Quick Take:

Wayne Kiba was lucky to end up floating on his back in the water, he was lucky to have quick help from first responders and he was lucky to have the fortune of good karma on his side.

As one of the most powerful swells in recent memory surged, all talk around Pleasure Point centered on the surfer who had drowned earlier that day at the Hook — the popular, overcrowded, love-hate spot at the foot of 41st Avenue.

Wayne Kiba, 65, was that surfer whose lifeless body had been pulled ashore just before noon on Monday.

Even after rescue efforts got him breathing again atop the cliff, it didn’t look good for the one-time U.S. Navy rescue swimmer who has been surfing Santa Cruz waters since the 1980s.

No one knew how long he’d been floating face up in the lineup — or how much time he’d spent underwater before that. Even a doctor who had helped administer CPR and watched as Kiba was lifted into an ambulance in the parking lot, before being life-flighted to Valley Medical Center in Santa Clara, figured neurological damage was a near certainty.

Through a few labored coughs and laughs on Thursday, Kiba happily confirmed that he had beaten the odds — somehow.

While the lungs are still healing, and a return to the ocean won’t probably come for a month or so, Kiba is happy to report his mental acuity and stoke for life have never been healthier.

Meanwhile, his brush with death is sparking questions about surf safety up and down the coast.

“I just feel like I was on the wrong side of a good ass whuppin,” he said with a laugh that led to one of those painful-sounding coughs. “I don’t know whether it was divine intervention or just dumb luck. But I know I have a lot of people to thank.”

What happened out there?

Kiba is among the surfers who frequent the Hook during “second shift” — the late morning hours after the “dawn patrol” crew has departed for their 9-to-5 obligations.

Fortunately for Kiba, also among the retiree second shift regulars like himself tend to be many first responders — firefighters, EMTs, lifeguards and physicians.

Less fortunate is the state of order at the break itself, once known as “The Wild Hook” for its remote location on the edge of Pleasure Point, rugged entry down steep cliff and the intense localism that kept crowds down by fear and intimidation.

The Hook is a natural extension of 41st Ave, the main artery that brings people from all over.
The Hook is a natural extension of 41st Ave, the main artery that brings people from all over. Credit: Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz

That was then. Its personality changed long ago, becoming far more accessible yet perhaps dangerously so. Additions of an easy-access parking lot and staircase and the accessibility of surfboard and wetsuit rentals at surf shops within walking distance up 41st Ave. did the trick.

The pandemic’s upside for many people — more time and money to spend on outdoor pursuits — has only exacerbated water safety issues.

Crowds have multiplied and the level of surfers with expansive ocean knowledge has plummeted. It is the “Wild Hook” for very different reasons these days.

“The surf schools take people out on small days and they’re not teaching them about currents, tides, swell direction and swell interval,” said longtime local surfer Eric Spinale. “Then when things get serious like they did on Monday, you can get in trouble real quick.”

Alert system needed?

This past week’s swell — the type more typical in places like Hawaii that comes on fast and ferocious — has some surfers wondering whether an alert system with better coastal warning cues is needed.

Kiba is one of the competent Hook surfers, knowledgeable about waves and swell conditions, physically adept enough to navigate them — and typically able to avoid the dangers presented by beginners.

The Hook's easy access has made it one of the most frequented spots for beginning surfers.
The Hook’s easy access has made it one of the most frequented spots for beginning surfers. Credit: Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz

He is also not a surfer who pursues big waves, so knowing the swell was on the rise Monday gave him a moment of pause. But it wasn’t too big yet when he checked it, not beyond his comfort level, so he paddled out.

Once out there, Kiba could tell the conditions weren’t optimal. The high-interval swell was making waves break too quickly — in surf parlance, causing them to “close out.” He paddled into a few closeouts before deciding to make his way back in and call it a session before the rising tide and swell made it a more difficult exit.

That’s when something happened. No one is quite sure what. Days later now, with soreness and some bruising developing in his neck, Kiba believes it must’ve been someone’s wayward board that struck him and knocked him out cold.

“It’s the most likely scenario,” he said.

