The Real Story Of Alex Botelho’s Near-Fatal Jet Ski Crash At Nazaré
“I went 10 minutes without breathing. Normally, in perfect, static conditions, I can only my breath for five.”
This past February, back when the Democratic presidential candidate race was something that mattered, the WSL held its first tow-only big wave event at Nazaré.
By most accounts it was a fabulous day of competition. Large waves, best-evers, chop-hops, and so forth. But just as the event was coming to a close, there was an incident that would turn the whole experience sour.
After riding his final wave of the day to completion, Portuguese competitor Alex Botelho was picked up by his partner, Hugo Vau, on their team’s jetski.
The rest, well, it’s better if you just watch.
Alex Botelho was knocked unconscious by his impact with the ski, and after 10 minutes without breathing, just barely survived the ordeal. Below is Alex’s official account of what happened that day and how he’s been doing since.
Stab: Alright, so let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell me a little bit about the competition? Like what happened up until the point of the incident?
Alex Botelho: Well, the day started off a bit gray and foggy. There were good waves coming through. The whole contest was pretty nice and everybody was respecting each other, having a good time. I had some fun waves, nothing crazy, but it was just a good time with my partner Hugo [Vau].
Then came the accident.
It was really just one of those moments where you’re like, “Let’s catch one more wave!” you know? And when we were going back out after that wave, that’s when the accident happened.
I didn’t watch the event live—all I saw was kind of the stuff that ended up Instagram afterward. So what happened on the wave and on the pickup?
Okay, so, Hugo told me into the wave and I rode out clean. When I kicked out, Hugo was right there, so I got on the back of the ski, and there was another wave breaking on the same path as the one I’d just ridden. In order to avoid that wave, we started heading north, trying to go over to shoulder. The thing is, Nazaré sometimes has these crisscross waves, kind of like it does at Blacks in La Jolla. You know how to wave ski cross like that. So we’re trying to get out of the way of the primary wave, but there’s this side-wedge coming right for us—there was nowhere Hugo could go at all.
I remember seeing the the whitewash coming straight toward us. Behind me, there was the actual full-size wave that was breaking in the inside. And I remember thinking, ‘God, we have nowhere to go. This is going to be rough.’ Then we hit the whitewash and the ski just completely projected into the air—‘cause at the same time we hit it, both waves hit each other and just exploded us into the air.
Yeah, you guys went so high, I couldn’t believe it.
Me neither, especially because it’s like a 300—it’s a huge machine. Heavy machine.
And then when you’re in the air, what was your thought process? ‘Cause you were in the air for so long, you must’ve actually been pretty conscious of what was going on…
I was always like, ‘Okay, we’re going to land right now. Okay. We’re gonna land right now.’ I wasn’t expecting to be in the air that long. I didn’t have a visual reference of how high we were because I was laying down on the back of the sled and there’s water flying up all over the place. So you’re just feeling it out. My thought was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to hold on tight, because once we land, I want to be able to grab the ski in case Hugo falls off.’ And that was my thought, you know, holding on as tight as possible.
Looking back at it now, if I had known I was flying that high up in the air, I should have completely let go of the sled because of, well, the situation that followed from that.
So then you came down onto the sled and what happened? Did you hit your head or…
When I landed, it was on the side of my chest, the right side of my thoracic. That’s how I perforated my lung. And I remember feeling like I was going to blackout. It was like a fading field of black, you know, it wasn’t that instant blackout where you don’t remember anything. I remember landing and still holding onto the ski and just thinking, ‘Uhhh, I’m going out,’ and that’s the last thing I remember.
And then obviously you’ve seen the video, where there’s a second wave that rolls your unconscious body toward the shore. What was it like, watching that back after the fact?
It was like a really slow puzzle, trying to put everything together and process everything. I had to watch everything a few times and hear different stories to put it together.
And when did you actually come-to? Was it on the beach, in the ambulance…
Yeah, it was on the beach. It was definitely on the beach. The first thing I remember was just hearing voices of people around me, like lots and lots of voices. And then I opened up my eyes and they were, as they were lifting me up and putting me into the ambulance and the first person I saw was my girlfriend Celeste. And right after, Hugo Vau, my partner, was there also in the ambulance. I remember having this vague awareness of what happened. So I was thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve been through the worst part. I’m alive, I’m—you’re being taken care of and looking after.’ And that was really comforting actually, to feel that.
I can’t even imagine. So, what happened next? You get to the hospital, and were you in a critical condition or pretty stable at that point?
I was still in a pretty critical condition. I was just throwing up water and trying to breathe. I was only able to take really, really shallow breaths and I would throw up water immediately after.
I remember at first I had no breathing machines in my lung. I was breathing by myself, breathing shallowly, but I was breathing. But then after later on was when things started to get worse—which I guess now I’ve learned that that’s a normal thing when you have a situation like this happen.
That night I was totally unable to breathe by myself. They had to manually supply air to my pleura, which is—I only learned this now, but you have a little air chamber around your lung that has negative pressure and makes your lung compress after you inhale. And since I’ve perforated that, there was water where there should be air, so the pressure was wrong.
So they had to intubate me to put a breathing machine in my, in my throat. And for some reason they have to connect those tubes in your chest while you’re conscious, so they did that while I was awake. Then they put me out and connected the tubes down my throat until my breathing normalized. And that’s why I was in the ICU for a week.
What was the process like while you were there?
