The Real Story Of Josh Moniz’s Back-Breaking Fall At Supertubos, And How Mason Ho And Reo Inaba Saved His Life
“This is it. The last feeling I’ll have before I never feel anything again.”
On Thursday, October 7th, beloved Hawaiian surfer and recent Stab High competitor Josh Moniz was severely injured while surfing Supertubos in Peniche, Portugal.
Prior to the injury, Josh had fallen out of the MEO Vissla Pro Ericeira and, along with fellow Hawaiian and WSL Challenger Series surfer Mason Ho, made his way north to the Portuguese Pipeline to wash off the loss and prepare for the next CS competition in France.
The waves this day were overhead and barreling, but not especially frightening. They’re conditions that most surfers of Josh’s caliber would simply call ‘fun’. You can watch a video from the session, including a couple of Josh’s waves, below.
“The sandbar was pretty weird that day,” Josh explained, when we spoke to him a few weeks after the incident. “It was the first real swell of the season over there, so it hadn’t really figured itself out yet. There was a lot of backwash, and some waves missed the bank entirely. But it was still pretty fun.”
At one point in the session, a perfect teepee headed Josh’s way. It was one of the biggest sets of the day and had better shape than anything else that had come through. Mason Ho was envious.
“I started paddling over, but then I saw Josh was in position,” Mason explained. “I was like, ‘Man, he’s gonna score the wave of the day. So lucky!’”
Josh shared Mason’s sentiment.
“I was actually kinda laughing when I was paddling in, because of how lucky I was. That place is super tricky to be in the right spot, and this wave came straight to me. It looked like a perfect four-footer.”
So Josh took off on the wave, giggling to himself in a way that only a surfer could understand. But that giggle quickly turned into a scowl, when he saw the first section collapsing in front of him rather than throwing wide for an anticipated tube.
“It was one of those times where the wave was just too big for the sandbar, so it missed it entirely,” Josh explained. “I figured I’d go around the first section and pull into the second, but that one shut down too. It went from looking like the best wave of the day to a wonky closeout.”
At this point, Josh did what any knowledgeable surfer would do: straightened out to avoid copping the wave on the head. After waiting for what he believed to be a sufficient amount of time, Josh kicked his board toward shore and jumped feet first into the flats, so that he could penetrate, get under the explosion, and come out the other side. Standard procedure.
Unfortunately for Josh, this maneuver that he’s done thousands of times — often on waves significantly larger than this — went terribly awry. Josh’s jump coincided with the heaviest part of the lip falling onto the wave’s flat bottom, creating a biblical part in the sea that exposed dry sand. Because Josh didn’t have enough separation between himself and the lip, he fell straight into this hole and was driven down by the curtain of falling water, multiplying the force of the impact.
To put this in perspective, it’d be like getting body-slammed onto concrete by a 300-pound guy…who had fallen from an eight-foot ladder.
“It felt like I never even hit water, just straight impact with the sand” Josh explained. “I was knocked out for a second, but not from hitting my head. It was more like when you hit that one spot on your elbow…all my nerves just completely shocked my body. The next thing I remember, I was underwater telling myself to wake up — like, ‘Wake up, wake up, you gotta wake up.’
“Then I woke up, and I was like, ‘Okay. I’m up. I’m okay’. Then I was like, ‘I’ve got to swim up to the surface.’ And I wanted to — I wanted to swim, but my body just had zero reaction. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ I couldn’t move anything. I tried to go again. And just nothing. I had no feeling, no movement, nothing.
“At that point, I knew exactly what was going on. And I just remember thinking, ‘I never thought I would be this guy in this position.’ I’m not a reckless surfer. I would say I’m pretty calculated and safe. My younger brother, Seth — he’s reckless. He’s one of those guys that’s just sending it and going for it. I’m not really that guy. I’m super careful with everything I’m doing. And the worst part was that the way I fell, I knew no one would be looking for me.”
But Mason was looking for him. Not to see if Josh was injured (Mase admits he’s not especially attuned to the safety of others when the waves are pumping), but to see just how barreled Josh had gotten on the so-called ‘wave of the day’.
“I looked back, just to see how far Josh went in the barrel or what he did on the wave. I didn’t see Josh, but I saw his board just tugging. So I just figured, ‘Oh, I guess he didn’t make it.’”
Then Mason heard a strange noise. It was more of a groan than anything, but it did have a certain word-ish quality.
“Luckily I was wearing a full wetsuit, which helps you float,” Josh recounted. “Every once in a while, I would pop up just enough to get my nose, eyes, and mouth above the surface. Rather than taking a breath, I used that time to call out ‘help’.”
Mason wasn’t the only surfer who heard this survival call. Japanese surfer and fellow Challenger Series competitor Reo Inaba was the first to act on Josh’s muffled plea.
“I saw Reo paddling toward Josh, so I thought I should too,” Mason said. “At first I was paddling kind of slow, just trying to see what was happening. At that point, Josh’s head and arm were above the water, but he wasn’t going to his board. I was like, ‘That’s weird.’ Then I saw him slowly going under — first his nose, then his eyes, his head, and finally his arm. At that point, I started paddling as fast as I could, like I was in a paddle battle or something.”
Reo was first on the scene. He grabbed Josh and did what he could to keep the Hawaiian’s head above the surface while Mason and another guy named Nick Wapner provided reinforcements. Then came a wave.
“I saw that Reo had a better hold of Josh, so I let them go and went to move our boards out of the way. The boards were in front of us, so if the wave came, it would have pushed them right into Josh. I got the boards out of the way and went under the wave, then when I came up, Josh had disappeared. I guess he got knocked out of Reo’s hands when the wave hit them, so we had to find him again.
