It began a couple years ago as a CPR class. Sion Milosky had passed a few months prior and Kohl Christensen and Danilo Couto knew it was time to make big-wave surfing safer. In a barn on Kohl’s North Shore property, they held the class and a couple dozen big-wave surfers left feeling more prepared than ever before. Last year, it expanded. They held an all day event at Turtle Bay and in addition to CPR, they learned rescue theory and had a chance to test it out in the water. This year, it grew even more. The two day event saw 60 surfers — including guys like John John Florence, Nic Lamb and Ben Wilkinson — spend a full day in the classroom and a full day in the water. With North Shore waters like a still pond and Kirk Passmore’s death fresh on everyone’s minds, legendary waterman Brian Keaulana had his students’ full attention. And when class was dismissed on Wednesday evening, it was no exaggeration to say that the big-wave community is a whole lot safer.
Kohl Christensen, who spearheaded the event along with Danilo Couto, takes us through the 2013 Big Wave Safety Summit in Memory of Sion Milosky. —Taylor Paul
KOHL: CPR can be intimidating when you’ve only taken a course once, because they are always adjusting the theory. You’re like, “Am I doing it right? Was I supposed to do breaths or compressions?” But our CPR teacher, Pamela Foster, really simplified it to be all about compressions. So she made it easy and everyone got it. It was especially good for the young kids, like John John and Nate Florence and their whole crew. It was rad that they came. And it was funny because we were in the classroom for almost nine hours and those kids sat still — they were pretty much captivated the whole time. It could have gone south with bad teachers, but between Brian Keaulana and Pamela just kept us all glued to them.
One of the things we did were “scenario breakdowns.” We’d split into groups and Brian would come to each one and create a scenario at a certain surf spot. And the groups would work together on a prevention plan and figure out the steps we’d take to solve the problem if things went wrong. That exercise really produced a sense of risk management between everyone. It was great to talk things through and throw ideas out there.
What Brian was really encouraging us to do, before we go out and surf big waves, is to just take a step back the night before and look at the big picture. Look at the break, look at the current, look at the reefs, look at what tools you have to manage the risk. And also to coordinate with other surfers that are going out. Forget the cliques or whatever. Surfing’s such an individual sport, but this event has brought a bunch of individual people and their egos together and made them feel like a team.
The next day we worked through some real-life scenarios in the water: Unconscious victim pick up on the Ski by yourself, unconscious victim pick up on the Ski with a guy on the sled, pickups for conscious victims with a board and without a board, etc. Answering questions like where do you put the board on the Ski, whether or not to take the leash off, stuff like that.
It was great to just open up the dialogue and establish a preparation mentality, especially for the younger kids. Some of them have Skis but they don’t have that mindset to prepare. I think the course helped them realize that there’s a lot more to it than paddling out. Let’s prepare and get our shit together. Let’s not all just paddle out. Let’s go out with one Ski and all know how to drive the ski and trade off.
In reflecting on real-life scenarios [like Greg Long at Cortes Bank or Maya Gabeira at Nazare], Brian stayed away from any finger pointing or shoulda-coulda-wouldas. Instead, he focused on, “Look, Carlos Burle did something and now Maya’s still breathing.” Rather than focus on whether or not the technique of the rescue was perfect. And Carlos did CPR on Maya and that was CPR that he’d learned here at this summit last year. You know? He did something and it saved her life.
And that’s the thing, there’s no concrete right way. Every situation is different. Every break is different. The idea is to gain some skills, practice those skills, and then when the situation does go down, do something. And if you try and you fail for whatever reason, at least you can look back and know you were prepared and did everything you could.
Hawaiian surf rescue specialist Brian Keaulana:
"You can learn all you want, but it doesn't matter what any individual learns. It's how much a team of people actually learns. If you're talking about the progression of big-wave safety, this is probably the most pivotal point of big-wave surfing here today...with all these guys. It's not if, it's when. I might be the guy that wipes out. So one of these guys that I taught, might be the one I need to rescue me. That's what I'm trying to teach -- it's not about me, it's about us."
Safety summit co-founder Kohl Christensen:
"This all rooted from my desire to learn CPR so I wouldn't feel helpless if someone needed help and I was right there. The next was to learn how to operate a ski and use it for safety. I took an avalanche safety course in Jackson Hole and there are so many parallels with surfing. The two points I took away from that course was: never go into the backcountry without a buddy and make sure that buddy knows how to save your ass. That goes for big-wave surfing on the outer reefs. I won't surf with someone who doesn't know CPR. I'm not surfing with someone who doesn't know how to save me. Surfing is such an individual, egoed-out sport. It's not a team thing until you get everyone together for the same safety cause. I know I'm going to see these guys on the outer reefs and they'll be able to save me."
Up-and-comer Koa Rothman:
"If you don't know what to do, it's not going to be good when something bad happens. This course is showing everybody, not only how to save people, but how to get rescued as well. Like how you want to position yourself when someone is coming in to grab you. They also taught us how to rescue someone when you're by yourself on the ski. So we're going to go home and keep practicing all this stuff so we're ready. I think after this course, everybody is more comfortable if and when they need to perform an actual rescue."
Renowned big-wave surfer/waterman Mark Healey:
"The biggest thing we've learned is that it helps to have more educated, active people in the lineup when there's a rescue situation happening. Having one guy that knows what he's doing and a bunch of other people who don't is an uphill battle. So if everyone in the lineup can have some rescue experience, it's going to help the odds of the victim in the end. The more educated, skilled guys in rescue situations the better."
Outer reef charger Jamie Sterling:
"There are different layers of safety that are now available to us with the added technology. Anything from learning how to drive a ski or learning how to rescue on a ski or learning how to be rescued on a ski to using floatation vests. But also working as a team on the big days. Instead of the old style, paddling out with boardshorts at the crack of dawn trying to be the hero and catch the biggest wave...even though it's an individual sport, it's becoming a team sport because it takes a team to be safe. It takes a floatation vest. It takes a jetski. Not that we rely on any of that. You have to rely on your fitness and mental psyche and the craving and hunger to paddle in. That all has to be there. But we're layering ourselves with a safety net of techniques and polishing our skills. Prior to a few years ago, I was still paddling out without jetski backup or a floatation vest. I think that's a thing of the past now. Use it, but don't rely on it, but definitely utilize it."
Safety summit co-founder Danilo Couto:
"Over the last couple of years, I've learned that we needed to get something like this summit going. It's all part of the ongoing safety movement. It's already helped save people from Maya [Gabiera] to Greg [Long]. We have different generations here too from the old guys to the groms. There's been a great amount of knowledge passed around. This is just the beginning. And it's obvious that we need to keep training so that we're fresh and ready when the time comes."