When he told his story in his own surfing magazine, Doug Lees described himself as an average Joe staring death in the face. In truth, Doug is no average Joe. In his sporting life, his business life and in his personal life his achievements, (and even more importantly, the manner of his achievements), show him to be a very special character. This character rarely stands back from a challenge. Doug is definitely a waterman.
Just a little trip to Tavarua
It was the challenge of Tavarua’s Cloudbreak that took Doug to Fiji a couple of years back. Most forty-plus blokes would find Cloudbreak challenging on a smallish day but, from the watchtower on Tavarua, this day looked like a perfect ten-foot day. Anything but small!
Initially Doug was cautious and could have been talked into waiting for a less challenging swell but the enthusiasm of a fellow island guest and the life guard and boat captain (champion Hawaiian big-wave surfer Mark Healey) encouraged Doug to at least go out for a look. What he saw when the boat reached the channel got all those endorphins racing. The ocean was dishing up perfect ten-foot clean barrels that were rolling evenly down the reef.
While Doug and his new surfing buddy waited in the boat to assess the lie of the land (or the state of the swell to be more accurate) Mark paddled into the line up to show the boys what would be available to them. He immediately paddled into a screamer of a barrel that had Doug scrambling for his board. This was not an opportunity to be missed.
Minutes later he was in the line-up. Moments after paddling over the top of an incoming set wave Doug realized that the decision might not have been a good one. Waves that only moments ago had looked around ten-foot were clearly coming in now at around the fifteen-foot mark. Things got worse. On scanning the horizon Doug glimpsed the first signs of what was an even larger set wave on the way. He paddled for all he was worth and counted six long paddles just to make it up the face of the incoming beast and just managed to burrow his way through the feathering lip. Instantaneous feelings of relief were replaced by gut-wrenching horror as he saw the second wave of the set, a twenty foot plus tube, already breaking and heading straight for him.
Doug’s water survival skills (he is an experienced big wave surfer and former surf lifesaving champion) kicked immediately into gear. Concentrate now. Panic could kill you. Pull off your leg rope because it will prevent you from diving deeply. Get ready. Dive.
His strategy was to stay as deep as he could for as long as he could then try for the surface when the primary energy of the wave had dissipated. It seemed a good enough plan but when, after a substantial amount of time holding his breath, he tried for the surface, the churning mass of white water refused to relent. He stroked upward time and time again but still the nightmare continued. After what seemed like an eternity he thought he was near the surface because of the bubbling sounds he could hear. As he broke through be gasped for air and succeeded in swallowing bucket-loads of salt water.
Between set waves
As any surfer would know, Doug was not out of danger. The amount of time he had spent under water simply reduced the amount of time he had to prepare himself for the onslaught of the next wall of white water. Luckily, he did have a few moments to prepare himself before he was forced to dive again. His shallower dive ensured that the second wave gave him an even more ferocious beating than the bigger first wave had.
Doug is not a man prone to exaggeration. On the contrary, he is more the type who sees two-foot waves when everyone else sees five foot. Doug really believes that if he had not escaped from the clutches of the second set wave when he did, he would have died on that day. I believe him.
When he broke through the surface the sight of the life guard on the Jet Ski racing in his direction from the channel must have been a moment of intense relief. When the ski pulled up next to Doug he was totally incapable of pulling himself on board. His depleted oxygen reserves left his arm muscles useless. He grabbed the tow rope and yelled for the driver to get him out of there. The force of the ski pulling him to safety broke two of Doug’s fingers leaving him with a painful reminder of his day’s outing.