Heavy water code
Put it down to good training or good luck, but, in Australia at least, big wave surfing isn’t that dangerous. It’s scary of course, breathing is a precondition for living, take it away and feel the primal fear kick in, yet the statistics don’t match the optics. There are a few ways to cut the numbers, but according to the Surf Life Saving Association the fifteen year average for ‘drownings with a surfboard’ is four per year. None of them happened in legitimately big waves.
Summer 2019/2020 followed the same pattern with two drowning deaths. However, earlier this year that number very nearly doubled in the space of two months. Both were surfers, not drunk beachgoers who grabbed a foamy and distorted the statistics, and in fact both were big wave surfers. In March a surfer hit the bottom at Shipstern Bluff and was resuscitated in the channel by Russell Bierke and Shane Ackerman, while in April a surfer was held down for five waves at The Right but brought back to life by the quick actions of Shanan Worrall, Jarryd Foster, Zac Haynes, and Richard Sills.
Aside from big waves, the other thing the events had in common was that all of the rescuers had put themselves through big wave safety courses.
Most surfers know the story of the inflatable vest. How in 2010, a two-wave hold down at Mavericks inspired Shane Dorian to conceive a vest that self-inflates when a cord is pulled. It was a big wave eureka moment, and shortly afterwards the first-generation V1 vest was produced by Billabong. On 15th March 2011, Dorian pulled into a huge Jaws barrel, fell, and for the first time pulled the V1 cord in a real-world situation. He rocketed straight to the surface.
Similarly, the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG), an Hawaiian safety organisation, was borne out of an event at Mavericks. One day after Dorian tested the V1 suit at Jaws, the same swell hit northern California and, late in the day, Hawaiian Sion Milosky was also held down for a two-wave wipeout. Twenty minutes later his body was pulled out of the water near the harbour mouth.
Rocked by Milosky’s death, several of his friends convened afterwards in Kohl Christenson’s barn to address what they saw as a lack of risk management in big waves, and how they might counter this. The group, which had Christenson and Danilo Couta at its core, expanded to include Brian Keaulana, Pat Chong Tim, plus Greg Long, Ramon Navaro, and Gabriel Villaran. Afterwards, they loosely worked on techniques, meeting each December while evolving a curriculum, until in 2014 they formally assembled as the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group with a standardised training program behind them.
The formation of BWRAG came at a pivotal moment, says Australian Coordinator Liam Wilmot. Tow surfing had led many aspiring big wave surfers into heavy waves, but, says Liam, in 2014 when BWRAG formed, “tow surfing was declining and paddle in was building.” Big wave surfers that came of age in the PWC era had leapfrogged above their level of training, and then crucially, says Liam, “we saw fewer and fewer skis in the lineup.”
What paddling purists saw as something to celebrate - the stripped-back contest of man against the ocean - others saw as a concern. PWCs weren't just a means of getting surfers into waves, they were also a rescue device when things went wrong. And increasingly, things were going wrong, as attested by Milosky’s death and other near deaths, some of them closer to home.
In 2017, Russell Bierke pulled into what he calls “a small inside section” at a Victorian wave and collided with his board, knocking him unconscious. Russ’ mate Ben Serrano, along with help from Kelly Slater, hauled Russ’ limp body onto a PWC sled and drove him to the nearest port.
Recovering in hospital, Russ pondered his fortunate outcome, telling the local paper: “Without the jetski it would be a lot different. It was definitely good to have a safety crew there because it’s a long paddle. It’s over one and a half kms.” An impossible distance to haul an unconscious body.
The aforementioned rescue at The Right also highlights the necessity of, not just a ski, but also a sled. “There were just a few tow teams left at the end of the day,” says Shanan Worral of the recent incident, “myself and Jarryd Foster, plus Zac Haynes, but also Richard Sills was running safety."
“We told them we’re going back home, but then I saw they didn’t have a sled on. I'm always hassling the guys, being a grandma,” explains Shanan of his safety-first schtick. “So we decided we’d stick around and watch them. Not five minutes later the shit hit the fan big time and we needed to do CPR on our sled.”
The paddle revolution may have necessitated BWRAG in Hawaii and California, but here in Australia, slab central, there are a number of waves that are still legit tow waves, and probably always will be. This means there are PWCs in the water, however, there aren’t always surfers equipped with the knowledge to carry out an intensive rescue.
