Big wave surfer sues WSL after nearly dying in Nazaré

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On February 11, 2020, big wave surfing fans watched Portuguese pro Alex Botelho nearly drown during the live stream of the inaugural Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge, a World Surf League Big Wave World Tour competition. Two years later, Botelho filed a lawsuit against the WSL, accusing the organization of a series of decisions which he claims resulted in lifelong physical, psychological and financial damage.

The 29-page lawsuit was filed Feb. 9 in Los Angeles County Superior Court, and it alleges the WSL ignored concerns some competitors raised about the event’s security plan, then lied surfers on several critical elements of the plan. “As a result of these misrepresentations and breaches of due diligence,” the complaint reads, “[Botelho] was left in the water unconscious for up to six minutes before being pulled out of the sea without breathing.

Outside could not reach Botelho for comment, but his attorneys Neil Fraser and James C. Carr agreed to speak. “We don’t blame the town of Nazaré, and we don’t blame the relief personnel who were there and did the best they could,” Fraser said. “It’s just that the WSL is the one who dropped the ball.”

The accident occurred in the sixth hour of competition, during a heat which was not initially planned. The original schedule called for four-hour heats, but as the conditions were unusually favorable – giant waves with little wind shear – Big Wave World Tour General Manager Bill Sharp, other WSL staff and the 19 competitors agreed to stage two more. heats. With approximately 30 minutes remaining in the final round, contest security officer Scott Eggers came on the live stream to complete a lap of honor. “It’s a proof of concept for the WSL,” Eggers said. “So far, so good.”

A few minutes later, Botelho fell in a wave. He couldn’t get around the collapsing lip and was swallowed by the flowing water. The wave wasn’t particularly big, at least not for Botelho, who had been a standout veteran at Nazaré’s famous Praia do Norte break, which over the past decade has produced many of the biggest waves ever ridden. Botelho surfaced and was safely picked up on a jet ski by teammate Hugo Vau.

That’s when the trouble started. Unlike the rest of the best big wave sites in the world, Nazaré does not have an adjacent deep water channel for a jet ski rider to safely access and exit beyond the breaking waves. Not only does Nazaré have no channel, it also has an area where two distinct wave sections violently converge. This was precisely the phenomenon Vau faced as he attempted to lead Botelho, who was holding the ski rescue sled, out of the impact zone. After Vau was caught between two colliding waves, he, Botelho and their ski were thrown about 20 feet into the air. According to the complaint, Botelho landed on the sled, hit his head and punctured his lung.

“I remember landing and hanging onto the ski and thinking, ‘Uh, I’m going out’, and that’s the last thing I remember,” Botelho said. Stab magazine in an April 2020 interview. Unconscious, he immediately went underwater and was beaten by other waves for about six minutes.

Vau and another jet-ski pilot, Edilson Luis da Assunção, who had been hired by the WSL to patrol the impact zone throughout the event, desperately tried but failed to reach Botelho. The waves and current eventually pushed Botelho close enough to shore for rescuers to grab him and drag him onto the beach. He was not breathing and had no pulse. Botelho said Stab four minutes passed before rescuers could revive him.

That night, at a local hospital, he again stopped breathing and had to be intubated. According to the complaint, Botelho spent the following week in intensive care, his lungs infected from being flooded with so much seawater.

Botelho underwent months of physiotherapy to recover from injuries that “weakened him and was unable to lead a normal life”, according to the complaint. The document states that Botelho also “suffered psychological injuries as a result of the Nazaré incident and suffered nightmares of drowning since February 2020, sleep and mood disturbances, and fading fear. gradually to re-enter sea water” – a trauma that Botelho received treatment for after being discharged from hospital.

At the heart of Botelho’s allegations, Sharp, Eggers and other anonymous defendants – the complaint includes the potential for up to 100 additional “mades” – ignored concerns by Botelho and other competitors about the adequacy of the plan of Three-level event security.