Well, one of the first things was doing a brain scan, because I basically had 10 minutes without breathing. It took them six minutes to get me out of the water, and then it was another four minutes before I restarted breathing on the beach. I had a really long time without oxygen.
Somehow, I was fortunate enough to not have any brain damage
The rest of my time in the ICU is kind of blurry because I was on morphine. I only have a few memories, but I remember, it being hard to keep track of time or what day it was. If one hour had gone by, it could have been two days to me. I also wasn’t eating because I had the tube and the whole machine in my mouth.
I could have visitors for half-an-hour, twice-a-day, and that was pretty much it. I felt like my day was revolving around getting visited by my girlfriend and my mom.
Well, I guess the one good thing is that you were at home when this happened, or at least in your home country.
Yeah, yeah. It did make a difference. It was easy or for my family to come and be there with me. The hospital is like four hours away from where I live, but it was nice because… if you’re familiar with the language, you’re just at home. So it definitely was a positive side of it, and the people in the hospital took such good care of me.
Has all of this been covered by the WSL’s insurance, or how does that work?
Yes, so far, everything that happened in the hospital was covered by the WSL insurance.
That’s good to hear. And sorry, just to backtrack, you said you went 10 minutes without breathing…how?
Yeah, that’s true. I only found this out after I came out of intensive care, ‘cause then I was in the normal hospital for another eight days getting treated, and the doctor that was accompanying came and asked, ‘Do you mind if we use your case for a clinical study?’ And I said, ‘Sure, but…why? What’s the study?’ Then she showed me the report, which said I went 10 minutes without oxygen. I was pretty surprised to see that, because on my best day, in static conditions, I could hold my breath for five minutes. And that’s in static, with tons of preparation, breathing deeply, and staying in still-water, like a pool. So I don’t know what kind of angel is next to me or what allowed me to go that long without breathing.
Yeah, it’s unbelievable. I guess it also goes to shows the psychological side of it, like how much more our body can take than what we’re mentally willing to allow.
So how long have you been home for and how are you feeling?
I’ve been home for just about a month now. In the last week I feel much, much better. I feel like I can finally do my normal chores without feeling any consequences, as long as I do them slowly. Initially when I came home, I was still getting tired very quickly. So anything I would do, you know—getting up to walk to the kitchen or, or going upstairs or, or getting dressed—I would have to take breaks in between everything because my lungs are weak. The whole recovery basically about healing my lungs, because both of them were filled with water, so they need time to recover and regain the ability to oxygenate the body. But in the last week I’m feeling much better.
Just before this whole situation with the of the Coronavirus started, I was just starting my first few sessions of physiotherapy and getting that going. But because of all this, I had to put that on hold and stay at home now.
Of course. So looking long term, does it seem like you will be able to make a full recovery?
Yeah, it does. The doctor said I would have a full recovery. I feel pretty positive also about that, just from how my body is feeling at this moment.
I still can’t believe you didn’t have any brain damage, like not even a concussion.
I also can’t believe in. When you watch the video of the second wave, it looked like I went over the falls with the ski. I don’t know how we didn’t hit underwater. It’s crazy.
So now I guess the question is, and it feels pretty like shallow to ask, but do you feel any differently now about big wave surfing? Is it something you still want to pursue once you’re healed?
A lot of people that I’ve seen around my hometown, they’ve, kept saying like, ‘Oh, you should never go again,’ or ‘Aren’t you traumatized by the experience?’
After hearing that quite a few times, I started to question myself. I mean, I haven’t been in the ocean since the accident. Maybe when I go back, you know, maybe I’ll be scared of it. But I’ve been thinking about it and, you know, I keep going back to the fact that it was ultimately the waves that brought me back to shore. Nobody picked me up and brought me to shore. There were attempts by the safety team, and I’m deeply thankful for everyone who ditched their skis trying to get me, but it’s just so hard out there with the crisscross waves to pick someone up.
When I arrived on shore, the people grabbed me and I was assigned a medical team—five stars. They took such great care of me. That’s why I’m here today. But between the accident and arriving to shore, it was all the ocean. And when I saw that and realized that it, it made me feel very confident, like I have a stronger relationship with the ocean.
Because it could’ve dragged me out to sea. There’s so many rips out there that pull you around. The ocean could’ve easily pushed me in the other direction, but it didn’t—it pushed me to shore, and that gives me a good feeling about going out there again.
That’s really beautiful. I’m glad you feel that way. Now with the coronavirus, everything is on its own schedule, but health-wise, when do you think you will be able to get back in the water—at least to surf small waves?
I think if I was doing physiotherapy, I probably could be getting back into the water pretty soon. Judging from my own meter of how I feel, I think that in a few weeks, maybe a month I could have enough lung capacity to get into the water.
It’s silly for me to imagine this, but I went to the beach one day with my girlfriend before this whole coronavirus lockdown, and there were two-foot glassy waves. And I was looking at it, and I was just kinda holding my breath as she was duck-diving each little wave, and I couldn’t hold my breath for the duration of a single duck-dive. I realized that I’d probably drown out there on a two-foot day in my current situation. But yeah, looking back at that versus how I’m feeling now, I think in a few weeks up to a month I could probably get back in the water.
That’s really good to hear, and we look forward to seeing you back out there and really just getting back to full health. Is there anything else that we didn’t cover?
I just want to say thank you to everyone, from the medical team, to everybody who sent messages and showed me support and good energy because it really was helpful. It really was a beautiful thing, and it gave me a lot of strength—from people as close as my family to people that I’ve never met.
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