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Skull And Cold Bones

Tofino, Canada's westernmost surf town, sits halfway up the inlet- and island-pocked western coast of Vancouver Island, on the tip of a small peninsula. South of town are a handful of beach breaks that serve up consistent juice from the same massive storms that send swell to the sport's Southern California epicenter. The tortured pieces of driftwood that dot the beaches and the stony-eyed look of Tofino's surfers prove that those storms aren't some abstraction on a forecasting Web site. They're right overhead.

Timmy Turner sits under a shack on the beach at Cox Bay during a rare break in the November weather. A spectacular sunset gathers above the horizon as uncharacteristically gutless waves lap at the shore. He's been in Tofino for less than 24 hours and he expects to stay for about six weeks—practically an overnight trip by the 28-year-old Huntington Beach native's standards.

"Enjoy the sunshine!" barks Sepp Bruhwiler with a cackle. "Once that sun goes down, you ain't gonna see it again for a while!" Sepp and his brother Raph served as unofficial tour guides when Turner came through two years ago, and the two of them are credited with opening up much of the vast, previously inaccessible surf north of Tofino. Once the swell picks up, they'll be leading Turner to places far less pleasant than Cox Bay in search of footage for Turner's fifth film, "Cold Thoughts."

Turner doesn't register a response. Whatever the weather holds in the coming weeks, the scar on his head suggests he's seen worse. It zippers up from his right ear to just above the center of his forehead, where it loops straight back and down toward the left ear. Freshly shaved, Turner's head resembles nothing so much as a baseball, stitched together by a drunk. These days, pretty much anyone who sees Turner without a hat on has the same first impression:

"How is that guy still alive?"

Three years ago, Turner was in a place colder and more forbidding than the darkest corners of the Canadian outback. He lay naked on a bed of ice in Hoag Memorial Hospital in Newport Beach, Calif., eyes rolled back in his head, his body racked with convulsions by a 106.7-degree fever that soon sent him into a coma. His wife of three years, Jessica, had to be called up from her mother's house in San Diego, where she had taken their two daughters to get away from the man who had been the lighthearted love of her life. But three days earlier, after returning from a day trip to Baja with the worst headache of his life, Turner had lost his mind.

"We got home and I said, 'I gotta go to bed. I gotta go to bed,'" Turner recalls. "From that point, I don't remember anything."

What he missed was three days of insane behavior. First he drove Jessica out of the house with sudden, profanity-laced eruptions. Then he verbally attacked his brother's wife. Realizing something was seriously wrong, his uncle called the paramedics, who refused to take in what they saw as a dumb surfer whacked out on drugs. It was only after Turner passed out, and his father found him with his eye bulging from the socket, that his brother, father and uncle managed to wrestle Turner into a car and get him to the hospital.

Freshly shaved, Turner's head resembles nothing so much as a baseball, stitched together by a drunk.

He'd been suffering from a nasty flu for the better part of a week, and the headache was brutal, but he's dealt with them his whole life. Headaches don't alter personalities overnight, however; out-of-control staph infections—ones that swell the brain until the emotion-controlling frontal lobe crushes against the skull—do.

After Jessica got to the hospital, the doctors determined that the staph had initially lodged in Turner's sinus before eating its way into the cranial cavity to such an extent, they saw little reason for hope. "The doctor sat us down in a conference room and talked to us," she says now, "'From a medical standpoint,' he said, 'Timmy's dead in our eyes.'"

Because Turner had been home for six months, recovering from a broken ankle, the staph infection must have been contracted from the pier where he'd been swimming to stay in shape. The water in Southern California gets notoriously polluted during December, when rainstorms wash hundreds of thousands of gallons of human, animal and industrial waste from city streets directly into the ocean. That Turner contracted the infection in Huntington, as opposed to the tropical archipelago of Indonesia, would have been funny had it not been so devastating.

Between 1997 and 2006, Turner spent at least as much time crawling around Indonesia as he spent in Huntington. What began with a three-month trip between his junior and senior years of high school turned into annual four-, five-, six-month trips following graduation. The nation's near-infinite coastline is so bejeweled with waves that, despite being a focal point for surf exploration since the '70s, it remains so to this day. And the waves are largely of the type that Turner excels in: zipper-fast barrels across frighteningly shallow reefs that require a delicate dance of balance and balls to negotiate.

