Wild Rides

Sometimes the interesting part of a surf experience has nothing to do with how well a wave was ridden, or if one was surfed at all

| posted on August 18, 2013
Mike Parsons has seen his fair share of wipeouts, but he claims this one at SF's Ocean Beach was the worst. Photos: Rowedder

Mike Parsons has seen his fair share of wipeouts, but he claims this one was the worst. Photos: Rowedder

By Todd Prodanovich

On an unseasonably warm January day in San Francisco, all the elements of wind, swell, and sand had converged to turn Ocean Beach into the cold-water cousin of Puerto Escondido. The first surfers in the water, Mike Parsons and Taylor Knox, took turns scratching into solid 12-foot drainers on 8-foot guns for four hours straight. With enormous barrels held open by howling offshore winds, it was “as good as waves get,” according to Parsons. But as perfect as they were, big, barreling waves have a knack for humbling the best of us. Even a man with a 77-foot wave on his resume isn’t immune to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I remember everything about that wave,” says Parsons. “It was the third wave of the set and it looked perfect so I started paddling really hard. I thought I had it, but when I felt the wave lift me up I realized I didn’t. I had too much momentum to pull back, so at the last second I said, ‘Screw it, I’m going.’”

As Parsons rose to his feet, a battle commenced between the hard offshore winds and gravity. Eventually gravity won out and Parsons free-fell 10 feet from the lip into the trough, where the impact caused his legs to give out, sending him face first into the flats. Over the years, Parsons has taken more than his fair share of aquatic beatings—and often in waves much bigger than 10 feet—but on this particular wave, a far worse fate waited for him just below the surface.

“As soon as I hit the water, my body went numb and I was just thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m paralyzed,’” says Parsons. “I instantly knew I had broken my neck. When I got to the surface, I couldn’t feel my left arm at all. It felt like my arm got ripped off my body, and I was tripping out looking at it just lying there next to me.”

Parsons was in shock. He lay motionless, screaming for help while his flotation vest kept him above water. Ironically, Parsons believes the vest was one of the causes of the injury. “I had a paddle vest with a little bit of flotation on my chest, and more flotation on my back,” says Parsons. “It doesn’t allow you to penetrate the surface of the water, and because of the way it sat around my neck, it put my neck in a very vulnerable situation heading into such a violent wipeout.”

As Parsons bobbed in the impact zone, another surfer spotted him, muscled him onto his board, and hauled him toward the shore. An ambulance arrived shortly thereafter and took him to the hospital. After a series of scans and x-rays, the doctors delivered the bad news: Parsons had a fractured C7, a partially collapsed disk at C5 and C6, torn ligaments at C4, a pinched nerve, and significant internal bleeding. His neck was so swollen from the trauma that swallowing food and drink was nearly impossible for the first week.

While it was a harrowing experience, Parsons dodged a bullet. The doctors explained that with careful rehabilitation, a lot of time, and a little luck, he would make a full recovery. Fast-forward four months and Parsons is back in the water. He’s taking it easy, getting his sea legs back on his longboard, and warming up on some forgiving Trestles peaks. At this rate, it won’t be long before Parsons can conceivably wax up his 8-foot gun and stroke into another bomb at some heaving beachbreak or menacing reef pass. But at a certain point the question stops being a matter of “can,” but instead a matter of will.

“That ride really shook me up,” says Parsons. “Not just physically, but mentally this was the worst wipeout I’ve ever had. The moment it happened, I was thinking I’d never surf again, and it was a wake up call. The doctors think I will make a full recovery, but I don’t know if my spine will be as strong. I honestly don’t know if I’ll end up riding some of the waves I was riding before. If I told you anything else, it just wouldn’t be true. I’ll definitely pick and choose the types of waves I ride for awhile and work my way up to the point where I am sure that I can withstand a wipeout. But laying in the water unable to feel the left side of my body was terrifying—I don’t ever want to hit the water that hard again.”

