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a few words with safety man Steve Fagan on Bathtub Racing
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a few words with safety man Steve Fagan
on Bathtub Racing, the Billabong Odyssey and surfing Skookumchuck with Elijah Mack
Steve: Elijah Mack is his name and he's quite a character. He's totally tattooed from one side to the other, he owns half of a barbershop in Eugene Oregon, and his specialty is river surfing.
He got my name from Gary London through the Billabong Odyssey, and we went up to Skookumchuck on Saturday last week [August 28 2004] . It was running 14.9 so was pretty big [tide]. The main wave is pretty big and it greens over really well, but there is a side wave that appears after the water starts moving about 13 knots or better, it's on about a 45 degree angle and it actually curls. Actually has a tube and they call it tubesteak. It's really hard to get into because it's so far offshore. We kept towing Eli into that wave but it was surging so hard that it would hold its shape and then it would flatten out into a straight wall and push him past, down into the Rapids. We did that six times and by that time he was pretty exhausted.
CoastalBC: how fast does Skookumchuck move? Like how fast are you going to tow him into place?
Steve: you got to do about 20 miles an hour to keep still. The actual waves are so big that we had trouble. The rope goes through the wave and I couldn't see Eli. The waves were so big that I couldn't tell when he was on the wave. We were lost over the hump. We needed a longer rope so I could climb up the next wave and be able to see. So I could see to get him into the right spot. I put him into the right spot about six times but it was pretty tough to stay in that spot. I was on an angle actually. The main waves go straight across but the tubesteak wave is on an angle so it's a really tough spot to get into and stay on. Eli could only make a couple of turns and then he'd get washed down.
CoastalBC: I've seen so much film of Skookumchuck narrows and have heard about all the people that I been drowned in it.
Steve: It's killed 13 people over the past 11 years.
CoastalBC: There are huge whirlpools that can't be survivable. You just have to stay completely away from them? Can you stay away from them?
Steve: those big whirlpools are further downstream. That's why he hired me to come up and be the rescue guy. We had to get in and get him out before he was sucked into the bigger waves further downstream. If he got washed downstream, if we had to try a pick up downstream, those waves would've picked up my boat and dumped it upside down and we would of all been a lot of trouble.
We only lost him once off the back of safety sled. It's easy to pick him up quick actually, just spin around and pick him up but he's got a surfboard dangling on his leash out the back and it was pulling him back into the water all the time because it was running so hard. Once he just cut his surfboard loose. I told him "when in doubt, let the board go". We learned a lot actually. I've been in the big surf all around the world as the surf rescue guy. I've done some river stuff with jetski safety but I've never done surf pickup on big standing waves before. All of us learned a lot, it was really good. I'd like to do it again when it isn't raining. I thought I'd have more time to whip out my camera and shoot but it was pretty crazy.
There is some really good footage of us nearly losing him off the back into huge wave and we just pull out in time. It really gets into whitewater down below. It looks like it it's all hazy but it's just that the water gets so whipped up, it's like Niagara Falls with that mist hanging above the water. You come back upstream and the picture gets clearer and clearer. If I did it again I'd probably do it on a ski. I did it behind my jet boat. I've got a SeaDoo twin engine speedster that I usually use for shooting video from because it's stable.
CoastalBC: man, this guy has nice toys.
Steve: it's great working for Billabong. They've got skis all over the world. Now I've started working for quicksilver as well. I worked on their skis in Tahiti and we're on board to do Fiji next year. It's been great.
CoastalBC: How did you get into this kind of work?
up to top ↑
» Photos:Barry Hill
» jetaddiction.com - Steve Fagan
» Surfer finds rebirth in roar of river water. - eugeneweekly.com
» Skookumchuck map - bcparks
Steve: I started in Nanaimo in the Departure Bay fire department. My father was the chief. I got involved in bathtub racing at 12 and I won the big bathtub race twice. Bathtub racing lead to 25 years of bathtub jet ski racing. I started racing jet skis and then I moved to Havasu. It's a lake in Arizona about two hours from Las Vegas. It's kind of the personal watercraft center of the universe and it's a lunatic town in the summer. I went down there to race jet skis on the U.S. national tour on a standup. It's where all the pro teams are, and they do testing there all winter and I got work as a test pilot. I worked on the pro racing team for SeaDoo for Chris "the flying fish" Fishetti.
My background is mechanics. I still build race motors for different teams around the world. Two years ago I built the motor for the French champion, Ludo Caumet . He's the European champion and then he came to the world championships in Havasu in October. I've never built a world champion jet ski but I've built a second-place one.
A few years ago I made a jetski video with my buddy called "Coastal Rage, Jet Addiction". It was an extreme jetski video and I learned a lot about shooting on the water. That's what got me involved in the Billabong Odyssey and from there I got into surf rescue.
My background's why the Odyssey hired me in the first place. We've got jet skis all over the world and we've got to keep them running and reliable. Surfers are notoriously lousy jetski pilots. They don't know what the hell they're doing and they need to be trained on how to take care of the equipment.
Before we started work on Billabong Oddesy, we trained for three months down at Cape Disappointment in Oregon at the U.S. Coast Guard station. Once we got out into the big surf I was just, holy crap! Brian Keaulana kinda took me under his wing.
CoastalBC: that's where the US Coast Guard trains their heavy seas courses. Out on the sand bar off the Columbia River.
