Of Big Indo Injuries and the Swell Of The Century with Steve Berger

Steve Berger was inadvertently tagged into a Surfing Doctors conversation recently, and replied to the thread, explaining that he was actually the same 70-year old Steve who broke his pelvis during the Indo swell of the century. He had been in touch with Dr Chapman before his trip, looking for advice as he is on blood-thinners, and as a result, a somewhat harrowing story with a good ending emerged. 

We thought it would be a good read to hear what really went down during that Swell Of The Century.

Surfing Doctors: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Steve: I’m 70 now, have lived on the Southern California coast most of my life. Decided I was going to be a surfer at around age 5 after watching Miki Dora surf Malibu by himself. Bombed hills on skateboards, bodysurfed, rode mats and Styrofoam boards, etc. It was probably around 1961 when I finally got to borrow a real board from a friend. Shortly after that, I saved up enough to buy a kit to build a surfboard. Nowadays my home base is in a trailer park, two streets south of the Huntington Beach Pier, and I still surf my backyard pretty much every day.

What sort of board do you surf on most days?
I usually shape my own boards and for friends, etc. My small operation is called Southside Surfboards. Usually, I ride tri, quad or 2+1 high-performance longboards and guns around 9ft. under 22″ wide.

Do you do a lot of surf travel?
I try to travel a lot but it’s hard when my house in Huntington is like being on vacation all the time. I do have longboards and step-ups stashed where I travel the most, like in Australia and Costa Rica, plus a big wave gun in Hawaii. I hardly ever miss a Winter season in Hawaii and like to go to Australia, usually for Typhoon season. I have some property in Northern Costa Rica and try to visit it once a year. For the past 40 years or so I’ve travelled a lot with my Aussie friend Hugh Pierpoint and sometimes kneeboarder Mark Munro. Together we have explored and surfed most of, California, Hawaii, Indonesia, Mexico, Australia, Tahiti and a few more places.

Tell me about the trip that you were on.
Hugh, Mark and I were in Sumatra on Nyang Nyang Island, staying at a surf camp called MIA. The waves were fun, we were fed pretty well and even had a few rationed Bintangs. For the first week or so we mostly surfed fun rights in front of the camp at Nipussy, Clit and Bank Vaults or went across the island to Ebay and Beng Bengs for lefts.

I heard that it got a bit bigger than expected.
We heard about a big swell on the way from a boat captain passing by.  He said they were calling it the “Century Swell”.  As the swell started to rise, our usual spots were too big or too dangerous for us old guys to ride. So we hired a boat and went exploring with our camp surf guide.
It soon became a lot bigger than we expected. We had to swim out to the boat because there was too much surf for it to dock. We brought our gunniest boards and headed out toward Kandui Island.

What went down?
We went out at Kandui. It wasn’t really big there yet, maybe 3 meters (8-10 ft.) but thick and fast. I got a couple of nice rides on my 7″6 step up that got me excited, probably too much. Went for the wrong wave and got pitched and smashed by the lip on the first large set. Think I hit the flat reef or maybe my board.

What was the extent of your injury?

I had a broken pelvis and lower back.

Not good.

I couldn’t use my legs so I just laid face down, held my breath and stayed calm. Floated until I was washed inside the reef. Was still connected to my leash and board was miraculously in one piece…so I pulled myself up on the board and paddled to the boat. On the boat my right leg felt out of place so I had one of the crew pull my leg and it felt better. I had to have them hold my legs up over my head at first to keep from passing out. All the locals were really helpful and somehow got me by motorcycle sidecar and boat to the overnight slow ferry on Siberut which waited for me.
Hugh and a really cool local camp owner (not MIA) Del Sabolak went with me to a nice but primitive hospital in Padang where I had several nurses and we all lived for 3 days. Then I got evacuated to Singapore for treatment.

At what stage did you reach out to Dr Chapman from Surfing Doctors?

I talked to Dr. Chapman before I even left the US and again before leaving Australia for Sumatra. I had just had a stint to open my left main artery and was going to be on blood thinners for at least a year. So I reached out to him for advice. After the accident Dr Chapman kept in touch and gave me encouragement for a full recovery.

What did he tell you?

Well, I should have followed his main direction.  Dr Chapman told me first of all to stick to small waves and be careful of getting cut on the reefs. He probably knew I wouldn’t. Gave me directions on what to do if anything did happen. Like, go to Padang for stabilization and evac to Australia or Singapore for treatment.  He prescribed me some medicine including one to stop bleeding and set me up with a great first aid kit. After the accident he told me that other surfers with the same injury were able to still surf good after recovery.

I heard the result of the surgery was a great result.

My Orthopedic Surgeon in Singapore, Dr Jeffery Chew was trained at the Mayo Clinic in the US but says he treated me holistically. Didn’t go by the Xrays very much, just balanced my right and left sides and put a plate across the broken pelvis with a big (over5cm?)gap. Left my back to heal by itself.
Told me the operation was a big success and I would be back surfing in 3 months.
When I finally made it back to the US and was admitted to UCI Medical centre they said I would never even walk, let alone surf unless they repaired the Singapore operation. They wanted to re-bolt my pelvis with the sides close together and re-brake and put a plate in my back immediately. Lucky I waited and was back in the surf before I could walk. I rode my bike down to the sand and pushed it across until I could roll into the water with a bodyboard and fins. Like Dr Chew said I started standing without crutches and surfing a bit at about 3 months. Since then my hips are way more flexible and my lower back issues are pretty much gone. I have won the Huntington Beach City Surf contest (Legends division) for the last 3 years.

What did you take away from the whole experience?

Since then I have become more selective and try to only go on waves I can make. Also, try to live life more fully every day and show more love for other people. Never know when it could be taken away. My best advice to friends travelling outside the country is to have plenty of good medical and evacuation insurance.


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