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Wavescape - Surfing in South Africa

Wed, 8 August 2018

Kommetjie big wave surfer Odd Persson had a narrow and scary escape yesterday when he was temporarily paralysed in 15ft+ surf at Sunset Reef. Spike spoke to one of his rescuers.


EMERGENCY: Odd Persson on his way to the hospital after being stabilised. Photo Grant Scholtz


It was a day as foreboding as his name yesterday, when Odd Grim Persson almost drowned at Sunset Reef after a spine injury that suggested paralysis, but he now looks set for recovery after results from tests conducted in hospital today.

And, while the former Swedish surfing champion with the Viking name (he once told me that Odd means "arrow head" in ancient Norse) recovers, the surfing community searches for two surfboards belonging to Persson and first responder Dougal Paterson ditched during the rescue (the latter's 10ft blue Armstrong with a black nose and Persson's 9' 8" DVG, half black and half green, right).

Were it not for his inflation and impact vests, and the swift reactions of Paterson and Matt Bromley, Persson could have easily lost his life, or found himself floating out to sea, unable to move. For close friend Paterson, it was a tough day emotionally. He had to deal with a scary situation that seemed a lot more dire in the heat of the moment.


LAST WAVE: Grant Scholtz got this shot of the wave Persson rode just before the incident.

"The waves were big and strong. Probably 15ft. Maybe some that were slightly bigger. There was a bit of south in the direction, which means at Sunset they can clamp shut quite hard," he said. "There were four of us out, Fabian Compagnalo, Odd, msyelf and Matt Bromley."

In typical South African big wave understatement, Paterson said: "We were getting waves. It felt fairly mellow by some standards". That Saffa sense of playing down extremity is common, and partly why our big wave chargers are so respected overseas. When even Hawaiians avoid the set waves at giant Jaws, Saffas like Matt Bromley start paddling for them.

'I can't feel my legs. Can't move. Can't move.'"We got caught by a set. I saw him come up looking disorientated, maybe concussed. He was flapping around. But he got on his board, and seemed OK. We were hit by another white water and he was gone. This time he came up way down the reef. He was tapping the top of his head (I need help)."

Paterson could see "something was really wrong". With his stomach in his throat, he sprint-paddled to Persson. "It was so scary. When I got there, it looked really bad. He kept saying 'I can't feel my legs. Can't move. Can't move.' It was a sickening feeling. He's a good friend of mine, which makes it worse. I just tried to keep his head up. Luckily, his inflation vest had been fired off twice so he was floating and his head was mostly up."


BUILDING BLOCKS: This wave was ridden later in the day as the surf settled. Photo Scholtz

Without the impact and inflatation vests Persson was wearing, Paterson says, it could have gone horribly wrong. "The vest was keeping him afloat, but he couldn't move."

Bromley reached them. Big wave safety protocol kicked in as they tried to move Persson towards shore. This is a very long paddle of about 800 metres. However, three boards, two surfers and a third surfer, who can't move, don't mix too well in the impact zone of 15 foot + Sunset Reef.

'I was screaming underwater.'They were hit by big walls of white water. One big wave rolled over them. Paterson grabbed his friend's body, terrified that his spine was damaged, and further impact would snap his spine. "I was screaming underwater."

At one point. "I pulled Odd's leash off, and my own, and let the boards go. I had Matt's leash looped under my arm. I tried to support Odd's neck as Matt pulled us behind his board. Odd couldn't feel anything. He was choking. He was also crying. But Matt was amazing. He was so calm. He is comfortable in big waves. We're also of the Christian faith. We prayed. We continued praying together the whole way in."


DUNGEONS DUO: Persson and Paterson during a session at Dungeons. Photo Jordy Masters

"Eventually, we got him to just off the beach, but realised we had to get through the shorebreak." Meanwhile, Bromley paddled ashore to ask people to call the NSRI. It seemed a lifetime, but was maybe only 10 minutes. "I was comforting him, telling him that he was going to be okay, and that we were here for him" but Persson was getting cold, "so we decided to drag him through the shorebreak.

"He was screaming in pain as we took a few hits, but we got him onto the sand, cradling his head. We had no idea how severe his injury was. The inflation vest was incredible. At least we could float him up a bit when waves came."

Kom Station Commander Ian Klopper arrived and the paramedics took over, cutting Persson's wetsuit from his body. "They were very calm. Andrew Marr arrived. He was sweet and smiley. We loaded Odd on a stretcher. We had to get back to the car park. A few other guys arrived, including his girlfriend Tamanique De Meillon, and she had a calming effect. He also started to get some feeling in his limbs."

Persson was taken to hospital. MRI scans and other tests were conducted today to ascertain the extent of the damage, and the results came back with no spinal break although he sustained a severe spinal shock that will take a while to recover from.


CHIPPER ODD: Persson tucks into a rather good looking hospital chow. Photo Dougal Paterson


MAVERICKS MOMENT: Persson rides his first wave at Mavericks aged 19 in 2015. Photo supplied

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