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Epic Rides and Wipeouts: Tech That Is Changing Surfing Safety

Chasing Mavericks is perhaps one of the best surfing movies Hollywood has ever produced. It is based on the short life of the late Santa Cruz phenom Jay Moriarity. However, filming this movie was a huge challenge for the entire move crew. Last year, big-wave surfer Danilo Couto visited Mavericks to shoot some scenes from the movie. Mavericks welcomed him with a 15-knot wind that was chopping up the surface of 30-foot waves. Elite pros like Greg Long, Peter Mel, and Shawn Dollar lined up beside him to charge the monster waves.

Danilo Couto felt confident, although he knew that many experienced riders did not have very pleasant encounters with Mavericks before. He was equipped with a special inflatable wetsuit invented by surfer Shane Dorian. This suit, called Billabong V1, or Vertical Ascent 1, allows the rider pull a shoulder-mounted rip cord while underwater, causing a CO2 cartridge to inflate an air bladder capable of rocketing the wearer back to the surface.
Danilo ventured out on the huge waves and paddled hard, but after he stood up his board hit some chop. Moments after, the wave thrown him 30 feet under and drove the air from his lungs. He could not find the rip cord, so a second wave hit him. He finally managed to pull the cord, but it broke off in his hand. Fortunately, the system worked and saved him.

This ‘inflatable wetsuit’ technology is intended to enable surfers ride more massive waves. Apart from the Vertical Ascent 1 or V1, other inflatable vests are in design process and will soon hit the market. Surfers also start to pack canisters of air to use in case of distress. Some experience riders say that this is a good thing, while others worry that these devices will impart a false sense of security, especially to aspiring big-wave heroes pumped up by movies like Chasing Mavericks.

Here’s what Danilo Couto has to say about this: “When we surfed the outer reefs in Hawaii, you parked at the beach and paddled alone for half an hour. There was no safety backup. We can’t have the new generation of guys come in and just say, ‘Well, I don’t have to be so ready, because all I have to do now is pull a cord.”

Jeff Clark, one of the pioneers of Mavericks surfing, who is also designing his own CO2-equipped vest, adds: “Mediocre preparation for 40-foot waves is not going to be bolstered by spare air or an inflatable wetsuit.”

More and more surf experts say that special safety technology is especially needed in places like Mavericks, where huge waves can bury a rider alive in seconds. For the past decade, Terry Maas, a retired California oral surgeon and prominent freediver, has been working on a computer-activated inflatable vest called the SRV. This vest works as an unconscious rescue system, as Maas says. The V1 requires the rider to pull the cord to activate the safety system, while in the case of the SRV, the rider programs the computer to trigger inflation at a certain depth or time spent underwater. It sounds interesting and we can’t wait to see it in action.