Punta Galea Challenge

Big Wave Safety: Pros Get Schooled

Anna Dimond

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Before they paddled out for Thursday's Punta Galea Challenge, some of the world's best big wave chargers got schooled on how to handle emergencies in the water. The North Shore-based Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG) ran a two-day summit to train heavy-hitters from Jamie Sterling to ASP Big Wave World Tour (BWWT) Commissioner Peter Mel.

Ski training with the big wave risk assessment group. Ski-assist training at BWRAG's summit. - WSL

Kohl Christensen (HAW) and Danilo Couto (BRA) launched a safety meeting informally four years ago after the death of big wave paddle surfer Sion Milosky. "Danilo came back from Maverick's pretty shaken up," Christensen said. "Together we decided the best thing to do would be a CPR class. Since then it's evolved into something much bigger than that."

After the class in Christensen's North Shore barn, he and Couto partnered with Liam Wilmott, an events consultant and North Shore big wave rider, and Brian Keaulana, legendary Hawaiian safety expert, to take the course to the next level. In the years since, they have expanded the training and included the broader big wave community. With sponsorships and a venue at Turtle Bay Resort, they have been able to enhance the course while keeping it free for the surfers. This year, the ASP presented the course.

The summit now includes training in emergency rescue breathing by local EMTs, spine protection skills by local lifeguards, jetski training for tow-in sessions and, throughout it all, an open forum.

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"The average person doesn't have all the answers," said Keaulana, who fielded some queries from the back of the room. "They only know questions. So that's the kind of stuff we're doing, developing all the answers for these guys, so they don't have questions."

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With practicality and relevance at the core of the training, queries ranged from how to check a pulse to whether a jetski could accommodate backboarding. When talk of equipment came up -- defibrillators, among them -- cost, effectiveness and ease of use were part of the conversation.

"It's like beauty and the beast, right?," said Keaulana. "People only see the beauty, they don't see the beast. And the beast is all the hazards. ... When something bad happens, I don't blame the people. I blame the process. Because the process is not in place.

"The reason why people pass away at Maverick's, a process is not in place. Whereas if you go to Jaws [Maui's Pe'ahi], you go to other places like Makaha [on Oahu's West Side], there's a process of identifying that there's a problem, reacting to that problem, and there's a plan for that problem."

When I first started doing this, it was a selfish thing. Now I do it because I want everyone to succeed. -- Peter Mel

Perhaps the most important -- if not unintended -- outcome of BWRAG's summit was the communication it fostered in a sport that's fundamentally solitary. "When I first started doing this, it was a selfish thing," Mel said during the summit. "I was doing it for my own pleasure, my own career. And now I look at it as this whole room [of big wave surfers], I do it because I want everyone to succeed, and that's the difference.

"All of a sudden, we're not so guarded. We're opening up communication to all of the surfers globally. We can actually share the experiences. To me -- watching Ian Walsh and Billy Kemper talk about their wave at Jaws, that they've grown up surfing, and expressing all the hazards and dangers and successes, that's a great thing to see. Because it hasn't always been that way."

Big wave risk assessment group, CPR training. CPR training at BWRAG's summit at Turtle Bay Resort. - WSL / Doug Falter

Christensen, who's logged time in the snow as well as the surf, sees parallels between skills in the mountains and skills in the water. While it's standard to bring a buddy and avalanche gear in the backcountry, the practice is less than routine in big waves.

"In surfing there is not really that same formula," said Christensen. "A lot of guys surf by themselves. A lot of guys go to the outer reefs without buddies who know CPR. That's what we're trying to do here. To create an environment where the people that you find yourself surfing with can save your ass if you're the one that gets hurt, and you can save theirs."