They travel in tribes. Bands of brothers traversing the globe in search of heavy surf. I’m not sure if these Ohanas are formed by natural selection, point of origin, or habit, but they are definitely built on trust. There’s a brothers-in-arms loyalty between these big wave watermen. Rightfully so, as they will, and have, risked their lives for each other on a regular basis.
Greg Long and Mark Healy practically finished each other’s sentences in the retelling of the rescue of Aaron Gold at Cloud Break while Aaron humbly and gratefully nodded at the parts of the story he can’t recall. Greg need only look across the room to see the man to whom he owed his life; DK Walsh, who pulled him unconscious from the sea after a 4-wave hold down at Cortez Bank in 2012. Greg, in turn, rescued DK when he suffered a back and neck injury at Pe’ahi during an epic El Nino day in 2016.
I’m betting a lot of people in that room, and lots of others, owe their lives to Shawn, Luke, and DK Walsh. They are informed, they’re prepared, and they care. These are the guys you want to be in the water with. They shared a story of an event they had attended as guests in Maui. It was an overcrowded, understaffed water event with virtually no safety plan. They happened to be near a woman who had been backed into by a propeller, severing her leg. With no one else to care for her, they stepped into the situation, took charge and ultimately saved the woman’s life.
…And guys like Trevor Carlson, a former O’ahu lifeguard amd EMT. If it wasn’t for Trevor’s medical knowledge and persistence, it’s possible that Keoki Saguibo might not have survived a near drowning in Indonesia. Trevor expressed his frustrations with not being able to get decent medical care for Keoiki; from the ‘ambulance’ that was just a a couple of cab drivers driving an ambulance to an ill-equipped, understaffed nearby hospital that had very limited services. It took repeated calls to insurance providers and medical care to eventually get Keoiki airlifted out and eventually to Singapore for decent care. Trevor stressed having access to medical histories, insurance documents and emergency contacts needs to be part of the planning.
One of the recurring conversations was about how many people get into the water without a safety plan, and often without a safety crew. With improved flotation vests and greater crowds in the water at big breaks, there’s often a false sense of security. DK and Shawn expressed their personal frustration with seeing so many inexperienced surfers in the water while they were on watch. They feel an expectation placed upon them to help everyone, sometimes at the neglect of the people they are responsible for.
Stories like those are why they gather at Turtle Bay every year to share what they’ve learned. They share critical errors and learning experiences that will add to the cumulative body of best practices for Big Wave Surfing safety. They dissect popular heavy water breaks to assess the danger zones and understand the dynamics of the break and how and where to get help if needed. They find out what others area doing around the world and incorporate new ideas into their safety regimes.
The Big Wave Risk Assessment Group was started as a response to the loss of big wave surfer and close friend to many, Sion Miloski. His death rocked the North Shore surfing community and hammered home the need for all of them to be more prepared. Kohl Christensen and fellow big wave surfer Danilo Couto organized a summit at Christensen’s farm above the Waimea Valley to discuss the need for first responder skills and to run safety scenarios. They enlisted legendary Makaha lifeguard Brian Keaulana and registered nurse Pamela Foster, an executive director at the nonprofit Heart Start Hawaii Foundation, to create a heavy-water safety course.
The group official organized as BWRAG in 2014 and presents a two-day safety summit annually at the Turtle Bay Resort. The workshops include high surf risk management, open ocean first responder training, case scenario analysis, on-water training and demonstrations of safety products, apnea training, and CPR and AED certification. While the context may be big wave surfing, the content is applicable to waves of any size and I would highly recommend anyone who surfs, and even those like me, who are spectators to the larger waves, to read through this course and make a safety plan with your friends and crew.