Surfer survives staph, seeks cold waves
Surfer survives staph, seeks cold waves
Timmy Turner gets slammed on a fast, hollow 6-foot wave, his back hitting straight against a rock slab in the shallow shorebreak.
The surfer's ribs are broken. The helmet protecting Turner's head – the same head in which a fake portion of skull protects a brain once infected with a deadly staph infection – is cracked.
"If I would have been straight on my head, I would have been done," Turner says, recently, while staring at waves in his hometown, Huntington Beach.
The wipeout that busted Turner's ribs and cracked his helmet happened in 2006, when he and partners were just weeks into filming Turners' surf movie "Cold Thoughts," off Vancouver Island, Canada.
The film idea came about a year after Turner's doctors told him to stay away from the tropics if he wanted to avoid a recurrence of the staph infection that ate away at his head.
The doctor's warning is what set him on a six-year journey of scouting waves surrounded by glaciers, snow, and, at times, big black bears.
In 2005, Turner rehabbed a broken ankle by swimming every day around the Huntington Beach Pier, rain or shine.
On one of the stormy days, water went up his nose and, before long, he had a sinusitis and ear infection. For surfers, it's a common ailment, and Turner shrugged it off.
Then, suddenly, he started acting like a crazy person for three days, mumbling and saying things that made no sense. Friends wondered if he had turned to drugs. He eventually fell into a weeklong coma, waking in the hospital with stitches in his head and no memory of anything that had happened for several weeks.
An infection had been chewing through Turner's head.
"I've always been a freak when it comes to staph... I always clean my cuts," he says.
"(But) it ate through my sinus and ate through my skull."
He got out of the hospital Feb. 14, and went into rehab to learn how to walk again. He had to wait until April to get his fake skull put in, walking around for a time with no bone on part of his head, just a helmet protecting the thin layer of skin that covered his brain.
The doctors advised him to stay out of the water until he was ready, mentally and physically. But about a month into rehab he got a glimpse of southside hitting – peaky, fun waves with no one else out – and he was back in the water.
"I was amped," Turner says of his return to surfing.
"I wore my earplugs, and it was fun."
Turner and his story are well-known in the surf community. After he got sick fellow surfers came together to help him out during the most difficult days of his comeback. Supporters flocked to his family's restaurant, Sugar Shack, a surfer staple for after-session breakfast in downtown Huntington Beach.
It wasn't long before Turner was itching to get out of Huntington Beach again, to explore the world. But he had to do so while following doctor's orders:
Stay out of the tropics.
"It was," he says, in hindsight, "the best thing for me to get out and find epic waves."
FROM INDO TO ICELAND
At the end of Turner's movie "Second Thoughts," a barreling wave in Indonesia finishes up the warm-water adventure of friends scouting out perfect waves. Turner made the movie in 2004, before his staph infection. And on screen, just before credits roll, appears the promise "To be continued..."
The cold-water sequel, Turner says, is different. It's not about perfect, dreamy, warm, exotic waves highlighted in the first installment. This time, the story unfolds in the adventure of seeking surf in remote, frigid spots — and the challenges that come with it.
There were the long periods on Vancouver Island, cut off from civilization while they wait – sometimes for weeks – for waves. Turner and the other surfers chop wood to burn for warmth; they catch salmon to eat.
And big black bears would show up, standing 20-feet away.
"They're nice," Turner says. "The mean bears are the ones that go through the trash in town. (The bears we encountered) were minding their own business."
Then there was the time howling cougars made it to the reef at low tide, likely fighting over a dead seal in the pitch dark.
"It was the gnarliest meows. It echoed through the entire camp."
Turner and the other surfers returned to the spot repeatedly over the years, trying to get shots that were right for the film.
"Sometimes you only get five days (of waves) out of six weeks. It's hit or miss. The wave is really fickle," he says.
"We scored it. The whole experience of sitting there waiting for it; you can never take back those memories."
Turner wore a wetsuit made by Rip Curl called H-bomb that has coils running through the back to warm the surfers up by simply hitting a button.
"It would last two to three hours," he says. "It was brilliant that they thought of that."
Over the years, Turner and crew would hit other cold-water spots. In Chile, in 2007, they'd drive on the beach until they saw waves, and then they'd set up camp. They paddled out using gloves, three times a day. They saw the most beautiful sunsets.
The coldest waves they encountered were in New York, where in March 2008 they surfed the biggest swell that shore had seen in a long time.
"There was snow on the beach. The water was 37 degrees. And it was cold," Turner says.
"And it was super big. And I only had shortboards," he adds. "It was hard surfing."
Then there was Iceland.
Big glaciers; a sky bright with Northern Lights. One of their trips coincided with a volcanic eruption in the area, creating a sky that was choking in ash.
Between trips, he'd come home to his wife Jessica and four kids, help his family at the Sugar Shack, and get into a regular routine.
But there is something that keeps drawing Turner to remote surf spots to scour foreign waves, and film, far from Orange County.
"The main part of these trips is leaving society for a month," he says. "The best part is not having fried food. You have some canned food, fresh fish; garlic, onion and carrots. You can't go to buy a hamburger.
"Mentally, it is the best rehab ever," he adds. "There's no stress. Getting away, it's mentally the healthiest thing you can do. Detox."
There's little physical evidence of the near-death experience Turner went through seven years ago — just a scar in the center of his neck where a tube once ran down into his lungs.
He feels around his head to point out where screws hold in his fake skull. He touches his neck to show where a tube runs from his brain to drain into his stomach.
Turner's near-death experience has given him a new outlook.
"It makes you appreciate life a lot more. And know if it's your time to go, it's your time to go. And it wasn't my time," he says.
"I'm here to do what I'm doing; make another movie."
He finds solitude in his old bedroom at his mom's house in Huntington, and that's where he spends long days and nights since early this year sorting through footage he and others shot of waves they caught.
To stay focused on the project he's cut himself off from surfing, and hasn't been in the water since March. He'll start surfing again after the movie premieres on at 6 p.m. on Sept. 6 at the Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts.
It's the same place a big fundraiser once was held in Turner's honor, when the surfing community came together to help him. He wanted to hold the screening there as a way to say thanks.
At one point, he declares he is done making movies. But then he quickly starts day dreaming about finding the next perfect barrel.
"I always say I'm over it. But what else is there to do?," he says. "You might as well keep a healthy lifestyle and enjoy it."
"Someone once told me, 'You have to have something to do everyday. You have to have someone to love. And you have to have something to look forward to.' I have all those three going on right now."
So where's the next film taking place?
"I don't know," he says. "It could be anywhere."
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