“So many guys are coming out to surf The Right,” says Jarryd Foster bluntly, “and they just don’t have their shit together. They don’t have the equipment and they don’t know the training. When things go wrong they’re relying on other people to save them. That’s fucked up.” Jarryd rattles off a few names of surfers, some of them very well-known, who don’t “have their shit together” at The Right. He also names a few guys that do, one of them is Ryan Hipwood.
Hippo has surfed The Right longer than most of the current crew, including some of the locals. He was tight with the East Coast crew who discovered it and he made many early missions, pioneering journeys when they didn’t yet know what the wave could hold, nor what it was capable of. In 2011 he found out after a wipeout drove him far deeper than expected and he blacked out on the ascent. Fortunately he surfaced not far from tow partner Laurie Towner who hauled him onto the ski.
Hippo’s wipeout happened exactly eight months after Dorian’s Mavericks wipeout. “The Billabong vests weren’t on the market yet,” says Hippo. “Shane had reached out to me and said he’d give me a prototype but it hadn’t arrived by the time I left.” When he was pushed deep all Hippo had on was a paltry foam vest which couldn’t compete against the swirling maelstrom of a Right explosion.
At the time, Hippo was training hard, he was a professional big wave surfer after all, so he was “more prepared than nearly all the guys out there,” as he puts it. And even after such an alarming wipeout he wasn’t deterred by The Right - he returned to surf it a few more times. But it’s over now, the urge to surf The Right has gone. “It’s super risky, even with the vests,” says Hippo. “I achieved what I wanted and I’m getting out. These days I get more of a kick out of paddling Jaws. The Right is hard, it’s super short, hard to get deep, and it’s just fucking dangerous. At the end of the day it’s the most dangerous wave in the world.”
Yet despite the ever-present danger, the crowds are still increasing at The Right and also at Shippies when it breaks at size, and this worries Shanan Worrall. So much so that he created his own big wave training course, one that predates BWRAG. If BWRAG was created in response to tragedy, the Shark Eyes Heavy Water Safety and Rescue Program was proactively trying to avert it. “We did that because we knew that someone was going to die out there,” says Shanan evenly. The first Shark Eyes course was run three years ago. “We invited all the Big Wave Daves in WA and we had twenty people turn up,” says Shanan. The course was held over two days and covered risk minimisation, rescue techniques, while Dr Dennis Millard from Surfing Doctors taught first aid and resuscitation.
Shanan organised two more courses, each of them for free, while absorbing the running costs, before deciding to charge for the most recent course. The decision to charge money drew criticism from some quarters, and also some counter-criticism in return.
“These selfish pricks are happy for everyone else to do the course so they can be rescued,” said one WA surfer who didn’t want to be identified, “but they won’t pay to do it themselves and help rescue others..? I know who has and hasn’t done the course and I’m prepared to call them out.”
BWRAG and the Shark Eyes Heavy Water Safety and Rescue Program aren't the only two ocean education programs. In recent years a slew of courses focussing on various breath-hold techniques have begun operating. In various ways these courses serve to improve lung capacity and hence personal safety in bigger waves. The difference between them are that the latter focus on individual performance, while BWRAG and Shark Eyes - while also including breath hold techniques in their curriculum - concern themselves with group safety. When it comes to The Right or to big Shippies, looking out for others has become much more than simply watching other people’s backs. Such are the dangers involved, it now means knowing how to resuscitate them, just as Shane Ackerman and Russ Bierke had to do at Shipsterns Bluff in March. “I looked around that lineup, “says Shane of that rescue, “and I couldn’t see anyone besides Russ who knew what to do.”
“I thought about that a lot afterwards,” reflects Shane, who’s one of the world’s best big wave bodyboarders, “if I paddle out and Russ isn’t there...well, who’s got my back? I’ve got theirs, I’ve done all the training, I take big wave riding very seriously, but who’s coming in for me?”