Yells from the cliff

Eric Spinale was paddling out when he heard yelling from up above on the cliff. He looked and saw another surfer trying to help a then-lifeless Kiba. He quickly paddled over, lept off his board, put Kiba on it, untethered him from his board, and was able to tandem ride the next breaking wave’s whitewater to shore.

“Luckily there was some power with that new swell to push us in quick,” Spinale said. “And I told Wayne how lucky he was at that moment.”

Three firefighters and a doctor happened to be exiting or entering the water just then — overhearing the commotion. All of them immediately sprung into action from shore.

“Those guys knew exactly what to do,” Spinale said.

Still, as the water poured from Kiba’s mouth, Spinale and the others were not optimistic. He said Kiba was grey, limp and not breathing. What worried him most was the amount of water flowing out of his mouth. “It was like a fountain,” he said.

Against the high tide, which swarms an outcropping of slippery moss-coverered rocks at the Hook, and the rising swell, the group struggled to get Kiba in and up the stairs. They even slipped and dropped him against the rocks at one point.

The Hook
When the tide and swell are high, waves crash over this mossy walkway along the cliff that serves as the only way in or out from the Hook — making it very precarious. Credit: Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz

But just as they finally got him up the stairs, Central Fire’s Water Rescue team had arrived. The rescue team was able to get him breathing again and, according to Alex Patel, the anesthesiologist who had helped administer care on the beach “His EKG and vitals were normal. His oxygen was good.”

The drama of the rescue though and the way Kiba’s body had been seizing alarmed him: “I was pretty certain some permanent neurological damage had to have been done.”

Miracles do happen

In March 2012, a Ben Lomond surfer named Scott Woodworth drowned at the Hook after hitting the reef and breaking his neck — somehow going unnoticed by others for what the coroner estimated to be 40 minutes, even though he was still strapped to a 9-foot longboard.

Kiba was lucky to end up floating face up and receive a relatively quick response from others. Even if a crowded lineup with wayward surfboards might have contributed to his predicament, the extra eyeballs may have also saved him.

In the moment before he was noticed, where he was all alone fighting not to drown, he said he had a feeling that it wouldn’t be good enough. He was about to be the surf break’s next morbid footnote.

“I felt the survival instincts and I knew I didn’t want to die, but I couldn’t do anything about it,” he said. “I couldn’t get to my board, I couldn’t yell. I had lost. I knew it. I was dead.”

Kiba thinks of himself as one of the Hook surfers who is part of the solution rather than the problem. One who helps point a beginner toward a safer zone or bring calm to a conflict situation rather than add kerosene.

Manu Koenig
This counts as an uncrowded moment at the Hook, which often has swarms of new surfers streaming down its staircase, headed for the lineup. Credit: Jason Smith/ For Lookout Santa Cruz

“I try to help people out,” he said. “I’m into just catching waves and enjoying life. Some people take it really seriously. We all really want to be good. But most of us, we’re just average surfers, trying to get down the line and kick out cleanly.

“I want to find and thank everyone who helped me live. I owe them everything. In the end, they gave me another chance at life.”

When Spinale, who got Kiba to shore on his board, got a ring from a lucid Kiba, “I was beyond relieved,” he said. “Because he was gone.”

He hopes the beginners wading into their new pursuit take heed and surf shops and surf schools step up their educational protocol: “Wayne is an example of what can happen even if you’re experienced.”

Kiba, who recently retired from AT&T, plans to buy a little camper, pack it up with his girlfriend and her dog, and their mountain bikes, and see more of America.

Meanwhile, here at home, where surf lineups will inevitably continue to get more crowded and dangerous, Kiba is hopeful that others will be mindful of their surroundings and their limitations. Anyone who gets into as bad a spot as he did will need good fortune shining down.

“When we walk down those steps, everyone should be looking out for one another” he said. “Because anything can happen.”

Wayne Kimba
Credit: Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz

Follow Mark Conley on: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Mark joins Lookout after 14 years at the Mercury News and Bay Area News Group, where he served as Deputy Sports Editor on a staff that covered three...