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Rescuer describes moment surfer slams into sand at Mangawhai Bar, suffering critical spinal injuries

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The bar break at Mangawhai Heads (right) has powerful waves breaking on a shallow sand bottom, with rips created by the estuary. Photo / John Stone

A witness has described the harrowing moment a surfer was critically injured at a popular Northland beach and the desperate rescue efforts to save him after the victim slammed into a sandbar head first.

Experienced surfer Christian Nicolson said he was paddling back out to the surf on the Mangawhai Bar when he saw another surfer take off on a wave at the weekend.

“I heard him yell, ‘No! Oi!’ as he was trying to let another surfer know he was on the inside of the wave, but it shut down on him,” he said.

Nicolson said the man took a fall and slammed into the sand head first.

“I saw the guy just bobbing up and down in the water, face down. It looked like he was swimming and I thought maybe he was just angry at the other guy that he yelled out at, but I didn’t really think anything of it,” he said.

When Nicolson asked the man if he was okay, there was no reply.

That man was Matthew Scott, who suffered critical spinal injuries in the collision.

Nicolson and another surfer paddled over to Scott and rolled him over in the water.

“He told us he’d broken his neck and he couldn’t feel anything so we just tried our best to get him into shore away from the breaking waves. One guy was cradling him and holding him above water as best he could, we didn’t know what to do,” said Nicolson.

Three surfers waited with Scott, floating in the water for around 15 minutes, before lifeguards arrived to assist.

“He wasn’t screaming out in pain, he just said he had a bit of a sore neck and couldn’t feel anything else. We were just trying to keep him calm and say nice things while he was at the mercy of others I guess,” Nicolson said.

The dangerous Mangawhai Bar is a popular surf spot where waves combine with estuary currents and break forcefully on a shallow sand bottom.
The dangerous Mangawhai Bar is a popular surf spot where waves combine with estuary currents and break forcefully on a shallow sand bottom.

A Surf Life Saving spokeswoman said the incident occurred just before 10am on Sunday, with surf lifeguards not yet on patrol, but Junior Surf was under way.

She claimed that Scott had collided with another surfer.

“A surf lifeguard paddled out on a kneeboard, and when they saw it was a suspected spinal injury, flagged down a fishing boat. They then returned to the beach on the boat to retrieve an Inflatable Rescue Boat (IRB) and a spinal board,” she said.

Scott was airlifted to Middlemore Hospital, where he remains in a serious but stable condition, the hospital reports.

Nicolson said the experience was “pretty awful, especially when I looked at him and he was really upset. It was pretty hard not to feel emotional at that point”.

“It’s quite scary, definitely a sobering experience to be in close contact with someone that’s had quite a bad injury in a sport you love.”

Scott’s family shared “some sad news” on Facebook yesterday that he suffered a spinal injury, offering their thanks to the surf lifesavers and first responders who helped him.

“He will be on a road to recovery for the next wee while.

“The Scott whānau wants to say a massive thank you to the Mangawhai Surf Life Savers who rescued and looked after him and also a massive thank you to the first responders who also took great care of him. There was a lot of Mangawhai family and friends involved in the rescue and I know Matt would have felt in safe hands.”

Scott “has a lot of aroha around him and we are all very hopeful for the future”.

Locals say the incident has highlighted the dangers of the popular surf spot, which is now drawing many inexperienced surfers from out of town.

“It’s quite a mean, dumpy break because it gets quite shallow on the sand bar, and it was crowded with surfers on Sunday,” said Nicolson.

“It’s definitely not the sort of place that beginners should be going out. I don’t know if he [Scott] was inexperienced or not, but that sort of thing can happen to anyone I guess.”

One of Scott’s surfing friends, Brook Wharfe, said it had been only a matter of time before something like this happened on the dangerous bar, where waves combine with the estuary currents break forcefully on a shallow sand bottom.

Wharfe was also surfing Mangawhai Bar on Sunday morning, but got out of the water before Scott’s incident after suffering a minor back injury in the powerful surf.

While he did not know exactly what happened to Scott, he said Mangawhai Bar was becoming dangerous with too many inexperienced surfers coming out and getting in the way.

The spot is popular with both locals and people travelling from Auckland.

“In my lifetime, it has gone from a local crew to being very busy, especially in the last few years. There is just an influx of people that now have surfing available to them,” Wharfe said.

“There’s a lot of problems – a wave comes and all of a sudden you’ve got boards and people everywhere.”

Wharfe believed inexperienced surfers, or those who are not paddle-fit, should stick with surfing Mangawhai Beach or other nearby spots like Waipū, Langs Beach or Te Arai, where they would be in less danger.

Benjamin Plummer is an Auckland-based reporter who covers breaking news. He has worked for the Herald since 2022.

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