Hawaii in the winter months is a dream comes true for thousands of people.
Many save their entire life for just 10 days experiencing the tropical romance and adventure they had always hoped existed. Throw in the big wave action, the seasonal onslaught of visitors and colorful locals, mix it up and you have one of the most intense, fun carnival/gladiators like environments on the planet.
On the island of Oahu, big wave surfing is more than fun. Surfers live, breath and dedicate every thought to pursuing the dream of rising up to the challenge of surfing big waves. Consequences for big wave surfers can be brutal and sometimes fatal. The just released video biography of Titus Kinimaka highlights just how dangerous a big wave surfing wipeout can be. What follows is a true account of Kinimaka’s amazing rescue and the suffering and pain he overcame to survive. Many consider this one of the most dramatic and dangerous rescues in all of surfing history.
Christmas morning the Eddie Aikau big wave contest was set to go off
By 7am in the morning the line up was filled with 40 or more of the best big wave surfers rising to the challenge and preparing for their time when they would have a shot at winning the prestigious event. Though the line up was filled with international talent only one surfer stood out. Ridding powerful wave after wave Titus Kinimaka dominated the line up and put on a one-man show. Kinimaka would catch the biggest wave, ride it to shore and then paddle back out just in time to get the next big wave.
Kinimaka surfed aggressively on his 10’8” Willis Bros. trusted big wave gun and was having one of his best performances ever at Waimea Bay. Titus looked to be the man to beat he was catching all the best waves. Something possessed Kinimaka and drove him further to push the envelope of fate and destiny this day by taking off further back and later each time. As big as the waves were, this surfer’s confidence grew bigger and his performance escalated still higher.
Titus’s surfing was on fire, but the waves were more on fire. Because of the thick west swell and the dropping tide some of the sets had begun to throw out and begin to tube. The conditions intensified, some of the waves were humanely impossible to catch much less drop down the face and make it safely to the bottom. On one such wave as if a superman Titus turned his board around and stroked hard and determined into a death defying wave launching himself and his surfboard into the air. No one thought he would have time to get to his feet let alone make the drop. After freefalling 15 feet his single fin engaged and he miraculously made it to the bottom of the wave.
Before Titus could turn a canopy of water like a ton of bricks came crashing down on him driving him into his surfboard like a flattened pancake tearing off his leg shattering his femur. (Later Titus would relate how he felt something hitting him in the back of the head and flapping around he was surprised to learn it was his foot.) In the blink of an eye Titus went down in a thunderous explosion violently swallowed up by the ocean. Moments later he broke the surface of the water with a scream that came from the very depths of agonizing, excruciating pain.
Big wave surfers have a code of respect and responsibility to make sure a fellow surfer comes up after a wipe out. This case would be no different for Michael Willis. Paddling back out after surfing one of the rare waves not captured, it was Willis who had the front row up close and friendly view of what had just happened. Willis didn’t wait for Kinimaka to come up; his vast big wave experience told him this was no ordinary wipeout. By the time Kinimaka came up screaming Michael Willis was right there for him. No less a heroic feat than someone who rushes into a burning building saving the occupants or pulling a helpless victim from a crumpled automobile ready to explode Michael Willis with no regard for his personal safety snatched Titus Kinimaka from the jaws of death. With 20’ plus waves continuing to pound Michael paddled over to Kinimaka and pulled him to the temporary safety of the channel.
Almost immediately Kinimakas’ teeth started to chatter and his eyes began to roll upwards— he was going into shock. Michael’s experience and first aid training had taught him to keep the victim as warm and comfortable as possible. This would not be easy considering the severity of the situation and the extreme surf conditions. In no way did Titus want to risk braving the shore break to get in he was in too much pain and knew it wasn’t a chance he wanted to take. Calling over fellow surfers Robbie Page, Milton Willis, Louie Ferria and others Michael Willis formed a humane raft to float Kinimaka. Using his body as a human blanket Michael cradled Titus in his arms constantly reassuring him everything would be okay. Chest to chest heart to heart Michael Willis combined the heat from his own body and human touch to successfully control a situation that had gotten terribly out of control saving Kinimaka’s life. Kinimaka’s shivering began to subside and except for the pounding 20 waves on the outside the situation was stabilized. It would take a helicopter 45 minutes to arrive on the scene at the time this seemed like forever.
Six weeks later there was a knock at Michael Willis’s door, it was Titus Kinimaka. Titus came to express gratitude for saving his life. Though he could not remember much about the rescue he did remember the comfort and warmth that helped him get through one of the worst wipeouts ever recorded. The rescue of Titus Kinimaka goes down as one of the most dramatic successful rescues in surfing history. Though Michael Willis never received formal recognition for a successful rescue in hazardous surfing conditions from the city and county of Honolulu being recognized by Titus for saving his life was enough.
Today after close to two decades later Titus Kinimaka is completely healed and living on Kauai raising a beautiful family. Michael C. Willis along with Milton B. Willis continues to practice and promote Ocean Safety world wide.
Surfing experts the Willis bros are recognized for surfing the world’s largest waves and teaching thousands to successfully surf.