November 2, opening day at Jaws, At around 3:50 p.m. local time, the biggest set of the day drew all the lineup inside. No one has received a worse beating than South African Steve Rice, who suffered a fractured femur and a two-wave posture after catching his lip.
Rice is a professional boat captain and fisherman, making her dream of surfing the best big waves in the world a reality. Last winter, the humble steed worked and lived in Half Moon Bay, crabbing with Ben Andrews and became one of the stars of the Maverick’s Bowl. He went to Jaws for a warm-up to kick off the big wave season last week – and finally ended it.
While still recovering at Maui Memorial Medical Center, Surfline caught up with Steve to hear about his injury and the lifesaving efforts that saved his life.
Could you explain to us what happened in Pe’ahi?
It doesn’t matter how prepared you are; you will always be under-prepared for what we have learned. We hired water safety officers, held safety meetings, developed action plans, a shore safety kit, a safety boat and two safety skis. Lots of waves rolled under everyone on the north peak. I had caught a few crisp waves under the peloton.
Then the scenery for the day unfolded and caught up with everyone. It always happens to Jaws. There is always this set. I swam through the first wave. I don’t even know how I got it under that lip. I started paddling towards her and breathing. I jumped off my board and it was euphoric. I was swimming in that crystal blue water and I could see the sunlight, and suddenly, just before resurfacing unharmed, the lip exploded. He must have landed right behind my board because he threw my board straight up into the air – and the angle didn’t break my leash, but it broke my femur instantly. It got me into this crazy spin cycle underwater.
I thought it was my knee at first. My thought process was “okay you ripped your knee – go to your leash pin and pull it”. It took me about 15 seconds to release my board, and as soon as I did, I was fired again. I didn’t even know it was a two wave hold until I put it back the next day. I then managed to remove my vest. I got to the surface and Nano (Fernando Messera) our first safety pilot was there, but he couldn’t join me. There was another wall of small flowing water that I passed under. Then Pedro Viegas supported him and was able to catch me. He hit me with the sled and I managed to grab the textbook pickup. I crossed my legs to support him, and communicated to him that I was seriously injured.
He took me to the boat and one of the Walsh brothers coordinated the descent of the ski sled onto the boat. Kolomona Fernandez was already there to help them watch me and the buddies I was there with – Beck Adler and Tanner Waite – were helping me. Martine Caprile, Cassidy Kaukini, Carlos Duch and Ramone Rhode also helped me get on the boat. Our captain, Daniel Goldberg took us from Pe’ahi to Maliko Gulch, and they slid me into the water on the sled. Tanner and Martine swam me to the shore. The same Brother Walsh had organized the fire department to meet me there, and they carried the sled to the boat launch, then transferred me to a dorsal board and then to the stretcher to the ambulance, which arrived shortly thereafter.
Communication and everyone’s preparedness is what made it all so smooth. Things like BWRAG, hired water safety, safety plans and preparation with training took a life or death situation and turned it into a life threatening situation. I am super grateful to everyone who participated. I would just like to express my undying gratitude and thank everyone who message, prayed, shared, donated or learned from my story
How long did it take you to have the operation and what was the prognosis?
I was on hold until the next day. The hospital had a full day of surgeries, but they were able to rush me by mid-afternoon. It was a spiral fracture of the upper shaft of the femur. They put a titanium rod and three screws. I have a bionic leg.
What has been the reaction since your femur ruptured?
I was blown away by the support and attention I received from the surf community and those outside of it. Everyone on Maui has been amazing to me. Friends from all over the world have contacted me.
Are you planning to stay in Maui for a rehab?
I will be doing a few weeks here in Maui until I am good enough to fly. I’m going to go to Los Angeles and do short flights. There are amazing doctors there. Then do a little more on the east coast before returning home to South Africa.
How long before I can surf again?
The doctor said I’m out for the season. I try to take it one step at a time. I know I’ll be surfing again and charging some big waves. I want to take the steps and learn to crawl before I walk and eventually run again.
Is there anything in the situation that you think could have been done differently to avoid this outcome?
I think that was a really weird thing. If I had been able to pull my pin by swimming under the first one, it would have been very different. I’ve been there before and had a landing on my head, and my leash snapped instantly. I didn’t even feel it. It was like snapping a leash of a comp.
Is your Lyle Carlson gun still in one piece?
It’s in a few pieces, unfortunately. She had just had her tail fixed so well by Jake in Half Moon Bay. She was originally made for Jaws, and she has reached her final resting place.
What would you say to your fellow big wave surfers after having lived this experience?
Don’t overlook the smallest things. We were super prepared. Coming from a maritime background as a boat captain, I have the safety of the ship and everyone on board in my hands. I went to Maui with a group and wanted to make sure we were safe as a group. We had plans, actions, and you can never have enough equipment or training. Everyone is there to look out for each other, and that’s how we can survive things like this. It is a horrible thing to experience. These are the cards that were given to me. I’m grateful to the big wave community for being there for each other regardless. We have made giant strides from the start in terms of security and organization. I think it’s important for snowboarders to communicate and have a conversation like ‘if we’ve rented a ski and we both go down, and this ski can’t have us both, so what? We had conversations like this the day before. It’s a tough call to swim under a big wave and pull your leash. This can prevent you from a fatal injury, but your leash is part of your safety equipment; it’s a lifeline on the surface.
* If you would like to donate for Steve Rice’s recovery, a Gofundme page was set up to help with hospital bills and her downtime.