Big-wave surfer recounts harrowing survival off Maui

Laird Hamilton helps haul in Brett Lickle in the face of 80-footers
By Joe Edwards
Tow-in surfers Brett Lickle and Laird Hamilton were catching some of the biggest waves ever ridden Monday. Lickle said 80-footers were thundering at Outer Sprecks off Maui. History was in the making.

And that's when things went wrong.

A massive wave nearly killed the two of them. Lickle's left calf muscle was nearly torn from his leg, and Hamilton's open-ocean aid saved Lickle's life.

"In my days, I've had four or five of these near-death experiences," said Lickle, who was part of the original group of tow-in surfers who braved Peahi, or Jaws, in the early 1990s. "It's a pretty cool feeling when you get away with it and know that somebody else is looking out for you."

By somebody else, Lickle said, he means "the big guy" -- God.

Lickle and Hamilton, along with John Denny and Sierra Emory, decided to challenge Outer Sprecks a second time that day after a successful morning.

"We'd surfed all morning and came back out," Lickle said. "The surf had almost doubled."

Lickle towed Hamilton into a wave, the second of a mountainous five-wave set. "The bomb set of all sets," as Lickle described it. A huge wall of water. "I'll say 40-foot Hawaiian," Lickle said. That's an 80-foot face.

"He was riding the wave, and all the sudden he kicked out and I'm like, 'Oh, my God,'" Lickle said.

He raced the Jet Ski toward Hamilton.

"We'd had a pretty clear zone to get out, but the area where we normally get out was all white water. A 20-foot closeout," Lickle said. "We realized we weren't going to make it, and eventually the thing caught up and just annihilated me."

Along with that pounding, the thin, aluminum fins of a tow-in board severed Lickle's calf muscle. Blood gushed into the ocean.

Wave after wave rolled over, separating and nearly drowning the two. "We went through a four- or five-wave hold-down," Lickle said, explaining how surfers get crushed by the wave, go under, hold their breath for a minute and come up, only to be hammered again and again. He said Hamilton told him that he was thinking Lickle wasn't going to make it.

Lickle said the surf washed them a quarter-mile in from the impact point, and he knew something was very wrong with his leg.

"The whole calf has been ripped in half, just hanging there," Lickle said. "Then, all the sudden, Laird shows up. He had a long-sleeved wet suit on. He tore that off and used the sleeve as a tourniquet."

Lickle said at that point, big-wave rider Dave Kalama and helicopter pilot Don Shear of Windward Aviation were scouting the coastline for waves. The two passed overhead but didn't spot them. So Hamilton decided to swim for the ski.

"Now I've got to worry about the big boy," Lickle said, meaning sharks.

Once Hamilton got to the Jet Ski, about a 15-minute swim in heavy water, according to Lickle's estimate, the two had radio contact with the helicopter.

With Hamilton at the handlebars, the two began the harrowing ride back to Baldwin Beach. No easy trick. Because his calf muscle was basically just hanging there, he couldn't ride the tow sled in a normal way, or the force of the water would have torn it from his leg. He had to kneel on the tow sled and put his body on the back seat of the ski.

An ambulance was waiting for them when they got to the beach, Lickle said.

Lickle said it took about an hour's worth of work just to stitch the inside of his calf. Painful, to be sure, especially since he said the doctors told him they couldn't give him general anesthesia, fearing he had water in his lungs and that knocking him out would create another set of potentially deadly problems.

"I was biting that towel hard," Lickle said.

Fifty-six staples closed the outside of the wound.

Lickle said he has movement in his toes and said the doctors are "pretty sure I'll come back 100 percent."

He said he feels extremely fortunate to be alive.

If God had wanted him, Lickle said, he had three chances. "One was the drowning. The other was to be taken out, and the third was to be eaten alive."

His wife, Shannon, feels blessed as well. "It's always been a concern," she said. "Tow-in surfing, big waves. I have a lot of faith in Brett and his ability to assess his limits.

"I have a lot of faith in his team riders. Brett went in to save Laird, and Laird saved him."