In the combination of waves, the region's indulgently paced lifestyle and the never-ending opportunity for discovery, Turner found his muse. "I was hooked," he says simply when asked why he kept going back. "I love the people. The island of Sumbawa is like my home. It's just a surf camp and there's nothing to do but sit around and wait for the good waves. The good waves are 6 to 8 feet, barreling with offshore winds—picture perfect."

Turner's travels resulted in three surf videos that earned him cult status as one of the surf world's true characters. The last in the trilogy, "Second Thoughts," was a mesmerizing glimpse into Gonzo Surf Exploration as Turner and a few of his friends spent up to three weeks at a time on a deserted island going slowly bonkers waiting for the perfect barrel. They caught that barrel several times over, often documenting it with a unique camera attached to a surfboard. The shots alone were noteworthy; when paired with the realization that the crew's only link to the real world was the occasional passing fisherman with whom they could barely communicate, the surf world was blown away. Surfer Magazine gave the movie Video Of The Year in 2004.

"There's a term in surfing called 'being feral,' which means you're doing it in the dirt," says Sam George, who was editor in chief of Surfer in 2004. "Timmy was a throwback to the surfers and the filmmakers of old, who did it in the raw. And it was even more extraordinary because he's from that generation of 'Mega Sponsorships from Mega Companies.' He turned his back on the checks and incentives to eat rice and goat in the jungle."

"Second Thoughts" proved two things about Turner: He's among the world's best barrel riders, and he has a remarkable tolerance for misery. It was the latter point that Jessica relied on when she told the doctors at Hoag that she was not going to give up on her husband.

"It was just different. It was good waves, it was adventure, it was nuniqu ..." Turner is trying to explain why "Second Thoughts" struck a chord, and he bumps up against a speech impediment that he spent much of his school years mastering. It rarely surfaces anymore, other than to force him to carefully consider some words before saying them, which gives his responses a wandering cadence that can sound distracted. At the moment he really is distracted, heading south of Tofino in a downpour that just went from considerable to torrential. "I should be shooting this, huh?" he asks, scrambling for his camera.

Sepp Bruhwiler's weather forecast was off by 24 hours. Another day of clear skies and weak surf has been blown to smithereens by a front that's taken the temperatures down to the 30s and whipped up 10-foot surf on the outer buoys. After negotiating an hour's worth of logging roads, Turner and Sepp huddle beneath a stand of trees that offers scant protection from a wind that's howling onshore at close to 30 knots. Just beyond the trees lies a point break that, on a good day, offers some of Vancouver Island's best rights. Today is not a good day.

Waves are trying to break off the point but the winds turn them into big piles of white water that lurch and heave where they should pitch and peel. The crew is slow to motivate, but Turner is already sinking to his ankles in mud as he hurries to get into his wet suit. Before making his way across the rocks he stops and does something only a handful of surfers have ever done before: He tries to turn on his wet suit on.

Rip Curl's "H Bomb" is the world's first heated wet suit. The company recently sponsored Turner and probably gave him some sort of information on how to operate the heating coils that snake through the suit's back panel before connecting to two water-tight batteries in the small of the back, but it didn't stick. He wiggles the switch on the side of the suit.

"I don't think it's ..." He pauses when the switch blinks blue. "I think it's ..." Even beneath the thick rubber of his hood, you can see his forehead wrinkle. "Wait ... maybe not ..." Unsure of whether or not the marvel of technology is turned on, Turner bounces off toward the 48 degree water.

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9,999 people, given the same care, would have died. That he survived is a miracle.

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--Dr. Richard Kim


Less than 30 minutes into the session, the winds kick up another order of magnitude. Looking out to sea for the next set of roaring cold mush is enough to peel the lids back from your eyes. Turner wrestles a head-high one to the beach and starts to crawl back up the rocks. It appears he's come to his senses, but after a quick exchange with his cameraman, he makes his way back out. Ultimately, he lasts an hour and a half in some of the windiest, crappiest surf imaginable. Asked how the suit worked, he replies, "It's good! I was totally warm. I'm not sure I turned it on, though ..."

