When an 8.3-magnitude earthquake struck on Wednesday morning, causing a massive tsunami that may have claimed nearly 200 lives, New Zealand hospitality student Chris Nel laid down on his surfboard and rode it to safety.

Nel and five others were surfing on the coast of Savai'i island in Samoa when the first signs of the tsunami appeared.

"All of a sudden the water went real weird, it kind of glassed off and got real lumpy, then we started moving real quick, getting sucked out to sea. It was pretty scary looking back and seeing the reef completely dried up. It looked like a volcanic riverbed — it was just gone."

As a “big-ass spurt of water” hit the shore, Nel says, "I was thinking, 'this is it, we're going to get washed away and smashed into the jungle'."

Nel and the other surfers spent the next 45 minutes struggling to reach the shore, riding the waves out and trying not to get smashed onto the beach by the force of the water.

When he finally reached safety, he headed to his surf camp in the jungle only to find that most of his belongings had been swept away. He flew back to Wellington with his surfboard and a pair of jeans.

Others weren’t so lucky. On another side of the island, the once-idyllic tourist destination of Lalomanu, the bodies of five children and a woman were found on the beaches and in trees. But there was one other story of survival against the odds — a 2-day-old baby who lived through the ordeal was named ‘Tsunami’.