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Dawn Patrol:

Martin witnesses it all, a chilling account

July 30, 2009|By John Burton

The surf forecasting is so good now there are no more surprises.

We had a week’s notice from the time the big south swell hit Tahiti until it arrived here last Friday, and everyone was ready and waiting. But the actual size and power of the swell was unexpected and quite amazing. It had to be the biggest southern hemi since the April 2007 monster.

It seems like every really large swell we get is accompanied by bad weather or radical tide swings, but this time conditions were great — warm water, sunshine, and no wind. I checked out every spot from the Wedge to Brooks Street. I saw some incredible sets and great rides by guys who knew how to pick the right waves, and I got a lot of interesting surf reports from other people who were surfing or watching.

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But it was Monday, after the swell had dissipated, when I heard a friend tell the most powerful story about the big waves — a chilling eyewitness account of the demise of a bodysurfer at the Wedge.

Peter Martin is a longtime board surfer who has ridden the big surf of Oahu’s North Shore and has over 20 years experience bodysurfing the Wedge.

Last Friday, he was out in the lineup when Monte Valentin was killed.

“I saw him put on his fins and run toward the water,” Martin told me. “A big set was coming in. People were screaming from the beach. I said to myself, ‘This guy’s going to be killed.’ It wasn’t like what was said in the newspapers. He never even made it out. He went into the water in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Refractions, side waves and currents that are tricky and challenging when the Wedge is 8 to 10 feet become life-threatening when the waves get bigger.

“The current took him toward the jetty,” Martin said. “And the first wave, about 15 feet, slammed him into the rocks full force with his body half out of the water. The next wave was about 20 feet and the third about 25. He was rag-dolled into the rocks by three waves in a row. He had no chance — no chance. I saw one arm come out of the water like kind of a last effort. Then a fourth wave hit him and it was all over.

“A group of us swam the body out toward the lifeguard boat. It was too big to try to get him into shore. I assumed he was dead from the color of his face.”

As I heard the emotion in Martin’s voice and saw it in his expression, I got the feeling this was a story he really didn’t like telling. But maybe he needed to tell it to help put the tragedy behind him.

As Martin and I talked about what he had seen, we wondered why an experienced bodysurfer would try to swim out during a big set, and why he chose to enter the water near the jetty instead of farther up the beach.

We’ll probably never know, but we both agreed about the fragility of life and the consequences of decisions in dangerous conditions.

“It sure changed the way I look at going out in big waves,” Martin said.

Indeed.


JOHN BURTON’S surf column appears Fridays

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