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How wipeouts have helped shape the evolution of surfing. A five part series.




On Feb. 14, 2010, the day after the Mavericks Surf Contest was held in record size, Shane Dorian paddled out from Pillar Point and took the beating of his life. In perfect position for a particularly freakishly big set, Dorian spun from the pack and stroked into an estimated 40 feet of wave face. It was something he’d been doing with √©lan for two days—at one point he even completed one of the most legitimate barrel rides ever witnessed at Mavericks. But, mid-face, a ridge developed right in Dorian’s path.

The ridge threw Dorian off-balance, he tried to correct, but then went down. Video shows Dorian ragdoll at the base of the wave before disappearing and then being thrown out the top of a four-story tower of foam before the wave sucked his tiny body over the falls. Spectators in the channel wouldn’t see sign of Dorian for nearly a minute—as another equally big wave roared through the lineup, holding him down and pushing him through the initial stages of blackout.

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.”

“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 its topography. “At Mavericks,” he says, “it’s easier to get held under for two waves because of the bottom contour. There are these deep, underwater trenches that 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 Mavericks.”

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 said, “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.”

Dorian spent the next several months working with wetsuit designer Hub Hubbard to create a vest with a pouch on the back that inflated like a car’s air bag. Serendipity struck a week after receiving his prototypes; 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 landmass 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. Underwater, he pulled the cord on his vest and he went up like a shot. “The next wave was 30 feet of whitewater,” he said. “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.” Rather than assure control, Dorian’s air vest meets at the intersection of falling and of injury.
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There are wipeouts that are famous because they are dramatically documented: Jay Moriarty’s “Iron Cross” cover shot and New York Times image, for example, or Flea Virostko’s 20-foot fall from the peak at Waimea. And there are those wipeouts famous for their tragic consequences: Dickie Cross, Bob Simmons, Mark Foo, Sion Milosky.

Inspiration, invention, progression—the joy of gliding across the face of a wave is fully dependent on the opposite—on coming unglued, on failure, on falling.

We rarely, however, talk about the everyday falls that lead us to progression, invention, and inspiration. In 2006, for example, Mike Losness landed an aerial flip in Bali that defined not only his section in a Taylor Steele film, but his career. This came on the leading edge of a wave of rodeo flips and reverses. Losness said he tried the maneuver 50 times before he got the feeling of the flip, and another 50 before he landed it.

“Funny thing is how spread out all the falls were over time, because not every session had the right waves or sections to try that maneuver, so it was probably 100-plus falls over many months of trying,” he said. None of those falls were particularly talked about or remembered, but the cumulative total led to progressing the sport.

From sliding ass to cavitating, from pearling to free-falling—the most significant wipeouts are, of course, our own. But Mike Hynson’s simple fall-down inspired a modern surf culture in the South Pacific that led to exploring reef passes and outer islands. Shane Dorian’s tumble, up and over the falls, and along the bottom of Maverick’s topography, led to an invention that might change the survivability of such falls. From Greg Noll at Pipeline to the kid down at your average beachie throwing a reverse right now, the bungled attempt is a step toward success.

Inspiration, invention, progression—the joy of gliding across the face of a wave is fully dependent on the opposite—on coming unglued, on failure, on falling.

 
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