A young professional surfer owes his life to some of the sport’s biggest names after a dramatic rescue on Wednesday.
Big wave surfer Russell Bierke, 19, from Ulladulla in NSW, was surfing with mates at Port Campbell, Victoria, when he was knocked unconscious by his board.
The group – which included the likes of including American pro Kelly Slater, Ross Clarke-Jones,Tom Carroll and Ryan Hipwood – was winding up a session at the popular two mile break when the incident happened.
Bierke was under water for about 45 seconds, taking on litres of sea water.
“It’s super vague,” Bierke said. “I remember seeing a wave coming and then I was on the beach on all fours spewing (up water). I can’t remember the ski ride.”
Bierke said the group was attracted to Port Campbell for the big swell.
“They (the waves) were 15 to 18 feet,” he said.
“The conditions don’t come together like that very often. They were really big and there were light winds and it was really sunny and it was nice and warm.
“We were all having a lot of fun. It was nice and clean and big. It was pretty much what we came for. That was my last wave. I remember saying to the boys I want to go in. I was tired and hungry and wanted to get some food.
“(I’ve been told) I caught a wave and Hippo (surfer Ryan Hipwood) was in the channel and apparently just started screaming. Hippo could just see my board floating then and I think Hippo said another wave passed.
“It was one of the smaller waves of the session. Hippo said it was the smallest waves we caught all day.
“It was a freak accident. I don’t really remember but the wave did something big like dropped out and my board must have hit me.”
His mate Ben Serrano put him on a jetski sled and Slater accompanied him to shore.
Bierke was blue when he was brought to shore and said he had no recollection of what happened except for what he’d been told by witnesses.
“I know I’m pretty lucky from everyone I’ve talked to. It’s probably good I don’t remember much. (I woke up this morning) and I was trying my best to remember but can’t really. The way everything came together was pretty lucky for sure.
“Everyone out in the line up really helped, the paramedics and the crew and the hospital.”
A female paramedic who was walking past gave him oxygen from the nearby Port Campbell Surf Lilfesaving Club.
Moyne Shire councillor and Port Fairy surfer Jordan Lockett, who was attending a training day at the surf club, was one of the people who helped.
“Kevin Leddin one of our (Moyne Shire) directors said ‘I swear I just saw Kelly Slater carrying someone’ so I ran out onto the balcony,” Cr Lockett said.
“I yelled out and there was about four or five people standing around a body and I said ‘do you want me to call an ambulance?’
“Kelly said ‘call an ambulance’ then I was relaying down the phone what Kelly Slater was telling me – the vital signs. He’s got a pulse, he’s breathing but he’s not well. He was very disoriented. I grabbed the oxygen and ran outside.
“There was Slater, three or four other surfers and (Bierke) was just vomiting up water like flat out.
“He had really bloodshot eyes and he didn’t know where he was, who he was or what was happening. He was blue. He was like a smurf or an avatar.
“So we got the oxygen on as quick as we could. He had a really big cut (across his neck/jawline) which was swollen so they were applying pressure to that but that was obviously restricting his breathing so that was tricky.”
Bierke was bleeding from a cut on his neck near his jawline where the nine foot long board which weighs almost 10 kilograms struck him. The force dented the board.
“Kelly was talking to him and said ‘It’s alright brother, help’s on its way’,” Cr Lockett said. “I let him know the ambulance said they would be under 10 minutes. They arrived, they were really quick.”
Cr Lockett said the response made him proud to be a surfer.
“Everyone helped and thank God that paramedic was there,” Cr Lockett said.
“I was talking to Kelly (Slater) after it and he was saying how could not have done it if the jetski wasn’t there. It would have been, given he’s an 11 time world champion and he’s fit, a 20-minute paddle minimum.
“I personally don’t know if he would have survived if it wasn’t for the jet ski because the bloke was blue, and that was getting rushed in on the jetski.”
Cobden and Port Campbell police and ambulance attended the scene which was reported at 1.30pm on Wednesday.
Bierke was taken to the Warrnambool Base Hospital intensive care by ambulance and will remain in hospital until the weekend.
“My chest and ribs feel pretty bruised and sore and my jaw’s definitely pretty swollen and achy right now,” Bierke said.
“Without the jetski it would be a lot different. There was a safety crew out there, I think the local boys had that out there and we were trading between surfing and sitting on the ski.
“It was definitely good to have a safety crew there because it’s a long paddle. It’s over one and a half ks. We paddled out. It was a long way and there were lots of currents.”
The professional big wave surfer surfs at Hawaii, Ireland and all around Australia.
“I’ve surfed a lot bigger and a lot more dangerous waves than yesterday,” he said. “I’ve broken my foot and done a few little things but nothing like this,”
Bierke said he was “definitely” keen to get back in the water when he recovered.
Intensive care unit manager Tina Johnstone said any more time underwater and he would have died.
“It wouldn’t have taken long (for him to die). (Being underwater) it’s different to holding your breath because when you breathe again you can take in oxygen. (The water) starts to affect the heart and other different things.
“He was a close drowning. He was unconscious so he was very lucky. His lungs have shown he did consume a lot of sea water which is why we’re keeping an eye on him in intensive care for infection.”