Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Trip of A Lifetime Gone Wrong

Hi everyone. My apologies for no updates for a while.  As many may know, our summer adventure was interrupted, in fact, my entire life has been interrupted, by a nightmare come true.  I feel it is important to share with the world what really happened because those who love and care about Danny deserve to know the true facts (there is a lot of mis-information in the media).

Here is my story (in the G rated version):

On June 30, 2011, my husband Danny, myself, and our good friend Brian left for what was to be a 6 week surf trip through Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Bali.  Although we have traveled the world before, this was going to be the surf trip of a lifetime.  We spent our first two weeks surfing for hours every day in Sri Lanka. It was an incredible and unforgettable time.  
We arrived in Sumatra around July 17th and spent our first week at a surf camp located on a beach break in the Krui region of West Lampung.  We then moved to a camp about half an hour away, located on an incredible reef break called Ujuong Bocur.  We had surfed this point a few times during the previous week.
On the morning of Sunday, July 24 around 8:00 a.m. Danny and Brian paddled out among a dozen or so other surfers at Ujuong Bocur.  The waves were 8-10 feet and although they were peeling perfectly across the point, the currents were incredibly strong and there was a lot of water moving on the inside (where a surfer will typically get off of the wave). Around 9:30 a.m a local photographer approached our camp (located right on the beach) and asked me “do you know whose surf board this is”.  It only took a few seconds for me to realize it was Danny’s.  The leash had snapped at the ankle.  I frantically ran down onto the beach and within a few moments Brian had paddled in to see where Danny was.  Another surfer who had been out said that he had been tangled with Danny’s board on the inside but never saw Danny.  There is no evidence that this surfer hit Danny or that his board hit Danny’s board.  We believe that after falling off of a wave, Danny hit his head on the reef and went unconscious immediately.
Brian and I spent the next 4 days looking for Danny.  Brian paddled out to look, snorkeled and free dove to look into underwater caves in the reef.  We both spent countless hours combing over the inside of the break on the reef for miles.  The Indonesians did send a search and rescue team who utilized all available resources on Day 3.  There were also around 30 surfers staying at adjacent surf camps who assisted us in the search daily.
On the morning of July 28th, Brian and I had started our morning walk down the beach to search for Danny. We had made it maybe a mile or so down when we got word that a fisherman in a village hours away had found the body of a Westerner and the clothing description matched Danny’s.  Danny had drifted from Tanjung Setia Beach Surfing Area, Pesisir Selatan, Lampung, Indonesia to Kaur Selatan, Bengkulu, Indonesia; close to 100 miles in approximately 96 hours. 
It took us approximately another week to settle things in Indonesia and to bring Danny back home.   We are eternally thankful to Jason and Ayu at Damai Bungalows for their dedication, love and support in helping us find Danny and bring him home.  We are also thankful to all of the fishermen, surfers and the Search and Rescue Teams, translators, and everyone in the United States who provided us with tips and contacts who may have been valuable in our search.  
I can imagine no greater challenge in life than this experience.  It is a tragic reminder that life is fragile, that we should take nothing for granted and that, as one of Danny’s tattoos read, our wealth should be weighed in spirit.  

It's interesting that I have titled my blog "Surfing Through Life" because this is where life gets serious and surfing seems less important on some levels.  On the day of Danny's memorial service (August 7, 2011) we had a paddle-out.  At the time I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of people around.  I had a dozen offers for people to separate the ashes or paddle them out for me but it's something I felt strongly I needed to do for Danny.  It was incredible work just to find him and get him home, and as his wife, and his love, I felt it my responsibility and honor to bring him back to where he belongs (in the ocean).  It was mostly important to me to catch a wave after doing that.  Danny would be so upset if I stopped surfing because of this.  I did catch a wave and it felt great.
Brian and I bringing Danny home where he belongs
Brian and I paddled out a couple of days after that.  I have to admit, although I love the feeling of being on a wave, that was one of the most stressful and intimidating sessions I have ever had. From flashbacks of the reef when I'm duck-diving to needing to know where Brian is on every wave at all times, it was stressful.  I know that it will get easier in time and I understand the stressors involved for me (I am after all a social worker).  I know that I will get back to the place where surfing is fun eventually.
Everyone keeps telling me how strong I am. I prefer determined, not a victim, brave maybe, and I am partial to my brother telling me that I am "more gangster" than anyone he has ever met.  Putting on a backpack with Danny's ashes in it, paddling out in a swarm of people and then letting him go in the ocean while everyone screamed was overwhelming, intimidating, heartbreaking and satisfying all at the same time.  
So, I am home, and continue to run, will soon be back to yoga, and will continue surfing through life. 

