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Peace of mind in a bag. Photo: Surfer Today

Safety vests have been embraced by a number of big wave surfers, yet many adamantly oppose them. Why? Photo: Surfer Today


The Inertia

This El Nino winter will go on record as one of the greatest runs of swell we’ve ever seen. Surfers have pushed limits further than we thought possible – many of them relative unknowns, thrust into the spotlight by a single drop (see Aaron Gold or Luke Shepardson). We’ve seen maxed out Pe’ahi which has helped to solidify the status of the Big Wave Tour, and most recently we’ve seen maybe the greatest Eddie ever – reported to have been watched by 1.2 million viewers. It is perhaps surprising that all of this has taken place without a major tragedy. But what is more surprising is that not everyone is doing what they can to prevent potential deaths.

Prior to The Eddie, Quiksilver released the following statement: “As part of Quiksilver’s commitment to perpetuating ocean safety – a hallmark of Aikau’s life, Quiksilver is delighted to announce that for the first time ever, its new Inflatable Ocean Safety vest will be made available to all contestants…”

Despite this, many competitors, including Bruce Irons and Sunny Garcia, declined to wear safety equipment. In a pre-Eddie TourNotes clip Sunny Garcia states: “If you have to wear a vest you shouldn’t be out there”.

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To try and understand the reasoning behind this attitude I caught up with Ben Wilkinson, the Australian big-wave surfer now residing in Hawaii. Ben recently competed in both The Eddie and The Titans of Mavericks events. As an ambassador for Patagonia (who champions their own brand of inflation vest) I presumed that Ben would be an avid supporter of this technology, but I was surprised to hear that he opted not to wear his inflation vest for either of the recent competitions.

“We have been testing this great invention for a number of years, and we have also integrated padded flotation wetsuits to our tool box,” said Wilkinson. “In all the years since, I have never pulled the vest.” 

“I’m kind of old school in my approach, but I have a lot of confidence in my ability as a waterman,” Wilkinson continued. “I am a huge supporter of the vest, but I also believe that you should not rely on it. Nothing is unbreakable.”

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Many top surfers have alluded to reliability issues with these vests, and this may be part of the reason that not everyone wears them. It is easy to appreciate that maintaining focus and being in the right frame of mind is critical when surfing giant waves, and that relying on something which may fail could be extremely dangerous. But it’s also a bit like saying “I’m not going to bother with a helmet on this motorbike, because I might hit a tree and break my neck anyway.

Safety vests and other protective equipment occupy a strange space in surfing. Whilst it is undoubtedly becoming more common to utilize safety equipment, mostly in the domain of big wave surfing, there does still seem to be a certain stigma associated with using technology – as a safety net or otherwise. The way tow surfing has been shunned in favor of paddling is part of this. Using safety equipment in general is a long way from being universally accepted by the surf community.

But why? We know surfing is dangerous. We know that it is easy to hit the bottom with enough force to cause serious head trauma (see Owen Wright, Evan Geiselman as recent high profile examples); yet we shun helmets. And we know that in the worst cases it is possible we might never resurface (see Mark Foo, Todd Chesser, Donnie Solomon); yet still we choose not to take preventive measures.

Might one or two surfers still be alive if they had worn inflation vests? At the risk of being disrespectful to their memories it is hard to say, but I think it is fair to assume that we might be missing more icons of our sport if safety vests and similar technology hadn’t been invented.

Despite a reluctance to fully embrace technology, the surfers aren’t too proud to be rescued. Ben Wilkinson was quick to give a nod to the safety crew at the event, specifically the Hawaiian Water Patrol.

“These guys have been trained at the highest level,” said Wilkinson. “They have set the standard in water safety through water time, training and sharing knowledge that has been passed down for generations so I had all the confidence in the world that if something bad happened to me like getting K’Oed I wouldn’t be able to pull the vest anyway but they would be there to rescue me and get me safely to shore.”

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Wilkinson went on to explain: “This year in the Eddie I paddled out under my own steam and did not wear a vest as a small token of my respect to Eddie and Brock because I know they could and would be able to do what they did and that was ‘charge’ without them!”

Likewise, Sunny Garcia says: “Eddie wouldn’t wear a vest.”

However, the following record of Eddie Aikau’s final moments from Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing might contradict this: “At 10:30 the following morning, Aikau took a life vest…and set out on a 10-foot surfboard for the island of Lanai…rescuers searched for a week, but Aikau’s body wasn’t found.”

As a lifeguard who was famous for saving hundreds of lives as well as accomplishments in big waves, it’s hard to imagine that Eddie Aikau wouldn’t have supported using technology in the interests of safety. Should we change our attitudes to the use of safety equipment in surfing? Perhaps. Would Eddie have approved of wearing an inflation vest? Almost definitely.

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