As the world’s best surfers prepare both mentally and physically this month for the left-hander at the end of the road – arguably the most terrifying stop on tour – our focus as insatiable voyeurs naturally turns to Teahupoo and her twisted, mutant siblings. Shallow, below-sea-level freak waves are a dime a dozen these days, and rarely does a magazine go to print without some sort of backless bestiality gracing its pages.
Tow surfing in particular has made a number of otherwise unapproachable waves appear almost commonplace to our desensitized eyes, and terms like 'ledgy,' 'steps,' and 'taking off on the button' are now bandied about on a daily basis by a growing school of hellmen and the journalists who document their exploits.
As limits are pushed and barriers continuously broken, progression is only natural, and with progression comes the desire to tackle larger and more dangerous waves. Both tow and paddle slab surfing have been taken to their respective extremes over the past few years, with dedicated boards being shaped for the specific purpose of getting in under the lip. Improved safety equipment in the form of impact vests and inflatable PFDs [personal flotation devices] mark further innovation in the pursuit of bigger, thicker, deadlier tubes, and if other surfing sub-disciplines are any indicator, we can only assume that the bar will continue to be raised. Yet despite all of this progression and innovation in the shallowest, gnarliest, most dangerous waves being ridden, we appear to suffer collectively from a glaring oversight: Virtually no one deems it necessary to wear a helmet.
Then tragedy struck. Briece Taerea, a well loved local personality and heavy water aficionado, was caught inside by a monster set and sucked over the falls backwards, impacting the reef headfirst"
Flashback, if you will, to Tahiti at the turn of the century. Teahupoo had been revealed a few short years before, and for the time being was the only slab competition around. People had seen what was possible during the first few ASP events held at the “most dangerous wave in the world,” and, as has become tradition over the past decade, the world’s best were in town attempting to quiet the butterflies as they stared down another run of potentially deadly swell. In the days leading up to the event, Teahupoo was downright pumping, 10-12ft + and borderline unapproachable, and a number of underground chargers paddled out to mix it up with the top 44 as they warmed up for their heats. Then tragedy struck. Briece Taerea, a well loved local personality and heavy water aficionado, was caught inside by a monster set and sucked over the falls backwards, impacting the reef headfirst. For whatever reason, the media decided to keep the event relatively quiet, and little was mentioned in the run up to the event. Still, rumors eventually filtered out. Gruesome descriptions that included claims like “the most blood I’ve ever seen,” “severed spinal cord,” and “head practically ripped off.” The accident cast a pall over the entire event, particularly for those who had to compete a few days later. Yet when competitors paddled out for their heats, they did so without helmets. Which, all things considered, seems a bit strange.
Today, little has changed, aside from the frequency and commitment of our heroes’ antics. A hearty group of lunatics are paddling and whipping into incredibly dangerous waves over shallow reefs on a daily basis, yet one can count on a single hand the high-profile surfers who deign to wear a skullcap (Tom Carroll, the McNamaras and Takayuki Wakita are the only ones that spring to mind). Considering the fact that nearly everyone is wearing floatation now, the argument that helmets are “uncomfortable” or “too buoyant” no longer holds water.
The sad reality appears to be that we’ve collectively decided helmets simply aren’t cool and don’t look good in pictures, and pictures may very well be the driving force behind most slab attacks."The sad reality appears to be that we’ve collectively decided helmets simply aren’t cool and don’t look good in pictures, and pictures may very well be the driving force behind most slab attacks. Thus, it would seem that we are sacrificing our safety in order to score the shot, and that seems a bit ridiculous. It also seemed ridiculous 15 years ago when other board sports eschewed headgear in the name of looking rad. Thankfully, unlike our stubborn gang, professional snowboarders and big air skateboarders have finally outgrown their machismo. Helmets are now considered an integral part of their safety ensemble, and lives have been saved because of this, a fact that has subsequently influenced progression. After all, it’s hard to raise the bar when you’re dead.
Shane Dorian, one of our most talented and respected big wave surfers, had to nearly drown before floatation vests became acceptable and commonplace in the lineup – which begs the question: Whose head is going to have to get ripped off before we decide that it’s cool to wear a helmet?