In 2018, Shane had to fend for himself when a paddle mission at The Right went horribly wrong. “I paddled for a wave,” says Shane, “but I had to pull back when a tow team got it further out. I pulled back, then I had to duckdive the ski, and then once I came up from the duckdive I was caught inside - got sent over on the first one then took a few twenty footers on the head.” Filmmaker Tim Bonython, who’s shot XXL Jaws, Teahupoo, and Nazare, says it was the one time in his career that he thought he’d filmed a death (see image below). “It was like he stood in front of a firing squad,” says Tim. Shane has no recollection of the incident but insists he’s learnt a lot from it.
For one, he’s developed a relationship with Shanan and the West Oz crew who he always calls ahead of a trip (says Shanan: “It helps if everyone calls ahead so we know who’s coming and what we’ll be dealing with”), he trains maniacally claiming underwater hockey as the secret to his cetacean-like lung capacity, and perhaps most importantly, he’s completely honest with himself about his motivations.
“The very least The Right will do to you is put your ego in check,” says Shane emphatically. “The worst it can do is kill you, so you’ve got to do it for the right reasons. Leave your ego at home - bring the balls but leave your ego at home.” For now, the desire to charge The Right is still there. “Some of the West Oz guys, you can tell they’re wondering how much longer they’ll do it for, but for me, I’m going to keep going back till I don’t have the hunger anymore.”
But does he still think The Right is paddleable? “Yeah. I paddled it three months after that big wipeout. Now whenever I try, I call ahead and Shanan puts aside a two hour window so he can sit on the jet ski and watch. Be my personal bodyguard.” Having a guardian angel is reassuring, yet Shane still thinks the greatest danger in big waves is when everyone has their guard down on those relatively smaller days, or on the smaller waves. “Shit can hit the fan...but you’re still stuck amongst big waves.”
“Sometimes we have a session and I think to myself, ‘I wish something went bad, so you were all brought back down’, you know?” Shane says it guiltily, it’s not a savoury thought to wish injury on fellow surfers, yet it’s for a greater good. “Give people a slap in the face, make ‘em realise that, it’s not thirty foot, but they are surfing waves of consequence.”
Shane cites his Shippies rescue, which followed a wipeout on a six foot wave, or the recent one at The Right which was a ten footer on a fifteen foot day. “My theory,” expounds Shane, “is if you’re going to surf big waves...then surf big waves! Waves that break further out, away from the shallow water.”
For his part, Russell Bierke agrees with Shane. “It’s easy to brush off the dangers when it’s a perfect twelve foot glassy day. Like, ‘What can go wrong?’ When you start getting too casual that’s when it does go wrong.”
Russ speaks from experience, as described by the aforementioned wipeout. “It felt just like any other fall,” says Russ. “If you saw it you wouldn’t have thought anything of it.” Yet it was Russ’ most serious wipeout to date, and served to remind him that, even if it’s not thirty feet, he’s still among waves of consequence.
“I used to think that guys who were super-prepared were over-reacting,” says Russ, “that they were being over the top. But I found out stuff can go wrong, and at some point it will.” Since then, Russ has done “a fair few” first aid and CPR courses, and he’s also done his BWRAG training. In fact, Shanan led that particular course.
It used to be that big wave surfers could get by on being bull-headed and bloody-minded, but that attitude falls short in modern big wave riding. It takes an athlete's commitment to peak physical and mental well-being to survive a wipeout at The Right, and sometimes even that isn't enough. It's then that group safety kicks in. A line of text on the Shark Eyes website sums up the new collective ethos: "We aim to encourage a culture of looking out for your mates and being equiped to deal with a situation when everything goes wrong."
When Shanan Worrall began his heavy water course he knew what it had to achieve, and to date it's been succesful. Despite his premonition, they've been no deaths. When the two accidents happened last autumn, the rescuers acted swiftly and prevented the surfers from becoming statistics. However, for the clean sheet to continue it's incumbent upon all heavy water surfers to see themselves, not as individual units, but as part of a group.
Inflatable life vests have only been around for ten years, yet there's already a stigma about them in Hawaii. If you're not wearing one while paddling to an outer reef you'll quickly be pulled up about it. A similar stigma is developing around heavy water courses for surfing Australian slabs. "If someone goes down, I'm not going to let a body float past me," says Shane Ackerman, "yet I've seen people who wouldn't know what to do. That's not good enough and it needs to change."
Jarryd Foster is more succinct about it: "If you're gonna come and surf The Right then do the bloody course."