US traveller Levi Fahrenholtz is still in shock having survived a surfing accident that saw his mate, Irish tourist Stuart Butler lost at sea on Saturday.
The friends - Levi, 25, from Seattle, Stuart, 20, from Ireland and a third friend, Mike Fuller, 19, from England had arrived in Byron Bay on Thursday after having met at Arrawarra, north of Coffs Harbour where they were staying at the SpotX campsite owned by Byron Bay-based Mojosurf.
Yesterday Levi described his friend "Stuey", whose body has yet to be found after being swept away by waves at Tallow Beach on Saturday, as fun-loving and "a modern-day pirate".
"I had known him for six weeks and he was always positive; constantly laughing and making jokes - he was fun and goofy," Levi said.
"He was living the dream life by the beach and everything was fine. The only long-term plans he had was to come to Byron Bay and live here until after the New Year.
"Stuey had been to Byron Bay earlier this year and it was his idea to come up here again - he'd had fun here. He'd told me about partying at Woody's (nightclub)."
The three friends had met at SpotX where Levi was working for Mojosurf as a driver; Mike was undertaking water proficiency training that could lead to him eventually being a surf instructor while Stuart was picking fruit at a nearby farm.
The three friends would surf together nearly every day, Levi said.
"Whenever we had a break from work together we would go surfing."
The three had arrived at Mojosurf's Byron Bay headquarters at the Arts Factory with plans to trial as surf photographers and rent a house in Byron to settle here for the next six months.
The mates decided to go for a surf around 10am on Saturday and headed straight for Cosy Corner at the northern end of Tallow Beach.
"Mike had been to Tallows (sic) a few times before," Levi said.
"The waves didn't even seem huge; I would describe (the surf) as semi-huge that day. It wasn't the size of the waves, it was more that it looked choppy - I thought I might get thrashed around - but it was going to be fun. It was just buggerising around - we weren't looking to prove anything," he said.
Within minutes of paddling out it was obvious the three friends were in trouble, he said.
"We had just paddled out to the first break and then we were suddenly in the gutter getting dragged out," he said. "We couldn't paddle against it (the rip); it was too strong."
Levi said the friends had entered the surf a good distance away from the cliff, but were quickly dragged towards the rock face.
While Stuart and Mike struggled against the rip, with Mike eventually clamouring onto the rocks to safety, Levi was swept out to sea and around the Cape to eventually be rescued at Wategos.
Levi said he was trying to come to terms with the tragedy and had turned to his family back in the USA for consolation.
"I've spoken to my uncle who has told me that the shock will stay with me, but he has told me to stay strong; that life will go on."
Levi said he and Mike felt like they wanted to stay on in Byron Bay and continue with their plans out of respect for their lost friend.
"He would have wanted us to keep going."
"STUART Butler stayed at our surf camp, Spot X, north of Coffs Harbour for 1.5 months while looking for work on a farm. Stuart had travelled to Byron Bay with two friends to do a trial for a position as a surf photographer with our company and that was the extent of Stuart's involvement with Mojosurf in Byron Bay. We were told they went for a surf with friends on Saturday at Tallow Beach when they got into difficulties. We are very saddened by these events and we wish to express our sincere condolences to Stuart's family and friends."
- Nathan Folkes, owner of Mojosurf