Turner's face is overtaken by a grin so broad, it manages to distract from that terrifying scar of his. He's perpetually stoked, greeting each challenging turn of weather or less-than-perfect wave with an enthusiasm more reminiscent of preteen grom claiming his first tube than one of America's premier freesurfing explorers. It's inspiring, but he's not supposed to be playing cat and mouse with Canadian Maritime storm fronts. He's supposed to be searching for a white rhino.

After "Second Thoughts," Turner's next surf movie was going to revolve around an extended crawl through Indonesia's coastal jungle, in search of the massive, near-extinct native rhinoceros that's achieved mythical status in local lore. That search was initially waylaid by the devastating tsunami of 2004, which resulted in Turner organizing an impromptu mission with a bunch of surfers that succeeded in delivering 75 tons of food and supplies to isolated villages that had seen little, if any, aid. Of course, he made a movie about it: "Tsunami Diaries."

And then, before he could get back to planning a rhino search, Turner needed to have half his head removed.

When Jessica told Dr. Richard Kim that she was not ready to let her husband die, he proceeded with the only medical option available to him: a hemicraniectomy. Dr. Kim removed most of the left side of Turner's skull, which eased the pressure on his brain and gave the doctor a vivid view of the worst brain infection he'd ever seen.

"His condition was extremely uncommon," says Dr. Kim. "It's rare to have a sinus infection that's so severe it erodes through to the brain. To have him presented in the condition he was in, already in a coma and with pus covering his brain, just to survive is extremely unusual."

Turner remained comatose for several weeks after he was admitted to Hoag, during which time he underwent three more surgeries to remove all the parts of his sinus and skull that had rotted with staph. Meanwhile, he was beset with a series of conditions, including pneumonia followed by acute respiratory distress syndrome, each of which can be fatal even when not paired with a catastrophic brain infection. The doctors continued to give Jessica sobering assessments of his progress.

"Basically, he was an experiment," she says now. "It was like, 'Let's try this. OK, now let's try this.' And the whole time I didn't know if he was going to be a vegetable, or if I would be taking care of someone who couldn't understand me or speak to me. It was very heavy."

Emergence from the coma came in fits and starts, with small successes built upon tiny ones, and moderate ones built on top of those. First came consciousness, followed by an ability to respond to Jessica's touch, followed by the formulation of brief sentences. Turner's brain was beginning to work again, and with nothing but a flap of skin covering nearly two thirds of it, observers could even see it happening. "You could see it move!" he exclaims now, sounding like a kid squealing at a worm. "In the morning, it would be in the back, and over the day it would shift forward!"

Despite the fact that his head "looked like a quarterpipe," Turner became mobile enough to get out of bed. At that point, he gamely strapped a helmet on each day and set out rehabbing the things that stopped working during his coma—like the right side of his body.

The next two surgeries were to outfit him with new parts. First came the shunt—a catheter embedded in his brain that drains off excess fluid it can no longer absorb due to the infection, and guides it down a spaghetti-like tube that runs down his neck and into his torso. Finally, nearly four months after Turner was admitted, Dr. Kim carefully screwed together two pieces of prosthetic skull to replace the chunks that could not be salvaged. Through it all, Turner kept putting one foot in front of the other, as if he were simply linking together sections of the gnarliest barrel he'd ever caught.

"The doctors said I was really good at retraining myself," he says now, "because usually people my age get depressed and think 'Oh, I can't do this, I can't do that.' I had a good attitude from the start to the end. I was just motivated to get back to what I was doing."

But there wasn't going to be any going back to what he had been doing. As the doctors explained to Jessica while Turner was still in a coma, the tropical atmosphere is one in which bacteria like staph thrive and tropical surfing offers the least amount of protection from whatever is in the water. "Staph is normally introduced through a break in the skin," explains infectious disease specialist Dr. Philip Robinson. "Surfing in warm water, over live reefs, wearing just trunks, you can easily get cut and introduce another infection. [Turner] is more susceptible because he has artificial parts. If he were to cut himself in those areas, the risk of infection is increased."