Steve: Yeah. It's like standing wave stuff. The rivers running at 11 knots and the surf's coming straight in and it just peaks straight up. And it's not in just one spot. It's like five miles of peaks. There's like one trough where the boats go and if you get out of that you're into the peaks. It's the worst chunk of water in North America. The U.S. Coast Guard has 47 foot self righting boats that roll around in the surf and we're out there on jet skis. It was pretty crazy.
A lot of people have died out there. We trained with the U.S. Coast Guard there at Cape Disappointment and then went off and did the Odyssey movie. It was a great opportunity and it just opened up everything for me. I'll tell you about my big part in Billabong Odyssey. We were in Hossegor France and Bill Sharp was out on a ski on the biggest shore break ever surfed in Hossegor. Bill Sharp was my boss and they call him the boat killer because every jetski he's ever been on he's blown up or crashed. Bill came up on the beach on a rented ski to fill up the camera. Now launching on the surf is really difficult. You have to wait till the pump comes up off the beach and can get water before you hit the start button because you don't want to suck up sand. You have to wait till the water hits you and then hit the start button and then you have got to get out before the next wave comes in, so timing is everything. The wave that came in was so big, he just got hit and knocked sideways and thrown off. The ski got sucked down the ramp and out into the water. So I ran down the beach and into the water to try to get on it and hit the start button. That's the part of the movie that shows me. You can't really see how big it is because I just swung the camera around. You can see my head, and you kind of see the surf coming in and it sucks the jetski out and spits it and I'm out there trying to wrestle this thing, get on it, hit the start button and I'm just getting pummeled on the beach. It was a lot bigger that day than it actually looked like in the movie. That was my five seconds of fame. Everyone else was running the other way and I just instinctively ran into the water and tried to save it. It made it into the movie anyway.
I had already got smashed by a ski with Flea and Barney. For some reason they thought they had ski problems so they rode it up on the sand in Hossegor which is pretty steep and has pretty soft sand and we thought they were way up the beach. They just went full bore and ran it right up on the beach and I ran down with a gas can because I didn't know what the problem was. Flea and I were trying to turn the boat around, we thought we'd scoot the ski down the beach and out on the next wave. A huge set came in and we thought by the time it gets to the boat it'll be small enough that it wouldn't push the boat sideways up the beach. By the time it got to us it was this 8 foot high freight train of water coming at us. At the last-second we realized there's no way we're going to hold on to that ski. I went to get out of the way and Flea was in the way and the sled was the other way so I couldn't really move and the wave just smashed us. I was hanging onto the side of the sled and we got washed up the beach another 30 feet and I ended up under this ski. The water subsided and flea got smashed up the beach and they all thought I got sucked out because I was face down in the sand with this 1100 pound Kawasaki 1200 jetski on my back. I tried to move once and I thought by was still underwater. I thought these waves are coming every 17 seconds and I should be able hold my breath until the next wave lifts this ski off me. I'm trying to figure out all of math and how much this jet ski weighs and everything. They all run out in the water to see where I am and the next wave comes along and knocks the ski off me and they see my arm up in the air. They didn't know I was under this ski. So they started turning the cameras on the beach and caught me rescuing Bill's ski for the movie.
Since that we made a movie in Africa called "the perfect day" it was a Red Bull 45 min. movie about big wave Africa. They hired me as the safety coordinator for the biggest paddle surf contest in the world. It's at Dungeons. That was a year in half ago. I got caught with kelp up the pump and went over the falls. Broke three bones in my foot and tore the Achilles out of the other one so I had a cast on both legs coming back from Africa. That is pretty crazy. After hearing the stories form the year before about two 25' great whites coming in and chasing everyone out of the water, I didn't want to let go of the ski and not jumping clear is probably what broke my legs.
CoastalBC: What are you working on currently?
Steve: I did a 30 minute SurfJam 2004 video that's in the local surf shops now and we're working on a full length feature film. Tentative title is "Havasu's Around the World in 80 Waves". Everyone in the surf industry knows me as Havasu. When I first started in the surf business all the guys on the Odyssey got together and they nicknamed me Havasu because I lived in there when I worked on the pro racing team for SeaDoo. It'll be footage from all the spots that I've worked around the world. Africa, Tahiti, Hawaii, Austrailia, Mexico, France, Spain and it'll start in Canada and featuring all the pro surfers I've worked with over the past 3 years. We'll also do segments on film makers that I've worked with and come to know like Jack McCoy, Josh Palmer & Mike Prickett.
It just seems that the last three years, working for the Billabong Odyssey, has been a life changing experience. What started as a two week job, to build new skis for a top secret surf expedition, lead to a three year, seven seas venture to tow a surfer into a 100ft wave. Even how I got the job was a story in it self. I had just been living in Havasu Arizona working in the jetski racing business. I arrived in Havasu after years of racing everything from standup jetski to racing bathtubs. Racing goes back as far as I can remember. Growing up in departure bay and having a beach instead of a front lawn, was not the average childhood. I started racing bathtubs in 1967 with the Departure Bay fire department. Sometimes we were involved with over 10 tubs racing in the big race. In the 70,s and 80,s the bathtub racing was at its peak. It was one of the top 10 events in all of North America. It was covered by TSN as well as Wide World of Sports and news crews from around the globe. What had started as a publicity stunt for the city of Nanaimo turned into an international world championships. Racers came from all over the world to participate. Some years over 200 competitors took part in the 33 mile dash across the open water of the Georgia straights to end up in Vancouver's Kits beach.