Peace and Waves


  1. Rachel,

    You are taking ownership of your experience. You are admitting to where you are and what you, naturally are going through. This is so admirable and honest. There will be plenty of phases to follow - life will continue to reveal its secrets to you. It makes sense that you've spent so much of your time by the sea. You've learned from her in all your observations.

    This all reminds me of a song by Fela Kuti. I don't know if you've heard of it, but it's called "Water No Get Enemy". His strong Nigerian dialect may make him difficult to understand, but he's basically referring to water as this thing we cannot do without...though it may harm us or the people we love, we still rely on it daily, and miss it terribly if we ever lack it. And it's great to dance to:

    May each day build upon the last. May each tear heal your heart. May freedom rescue you in her wings. May you surf and laugh and love in new and meaningful yet lighthearted ways.

    Thank you for sharing all of this. Thank you.

    Your sister, forever,

  2. Your experience is one no one wants to go through, but G-d works in mysterious ways and he has given you the strength to share it.

    While we don't know each other, for days following Danny's disappearance, I kept thinking that that place - Indonesia - has so many tiny islands (yes, I've spent some time there) and maybe he was just sitting on one waiting for you to get there. Sadly that didn't happen and I've been reading about you and Danny since then. I sit on the beach in Long Beach and think of you both. The pictures I've seen illustrate pure, honest love. Time does heal, even though that it such an outrageous concept when everything is still so new. When I lost my sister to a tragic accident over 30 years ago the *one* thing I remember being said at her funeral: G-d knows when to save his righteous children before they are spoiled. It came from somewhere so deep in Jewish writings that it's purely Rabbi speak, but it spoke volumes for me. I hope it helps you a little.

    I'm sorry I never had the opportunity to meet your husband. I do know his former principal, though, and saw some things he wrote about Danny. If Nick was in it, that solidified the goodness of your Danny.
    I pray for you that time heals your pain - mile after mile, stretch after stretch, and eventually wave after wave with Danny guiding you to future happiness.

  3. I don't know you or Danny, but I think you are amazing for putting this experience into such words. Your husband seemed like an amazing man from reading about him and hearing stories from friends of mine that have played music with him. I know if I were in your position I would have crumbled - your strength is more than admirable.

  4. You are an amazing soul and true hero!

  5. Hugs to you! You are such an inspiration for getting back into the water & continuing to do something you both loved so much. Thinking of you always & sending good thoughts your way!

  6. I was just at the Quik Pro and heard that the heat between Steph Gilmore and Sally Fitz was dedicated to his memory. My heart sank. I searched when I got home and read the story and found your blog. I was in Peru with Danny in April of 2003. We stayed at the same camp- Pico Alto. We connected instantly as we had both traveled there solo and were both teachers. I think he had just finished student teaching at that point. I have such great memories of looking for waves and surfing with Danny especially at a point called Centinela that we caught really good. We each took a couple rocks from there to remind us of that place and they still sit on my desk and I think of him every time I glance at them. I will never forget him. It is so inspiring to me to hear about his founding of the Long Beach High Surf Team and the Long Beach Surfer's Association- they have and will continue to enrich the surf community in Long Beach so much and its thanks to him.

    My deepest condolences to you for your loss.

    -Bill McLennan

  7. So sad to read of your loss. I found this by searching Google about the place names Bintuhan, Kaur. I plan to go there and surf (if theres waves). I used to go to Krui and know the surf places - they can be extremely dangerous. And I think I may even know the local Photographer you mentioned. This is such a poignant reminder of the dangers. This story will stick in my mind....what we do IS risky...thanks for the reminder