Let’s be completely honest with ourselves, most of us will never ride a 20-foot wave at Jaws or Mavericks. Heck, most of us will never ride a 15-foot wave when our favorite local spot is maxed out, but that’s not to say we can’t all learn something from the experiences that renowned big-wave riders like Greg Long and Danilo Couto have to share. Big waves or small, a little education can go a long way.
Long and Couto recently hosted a Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG) training conference in Oceanside, California, with the idea that no matter what size waves you surf, we could all be safer in the water.
Attended by over 30 surfers of all ages, including people that were just getting into the sport, as well as elite, accomplished professionals like Damien Hobgood, Albee Layer and Jojo Roper, the two-day course offered everything from CPR training, to jet ski rescue techniques, to classroom lectures on risk assessment and surf spot analysis. The following are some of the key takeaways:
1. Let friends or family know where you’re going.
It doesn't matter if you're paddling out at your local beachbreak or a remote slab, just letting someone know when and where you're paddling out can help in times of an emergency.
Even on the smallest, most playful days, if you take a rail to the head or snap your neck on the sandbar and you could be rendered unconscious or incapacitated. In such instances people on scene may assist you out of the water and get you emergency attention but having somebody on dry land that knows your whereabouts will make a difference as the emergency response develops.
2. Have important personal information readily available.
“We always make sure that everybody has their insurance information, passport and other information easily accessible because it can save precious time when responding to a situation,” explained Long during the BWRAG conference.
The idea here is that the longer responders have to search for your ID, insurance information and other relevant info, the longer it’s going to take to get you the help you really need. If you’re surfing alone it could be as simple as making sure your wallet is somewhere easily accessible and contains all your pertinent information.
3. Remember, surfing is inherently dangerous.
“Whether you’re surfing big waves or small waves, surfing is a dangerous sport,” said Couto. “In fact, more injuries happen in small surf because people let their guard down or aren't paying as much attention.”
Look no further than the spinal injury that Jesse Billauer, founder of Life Rolls On, suffered. He was a rising star, but on a small day at a beachbreak he'd surfed a thousand times he wiped out, suffered a spinal injury and ended up paralyzed for the rest of his life. The fact of the business is, anytime you get in the water something could happen. Stay focused, stay alert, and remember, it doesn't have to be a giant wave to do significant harm.
4. Learn basic CPR and rescue skills.
“You never know when you’re going to be confronted with a situation in the water, or even out of the water, and having the knowledge, ability and confidence to step in can mean the difference between life or death,” said Couto. There are no shortage of Red Cross or lifeguard training classes available out there, take some time to learn the basics of CPR, rescue breathing and first aid, so you can be step into help should a situation arise.
5. Identify potential hazards.
“What’s out there that could be a hazard to you and what kind of risk does it pose?” asked Long. It could be a rock outcropping inside the surf zone, it could be a shallow reef or sweeping current. It could be a kooky summertime crowd or a school of jellyfish.
Before you paddle out, take a few minutes to analyze your environment and determine what could potentially cause you trouble during your session.
6. Learn how to communicate effectively.
In an emergency situation in the water shouting for help may not be enough. You may be too far offshore or the wind may be too strong or your voice to be heard, in which case learning a few basic hand signals to communicate with lifeguards or rescue personnel can make all the difference.
For example, a flat hand or closed fist tapping the top of your head will alert potential rescuers that you are okay. Waving one or two arms above your head indicate that you need help. There are several other hand signals that lifeguards and water safety professionals use to communicate in turbulent conditions, it definitely doesn’t hurt to know what they are.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
“There’s no big-wave surfer in the world that I know that won’t take a minute to share water safety information with you if you ask,” said Long. The whole BWRAG program was established by master lifeguard Brian Keaulana with the idea that sharing this information is simply the right thing to do and can result in lives saved.
If you have a question about where you should be sitting in the lineup, what the swell is doing, or what potential hazards there may be, don’t be ashamed to ask somebody what’s going on. “Local knowledge” is real, and if you’re surfing somewhere new for the first time, don’t be embarrassed or ashamed to ask someone for a few pointers. Everyone wins when the lineup is more educated.
8. Learn how to breathe right.
“When I had my incident at Cortes Bank, I never panicked,” recalled Long. “The last thing I remember is climbing my leash, then I blacked out.”
Long and company have spent years studying, practicing and training to control their breathing, affording them the comfort and confidence to respond when the pressure is on. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve got breathing pretty wired, but when the surf’s pumping and you’re getting pounded there are some nuances that can definitely make a difference.
Proper diaphragmatic breathing can help decrease your heart rate. Hyperventilation can increase body oxygenation. Abdominal contractions can increase blood flow. Proper nutrition will also improve oxygenation. All this and more can help you perform at your best whether it’s 6 feet or 60.
9. Be honest with yourself and know your limits.
We all have visions of ourselves triumphantly bare-knuckling a giant wave, but “don't fall for your ego,” said Couto. Maybe you’re unsure of your equipment. Maybe you're tired or jet-lagged. Maybe you came down with a stomach bug the day before and aren’t firing on all cylinders. Or maybe the surf is just really big and you don’t feel 100-percent confident paddling out.
Couto and Long have both had to reign in their ambitions during historic big-wave sessions. There’s no shame in humility, knowing your limits and heeding your own internal advice.
10. Surfing is fun … but it’s not worth dying for.
“The end goal is to come home safely, not catch the wave of your life,” surmised Long. The BWRAG program was established after the tragic loss of Sion Milosky, who drowned surfing Mavericks in 2011.
Over the years a number of notable surfers have met their end in oversized conditions, but if everyone takes a little time to dial in their rescue and lifesaving skills and respects their own personal limits we can diminish the risk and hopefully reduce the chances of someone else not making it safely back to shore.
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