Photographer Doug Falter was having the ride of his life while surfing in Waimea Bay, Hawaii in February 2018, when he suddenly fell on a huge wave and floated away from his beloved board. He tried to swim after it but it disappeared as the sun started to set and the sky turned dark.
“The leash just came undone, but the board was not damaged. It just floated away out of my reach. The ocean current just took it away and I couldn’t catch up to it because the waves were just too big,” Falter told VICE.
“I was upset, bummed because that board meant a lot to me…I surfed really big waves with it and I surfed on a day of a well known big surf contest here in Hawaii.”
Still wanting to get it back, he posted photos of the sky blue big wave board on social media and even printed some posters for local fishermen in hopes that they could somehow retrieve the board.
“Within the first two months, I was pretty sure that someone was gonna find it on the beach and research it and see my name and contact the [surfboard] shaper or myself and someone [would just come] around finding me, but somehow it did not happen,” he said.
“I just waited and waited and nothing came about.”
But, it turns out, that that’s exactly what happened to his board. Except that the fishermen who found it were more than 8,000km away, in Sarangani Bay, Philippines, and only spotted it about two years after. It had turned yellowish in colour after extended sun exposure and the fishermen thought that it was from the wreckage of a boat. One of the fishermen eventually sold the surfboard to Giovanne Branzuela, a teacher at a public middle school on a neighbouring island.
“At first, the fisherman did not want to sell it to me, until he agreed to sell for PHP2,000 ($40),” Branzuela told VICE.
The teacher, who had to move to the island to teach and left his children in Davao City, said that he took an interest in surfing when he saw the board.
Then out of curiosity, he looked up the name that was printed on the surfboard. It said “Lyle Carlson” in the middle of an elephant design. He got in touch with Carlson, who is known for shaping iconic big wave surfboards in Hawaii.
Confirming that it was one of his creations, Carlson told Falter that a guy has found his missing surfboard somewhere in the Philippines.
“The way he told me was through an Instagram post. It had a picture of a surfboard. There was just one picture, that was enough for me to believe that it was my board,” Falter said. “It was a dark picture, it was just part of the board.”
Carlson shared Branzuela’s contact details to Falter. Falter said Branzuela responded to his Facebook message but it took him three weeks to send more photos.
“It’s mind-boggling, it was unimaginable. I thought my board will just deteriorate in the sun and crumble apart and will not make it to anywhere,” Falter said.
Through the photos, Falter saw that his name was still written somewhere on a hidden part of the surfboard.
“Wow, this is definitely my board. Without a doubt, this was the board I lost two years ago,” he said.
Knowing how important the board is to Falter, Branzuela offered to return it.
“When Doug told me his story, I was really moved. I know how important memories are so I said I can send it back to him if he wants it back,” Branzuela said.
But he thought it would be easier for Falter to come to Sarangani and get the board himself. Branzuela’s special request is for Falter to help him gather reading materials that could entice his students to try surfing.
“I think the perfect way to end the story is for me to go there. I think I could get him some boards,” Falter said.
“I would like to get some funding, some money to buy a couple [of] surfboards and bring it to him and trade it for mine.”
If not because of the pandemic, Falter said he would have already flown to the Philippines. In the meantime, he has launched a GoFundMe campaign to buy Branzuela two surfboards and some reading materials for his students. It has raised about $1,400 as of press time.
“While I’m waiting to see him, he can try the board out and try and surf and paddle around and maybe learn how to catch a wave or two. If not, I will teach him when I get there,” Falter said.
Once he gets the board back, Falter said he will retire it and probably hang it on a wall.