HAZARD PAY: Daniel Russo recounts his brush with death and the photo that got away

posted by / News / March 20, 2007

It seemingly came out of nowhere. Flat in the morning. Six feet by noon. And then, in the gray stillness of late afternoon, the biggest swell to light up the North Shore in a few years. Most guys were caught off guard. But others, like SURFING’s ace photographer Daniel Russo, was on it as usual, and made it out to Outer Log Cabins just in time to capture Garrett McNamara’s paddle-in attempt. But as Russo soon found out, things can go bad even when you’re totally prepared — especially when the ocean has something to say about it. Here’s Russo’s account of the afternoon and how this sequence of Garrett McNamara at Outer Logs went soft on him:

“Everything went wrong for me on this session. First it started when my trigger on my housing stopped working an hour after I left the harbor. So, I had to decide if I was going to go back to Haleiwa or call someone to meet me at a beach that wasn’t closing out to hand me a Pelican case. At this point, the swell was just starting to hit the outer reefs but nothing too big. We knew it was going to hit fast, so I called my friend to meet me at Marijuanas. I made my way to the beach and he handed me my pelican case. I went out to Third Reef, opened my housing and put my camera into the Pelican. I thought everyone was at a reef west of Haleiwa because the last time we talked they said they were going down that way. So, after going all the way down there and finding out they weren’t there, I turned around and pegged it to Logs. When I passed by Outer Marijuanas again it was about 18 feet. When I went by the Bay it was 20 feet. But time was running out. It was already 5pm and the sun was going down fast. Plus, it was so overcast it felt like the sun was down already. When I passed Outer Logs, a 20-foot set broke. I kept going looking for everyone. I came up to Backyards and saw Dane [Kealoha] and Buttons. I said, “Where’s Garrett?” and they said “Coming from the beach with his paddle board.” I knew it was on. I pulled out my camera and started taking some shots of the Dane and Buttons. I had it on manual focus and forgot to switch it back to auto. That’s where the fumbling started to happen. We made our way towards Logs and as we got to the back of the peak, a 25-foot set came in and everyone raised their hands freaking out knowing that this could be the biggest day of the winter. I got into position and waited for Garrett to paddle into a big one. A set came in and he barely made it over the first three. On the fourth, he swung around and paddled into what I claim the biggest wave I have ever seen paddled into with my bare eyes. As he made his way down I realize he was out of focus and switched it back to auto. But it was too late and I shot the whole sequence in a blur. I prayed that he would get another one but I knew that was the one. I still am kicking myself over my stupid rookie move. But that wasn’t the end of it. There was no room for error out here and with what I had to work with, I was cutting corners big time. As Garrett proceeded to drop into another big one i bolted to the inside, trying to sit underneath of him. I opened my Pelican case and tried to shoot the wave, but I realized I was too close so I closed my case and hit the throttle but I was too late. I was flooring it through the foam and hitting 10 foot chops. I got thrown from my ski and my pelican went flying, too. I was wearing my fins so it wasn’t that bad. i came up looked back and saw a 25 footer coming straight at me. I swam to my Pelican and then to my Ski. As the wave got closer, it picked me up and I had to throw my Pelican to unleash my left hand. I hit the throttle and barely made it over the wave. My Pelican went washing into Rockpiles, and Garrett and Dane went in and grabbed it. There was some water inside, but I wiped it off with a damp towel. Most people would have went in, But I stuck it out and tried to shoot dark, 30-foot waves with a wet camera. The photos just don’t do it justice. But what I have in my head is some of the heaviest stuff I have seen in a while.”

[Russo then headed back to Haleiwa in the dark, where he overshot the harbor and barely escaped a pitch-black cleanup set at {{{Avalanche}}}. A lesser man may have quit right then and there. Russo’s take? “Finally some excitement over here,” he said.]

[Be sure to check the July issue of SURFING Magazine, where McNamara tells his version of their late-afternoon Logs session.]

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