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Riding the big wave with an inflatable safety vest

Surfers take pride in a risk-taking culture. Can a change-resistant sport get safer?

By Kade Krichko

Pro surfer Kohl Christensen was at home in North Shore Oahu when he got the call. He was supposed to be surfing 30-foot waves at Maverick’s, the mythical Northern California big wave break, but a snowboarding injury the week before had relegated him to the couch. Now, a fellow surfer was on the line with tragic news: Pro surfer Sion Milosky, Christensen’s friend since childhood, was dead, drowned after two gigantic waves held him under water, washing him nearly a mile down the coast.

Christensen’s world stopped. Milosky was surfing better than anyone in the world and had, months before, paddled into the tallest wave ever recorded. He thought of Milosky’s daughters. How could this happen?

As more details of the accident emerged, grief’s knife twisted deeper. There were barely any jet skis — often the first line of life-saving in big wave surfing — on site due to California government regulations. Only one person on the beach knew and administered CPR. Milosky was pronounced dead more than an hour after the accident.

For the big wave surf community, Milosky’s 2011 death was a massive wake-up call — and a recognition of how far surfing lagged behind other sports when it came to safety. Big mountain ski communities relied on a thorough system of protocols, education, and technology to prepare skiers for avalanche danger and rescue for decades. Surfing, on the other hand, had nothing of the sort.

“There was just this huge disregard for the safety side,” says Christensen. “Brands were paying athletes to surf but didn’t have controls in place, and this stuff kept happening.”

Days after that fateful phone call, Christensen and the rest of the surf community embarked on a mission to making surfing safer, and push the sport further in the process. More than a decade later, big wave surfing is in the midst of a safety renaissance, combining education with innovations like inflatable safety vests and impact-absorbing wetsuits. But they’ve had to overcome the culture of a sport that has been historically resistant to change, even as its athletes continue to push the sport into increasingly dangerous waters.

“Technology is a double-edged sword. It can enhance your skills and knowledge, but it can also enhance your stupidity.”

Brian Keaulana, surfer and water stunt coordinator

Innovation has always moved slowly in the world of surfing. Most boards are still shaped and glassed close to the same way they were 50 years ago, and the few alternative board materials, such as epoxy and woven basalt, have yet to truly break into high-level surf circles. For many surfers, the last true innovation to come out of the sport was the leash, introduced in the 1970s to keep surfers connected to their boards after a wipeout.

Meanwhile, the simplest safety technology, like helmets, has historically met with resistance. At Pipeline, the mythic surf spot on Oahu’s North Shore, experienced surfers suffer head injuries — some of them fatal — every year by falling onto the sharp, shallow coral reef that shapes the coastline. A few surfers started wearing helmets to reduce impact injuries in the 1990s, but even with their proven efficacy, they’ve never been fully accepted by much of the surf community. Even Christensen, a visible and known surf safety advocate, didn’t adopt helmets until almost losing his life to a head injury. And younger surfers followed their role models.

“Honestly, it’s hard to put one on because I grew up watching most of my heroes surf without one,” said pro surfer and North Shore native Mason Ho in a 2021 interview with The Inertia. “I do feel like it’s wrong sometimes, like riding a street bike on the freeway with no helmet.”

For many it’s a resistance based not only in history, but in the very fabric of a sport flirting with risk and its sometimes dire consequence. Grayson Kimball, a mental performance coach and psychology lecturer at Northeastern University, suggests that successful surfers and other action sports athletes may perceive risk as a challenge rather than a threat. He equates surfers to those who climb Mount Everest: adventurers who recognize the dangers of the summit attempt and literally step over dead climbers frozen into the ice on the way toward the goal.

“I think most of the people that try and climb [Everest], they don’t see it as a chance they’re going to die, they see it as there’s a chance that they might be one of the X number of people that has actually done this,” he says.

Still, Kimball believes that surfing culture is capable of change. It just needs the right right group or individual to initiate the shift.

“There will always be that segment that is resistant to change from what they’re used to,” he says. “It’s that toughness, that old school attitude. But I think once it becomes part of the environment and part of the culture, that resistance will decrease.”

Well-known pro surfer Laird Hamilton might be one example. In 2000, Hamilton embarked on one of the most ambitious revolutions in surfing’s safety culture up to that point. The Hawaii-born surf legend wanted to surf the barreling wave at Teahupo’o in Tahiti, and take off deeper than any surfer had before. A wipeout under those circumstances could pin even the best surfer to the reef below, but Hamilton had developed a solid-body flotation vest to wear underneath his rash guard. Functioning like a life preserver, the flotation vest would keep Hamilton near the surface and give him a chance at breathing between sets.

