On November 10, 2017, Jeff Evans went kitesurfing with a friend at Baldwin Beach on Maui’s North Shore. The 48-year-old was heading for the break, about a mile offshore, when he tried to ride a big wave. Instead of going over the lip, he wiped it off, then suffered a violent beating that shattered his will to live. Her story is the last in our survival series.
Evans is a Colorado-based physician assistant, motivational speaker, and professional mountain guide. He has also long been the main adventure partner of Erik Weihenmayer, who became the first blind man to summit Mount Everest under Evans’ guidance. Together they had several close encounters with death – “we went into one shitshow and out of it, then into the next shitshow” – but Evans says that kitesurfing accident was the most frightening outdoor experience of his life. “That event in Maui was the only time I quit. The only time I quit.
Here is his full story, told at Outside.
I’ve become pretty good friends with several guys who live on Maui year round and kitesurf and surf 300 days a year. They are in the water all the time and are super capable and confident. The day it happened the waves were 10-12 feet – pretty average for my friends, but not for me. There is a break just west of Jaws called Baldwin Beach. And my homie Gray told me, “let’s go, just the two of us, let’s go and get in those waves.”
It was probably pride that brought me there that day. I didn’t want to say no; I wanted to see if I could do it. My skills were probably not sharp enough, but I put myself in these situations often and they unfold. So, I was like, okay, let’s just see what I can do.
I had never surfed such big waves before. Gray was in front of me, cutting and turning, and on my very first edge there, I went into the main break body. I went out to my right. And the first big massive wave crested in front of me, maybe 50 or 60 feet.
There’s a moment of no return, where you either have to turn and climb or charge and go over it, and I hesitated. Instead of changing feet on my surfboard and turning around so I could ride the wave, or committing to stepping over it, I paused. And you can’t do that.
It was just dark and black and violent. I was held for what ended up lasting over a full minute.
I got sucked into the face of the wave and then fell off the top. My board was gone, but I still had my kite strapped to me and it was fully powered, about 70 feet above me. It was a reef break, not a beach break. It occurred to me while I was in the air that there was a good chance I was going to crash into the reef. So I put my hands on my head, and rolled up as small as I could to try to protect myself. Then I hit the water and felt the wave hit me.
And then the immense power of the ocean took over. It was just this absolute feeling of helplessness. Any surfer who has been tossed about by the waves knows this. I had no bodily control, no direction, no orientation, and no top-down concept. It was just dark and black and violent. I was held for what ended up lasting over a full minute.
I do breath work in my training, so I can hold my breath for a few minutes while sitting in a meditative pose. But when you get screwed, even a minute underwater is a very long time. Your ability is more like 30 seconds, 45 seconds when you blow yourself up. I was lucky enough to take one last big deep breath before hitting the water.
When you are attached to a kite with a harness, as I was, the system allows you to detach yourself from it. The harness wraps around the front, and then there’s a steel bar that attaches to this thing called a chicken loop. It’s a safety mechanism designed so that in the event of an accident like this, you can reach out and grab that little plastic ring and push it away from you. It pulls the whole bar away, which de-powers the kite, so the kite doesn’t fly but you’re still attached to the line.
I was shaking so hard I couldn’t bring my hands up to my waist to push the ring. There was so much strength, power and violence. I was not yet hungry for air. I thought I would resurface soon. It had been maybe 30 seconds. Then I felt another massive pull.
It was like a rocket – bam, just propelling me in one direction. It could have pulled me towards the center of the earth, as far as I know. But it was another wave that hit my kite, which was in the water.
I always thought I was going to resurface soon, but it happened again. Bam! The next wave hit, I sped up, and again couldn’t reach my hands to free the kite. I started to panic. I had been underwater for over a minute at this point. I was trying to fight so hard. It’s heartbreaking to remember, trying to put my hands on my waist to grab that release ring and I couldn’t.
My wife is gonna be so mad at me, I thought. All these things I’ve done, all these situations I’ve been in, and I’m going to die in the ocean, kitesurfing, among other things.
And then, I don’t know if I went limp, but the struggle stopped. I stop. I still think about that moment: how gentle I must have been at that moment. How dare I even consider not fighting? But I just submitted and gave in.
And then I felt a pop. Like a reverberation in my body. A snap went through my waist and harness. I didn’t know what it was, but I saw the sunlight and climbed into the foam of the break. I took a deep breath, and half of it was sea foam. I coughed and cried. This primal giggle came and I started choking on the foam. Then Gray came over and said, “Holy shit bro, I kind of expected to see you face down, man. Are you all right?” And I said, “I don’t know. I think so.”
We were a mile offshore, and my board was long gone. I started pulling my kite line, and when I got to my bar it was in two pieces.
That pop I had felt was that carbon fiber bar snapping in half under the pressure of the wave pushing my kite. I still have the bar. I kept it. The only reason I’m alive is because that bar broke. I’ve told this story to many people who fly kites and showed them the picture of the bar, and no one has ever seen a broken bar. You could run over a car with it, and it wouldn’t break. It’s made for mad forces. And it cracked.
The kite had a cut and was deflated. It took me two hours to swim to shore. It was a tense few hours.
Gray offered to tow me, but I’m a stubborn guy. And I was ashamed and ashamed. I will own it. I told myself that if I put myself in the problem, I would get out of it. After years of search and rescue in the Alaska Range and the Himalayas, I am convinced that people who get into trouble should be able to at least try to get out of it.
It was all on me! Pride drove me to this. It was the lack of talent that made the situation worse. And then it was stubbornness that forced me to swim to the end.
All these things I’ve done, all these situations I’ve been in, and I’m going to die in the ocean, kitesurfing, among other things.
I could barely stand when I got back to the beach. I was shaking and a little emotionally devastated. I slept all day and all night after, recovering from the adrenaline rush. It was the longest sleep I’ve ever had. Gray was very low key, the way I would be in the mountains if someone else had just had this massive experience – I would say “cool you good”. Gray was like “You’re squared. Too bad your kite is torn and you can’t find your board, but you’re good.
The next day, I didn’t want to leave. I was still a little shaken and Gray said, “It’s okay. He wanted to go rent me another kite and another board. So we went out – to the normal break, the tiny one I’m used to. That was what I needed, back on the horse the next day.