Being 100 percent committed to the things you love can have its risks. Just ask Wayne Rich. A longstanding and much beloved member of the Santa Barbara surfing tribe, Wayne-O is known for living a salt water-soaked life at full speed, and December 4, 2007, was no exception. With one of the biggest swells in recent memory filling in fast along the S.B. coast, Rich was locked and loaded at a moody and majestic tube machine north of Rincon. With fast-moving, straight west-angled sets pushing double overhead in size, the nearly 50-years-young shaper and surfer took off deep on his second wave of the day, drawing an uncompromising line straight into the belly of the beast. “[It was] so hollow and heavy it was ridiculous,” Rich recalled recently.
After a few brief seconds of tube riding nirvana, the wave exploded onto him, pile driving Rich straight down into the dark, rock-filled depths of the ocean. As he was being violently thrashed under water, Rich felt his neck crack and his body go numb. Temporarily paralyzed, he was dragged into the bay, 10 more waves unloading on his head before he could regain his composure and find the safety of shore. “I was so amped up after dealing with the wipeout it wasn’t until I was back on the beach that I realized, ‘Fuck, that could have ended my life,'” Rich said. Less than 10 minutes later, he was back in the lineup hunting waves, his spinal chord, unbeknownst to him, dangerously jammed up and teetering on the edge of causing permanent paralysis.
It wasn’t until March that Rich, after enduring months of mind-bending pain and bouts of numbness in his arms and legs, finally sought medical advice. With his left arm and chest muscles noticeably atrophied and his strength reduced to that of a “third grader,” Rich, who is no stranger to injury, visited Santa Barbara chiropractor Kevin English, who quickly ordered an MRI and referred him to a neurologist in Ventura.
Turns out Rich needs a spinal fusion in the neighborhood of his fifth and sixth vertebrae-the same zone that famously crippled actor Christopher Reeves. “Basically, as it is now, the doctors in Ventura are telling me I will never surf again if I don’t get it fixed,” said Rich. But even more troubling is the fact that for the past five months, he has been living, working, and surfing (including a session in Goleta the morning after his wipeout in which he rode “the biggest wave I have ever ridden in Santa Barbara”) with an injury that could potentially put him in a wheelchair for life if even the slightest of whiplashes occurs.
Reflecting last week on the potentially life-threatening risks he took in the wake of his wipeout and the realities of his current situation, Rich was noticebly taken aback. “It has taught me more than I can explain. I mean, I’ve learned a lot about what a lame ego I have and the trouble that sort of thinking can get you into. It has also been pretty humbling to see my body change. : But it has also opened my eyes to how lucky I am. As long as I can walk around and use my arms and legs, I don’t have any problems. If anything, this experience has made me a better person.”
Without health insurance but also with no choice but to move forward with the surgery (tentatively scheduled for early June), Rich is facing a grueling gauntlet of medical procedures and rehabilitation that, when finished, could incur a debt into the six digits-a terrifying amount to someone who makes a living in the anything-but-financially-lucrative world of surfboard shaping. To that end, the wave-riding communities of both Santa Barbara and Ventura have rallied around Rich, organizing, without his asking, two separate fundraisers. The first is this Wednesday, May 28, at the Lobero Theatre. Already hosting the surf film Out There on the same night as a fundraiser for their organization, the Santa Barbara chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, upon hearing word of Rich’s situation, quickly expanded the evening by adding an impressive live auction on his behalf, while also deciding to give a portion of the ticket proceeds to the injured surfer. “It was a no-brainer to do something for Wayne,” said Surfrider executive committee member Matt Wallace. “He is a huge part of Santa Barbara’s surfing family.”
Similarly, Ventura surfers are coming together for Rich on June 7 with a day-long gathering featuring music, prizes, food, and all sorts of aloha spirit. “It’s weird asking for help, but all this love I am receiving is just blowing my mind right now,” said Rich earlier this week. “When I think about it, it makes me want to sit down and cry.”
Out There will screen at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 28, at the Lobero Theatre, immediately followed by the live auction. For more info, visit sbsurfrider.org. The Ventura fundraiser will take place on June 7 from 1-5 p.m. at Marina Park. For more info, visit venturasurfclub.org.