The Inertia

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new series, Surf History 101, where we look at innovations in the world of surfing and beyond that changed the pursuit forever. In this edition, Sam George looks at the inflatable PFD and how it’s changed big wave surfing.

What is it?

First developed in 2011, the inflatable surfing vest is exactly that: an auxiliary vest equipped with air-bladders capable of being inflated with pull-tab c02 cartridges, to be deployed during long, potentially dangerous big-wave hold downs.

Who developed it?

In August of 2000, Laird Hamilton visited the office of SURFER magazine and informed its editor of his intention to tow-surf the fearsome Tahitian reef break at Teahupoʻo, determined to take off deeper than was currently thought possible on conventional equipment. An idea that, considering Teahupoʻo’s hollow, below-sea level hydraulic dynamics, seemed downright suicidal, with tow-in surfing generally restricted to deep-water big wave breaks. Not to worry, insisted Hamilton, as under his lavender rash guard he planned to wear a solid-body flotation vest. “So that if I get knocked unconscious on the reef” he explained, “my body will float up in time for them to find me and start CPR.” Well, we all know how that turned out, but it is notable to understand that it wasn’t until the new millennium that flotation was even considered when talking about safety in heavy water surf. Safety, in fact, was hardly even an issue, aside from fanciful talk of miniature SCUBA tanks, the occasional swim-fin tucked into trunks, and eventual use of surf leashes, with the concept of flotation reserved solely for surfboard design. 

All that changed during an epic Northern California swell in 2010, when on a massive set wave at Maverick’s Hawaii’s Shane Dorian tumbled into a wipeout that saw him pinned to the bottom during a two-wave hold down. Trapped helplessly in the black, breathless void Dorian found himself nightmarishly transitioning from keeping calm to panicking to pre-blackout hallucinations before finally surfacing, severely hypoxic and disoriented. Dorian admits to being seriously shaken by the incident, and, thinking mostly about his wife and two young children, even considered ending his big wave career. On the flight home, however, something made him rethink this drastic choice: the flight attendant’s safety demonstration. Especially the part about the yellow inflation vest, to be inflated (outside the plane, of course) by pulling the two red tabs, thus engaging attached c02 cartridges. This serendipitous point of inspiration was all it took to get Dorian right back on track and immediately upon return to Hawaii he contacted Billabong wetsuit’s head designer Hub Hubbard, pitching his idea for a pull-tab, inflatable surfing vest. Once again, the concept of incorporating flotation into big wave safety was met with skepticism.

“I’d never even considered it,” Hubbard admitted, in response to Dorian’s brainchild.  Still, this was Shane Dorian talking, and so Hubbard went to work on a functional design, eventually collaborating with Mustang Survival, a Canadian company specializing in technical marine flotation garments, to come up with a prototype vest that featured a (hopefully) functional inflatable bladder.

Testing proceeded in flatwater island conditions, yet from the first yank on the tab and hiss of the c02, Dorian was hooked and even before breaking the surface like a Polaris missile he was already thinking, “Game changer!” The real test, however, came later that winter on a big wave, open-ocean expedition to Cortes Bank, located in international waters 100 miles off the coast of San Diego. Mid-session, Dorian took a bad wipeout on a 50-footer and finally got to deploy his new vest under duress — and under tons of wild whitewater. As imagined, the inflated bladder on his back brought him quickly back to the surface, and even helped keep him near to his next breath as he was rolled by following waves in the set. By the time Dorian reached the boat to exchange cartridges and head back out, a new era of big wave riding had begun.

What it’s meant to surfing?

To appreciate how the invention and subsequent innovation of the inflatable surfing vest has impacted the sport, one only need review footage of the December 3 session at Peahi, where in XXL conditions the newest generation of big wave riders approached a five-story swell as if surfing five-foot Off-the-Wall, pulling into grinding barrels, some makeable, some not, as if they had absolutely nothing to lose. Or for that matter, any of the recent sessions at Nazaré, where tow-teams of men and women take impossible chances on impossible waves, seemingly unconcerned with circumstances associated with riding 70-foot shore break that explodes against a cliff. The operative word: confidence. Or at least an increased level of confidence asserting, at least subliminally, that no matter what might happen during a dangerous wipeout, a tug on the tab will bring you back to the surface in a timely manner. Timely enough not even to come close to blacking out, or, harkening back to Laird’s prescient protocol, at least in time to be rescued before drowning occurs. The result of this new, safety-oriented attitude is without question taking big wave performance into realms previously unimagined. 

Now, what affect has all this on the vast majority of surfers? Very little, except as members of an audience who can’t resist streaming clips of the latest mega-session. Yet since its inception, big-wave riding has always been the province of a tiny percentage of surfing participants. The difference is that today’s hellmen and women are for the first time adapting significant safety measures to a harsh arena previously characterized by an almost deliberate lack thereof. In this manner a greater awareness of surfing safety has percolated into the mindset of a broader surfing population who, while they may never take on a 60-foot Peahi widow maker, just might be a bit more heedful of their own potentially reckless behavior during their next go-out. 

Why it’s not going away

With the exception of the “modern longboard” and the general eschewing of tow-in surfing for the use of 10-foot guns, surfers have never willingly taken a step backward on the innovation timeline. Considering that inflatable vests can literally make the difference between life and death in giant waves, their continued development and use are assured. 


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