Stab Magazine | Water Tried to Kill Me

Water Tried to Kill Me

Words by Jake Howard “I was in the water for three hours before the biggest set of the day caught me inside. The wave grew to 20 feet as I tried to escape, but then the lip fell, and fell fast. It landed on my head. Direct hit. The explosion felt like a freeway car wreck. […]

style // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Words by Jake Howard

“I was in the water for three hours before the biggest set of the day caught me inside. The wave grew to 20 feet as I tried to escape, but then the lip fell, and fell fast. It landed on my head. Direct hit. The explosion felt like a freeway car wreck. I was pushed deep and disoriented. I don’t remember swimming to the surface, but when I got there I vomited twice. I tried not to panic. Dizzy. Scared. Something was wrong. I took two rapid breaths before the next wave, just as tall as the first, crashed down on me. Rinse and repeat. With the last of my energy I swam up for air, desperate. I found my board before the third wave hit and had just enough time to hug it. The wave pushed me towards calm water. I floated in the channel for 20 minutes with my trunks in a tattered knot around my right ankle and leash. I was too tired to be embarrassed. For three months after, I was dizzy and nauseous. I’d been concussed and nearly drowned. The most serious injury of my life. I couldn’t surf, and wasn’t even sure if I wanted to.” – Derek Dunfee, Fiji, 2012

Months after the pounding, Derek Dunfee struggled to mend himself. Favoured memories escaped him. The residual effects of the concussion – not his first – rendered him absent minded, lost in a fog. He didn’t suffer from common concussion-related ailments like headaches or nausea, but he was tormented by a brain in tumult. Unnerved that senility had arrived early, he started to compile thoughts and photographs, eventually publishing them in a two-volume zine called Dekka. It was as much therapy as it was a precautionary measure.

Here’s a shot that Derek took looking out of the back of his truck at his regular haunt Windansea. Despite being in the middle of one of the most affluent areas of Southern California, Windansea’s rich surf history has survived, and it’s something that Derek Dunfee treasures.

“I got really scared that I wasn’t going to be able remember anything,” recalls Derek. “I’ve spent all my life traveling and chasing waves, and I felt there was a sense of urgency to document everything because it was getting harder and harder to tap back into those memories.”

Three years removed and Derek’s doing just fine. He hasn’t stopped surfing and he’s at peace with the ocean wanting to kill him. For the first time in years, he’s injury free – mentally and physically. He’s fit. He’s focused. He’s hungrily eye fucking the Godzilla El Niño. He’s keyed in on what he hopes will be an apocalyptic season at Maverick’s. As a brush or two with death will do (Cortes Bank also tried to do him in), Derek reevaluated. He reprioritised. And, he decided he wasn’t done yet.

“Right now, Maverick’s, that’s where I’m putting all my energy,” he says. “For the first time in a long time, I’m not dealing with any nagging injuries. I have an invite into the Maverick’s contest and it’s now or never, you know.”

Of course, there’s scar tissue.

“I honestly didn’t know if I’d ever ride big waves again. You question things on a pretty deep down level. And I guess that will always be somewhere in the back of my mind, but turns out I was just kind of born this way,” he smirks.

If one is born to walk a predetermined path then that is what they must do. About the same time he got blown up in Fiji he also got blown out the door at Volcom. Today, he’s sponsorless; supporting himself, surfing for himself.

“I don’t really think about it,” explains Derek. “I don’t get to go on as many trips, and the ones I do go on I have to be pretty calculated about, but otherwise I surfed before I had a sponsor and I’m still surfing now. That hasn’t changed. The pro thing is just a small part of it. I don’t miss the game, all good things have to come to a conclusion eventually. I don’t regret it one bit, I loved every minute of it, but I also love what I’m doing now.”

What Derek is doing now is creating. A talented photographer, he’s starting to pick up more and more work shooting campaigns for companies, as well as other fashion and modelling projects. He has an eye, a look, a natural knack for composition and artistry. He’s also a skilled cinematographer. He’s made a couple of lo-fi films, and occasionally gets up to L.A. to produce music videos or commercial pieces (think: Alana Blanchard, swimsuits, Sports Illustrated). And when that work slows down, he’s a part-time fishmonger.

“I work at El Pescador Fish Market in La Jolla to make ends meet,” says Derek. “It’s all about balance. I’m able to do the creative stuff when it’s there. The fish market makes sure the bills are paid. And I’m still surfing a lot.”

To keep things balanced he lives within his means. He scored a killer deal on a small house a couple blocks up from his beloved Windansea. Impossibly, rent’s only $1,800 a month (the bro deal of all bro deals considering the median home price in La Jolla is $1.6 million). As mentioned, he doesn’t travel as much as he used to now that it’s on his dime. When he heads north to Maverick’s he usually just sleeps on friends’ couches. And like most working stiffs, he knows the sting of cutting a session short to make sure the bills get paid. But he’s fine with it all. This isn’t a crying-in-your-beer story. This is a man who’s spirit couldn’t be crushed by the Pacific or surf industry fuckery.

“I love what I’m doing today,” says Derek. “I’ve been able to explore and experience so many new opportunities, things I never would have done if I was still worried about having a sticker on the front of my board. This has all been an opportunity to hit reset and get back down to what’s really important in life.”

And therein lies the moral of Derek’s tale: Just live.


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