  • Helder Neves

    How come the world

  • roger

    No way! Uncanny that this happened again, after the episode in April!

    • David Van Rensburg

      Very uncanny

  • LeRoy


  • OB Regular

    Hot flash. I was out that day. That was not a 10′ wave. It was nearly triple overhead. I suppose if you’re a macho Hawaiian Waterman, it’s only 10′.

    • nettwench14

      Was thinking the same thing looking at those photos! Looks 15′ even by Hawaiian standards. Huge.

  • Declan Lawn

    This man is incredible! So much respect for a legend! Take it easy bro, enjoy the ride and everything life has to offer. You have already proved yourself in every way that you are an impeccable surfer that charges harder than most ever will. Hope your recovery is quick!


  • kyesurf

    when your in the water you on you’re own I learned at age thirteen one mile out and dropped a fifteen footer on the backside hunting cliffs and leash broke every wave pushed my board a wave futher. had to swim in two foot of foam and finally caught my board on the beach.I told my uncle and cousin and they said cool were going back out.

  • Ryan Ragan

    God Bless you Mike – I lived in OB SF for 20 years and had some pretty bad one’s there too ,but your neck & almost paralyzed (woooo) you have gone through a lot. Glad to hear your on your way back to a healthy recovery. Heavy story -Ocean Beach does not play!

    I wish you a speedy recovery. Much respect & admiration. ( your the man)!

    Ryan Ragan

  • Joe Fonebone

    “It was shrinkage !!!”

  • Blake Corbin

    It was MUCH bigger than 10ft that day.. I was two blocks north and heard the ambulance arrive. Not the most reassuring sounds sitting in the line up.

  • Adrian

    How does religion come into this? Incredibly lucky man and strong man, that’s it. Survival of the fittest. Why would a mystical being choose to save one man in a sea of turmoil? Come on people, it’s 2013. Magicseaweed, you need to be educated.

    • Rich

      Adrian, there is a God! A God which loves you. Loves you so much He gave his only begotten son, Jesus, for you. Jesus came accomplished that goal and now waits for you Adrian, a place prepared. Free of charge…the one condition…accept it. You have your whole life, but you will never find true satisfaction outside of Christ, so I , not Jesus, say do it now. Don’t put it off. You know He is real you feel it just like I did. It is written on our hearts. That part of you that you argue with…the part that you have to keep telling “there is no God” that is your heart. The truth is written their. Jesus said, ” I am the way, the TRUTH , and the life. no man comes to the Father but by Me.” There I said what I needed to say whew! Now maybe I can get away from this computer. Oh, Adrian, I am really pulling for you man, REALLY.
      A former surfer,
      A present father,
      A future surfer,
      and father to a great
      surfer, Richard M.

  • Victor Redondo

    Awesome bro! Welcome to Costa Rica!!! Pura Vida!!! hope you recover soon

  • Ari Thompson

    who on earth takes a shotgun on a surfing vacation. this guys problem was his own. it’s madness – i’ve been on vacations all over the world – including central america, mexico, south america, asia pacific – i also enjoy surfing and scuba diving. NOT ONCE have I ever thought while packing – hey i should take a gun. (not that i even own one to begin with). YOU don’t need a gun here at home and especially abroad to surf.

  • Nick

    Mexico is a cesspit of corruption , nevertheless, it’s pretty stupid to take a shot gun to a foreign country – in some countries in the Caribbean and Central America he could have got 29 years for that Alone!!

  • Andres Niemeyer


  • AK

    At Sloat I always see these guys on SUPs that purposefully pull into closeouts at this size and bigger. How is it that Parsons’ got so wreaked? Maybe he was using the wrong equipment?

  • Kara Hawthorn

    life is gnarly dude

  • Bart Kalisvaart

    Why bring a shotgun… nothing good can come of that.

  • gary jones

    I like cheese Dudes