Every year, four or five surfers drown in Australia.
But few of these incidents attract as much attention as the recent death of Bob, a well known and respected local at a reef break in Avalon, a suburb on Sydney's Northern Beaches.
An important factor in this attention was that he had been featured in a short film that became a staff pick on Vimeo, but for surfers it was the manner in which he drowned that attracted their interest.
Bob drowned when his leg rope became entangled with rocks below the surface. It seems that the turbulence produced by a strong southerly swell sweeping down the reef held him underwater and prevented him from being able to reach the strap of his leg rope.
For many surfers, including both surfers I contacted for this article, this triggered memorys of similar incidents. Manly Surf School's Matt Grainger, was caught on another Northern Beaches reef, remembers how difficult it was to reach the strap and considers himself lucky to have escaped. Brian Cregan from Ocean and Earth, remembers escaping relatively easily but being alerted to the potential dangers.
In my own case when I was caught on a coral head at HT's with only my face above water, the leg rope broke, but the incident left a lasting impression. For big wave surfers there is the additional risk of a large board holding them down for an extended period without the leg rope becoming entangled.
According to research provided by Eveline Rijksen from Surf Life Saving Australia these type of drownings are rare with only two other confirmed cases in Australia in the period 2004-2017. It may have been a factor in some other cases but does not appear to have been the primary cause. This does not include incidents outside Australia and given the number of surfers travelling to Indonesia and other locations to surf over coral, it is possible that others have drowned in this way.
If we think on an individual level, the risk seems infinitesimal. Those with an interest in statistics can calculate the precise risk but for most of us three cases over thirteen years amongst a million regular surfers in Australia tells us all we need to know. Yet there is another way of thinking about this and it is in terms of the ongoing risk. The three deaths and numerous anecdotal accounts of narrow escapes make it almost certain that in the absence of change other surfers, in the not so distant future, will die in the same way.
Education has a role to play in this. Surfers need to have a clear strategy to release the strap in an emergency. As has been pointed out several times before in similar contexts, the instinctive response of bending from the waist makes the task much more difficult.
A typical effective strategy might be:
1. Attach the strap so the loop is on the inside of the ankle making sure access to the strap is not obstructed by a wetsuit.
2. If the leg rope is fully extended dive down to reduce the strain.
3. Bend the leg from the knee bringing the heel up close to the buttocks.
4. Reach across the front of the ankle so the strap can be released in a single movement.
At Manly Surf School, and hopefully most others, beginners are shown this type of technique and practise it before entering the water, but many established surfers would have never given it a thought. They should consider practising it, particularly those who ride over coral or on rocky points.
Leg rope manufacturers have a role to play as well. Most have already incorporated a loop on the leading edge of the strap to facilitate a quick release but these are of variable quality with some being easy to use while others become stiff with salt over time and tend to fold flat. Counter intuitively loops made from narrower strips of fabric seem more reliable.
Some manufacturers - Ocean and Earth and Dakine to my knowledge - produce big wave leg ropes with a quick release pin located where the strap joins the cord. While it would seem likely that this system would be quicker and more reliable than undoing the strap, it would be necessary to do some testing to determine if that is really the case. If it could be demonstrated that the pin was significantly quicker and easier, there would be a good argument for making it standard on leg ropes being used over reefs and rocky points.
Surfing is an inherently risky activity. It is also one that lacks a central body to develop knowledge and policies for our benefit. In the circumstances it is really up to every individual surfer to think deeply and take responsibility for their own safety.
The available data on drownings suggests that many were avoidable and that we need to re-evaluate some aspects of surfing culture to reduce them in the future, but more on that later.