Lagos hero and big wave surfer Alex Botelho stopped breathing for ten minutes after a horrific surfing accident in Nazaré. His miraculous recovery means he was able to talk to Sophie Sadler about his journey and what surfing means to him.
In February 2020, Lagos big wave surfer Alex Botelho suffered a terrible accident while competing in the Nazaré challenge. After surfing his final wave of the competition, he was picked up on the jet ski. As he and his partner Hugo Vau attempted to reach shore they were caught in the middle of a freak wave.
Formed from two waves, the mountain of water was horseshoe-shaped. The wave travelling from south to north was a huge shore break careering down on them from the height of a building. They decided to face the smaller whitewash, travelling north to south. At the moment they hit the foam and the jet ski powered up to climb away, the other, bigger, wave crashed down and created a backwash, projecting both of them and the jet ski in the air.
Alex was projected onto the jet ski, puncturing a lung. As his airways slowly filled with water in the tumultuous waters, Alex felt strangely calm.
“I was aware I was going to black out; it didn’t happen suddenly. I experienced a gradual loss of consciousness, but I never felt like I was going to die. I had a feeling of submission and my instinct was to relax into it to give myself a better chance of survival. That is the last thing I remember.”
As the rescue team searched for him in the water, remarkably, Alex, was washed towards the shore where he was given immediate medical attention. He was in the water for six minutes and then it took four minutes on the beach for the medics to resuscitate him. There are no other recorded incidents of anyone’s breathing stopping for that long, without them suffering permanent brain damage.
“My next memory was hearing voices. This immediately made me feel calm as I knew I was no longer in the water.” As he was being put in the ambulance, he opened his eyes to see his girlfriend Celeste and partner Hugo, and he felt enormous relief.
That night in the hospital, he suffered from secondary drowning and had to be intubated orally to be assisted in breathing as well as a tube draining his right lung. His most frightening moment was waking up, unable to move with tubes in his mouth. Alex was assessed for brain damage and, incredibly, there was none. He has subsequently become a case for a clinical study.
He lost 12 kg in a couple of days, got grey hairs, and didn’t have enough muscle to walk. “It felt like my body extracted all of its spendable resources to survive.”
It is almost inconceivable that the man I’m talking to now went through this trauma less than a year ago. More impressive is that he is surfing again, although he does not yet have the lung capacity to return to assisted surfing with the jet ski.
Alex was born and brought up in Lagos; his paternal family hail from Lagos and Sagres and his mother is Dutch. When he was six, he joined the Clube de Velho (sailing club) but while at sea admits he was more fascinated by the waves than the wind so switched to surfing aged nine. Joining the Algarve Surf School in Sagres, he was coached by Sergio Brandaõ, who still mentors him today. “Sergio always cultivated a positive attitude in me to overcome challenges; this is part of how I evolved into a surfer.”
He completed all his schooling in Lagos attending NAUS and Julio Dantes secondary schools. Then, when he was 18, he had an opportunity to go and surf in California at the renowned surfing beach Mavericks. Here, the waves routinely crest at over 8 m with a break formed from an unusually shaped underwater rock formation.
It was here that Alex got a “spontaneous opportunity” to surf a giant wave. “I have always wanted to push my limits. I am motivated by the pure fun and joy of riding the wave. As a big wave surfer, you can sometimes be in the water hours and not ride a single wave, you have to calculate the risk against the level of reward you can get from the ride.”
Although he was already receiving sponsorship, Alex decided to take a break from surfing and went to Lisbon to study Fine Arts, but by the time he was 19 he had become a professional surfer and Lagos and the waves drew him back again. Growing up in the centre of Lagos, where he still lives, Alex was instilled with an appreciation for the area and its beauty just as much as the act of riding a wave.
“I want surfing to be shared with everyone, but it needs to be taught properly. It’s not just about standing up on a surfboard. It’s about nature, respect, the natural surroundings and everything that makes it possible to enjoy this sport. It is vital that surf schools pass this information onto those that learn. We should respect the natural world in which we surf and this philosophy needs to be at the forefront of the tourist surf industry. Let’s not just sell the surf as a one-day experience, but as a cultural and moral responsibility. The Algarve is growing as an attraction, but we must not change it but leave it better than when we found it.”
For Alex, surfing has shaped most of his life and been his main focus; however, he believes his connection to the environment is more profound than his connection to the sport. “Nature challenges me, emotionally, psychologically and gives me a huge feeling of reward.”
It is nature which drives Alex to face the big waves once more. “My accident has only affected my connection to nature in a positive way. My injuries were not from the waves, they were from the jet ski and I feel Nazaré saved my life.”
In Nazaré, there are many currents and tides and the fact that the waves pushed him to the shoreline where he could receive medical attention quickly he attributes to the divine forces of nature. This is followed closely by the love of his family, his girlfriend Celeste and her six-year-old daughter, friends and well-wishers who he feels expedited his recovery.
His girlfriend Celeste is an osteopath and was a tower of strength for him as well as cooking him healthy food to get his strength back. His best friend and surf partner Hugo was with him every day, his parents were a pillar of support and he feels the love he felt made him strong again.
It took him three months to get back in the water, and initially, everyday tasks took a colossal effort. I wonder if any of his family who he credits with having nursed him back to health have begged him not to return to the arena of the Big Wave Tour? “It is a sign of their love that they have not, although I understand how difficult it must be for them. I will only go back when I am fully recovered and ready but I am not afraid to return.”
Alex still has scar tissue in his lungs which he is trying to heal with exercises; in the meantime, he retains the support of the sponsors who enable him to surf professionally. The most enduring of these is Volcon who he says, “have stood by me through thick and thin for 20 years”, including when he went to university and others lost faith. He also receives support from Ferox, Ocean and Earth, Shapers and the Câmara Municipal de Lagos.
He says the experience of riding a wave is like “an explosion of emotions that sits in your body but is mainly associated with the challenge of overcoming fear and turning it into positive energy. This gives you a feeling of accomplishment, happiness and adrenaline”.
Alex Botelho’s escape from death could be seen as luck, his personal fitness or the result of good medical team. If, like me, you are a romantic, you might believe that the mighty Atlantic washed him back to shore to educate us all in the power and beauty of nature.
What is Big Wave Surfing?
Big wave surfing is a discipline where experienced surfers are towed into waves which are at least 20 feet (6.2 m) high, on surfboards known as “guns” or tow boards.
In 1992, big wave surfers such as Laird Hamilton and Darrick Doerner introduced a cross over sport called tow-in surfing. This type of surfing involves being towed into massive waves by jet ski, allowing for the speed needed to ride successfully. By the end of the 1990s, tow-in surfing allowed surfers to ride waves exceeding 50 ft.
In a big wave wipeout, a breaking wave can push surfers down 20 to 50 feet (6.2 m to 15.5 m) below the surface. One of the greatest dangers is the risk of being held underwater by consecutive waves.
Nazaré in Portugal is on the Big Wave World Tour and a mecca for big wave surfers. The big waves season in Nazaré is between October and March. The Brazilian, Rodrigo Koxa, 40, is the Guinness World Records title holder for the largest wave surfed, which measured 24.38 metres (80 ft) at Nazaré on November 8, 2017.