Surfing giant waves might become much safer thanks to the development of a revolutionary new wetsuit that contains an inflatable air-bladder that promises to drastically reduce the risk of drowning.
Renowned big-wave surfer Shane Dorian, who in 2010 experienced a near-death situation after a major wipeout, has teamed with Billabong to invent the first-of-its-kind survival wetsuit, whose bladder is activated with the tug of a cord.
"The wipeout was terrible," he said of the incident, which occurred at notorious Maverick's near Half Moon Bay, Calif. "I got held under for two waves and almost drowned. After that I had an idea to incorporate an air bladder, something like the airplane vests where you pull the tab and it inflates immediately with a CO2 cartridge."
A news release announcing the development of the Billabong V1 wetsuit -- which is not yet available to the public -- comes just months after Sion Milosky drowned after a wipeout at Maverick's.
The project, spearheaded by Billabong product manager Hub Hubbard, also involved Barbara Mau at Express Wetsuit repair and, of course, Dorian. The key component is a Mustang Survival Corporation bladder that is installed into a compact zipper pocket in the back of the wetsuit, but still allows the surfer to be face-up after surfacing.
"A pull cord runs over the shoulder to a handle on the upper chest," Hubbard explained. "You pull it like a parachute and up you go."
Several prototypes were tested by Dorian, in all kinds of surf. The ultimate test was in huge surf at the Cortes Bank seamount 100 miles off Southern California.
A public demonstration was held in March as a gargantuan swell was hitting Jaws off Maui. Dorian rode waves without wiping out, of course, including a 57-footer that enabled him to win a major competition award.
But when he pulled into the biggest tube of his life and failed to come out, he was driven far underwater by the churning whitewater and deployed the inflation mechanism.
The surfer was propelled quickly to the surface and climbed back onto his surfboard. He paddled to the safety of the channel with a conspicuous hump on his back, clearly visible to the numerous photographers on hand.
It remains unclear when the V1 wetsuits, which are still in the patent process, will be available to the broader market, or how much they'll cost. But they're already being made available to elite big-wave surfing pros, who earn a living by traveling the world in pursuit of giant waves.
Said Dorian: "First and foremost, we designed this thing to help save lives. I've had three or four really close friends die surfing in really big waves and every single one of them drowned.
And now that it's done, now that the thing is ready to go, I'm excited to give it to all my friends who are the very best big-wave surfers in the world. We have a core group of guys I'm really close to and everybody wants to be out there, everybody wants to charge huge waves and push the envelope but I want all my friends to be safer.
"I want them all to come home to their families every night and I'm excited about this new breakthrough."
-- Images of Shane Dorian with the new survival wetsuit are courtesy of Billabong. Top two photos were captured by Eric Aeder