Initially, people mocked the large foam padding stuffed into wetsuits, and said it inhibited performance. But as Hamilton began to surf bigger waves like Jaws in Hawaii and Maverick’s off the coast of California, other big wave pioneers started to use his gear. Still, it wasn’t until a decade later that the idea of a safety vest really took hold. That’s when Shane Dorian, a pro surfer just off of a massive crash at Maverick’s, dreamed up an inflatable version of Hamilton’s safety vest. Inspired by the yellow inflation vests found on airplanes, he and Hub Hubbard, the lead wetsuit designer at the surfing gear company Billabong, began developing a vest that inflated a rubber bladder with the help of a small CO2 cartridge, bringing a surfer up from a big crash. It would only work for one pull, but Dorian and Hubbard knew that could make all the difference in a big wave scenario.

Andrew Reinhart, a surfing product developer at the outdoor gear company Patagonia, remembers the development rush that followed that first 2010 Billabong prototype. Soon, other brands were also engineering vests, working hand-in-hand with surfers like Dorian, Hamilton, and Christensen. Over the past 10 years, Reinhardt estimates he has tested out 250 prototypes and worked with over 700 surfers.

“He’s an ocean Einstein,” says Brian Keaulana, a well-known Hawaiian surfer, lifeguard, and water stunt coordinator who makes up part of Reinhart’s extensive testing network. “He talks to everybody, gets feedback from all of us. Even if it fails, he wants to know where and how. You can’t grow until you figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

The result was Patagonia’s PSI Vest, which went to market in 2018 and retails today for $1,250. Still, its acceptance in the surf community may be linked as much to Keaulana’s support as to how well it works. Keaulana is the son of surf icon and lifeguard Buffalo Keaulana, and a go-to safety resource for major film productions working on Oahu. He’s also considered a mentor in the surf community, so when he started working with Reinhardt, the surf world paid attention.

Innovation has always been a big part of Keaulana’s work in ocean safety. He was an early adopter of the jet ski — a tool he considered essential for lifeguards to get to accident victims faster — even though the Honolulu City Council deemed personal watercrafts unnecessary for life-saving and had yet to approve their use on public beaches until the early 1990s. He even has ideas for a drone alert system in big waves around his home, equipped with speakers and lasers for pointing out incoming sets to surfers in the water.

Still, the seasoned water safety expert realizes that surf tech is not the entire solution to surfing’s safety problems. Surfers could easily get their hands on safety equipment, but without knowing how to use it or recognizing a dangerous situation in the first place, the gear would be all but useless.

“Technology is a double-edged sword. It can enhance your skills and knowledge but it can also enhance your stupidity,” he explains. “Give a scalpel to a doctor and he can save your life. Give a scalpel to an amateur and he can maim or kill you.”

It’s part of the reason Keaulana partnered with the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group, an organization started by Christensen and other members of the Oahu surf community that trains surfers in risk management, safety protocols like CPR, and new equipment and technology. BWRAG was born from the fallout over Milosky’s tragic 2011 passing, and has grown alongside the advancement of safety technology in the sport.  

“Surfing has now become a team thing rather than an individual thing,” says Keaulana. “It’s an individual sport when you are out there, but when you add in lifesaving, you start watching this [communal] culture spreading.”

Galvanizing the link between safety education and safety technology, BRWAG has even partnered with Patagonia. Now anyone looking to buy the brand’s PSI Vest must first complete a BWRAG course.

Zach DiIonno, BWRAG’s managing director, says his organization hopes that governments will see what the surfing community is doing on its own and implement other safety measures, such as safety certifications and state- or county-sponsored water safety courses. Surfers have introduced wave parks around the world to give beginner and advanced surfers alike the chance to learn new skills in controlled settings. By all accounts, this is a wave that continues to grow.

“For us it’s a balance. No one piece of equipment defines who I am,” says Keaulana.

“The ocean gives us so many things, but it’s the right technology with the right people that can make it great and exciting. It opens up your mind to what you can do.”

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Kade Krichko’s writing has appeared in The New York TimesOutside, Conde Nast Traveler, and ESPN Magazine.

Photo by Getty Images

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