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Seeking Balance In The Progression Of Big Wave Surfing

Posted by Dominic Costanzo on

Big wave surfing presents risks unfamiliar to most sports. Paddling into towering waves at breaks like Mavericks require an unparalleled skill level and mental fortitude realized only by a few of surfings willing elite. Unfortunately, at some point, risk is always realized, as wipeouts are an inevitable part of the sport. And while these circumstances present potentially deadly outcomes for surfers, they’ve also proven to serve as the inspiration for the innovation that could later save their lives.

2010 was one of these turning point moments. Shane Dorian, one of big wave surfings best, suffered a crazy wipeout on an all-time day at Mavericks. Dorian was thrown over the falls of a crashing 40 foot face and what ensued nearly caused him to blackout and drown beneath the waves. Unable to get back up to the surface off the initial hold down, another wave in the lineup came barreling through, holding Dorian down even longer. In total, the surfer was held under for over a minute, which in the moment probably felt like all the time in the world. Surviving that surreal event led him to collaborate with his sponsors in producing the V1, a wetsuit which contained a carbon-dioxide cartridge that inflates the interior like an air bag with the pull of a cord. The result next time out? “When I pulled that cord for the first time, I realized that this changes everything for me. I was back to the surface, and back to air, a whole lot sooner.”

In today’s current big wave surfing landscape, emerging talent Colin Dwyer attests to the effectiveness of such advancements in technology, “Since the advent of inflation vests and an increased focus on water safety there hasn't been a single fatality in big wave surfing. So in that regard, it's been amazing.” However, he’s also been around long enough to see how inherently beneficial technology, has unintended consequences. “We're now seeing a lot of surfers that wouldn't have paddled out or surfed on a 20 foot day and they're creating added stress to the entire safety system put in place by those of us that worked to create it,” says Dwyer. “A lot of guys have an inflated ego because of the vests.”

Such safety precautions such as the V1, or utilizing jet skis for towing in weren’t necessarily meant to bring the sport to the masses, but rather increase performance by providing access to more waves and ensuring the safety of those who had earned the right to do so through their ability, not simply their courage. Granted, as the sport gained more mainstream exposure, it would naturally attract more riders to it, able or not. “I think the increased attention from the media has had the greatest impact on younger surfers wanting to charge big days. To be considered a well rounded surfer you have to charge. You can't make a living off surfing anymore simply by being just be a small wave guy ripping in 4’ surf and never touching the 15' plus stuff,” says Dwyer.

“A lot of guys have an inflated ego because of the vests.” - Colin Dwyer

But it’s hard to suggest that surfing breaks such as Mavericks should be limited to only a small group. After all, surfing isn’t relegated to just a select few, as the ocean is public domain. All you need is a board and some waves. Charge at your own risk. But just because one can, doesn’t mean one should necessarily. “Today’s surfers definitely take more risks with a vest, 100%. But a bomb is a bomb, and it can kill you no matter what you have on or who's watching over you on a ski,” says Dwyer.

“Since the advent of inflation vests and an increased focus on water safety there hasn't been a single fatality in big wave surfing. So in that regard, it's been amazing.” - Colin Dwyer

Tow-in surfing is another great example, which made the once unrideable, rideable. “Towing into massive waves revolutionized the sport of surfing and shattered what was previously thought possible in the realm of riding big waves,” says Dwyer. It’s also made the rideable, even more so for those unwilling or unable to paddle in. This isn’t to say there isn’t a place for tow-in surfing, rather there needs to be balance in when it’s utilized. “There is a still a place for towing in, just look at Australia and Tahiti. Waves like Shipstern Bluff and Teahupoo when they're huge are far too slabby to paddle into. There are plenty of others that are completely unrideable without a tow in.”

For Dwyer, who’s been surfing Mavericks since he was 15, it’s ironic looking back at how primitive surfing was back then for him compared to today. “It'll just strike me like a bolt of lightning that I used to surf Mavs' with nothing on, limited safety personnel, when I was younger, smaller and weaker than I am now.” However, the argument can be made that because of these realities, it was ever more important for Colin to be that much more prepared, that much better, and that much more aware of the consequences. When the safety net doesn’t exist, there is no depending on anyone or anything but yourself.

“Towing into massive waves revolutionized the sport of surfing and shattered what was previously thought possible in the realm of riding big waves.” - Colin Dwyer

At the end of the day, you’ll never be able to eliminate risk totally, only reduce it. Without the imaginative innovations in surfing, we wouldn’t be witnesses to the amazing feats we see today. Progression is innate in us as humans, and it’s required to elevate disciplines such as big wave surfing. But progression is often times messy and uncertain. More importantly though, it’s self correcting, ebbing and flowing like the waves of the ocean.

From July 17th through August 6th, 10% of your purchase of any product in our shop will go towards sponsoring Colin Dwyer. For action sport disciplines like big wave surfing, funding doesn't always come easy, and elite athletes often times have to incur large personal costs to compete at a high level. The Frynge is proud to provide a platform that allows readers and customers like yourself, to have a direct impact in supporting athletes like Colin. So be sure to check back each week for new stories, gear and apparel!

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