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A brotherhood afloat


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POSTED: Monday, February 23, 2009

Battling for the best waves at Banzai Pipeline can spark hostility or fights between surfers and bodyboarders, but when someone is in distress, all rush to render aid.

Surfers at Pipeline, one of the world's deadliest surf spots, remain vigilant to make sure every person surfaces safely, said pro surfer and North Shore resident Jamie Sterling.

“;We all look out for each other,”; he said.

The best of surfers are not exempt from the dangers: powerful breakers and a shallow, jagged reef. Gashes and fractures are common.

“;Pipeline can be the best wave of your life or your worst nightmare,”; said pro surfer Adam D'Esposito during a phone interview from Tahiti.

On Jan. 23 the swift actions of Pipeline surfers and bodyboarders saved the life of Masato Watanabe, a professional surfer from Japan, in a rescue documented with dramatic photos.

It was a cloudy Friday when Watanabe and dozens of other surfers headed out for a sunset session. A thick, powerful 8-foot wave roared in, and Watanabe swung his board around and paddled for it.

Other surfers, including D'Esposito, pulled up, figuring the wave looked too dangerous.

“;It was top heavy, very shallow,”; said D'Esposito. “;You (could) see the reef.”;

Watanabe took off but got caught in the chop, forcing him to jump off his board and free-fall.

When he landed, he struck his head on the reef, said pro surfer Kekoa Uemura, also at Pipeline that day. A second wave rolled in but Watanabe failed to surface.

Nearby bodyboarders and surfers instantly went into search mode.

Watanabe was soon spotted floating outside of the impact zone, about 50 yards from shore.

The surfing Samaritans had to wait until the third wave passed before it was safe to swim toward him.

Bodyboarders, one believed to be an off-duty lifeguard, got to Watanabe first and helped pull him onto a couple of boards. The group of bodyboarders and surfers paddled him through the rough currents toward the beach, navigating through the incoming breakers, their boards banging together and legs getting tangled in their leashes.

“;He was pretty bluish-purplish,”; said D'Esposito. “;It was pretty scary. I was feeling panicky. I knew timing was crucial. Getting him to the beach was crucial. We were working our hardest to swim him in.”;

As they reached the shore, Watanabe gave a faint gasp.

After D'Esposito and the others carried Watanabe to the beach, the off-duty lifeguard placed him on his side to help clear his airway. More people on the beach converged to help. Lifeguards who had just closed their tower for the day grabbed a defibrillator, oxygen tank and other equipment.

With his body shaking, Watanabe got up to his knees, coughing up water. His rescuers tried to help him calm down.

“;Slowly, he started to breathe on his own,”; said Uemura.

Watanabe was taken to the Queen's Medical Center with a fractured skull and intercranial bleeding. He remained at the hospital for several days and returned to Japan last week after some time recovering at Turtle Bay Resort.

The rescue was a painful flashback for D'Esposito, whose friend Malik Joyeux died in a Pipeline wipeout four years ago.

Joyeux, a well-known surfer from Moorea, French Polynesia, took off on a 6- to 8-foot wave when the lip of the wave pummeled him, breaking his surfboard in half. Fellow surfers found him too late about 100 yards from shore.

“;That was the worst day of my life,”; said D'Esposito, for whom news of Watanabe's recovery is now all the more welcome.