Hayden Burford and the shark-proof wetsuit
It’s been twenty years since Hayden Burford had his Island Surf shop in South Australia, a popular hang for Adelaide groms of the 80s and 90s. Hayden has since left his home state, he now lives at Lennox Head, yet he still surfs and is connected to the industry.
Hayden, however, is no longer an entrepreneur but an inventor, and his latest invention was inspired by events in his new hometown. From 2014 to just recently, surfers of the NSW North Coast lived in fear as a spate of shark attacks, two of them fatal, occurred in the region.
Three years ago, at the height of shark fever, Hayden was chatting to his partner who mentioned protective motorcycle jeans made with kevlar. In an offhand way, Hayden’s partner questioned why wetsuits couldn't offer similar protection from sharks.
“And that was it,” says Hayden of his eureka moment. “Why not wetsuits?!”
So the search for the magic fabric began. “I tested fabric after fabric,” says Hayden, “until I finally found a miracle fabric out of Holland.”
Hayden can’t tell me what the fabric is called other than it’s a ‘high tech polymer’, however he explains that it’s so tough that Dutch prison guards wear shirts made from it. “Not even a prison knife plunged at close range can nick it.”
“When I realised just how strong and how light the material is, I knew I’d found the right stuff.”
Hayden successfully applied for a patent for the Shark Resistant Composite Fibre and began the process to commercialise it.
With a grant from the NSW Government’s Shark Management Strategy, Hayden hooked up with Associate Professor Charlie Huveneers at Flinders University to test the product.
“Through a variety of laboratory and field tests, we found that the new fabrics were more resistant to puncture, laceration, and shark bites than standard neoprene wetsuits,” Prof Huveneers said.
“More force was required to puncture the new fabrics, and cuts made to the new fabrics were smaller and shallower than those on standard neoprene,” added Prof Huveneers.
They also found the material, which when magnified looks like millions of small eyelets, caught on the tips of shark's teeth and they shook to remove themselves from it deterring a second approach.
Hayden, and Prof Huveneers for that matter, know the wetsuits won’t stop impact injuries from shark bite, bones will still break and fracture, however the leading cause of death from shark bites is blood loss, so this is what the wetsuits are designed to stop.
“We have reams of data about shark attacks” explains Hayden, “not just where they occurred but what part of the body the shark bites.”
“The vast majority of serious attacks involve injuries from the waist down. That’s where the big arteries are, it’s where you’re liable to lose the most blood.”
So when it comes to designing bite-proof wetsuits, Hayden is using the high tech polymer in panels around that part of the body.
“The material is only one way stretch, so there’ll be a small loss in flexibility,” says Hayden, “however we’re not making wetsuits for Kelly Slater, we’re making wetsuits for surfers who surf in sharky areas.”
As we speak, Hayden has bite-proof dive wetsuits ready to go, but the surfing wetsuits need some more work. “We’re testing how thin we can go and still prevent puncture,” says Hayden.
So far he’s spoken to one wetsuit company - “a large American wetsuit company” - and they’ve been very interested. He is, however, bracing himself for an onslaught tomorrow as that’s when the findings of the work with Flinders University will be published in a science journal.
“I think this will be a game changer,” says Hayden confidently.