A Big-Wave Education

Kohl Christensen teams up with big-wave elite to advocate for safer lineups

| posted on November 20, 2013
Big Wave Surfing - Photo: Russo

Kohl Christensen didn’t always embrace safety gear, but now he won’t enter a big-wave lineup without it. Photo: Russo

For 48 hours in Oahu, big-wave surfers will rack their boards and enter the classroom for a study in safety—a summit to assess the risks of big-wave surfing today. The class will cover rescue techniques, breath training, emergency reaction situations, CPR, and other scenarios they might be face. Kohl Christensen, Danilo Couto, and Liam and Jodi Wilmott are spearheading the campaign, encouraging big-wave surfers from around the world to take notes, so that when shit hits the fan, they’ll know how to react.

Christensen and company hail from a long line of hellmen who surfed big waves before the era of paddle vests, inflation bladders, and safety teams. But the advent and increased availability of this technology, coupled with the tragic loss of close friends, was enough incentive for them to change their approach to big-wave safety.

“I didn’t wear a paddle vest in big waves for 10 or 15 years,” said Christensen. “But there wasn’t that consciousness that we have now where everyone is wearing them. Garrett [McNamara] was the only guy wearing them. We all thought he looked kind of funny, but he’s still around for a reason. It probably wasn’t cool back then, but today, fuck it. You don’t see a single skater riding a half pipe without a helmet. It should be the same thing with big-wave surfing. It’s a dangerous sport.”

READ: In Harm’s Way

Big-wave surfers clearly aren’t risk averse, admitted Christensen, but he’s adamant that’s no reason to make riding big waves even more dangerous by ignoring the available advancements in safety. The summit is in its third iteration now, adapting each year while sticking to themes of awareness and responsibility in the water. “We talk through scenarios and make sure everybody is on the same page when it comes to handling dangerous situations,” said Christensen. “Some guys know CPR, that’s pretty basic, but a lot of people don’t have much water safety knowledge beyond that. I’m no lifeguard—I’m just a surfer who’s seen a lot happen in big waves—but I’ve learned enough to possibly save someone in a bad situation.”

These last twelve months have been rough for big-wave surfing. The cost of the sport’s progression has never been so clear, with the near-drownings of Greg Long and Maya Gabiera, and the recent death of Kirk Passmore. In the rescues, Christensen said he saw the lessons from these classes applied. In the loss of Passmore, he saw some of the fundamental flaws of the sport revealed. He saw surfers pushing themselves beyond their means of safety.

“You want to be responsible,” said Christensen. “You want to have good equipment and wear your safety vest, not just for yourself, but for those out there that might be trying to help you. For your friends. There’s no reason not to. Big-wave surfing is an extreme sport. A lot of people have died. A lot of people have had friends die or come close to dying. How do we prevent it? We can’t totally, but we can do our part to manage the risks.”

WATCH: Deep Water

For Christensen, the loss of close friend Sion Milosky in 2011 was the catalyst to start the class, and its evolution has continued with every swell event since. He’s adamant that there’s no reason the safety of big-wave surfing should progress any slower than the sport itself. “Hopefully it will bring awareness and make the whole big-wave season safer for everyone. We’re going to push it out there in the water. Guys are hungry, and that’s fine—that’s the way of our sport. But let’s just be safe and have fun doing it. Let’s enter the lineup knowing what to do if your buddy goes down, because whether it’s 2-foot or 20-foot, any wipeout could be their last.”

  • Mike

    Smart. I am glad these guys are taking the steps to make it safer. I’ve surfed Mavericks, the North Shore and huge Ocean Beach SF. I’ve had close calls and yes. Should you wear a paddle vest. Heck yeah! There are going to be close calls. There have been many close calls for professionals and will continue to be. I am sure a lot of people want to be able to still experience the thrill of big wave surfing, and be able to know they have a good chance of seeing their families again.

  • Bruno Nascimento

    How to participate?

  • Jane Tyndzik

    Please let us know when and where can we purchase these big wave safety vests!

    • in2surfn, talk to Eric.

    • in2surfn

  • Dion van de Schoot

    Very happy to hear awareness is growing, you are ambassadors for the entire surf community. Expert Medical professionals are trying to make a change, in different forms worldwide. Recently Life guard without borders and the European Association of Surfing Doctors tried to reach out by making an instructional video of the resuscitation of the drowning victim for Surfers. Note- Near-Drowning is not the correct term, it is not existing as term in the medical community. Official definition 2002 World Congres of Drowning:

    “Drowning is the process of experiencing
    respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid.”
    It is for every surfer vital to know the basics of the rescue and treatment of drowning victim. Remember their heart is functioning optimal, they are lacking oxygen!!

  • jdogg

    Not to take away from the larger issue, but Kohl needs to watch any skate video with Grant Taylor, Raven Tershy, Pedro Barros, etc. They rarely wear helmets and skate the gnarliest pools with reckless abandon. The 13yo groms he sees at the park arent the reality of whats going down in skateboarding. Fiends will always go balls to the wall, its just the way it is and the way it always will be.

    • james

      I hope not. I wrestled with my son to make him keep his helmet on when he was skating. This “I’m invincible” attitude kills people, gives them permanent brain damage, destroys lives and traumatizes family and friends. It CAN happen to all those guys. No one can control every situation. Skate sponsors need to take responsibility and insist that their riders use helmets.

  • Paul Cronin

    I totally agree with Kohl’s closing statement- Let’s enter the lineup knowing what to do if your buddy goes down, because whether it’s 2-foot or 20-foot, any wipeout could be their last.” Why are there not comprehensive water safety course
    here in CA.? Having the extra knowledge in the lineup is a priceless commodity and can save peoples lives! Bring it!

  • Pacifico

    Excellent. I have never been a big wave rider, double overhead used to be BIG for me, now it’s simply head high, but I seriously enjoy seeing the true talent in monster conditions and really hope that this kind of discussion will make these people safer.

  • Charbeer Kabinski

    There are many ways to die, but only one way to live. Water safety training is a great idea for as many as can to help the unfortunates who get caught in a bad situation. One can only rescue another if he can rescue himself.

  • Dano

    Don’t let the vest be a false sense of security over ability.

  • Bobby Fisher

    Its about time this is brought to the masses. Wasn’t the death of Mark Foo the wake up for big wave riders? No! It has taken many more surfer deaths for us all to wake up and see our safety is more important than how we look on a wave without the proper gear. Its suicidal to drop in to a big wave and not have an exit strategy when it goes bad.