A new wetsuit that acts like a car's air bag or an aircraft life vest may save hundreds of lives and change the way big-wave surfers take to the world's most treacherous waves.
Developed by surfer Shane Dorian and marketed by Billabong, the Billabong V1 allows surfers to trigger a mechanism in the wetsuit that lifts them out of the water and lets them breathe air into their lungs when nothing else would.
Dorian was held down by a series of big waves and was a breath away from dying when the idea hit home to design a flotation wetsuit that could save his close-knit group of friends and give them the upper hand in big waves—and, as he said, “make sure my friends go home to their families.”
He's seen his share of friends suffer this year.
In January, Jacob Trette from Southern California had a close brush with death at Mavericks. Then in March, Mavericks claimed its second fatality with the passing of Hawaiian big-wave surfer, Sion Milosky. These two events have shaken the big-wave surfing community to the core.
After surviving that nasty wipeout and multi-wave hold down at Mavericks in 2010, Dorian, who won the 2011 Billabong XXL monster paddle-in for biggest wave of the year, called Hub Hubbard, a wetsuit designer for Billabong. Dorian laid out his vision, the concept of an inflatable wetsuit, and right there the Billabong V1 was born.
“It was kind of an organic evolution," Hubbard recalls. "I was originally working with Shane on a padded short john when he mentioned the inflatable idea, and we just kind of started going down that path. As things progressed, I’d share what we were doing internally, but I think it was about the time he used it at a Cortes Bank wave that we realized what we needed to do.”
If it becomes popular, would he license the technology to other companies?
“It’s still so early in the prototype stage that we need to keep things as controlled as possible. So for now we’ll only use Billabong suits, because that’s what we’ve developed the design around. As for future licensing, it’s not my decision, but if it is the right thing to do, I am sure we will consider it.”
Hubbard says it could change big-wave surfing all over.
“There are so many more benefits than just getting to the surface quicker," he said. "For instance, at places like Jaws, your partner on a ski can swoop in and grab you immediately after you wipe out rather than taking two to four more waves on the head."
The suit is still in an experimental stage.
“We have essentially just released a one-off prototype, which has only been used three times in real-life situations," says Hubbard.
"While we’re still considering our production options, the suit will be offered privately at cost, with a required signed waiver. There is still so much testing to do and data to gather that to try and guess if it will be a mass-market item is total speculation.
"I would like to clarify one thing, though: Just because you are not a well-known surfer does not mean you can’t get one of these suits. Our intention is not to keep the V1 from anyone who wouldn’t already be out there, paddling giant 'extra-large episode' surf. “
Hubbard says he is more interested in saving lives than anything.
“We are going to offer the V1 at cost, but it will be a Billabong wetsuit at this stage. We aren’t taking this lightly, and seeing someone who surfs for another company is not a motivating factor whatsoever. It’s purely a safety issue. If someone wants to take our suit and cover up the logos or wear a jersey, that’s entirely up to him. Personally, I am only concerned about the mechanics and not whose logo is on it.”
Big-wave surfing has carved a niche in the surf industry, and dozens of surfers chase the huge swells around the world. Going after the coveted Billabong XXL awards, they keep pushing the limits of paddle-in and tow-surfing year after year. The wave heights keep increasing, from 40-50 feet, and now people paddle into waves higher than 60 feet and tow in waves pushing the 70-80-feet parameter.
“One of those things, you know you want to keep an eye on everybody, and you also know that if you paddle out on your big-wave board, you are 100 percent on your own,” says Ken “Skindog” Collins, pro surfer and co-founder of Chasing Monsters, about the giant waves the surfers follow.
He and surfer Shawn Dollar have carried small air tanks to combat multi-wave hold downs.
“I am really stoked on this wetsuit and the direction it’s going and I am really stoked that Hubbard and Dorian made the suit," he added.
"We are just figuring it out; now they are taking it serious and the industry is paying attention. When Sion died, it impacted me; we have parallels; it hit so much closer to home. If he would have had the wetsuit or the spare air, I don't know, it’s game changer.”
Three-time Mavericks Champion, big-wave veteran and FleaHab founder, Darryl “Flea” Virostko, agrees.
“I just watched the video on Surfline with Dorian (video to the right of this article). I think it’s a good idea and it’s cool that they actually did it.”
It's an industry game-changer, he adds.
“They have all these guys in the wetsuit business, and the pros are the ones using the product. It doesn’t happen very often that the designers listen to the athlete.”
While Darryl sees the value of the technology, he also has some concerns.
“I think that there is going to be some safety issues with it too. People are going to push it now, and they might come up on the second wave [and] it could be bad. Overall, people still need to be aware; when you have flotation devices on like that, you can get beat.”
Flea said he could have used the life-saving suit a couple of times in his career but has serious considerations about when to pull the trigger on the suit.
"I have climbed my leash too many times to count. It seems like an eternity and you think, oh my god, I haven’t surfaced yet. If you've got to pull it right away, it just depends. Maybe you have to wait till the second wave goes over, I don’t know, it’s a tricky thing. You have to be a skilled big-wave rider to know which wave to take, and that matters more than having the safety of a wetsuit. “
It's apparent that big-wave surfing has established itself, and technology advances will help keep these warriors a little more protected so they can go home to their families at the end of the day.
It remains to be seen how well the V1 Billabong Wetsuit will stand up to multi-use situations, but one thing remains very clear—the athletes and the surf industry are aligned with making sure every possible angle is being thought out to give big-wave surfers a safety net.