The WSL safety plan was communicated to competitors by Sharp and Eggers in the months leading up to the event. The plan called for each surfer to have a dedicated ski and rider, a secondary ski and rider to watch over the main crew and emergency response lifeguards on the beach.

According to Botelho, this was unsatisfactory for him and the other participants in the competition. Outside contacted several contestants who declined to comment for this story. Prior to the event, Sharp emailed surfers that a lifeguard would also be available as part of the emergency shore team.

Botelho and the surfers responded that they wanted the rescue swimmer on an extra ski in the water. Sharp and Eggers reportedly then informed surfers that the WSL would hire Kalani Lattanzi, an experienced swimmer who practices bodysurfing in Nazaré. Lattanzi, the complaint reads, “is widely accepted as probably the only person in the world capable of operating in the Nazaré Impact Zone as a lifeguard swimmer, and certainly the best.”

Botelho’s attorneys said they have a copy of the October 2019 event briefing packet that lists Lattanzi as an official safety swimmer. But on the day of the event, Lattanzi was not there. “After talking to Kalani, he said he was never even contacted to be the lifeguard swimmer for this meet,” Fraser said. “It came as a shock to him when Alex spoke to him and asked, ‘What happened? Why weren’t you there? And Kalani said: “I was never even contacted by the WSL.”

Several netizens did not initially sign the WSL liability waiver because they feared the security plan was insufficient. But on the eve of the event, Botelho signed despite his reluctance. According to Fraser, Botelho felt “caught between a rock and a hard place” due to his obligations to sponsors. He signed the waiver, in part, “with the continued understanding that Kalani was going to be there as a lifeguard and that safety measures would be in place,” Fraser said.

Not only was Lattanzi not there, but each team’s ghost skis were also missing, Fraser said. “There were rescue skis on the water,” he said. “But they weren’t assigned to any particular team.” The complaint also claims that the WSL failed to provide each team with three radios with dedicated channels, as promised. Instead, “each team received two radios with no dedicated channels,” Fraser said. “So there was crosstalk all the time.”

The debate over the event’s security measures took center stage in the recent HBO series 100 foot wave, and the filmmakers captured Garrett McNamara, one of the pioneers of Nazaré’s breakup, expressing his concerns about the security plan. “It seems really scary to me what you have in place,” McNamara told Sharp in a call captured by cameras. McNamara was invited to attend a pre-race meeting with the event security team, but the HBO film crew was not allowed inside.

“What’s going on in there is that he very forcefully voiced his concerns about safety,” Fraser said.

Sharp did not respond to an email interview request, but a WSL spokesperson issued the following statement: “The health and safety of athletes and everyone associated with our events in the world are our top priority. We cannot comment on ongoing litigation, but generally we are extremely proud of our safety record in what is an inherently dangerous sport and will vigorously defend the league and the athletes we serve. .

Ultimately, the complaint accuses Sharp, Eggers, and the WSL of “material misrepresentation, intentional concealment, and gross negligence.” As a result, Botelho is seeking as yet undetermined compensation for damages which include “past, present and future medical and related expenses, loss of earnings and loss of earning capacity.” Botelho noted in his interview with Stabhowever, that “everything that happened in the hospital was covered by WSL insurance”.

Court filings show the WSL received the complaint on February 17, meaning it has 30 days to respond, after which the WSL could admit or deny Botelho’s allegations or launch various procedural challenges. While the case may go to trial, “often the courts will seek to force the parties to engage in some sort of mediation to discuss whether or not the issue can be resolved without a trial,” Carr said. “If that doesn’t happen, it’s just rolling towards a trial.”

When questioned by Stab if he ever got back into the water, Botelho suggested he would. Despite Vau and da Assunção’s valiant attempts to reach her, it was ultimately the waves that pushed her body close enough to shore for the rescuers to grab her. “The ocean could have dragged me out to sea,” Botelho said, “but it didn’t…and it feels good to be going back there.”

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