline. From a pulled-back view that diminished the size, the waves breaking on the outer reefs of Oahu looked almost playful. But up close, they were far from that. Huge doesn't begin to describe what was happening out there on the edge of the North Shore. "I've never seen a day that big and that clean," Mark Healey told The Inertia.
Moss, a Hawaii-based photographer who was born in California, was sitting on the back of a ski driven by Cam Richards. They were in the middle of a huge pack of PWCs, all sitting wide, all on the lookout for fallen surfers. Some, like Moss, were viewing the day through the lens of a camera. The mob of watercraft seemed out of harm's way - until, that is, they weren't. Out of nowhere, the horizon went black. A set far bigger than anything else they'd seen that day was barreling towards them. Surfers scratched for the skyline. Someone near the front of the pack yelled a warning to everyone on a PWC.
"Go, go, go!" screamed a voice on a yellow vessel far ahead of Moss and Richards. In the blink of an eye, the entire pack of ski pilots and a single rigid inflatable boat was sprinting to get over an incoming set of waves almost too big to fathom. Moss and Richards were near the back of the group and they watched as, one by one, the pilots crested the peak and flew over the wave's crest. A handful of them cranked the handles and spun around, racing away from the wave, which, in retrospect, would have been a better option. But in the moment, with that massive wall of water racing toward them, Richards decided to pin it. They, along with a few other Jet Skis, flew off the wave. According to an interview with Magicseaweed.com, Moss, who was sitting on the back, had no handles to grab onto. He gripped the vinyl of the seat so hard his fingernails felt like they were going to come out. Richards explained to Magicseaweed.com that they weren't on the white Jet Ski in the video, but on the black one.
Suddenly, they were weightless. The PWC left the water, the jet screaming in protest as it ran dry. After what felt like an eternity, they slammed into the water with sickening violence. Moss, still seated, felt an immense shooting pain flare up his back. Everything from his waist to his feet began to tingle, and the terrifying thought that he was paralyzed burst in his brain. Richards was trying frantically to start the Jet Ski as another wave bore down on them. Moss realized what was about to happen, so he rolled off the ski and into the water. He watched helplessly as Richards and the ski were sucked over the falls and out of his sight. Unable to move his legs, his ski and partner somewhere behind him in a boiling mass of whitewater, Moss was in a bad spot.
Thankfully, there were some extraordinarily talented people on the water that day. Daniel Russo and Bryan Phillips were just two of them, but they happened to be the two who came to Moss's rescue. Russo, another photographer who is embedded deep in the surf industry, whipped around, picked Moss up, and deposited him with Bryan Phillips, who took him to the North Shore Lifeguards. From there, it was determined that his spinal cord was intact as he did have feeling in his feet and legs, as well as range-of-motion.
An ambulance came and picked Moss up to take him to Waimea and after a few hours, he was transported to The Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu. There, it was determined that he'd suffered from a 50 percent compression fracture of his L4 vertebrae, which sits in the lower back just above the sacrum. He also had some other minor fractures in his spine and ribs, but the compression fracture was the most serious. He underwent surgery to pin his bones back together.
He's now got some new hardware in his back, but he's on the mend. And his experience has made him look at life a little differently. "I've often taken for granted the little things," he wrote on January 19, a few days after the accident. "The ability to live without pain. The ability to poop and not feel like my stomach wants to explode. The ability to walk. I wouldn't be lying if today wasn't tough. Standing up and taking eight steps felt like a huge accomplishment, even though the feat was so small."
Moss, however, knows that although the road ahead will be difficult, it's one he has to take. "I'm in good spirits and taking the necessary steps to heal," he continued. "Thank you to everyone who has called, texted, or messaged me the past couple of days. It means the world."