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Surfer recalls near-death on huge wave at Mavericks

By Greg Hardesty

The Orange County Register

LAST UPDATED: 5:57 p.m. HST, Jan 30, 2011

CAPISTRANO BEACH, Calif. — Jake Trette recalls hiking down the dirt trail to the beach.

The skies were clear, the wind was light. It was a perfect day for surfing.

Trette, his brand-new longboard tucked under his arm, thought, "This is going to be the best day ever."

Surfing at Northern California's Mavericks had been a decade-long dream for Trette, 30, who grew up in a beachfront home in Capistrano Beach and has spent most of his life on the water.

Saturday, he finally made it to the famed big-wave surf break near Half Moon Bay. Trette had spent two months planning the solo surfing weekend.

After waking up in the back of his Chevy Tahoe on a well-used mattress, he paddled out into the 50-degree water at about 6 a.m. near Pillar Point.

Less than four hours later, just as he was about to take a break after a morning of great surfing, Trette's dream day turned into a nightmare.

Thursday, for the first time since being released from a hospital Wednesday, Trette publicly detailed his near-death experience from his parents' home in Capistrano Beach.

At times, the single father got emotional as he watched his 4-year-old son, Jacob Jr., scamper around on the 9-foot-6 surfboard Trette was riding when he nearly drowned.

"There's a surfing movie called 'In God's Hands,' and that's definitely where I was," Trette said.

One of seven children who grew up surfing, Trette had ridden big waves before in Tahiti, Australia, Hawaii and other big-wave spots, but never Mavericks.

Mavericks is home to a major big-wave surf contest each winter. The break was relatively unknown outside of a small group of locals until the early 1990s. Veteran big-wave surfer Mark Foo of Hawaii drowned while surfing Mavericks for the first time in December 1994.

Now, it was Trette's turn to test himself.

"Of course we didn't want him to go," said his mother, Debbie, 59.

Trette got in four good rides Saturday morning on 15- to 20-foot waves.

Then, at 9:48 a.m., a "rogue" set of much bigger waves — by Trette's estimate, as high as 30 feet — caught the group of surfers he was with by surprise.

The surfers were about 200 yards out.

Trette tried to fiercely paddle up and over the top of the first huge wave — the top being a dangerous place for a surfer to be.

"I was thinking, 'Oh God! If I don't make it, I'm going to take the worst beating of my life."'

He didn't make it.

Trette recalls being tossed backward and falling with such force that he hit the bottom of the ocean floor, some 30 feet below the surface.

"I was stoked because I was able to use my legs to propel myself up," Trette said. "I was confident I was going to make it."

When Trette surfaced, however, he only had time to get in half a breath as a massive wall of white water from a second wave slammed into him.

"All I remember is being spun around, and then darkness. I'm a pretty tough guy. Usually, nothing can stop me. I must have gotten knocked out by the wave. I just blacked out. That's all I remember."

Russell Ord, a surfing photographer who was nearby on a Jet Ski, found Trette unconscious and face down in the water. Jet Skis are banned in the area where the near-drowning occurred.

A kayaker aided in the rescue as Ord put Trette's seemingly lifeless body on a "sled" he was towing.

"I actually thought he was dead for sure and I was really surprised when we got him to shore that he had a pulse," said Ord, an Australian firefighter, in an interview with CBS' "The Early Show."

Trette had been in the water for about eight minutes.

Ord and a trauma nurse who happened to be on the beach helped perform CPR until paramedics arrived.

Trette was airlifted to Stanford Medical Center in critical condition.

His parents weathered an excruciating eight-hour drive to the hospital, not knowing if their son was going to survive — or, if he did, how much damage his oxygen-starved brain would have.

Doctors put Trette in a medically induced coma, cooling his body for the first 24 hours to put him in a sort of hibernation state to slow down his brain's need for oxygen.

Trette woke up Monday morning.

"I thought, 'What the hell happened?"' he said.

His mind still foggy, he had trouble recalling why he was in the hospital.

"Then I remember Mavericks, and I thought, 'Oh, that's what happened."'

Doctors were calling him a "miracle patient." They told him that if he had been under the water any longer, he would have suffered brain damage — or worse.

Trette was released from the hospital Wednesday afternoon and made it back home that night.

"There were angels following him," Debbie Trette says. "God has a plan for him."

Trette does have a plan: launching an all-volunteer rescue program at Mavericks during the big-wave season that would include lifeguards and Jet Skis. It is illegal to use Jet Skis in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Trette gets emotional thanking about the people who saved him — from the onlookers on a cliff who called 911, to Ord and the kayaker, to the staff at Stanford Medical Center — and many others.

"I feel like I'm totally reborn," he said. "I totally appreciate my life more. I feel like taking care of my body more, eating right, taking care of my son. ... I have more respect for life."

Trette said he plans to get in the water soon — but not return to Mavericks.

"If they invite me, I'll go," he said. "But if I do, I'm going to wear two life vests."


(c) 2011, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

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