Last week’s tragic death of 32-year-old Kirk Passmore in 20-foot surf has fellow big wave riders on Oahu’s North Shore focused on how to minimize risks.
On Tuesday, experienced waterman and former Makaha lifeguard Brian Keaulana led a workshop at the Turtle Bay Resort for more than 50 big wave riders from across the globe.
Keaulana said the workshop is a chance to share knowledge and discuss the latest technological advancements in the burgeoning arena of big wave riding.
"When you talk about danger, it's really about the knowledge that you have because what decreases danger is knowledge," said Keaulana.
The workshop has become an annual event after the death of Sion Milosky in 2011 while surfing the break Mavericks in Northern California. Milosky’s friend Kohl Christensen came up with the idea after realizing he didn’t know basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR.
“We got everybody together so I wouldn’t feel helpless if my buddy or some other surfer went down,” said Christensen. “At least I could look back and say I did my best, rather than feel helpless.”
Although surfing is the ultimate expression of individualism, one of the main ideas fostered during the workshop is teamwork, especially when the waves get massive.
"In big wave surfing, it's really about the team that you surf with, all the individuals you surf with,” said Keaulana. “You surround yourself with knowledgeable, professional people that are out in an ocean environment."
The workshop also spent a great deal of time examining the pros and cons of inflatable vests that are charged with CO2 canisters. Such vests can help a surfer reach the surface faster and keep him there if he’s injured or unconscious.
Some big wave surfers believe Passmore may have survived his wipeout at outside Alligator Rock last Wednesday had he been wearing an inflatable vest. Passmore made the drop on a 20-foot wave, but was blasted by the lip after catching an edge and diving forward.
"If he was wearing a vest, maybe that would have helped him, maybe not,” said Christensen. “But, that's one of those things we're talking about, mitigating the risk."
"When you’re out in that kind of environment, there really is not a lifeguard out there, unless you hire them,” added Keaulana. “There really is nothing that exists out there until you create those safety mechanisms."
However, there is a bit of controversy surrounding the continuing development of inflatable vests. While Patagonia only offers them to experienced big wave surfers, Billabong's V1 will soon be available to the public.
Billabong team rider Shane Dorian addressed the obvious concern while explaining the development of the V1 to fellow surfers at the workshop.
"Everyone says, 'Oh, we don't want kooks to have these things because then it'll enable them to paddle out at the outer reefs when they shouldn't be out there in the first place,'” said Dorian, “but, I don't think there's any solution to that to be honest."
According to the Hawaii Department of Health, 16 surfers and body boarders died on the North Shore from 1993 to 2012. All of the victims were males, between the ages of 17 and 55. Half of those who died were Hawaii residents, five were from the mainland and the remaining three hailed from foreign countries. Fourteen of the drownings occurred between November and March, with one death each in July and August.