by Kimball Taylor
On Feb. 14, 2010, the day after that season’s stellar Maverick’s event, Shane Dorian paddled out from Pillar Point and took the beating of his life. In perfect position for a freakishly big set marching into the lineup, Dorian spun from the pack and stroked into an estimated 40 feet of wave face. It was something he’d been doing with élan for two days — at one point he even completed one of the most legit barrel rides ever witnessed at Maverick’s. Descending that final wave, however, Dorian looked down to find a stair step dropping out right in his path. There was no way to adjust the trajectory of his 10″ quick enough.
Dorian caught air, landed off balance, nearly corrected, but then went down. Video online shows him rag-doll at the base of the wave before disappearing in the trough. Almost instantly, he’s thrown back out the top—a tiny body spit from a four-story tower of foam—and sucked over the falls. Spectators in the channel wouldn’t see sign of Dorian for sixty seconds as another set wave roared through the lineup, holding the surfer down and pushing him through the initial stages of blackout.
“I was under water and kept trying to swim up,” Dorian recalls. “But the wave kept pinning me down. I didn’t have a chance to make any headway against the power of the wave. Just when it began to release me, the next wave was already on my head. So I never got a breath before the second wave hit and took me straight down to the reef. And I think that’s how the majority of people who have died surfing big waves drown. When you get held under for two waves, your chances of survival are really, really low.”
Before that weekend, Dorian had never been to Half Moon Bay, but the Sunday session offered a brutal crash course in it’s topography. “At Maverick’s,” he says “it’s easier to get held under for two waves because of the bottom contour. There are these deep, underwater trenches which create this waterfall affect. Water flows over the ledges and pushes you to the bottom and doesn’t let you up. Although two-wave hold-downs happen at other places, it happens a lot more at Maverick’s.”
Peter Mel has said that surfers brimming with courage can take a hold down like that, and afterward, “they just never come back. It’s that spooky.” For his part, Dorian says, “I was rattled to put it lightly. I knew if I wanted to continue to surf big waves on that level, I needed to do something to make myself safer. I just felt like it was too dangerous.”
This is when Dorian’s creative mind got to work. For sometime he’d felt that there just wasn’t any great safety equipment for a sport so treacherous. When he arrived home to the Big Island, Dorian emailed Billabong’s wetsuit designer Hub Hubbard with some design sketches. Soon, they discussed the creation of a device that would offer more flotation and prevent the kind of two-wave hold-downs that he’d experienced.
What Dorian had in mind at the time was a sort of buoyant “paddle suit,” with foam in the sides and back. They came up with something that wouldn’t be too cumbersome, but in doing so, Dorian says, “I realized I didn’t want to have flotation all of the time. Then I began thinking of the inflatable safety vests on airplanes—something that doesn’t have flotation all of the time but a lot when you need it the most. It was so simple an idea, I thought there was no way someone hadn’t thought of it and tried it before.”
So Dorian and Hubbard began doing research and discovered a Canadian firm called Mustang Survival that designs and builds safety equipment for every field from marine work to space travel. Dorian sent the company videos of he and his colleagues surfing big waves so the designers could understand their needs, and the consequences of a bad wipeout. Between Dorian, Hubbard and Mustang Survival, a basic device comprised of a neoprene pouch, plastic bladder, CO2 cartridge, and pull cord came together.
The device is actually a part of Dorian’s wetsuit, in the neoprene on his back, and when it’s not inflated he can hardly tell it’s there. Dorian received the first prototypes in October of 2010, but he quickly realized the problem in testing the design would be the rarity of the kind of swells in which it could make a difference. Serendipity struck a week later, however; a plus-sized swell lit up the charts and the best big-wave surfers in the world headed straight for Cortes Bank.
“There were waves that were unbelievably huge that day,” Dorian says. With no land mass to line up with, Cortes is a tricky wave to paddle. No one wants to take a fall there, but when Dorian did, it may have been the most important event of the day. He pulled the cord on his device and he came up like a shot. “The next wave was 30 feet of whitewater. If you can imagine, with this thing inflated, you literally can’t dive under at all. I just turned and held on for the ride. But 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 April of 2011, most of the attendees at the XXL Awards watched Dorian’s Monster Paddle and Monster Tube-winning ride at Jaws totally oblivious that he carried a little assurance on his back. The ride happened only a month before the awards ceremony, and Dorian had tested his safety pack in big conditions only two times at that point.
“Jaws is unique in that it’s a big wave that breaks like a little wave, once you get to your feet the wall is rifling down the reef.” Dorian negotiated warbles like the one at Mavericks, bottomed turned his 10’6″ and pulled into one of the biggest barrels ever. The tube clam-shelled, closing its exit, but inside Dorian’s ride continued. As he fell, he pulled the cord. “The suit was just starting to inflate as I was going over the falls,” Dorian says. The hold-down lasted eight seconds. After breaking the surface, Dorian paddled over to his jet ski, deflated the bladder, inserted a new CO2 cartridge, raced for the lineup and caught the first set wave.
From peak to peak, the interval between big-waves in a single set is often 30 seconds or more. If you wipeout on a wave with another behind it, the chances of a long hold down are real. In terms of simple math, eight seconds under water beats a minute anytime. Following that success, Dorian is busy working on devices to fit the suits of his friends and compadres. It’s a tricky affair considering all of the sponsorship obligations of his fellow surfers. Billabong holds the patent, and there are no plans for a retail unit. How the device will affect the big-wave arena going forward is unknown. It could raise the wave-count and level of surfing at the very top. It could save lives.
One thing Dorian is sure of: “I don’t want it to be something that makes people feel immortal. This is not something that can replace experience or ability. I just want the guys already out there to be safer.”