SAFE SURFING CAN BE DANGEROUS
You get a sense for how controversial the legrope was when you recall that it was originally labelled a kook cord, a sissy string and a dope rope. Surfers were proud of their ability to ride without falling off and, if they did, their prowess at retrieving their craft. Ironically, when it was first introduced the leash initially made surfing more dangerous. Early prototypes used surgical cord, one end suction-capped to the board's nose, the other attached to the surfer's wrist. When a board sprung back it could find a soft conclusion in a surfer's face. Jack O'Neil, founder of O'Neill wetsuits, lost his eye to an early legrope accident, thus acquiring his trademark eye patch. The design was gradually improved and most surfers were strapping them on to their back foot by the early '70s. Surfing changed rapidly and in a myriad of ways as a result. Novice riders could gain a quicker foothold in the line-up, new breaks could be pioneered, countless lives were saved and performance levels spiked upwards (less time swimming meant more time surfing). Some big wave surfers still ride without a leggie today but their numbers appear to be dwindling even at former strongholds like Puerto Escondido. Inflatable wetsuits and spare air canisters appear to be the new dangerous idea for big wave surfers. While both are designed to save lives (and probably have already) there is the possibility of unintended consequences. Shane Dorian designed the Billabong V1 for his peers and not the general public. It uses a CO2 cartridge to inflate a bladder inside the wetsuit which rockets you to the surface during a prolonged hold down. "I don't want the suit to take the place of experience, ability, commonsense, or good judgment. It's supposed to help make the people who are already doing this and love to surf big waves safer," Dorian said on its launch. Demand for the V1 has been huge and other companies are now offering similar devices. Spare Air – a vest or canister of emergency air – has been more controversial with chargers like Mark Healey suggesting that it brings more risks than advantages. The big wave fraternity are still testing prototypes but the safety devices appear to be gaining in popularity. It is unclear if inflatable devices will be available for the general public and, if not, who will be eligible for one. Greg Long, who nearly drowned at Cortez Bank last year, has raised a more controversial issue on Surfline. At what point do safety devices make big wave surfing too safe and take away its allure?