Conversely, cold water is not only less hospitable to the sorts of infections that Turner would do well to avoid, but the thicker wet suits significantly cut down the likelihood of suffering an open gash when getting bounced off reef.

When Jessica tried to explain to her husband the implications of the doctors' directives—that he couldn't go to Indonesia anymore—Turner was still in the hospital and didn't entirely comprehend it. By the time he had a face-to-face conversation with Dr. Robinson about it, it was May of 2006 and his miracle recovery had come full circle. Turner had just been featured on a local newscast paddling back out at the pier to catch a pumping south swell.

"I asked [the doctor] about the tropics and he said, 'Maybe in a year or so, when you're better. I'd like to keep you in the country for the time being,'" Turner recalls. "So I went to Alaska."

That trip was a waveless failure that saw Turner scrambling into his wet suit in the middle of one night as the boat he was sleeping on was dragged from its anchorage out sea by the sort of gale that gave the show "The Deadliest Catch" its name. It should have been enough to give even the most intrepid surf explorer pause about searching for a frozen Sumbawa, but Turner's the sort of guy who often fails to see the clouds for all the silver linings. His staph infection was a hidden blessing because it "gave my ankle time to heal," and the Alaska trip was a total success because it resulted in his first trip to Tofino, where he stopped on his way home to try to salvage some footage.

Since then Turner's led crews to southern Chile, Ireland, New York in the dead of winter, and on a two-week crawl across the outer reaches of Iceland. He's learned to travel with trucks full of survival gear, constantly recalibrate plans due to subtle weather changes that can turn perfect swells into impassable seas, and prepare for worst-case scenarios that include grizzly bear attacks. He's paddled out in the biggest waves Montauk locals have ever seen, caused a village of Viking descendants to gather in awe on an Icelandic beach, and caught waves no one thought were surfable on the Emerald Isle. Despite the lengths to which he has gone, he has yet to find the sort of magical wave machine he left behind in Indonesia.

This, of course, doesn't bother him in the slightest, because it will make for a better movie.

"'Cold Thoughts' is all about how I keep surfing, keep trekking on," he says. "It will be about what the doctors said, what I went through, and how I'm still doing it. I'm overachieving."

Dr. Kim is a little more dramatic: "9,999 people, given the same care, would have died. That he survived is a miracle. That he's recovered to the point that he's doing what he's doing is simply incredible."

The day after the slopfest at the end of the logging road, the sun has managed to retake the skies north of Tofino, where a series of sheltered bays accessible only by boat can corral northwest swells into rifling lefts and bombing rights. The Bruhwilers rally a boat and two Jet Skis to ferry the crew through a series of breathtaking inlets before making a half-hour open-ocean crossing. But the sea still thinks it's yesterday, and Turner lies on the floor of the boat as it disappears and reappears behind a chaotic mix of 8- to 10-foot swells. He's more susceptible to seasickness these days, but it's tough to know if it's due to the infection, or the fact that cold-water surf exploration brings him to more turbulent ocean than he generally encountered in Indonesia.

What should be a mellow bay in which to anchor is torn up by the conflicting waves, so the crew is forced to disembark via Jet Skis that zip into and out of the impact zone with little regard for their cargo. One by one they are deposited on the cobblestone beach by head-high shore pound before camera positions set up alongside a river mouth feeding a left-hander. It's overhead and there's no lack of power, but the break's proximity to open ocean means the waves come in wobbly and wonky, offering glimpses of open face before going flat or closing out with authority.

Turner operates the camera for the better part of an hour, straddling the line between director, and star, of his film. The crew performs well considering the surf, and they're all but done by the time Turner's ready to paddle out.

Given the travel up here from California and the weather of the previous days, it's his first time really surfing in over a week. But Turner on a wave is a much different animal than Turner on land. The goofy self-effacement is replaced with a visible confidence. His speech impediment and wandering diction are replaced with powerful, precise movements. He drops in on his frontside and instantly gains purchase as he snaps into position on the face. For the first time all day, the lip throws out generously—an improbable barrel where there should be none. Turner sticks his arm into the wave, and the scar that has defined him for nearly three years disappears behind a thin curtain of water.