Consider the scene: a balmy June day in Hossegor, the swells a fun three-foot, the wind a light zephyr of offshore and the morning sun is just taking the dawn chill out of the air nicely.
I’m down there shooting a bunch of micro-groms, who froth 24/7, but are particularly frothy this morning cos the shorebreak barrels at Caserne look super fun and, important when you are 12 year old micro-grom, not too deathly or heavy.
So it’s all good in the hood. I bolt the Aquatech water rig together as I have hundreds of times before, whack on the old faithful Bong 3mm that never seems to get old, grab me swim fins and skip like a baby gazelle down the dune. All normal so far, a non-threatening day for a nice swim and a few shots.
Here comes the back story Lost style. In fourteen years of shooting water photos I've never once been hit by a board whilst taking shots. People often ask me why I don’t wear a helmet like many water photog's do, my standard response is the earlier sentence, that and I find helmets restrict your senses to much, are a pain in the ass to travel with and I’m, excuse the modesty, too good.
My job is to get as tight as possible with the surfers without affecting their ride and keeping me self out of harms way. Working with professionals this is not normally a problem. That’s not to say I haven’t had my share of lickings and pain from my chosen profession (one with no health plan, medical insurance or risk related pay).
Robyn Davies snapped the nose of her board off on one of my housings (which was brand new that trip, never been used before, the housing that is, not the board, it survived thankfully), but missed me, in the Mentawais. She also landed on me in Ireland when a duck-dive went wrong on a solid double overhead day at Bundoran Peak. She’d duck-dived in front of me as I swam for the reef on a clean up set and somehow landed on my back still on her board, the centre and side fins neatly pinpointing my kidneys, it felt like I had been de-kidneyfied, I seriously thought when I took my wettie off my meat was going to be hanging out in a proper hung/drawn and quartered style. Thankfully it was just severe internal bruising cured later by several pints of iron rich black gold.
Aside from: a broken thumb and rooted left knee (ligament damage, bone chips, two years to walk without hobbling and still not 100% now even though it was in 2001, it makes a nice crunch if you listen closely) sustained from going over the falls at perfect six-foot Mundaka; a broken rib from getting whomped in a shorey in Mexico and the other knee cartilage blown from Tolcarne wedge (of all places) I've done okay.
Until this day in June. I’m swimming out, it’s not a hard swim, more of a walk really, as the shorey is pretty shallow. There’s a few crew on it with the grom squad but not a serious crowd by any means. So I’m bobbing around, getting my bearings, trying to keep an eye on the groms cos unlike older pro’s they don’t really get the whole you need to actually surf at the photographer to get shots part of water photography so I need to follow them around. It’s at this point a decent set comes in, the groms are caught inside, a local looking fella takes off to my left, a good three metres away going right, so he is heading away from me, I duck under the unbroken wave and ... Ka-Pow!!!
That’s right, a full old school Batman style sound effect. Somehow yer mans board had got from where he was, defying every well established rule of physics in a deft way, and made it’s way into the side of my swede at Mach 3.
It was at that point I found out I could swear loudly underwater. In my best Brian Blessed roar I shouted a profanity that rhymes with duck (it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a very confused looking sonar operator on a nearby submarine at that point, that, and a few offended dolphins).
When I popped out the back of the wave I unleashed another, then remembering the fragile, unsullied minds of the groms, took to just saying ouchy instead. The rail, or tail, I don’t know which had twatted me in the cheek bone right in front of my ear, it felt pretty much what I imaging a baseball batting to feel like, the impact had split the skin in front of my ear and I was dripping man-ketchup all over the place.
The groms were really helpful, Yuck! Sharpy! Ewwww! Your ears hanging off! Gross! Good to know the first rule of First Aid: that of reassuring the patient that everything is cool, means nothing to them.
My ear wasn’t actually hanging off, but it did look pretty messed up. Being from Somerset and therefore being double hard I still shot the session for a good hour before going in. Didn’t really fancy the hassle of going for stitches and X-rays in a French hospital and sea-water is a great natural antiseptic.
The guy responsible was very apologetic, his leash had snapped earlier and he hadn’t gone in, as he didn’t have a spare. Again his First Aid knowledge was lacking, It looks bad, you should go in, he kept saying. No bother, tis but a flesh wound, I replied in a fine British stiff upper lip fashion.
The end result was a post concussion headache that lasted three long pain filled weeks and a scar in front of my ear that looks like I’ve had a back-street facelift.
I’m still not going to use a helmet. I’m just going to avoid non-professional surfers like they are card carrying lepers. Purely from a self preservation point of view.
I’m fine now but it doesn’t bear thinking about the possibilities: if my head had been turned 20 degrees to the left it would have smashed my eye socket and possibly popped my eye. If it had been the nose of the board, it would probably have killed me. All not nice thoughts, not nice at all.
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