“I kind of looked at where Josh’s board was, and then did some math, like…the wave pushed us that way, the current’s going that way…just using all the little bits of ocean knowledge I’ve learned over the years to try to find his location. I went to where I thought Josh would be and started slowly swinging my hands and feet, trying to find him. I ended up getting him pretty quickly and pulled him up kinda threw him over my shoulder.
“At that point, I was just like, ‘Josh, are you okay? Where are you hurt? Tell me what hurts.’ And he just looked at me all gnarly, so I knew it was bad. But then he said in a totally normal tone, ‘It’s my back. It’s my back.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, gotta protect his back, got it.’
“Then the next wave was coming, and I was like, ‘I’m not letting him go no matter what. We’re not losing him again.’ But at the same time I was trying to be conscious of his back and not squeezing too hard. So we go under the wave, and once it passes, I figured I was gonna push up off the sand and get us both above the water. But I couldn’t reach because I was too short or whatever, so I was just kicking to get us up, but I wasn’t really getting anywhere. Then Nick and Reo came in to help, and we finally got it under control. It was really gnarly.”
Once the crew got Josh close to the shore, Mason asked if anybody knew “the C thing”.
“I didn’t know what it was called, or how to do it,” Mason said, “but I knew there was this thing where you brace a person’s neck to keep them stable and safe in the case of a spinal injury.”
That’s when Nick Wapner revealed that he was a lifeguard in California, and that the “C thing” Mason was referring to was a “C-spine”, and yes, he knew how to do it (we recommend everyone learns how to do it, here).
From that point, Nick took over as the lead rescuer and directed Mason and Reo accordingly. Reo ripped off everyone’s leashes, while Mason situated himself between Josh’s legs, so that he could lift his friend’s body while Nick braced the head and neck.
They carried Josh up the beach in this very position, and once they found a nice, flat sliver of sand, they laid him down on a surfboard to ensure his spine stayed straight.
“Then out of nowhere, pins and needles just started shooting down my whole body,” Josh said. “That was probably the scariest part of the whole ordeal. I could feel everything, but it was really faint. In my head, I was just thinking, ‘This is it. This is the last feeling I’ll have before I never feel anything again.’”
That’s when Mason came in.
“I just remember grabbing Josh’s hand, and I started to pump it a little bit. I didn’t want to pinch it super hard or anything, because I didn’t know how it all works, but I kind of massaged his hand a little bit, and then I asked him, ‘Hey, Josh, is this helping you a little bit? Or is it if it’s annoying, just tell me to get away.’ And he’s like, ‘No, it’s okay. It’s good’. So I kept going. And then all of a sudden, I felt a little, like, boom. I felt him kind of move his hand in my hand. And I was like, whoa!”
The pins and needles dissipated, and Josh started to regain a slight sensation in his finger and toes. A positive sign.
Eventually, the Portuguese paramedics came onto the scene and took over. Josh was soon helivac-ed to the nearest hospital in Lisbon. Following a series of scans, it was revealed that Josh had ruptured his C6-C7 disc, and fractured his C6 facet. These injuries required surgery, but Josh was advised not to return to the U.S., as his spine wasn’t stable enough to endure air travel. The doctors started pushing Josh to get the surgery immediately.
“I was like, ‘I’m not gonna rush into a surgery — I don’t even understand what happened to me, or what you guys are saying,’” Josh laughed. “I don’t speak Portuguese.”
As it turned out, the doctors were trying to rush Josh’s operation because he’d come into their clinic on a Thursday, and they didn’t perform surgeries over the weekend. Due to Josh’s (valid) skepticism, he was forced to spend the next three days lying motionless in a hospital bed while wearing an incredibly uncomfortable neck brace. Fortunately, Josh’s mom, Tammy, and girlfriend, Isabella, made the long trip from Hawaii to be by Josh’s side and help out in any way they could.
“They were incredible,” Josh recounted. “It made me feel so much better to have them by my side.”
Josh got surgery on the Monday, and his condition improved quickly. He continued to regain sensation in his feet, then his hands, and soon enough, he was moving his limbs freely. The doctors started pushing Josh to perform advanced mobility tasks.
“When they told me I could start walking, I was kind of tripping at them. Like, ‘You guys are out of your mind.’ But they pushed me to do it, and every day I’ve just been getting so much better.”
Josh is now back in Hawaii with his family, friends and loved ones. He plans to continue his recovery process and get his body and mind back to 100%.
“The doctors are saying I should have a full recovery, but there’s no real time frame on this,” Josh explained. “From what I understand, it could be anywhere from four months to a year. My goal is six to eight months. If I can be back to a hundred percent by then, or at least fully able to function on my own, that’ll be a success. But I’m just trying to focus on the little victories. Whether it’s opening up a water bottle or just brushing my teeth, it’s been really cool to see how far I’ve come in just a few weeks.”
As far as surfing, well…
“I’m not really too worried about getting back into the water anytime soon,” Josh said.
Incidents like these have a way of affecting not just the injured parties, but also the people directly in their orbit. Just listen to the strange sensation that Mason Ho, a self-professed tube addict, experienced after Josh’s injury.
“The day after Josh’s accident, Supertubos was supposed to be way bigger and better,” Mason said. “Some part of my body was like, ‘There’s no way I’m missing it. There’s no way I’m missing it.’ So I actually woke up at dark, drove down to Supertubes, walked down to the water, and it was all foggy. I could still see the waves were like six- to eight-foot — maybe double the size of the day before — but it was pretty eerie.
“And I just sat there and watched it…for like an hour. I saw everyone paddling out and getting barreled, and I just didn’t even do it. A couple of guys came up, like ‘Oh, let’s go. Let’s go.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ll meet you out there!’ And then when no one was looking, I was like, ‘Let’s get outta here. I just can’t do it.’”
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