The Blame Game: If A Tragedy Occurs In Big-Wave Surfing, Who’s At Fault?

As big-wave phenom Albee Layer kicked out of a wave at Jaws on the last swell of the year, he looked out the back and saw 15 or so waverunners floating in the channel – the majority of which had photographers perched on the back of them.

Albee Layer on the day preceding his call for more skis on safety and fewer carrying photographers. Photo: Gabi Aoun

“This year at Jaws there were 60 surfers in the water and like two skis running safety,” Layer told ASN. “The other skis were driving photographers … This is unacceptable, it’s unsafe, and it’s downright stupid.”

Although the risk in big-wave surfing has been partially mitigated in recent years with the invention of the inflatable vest, waverunners are still a crucial safety tool in lineups around the world. If a surfer has a bad wipeout, a waverunner can rush in and scoop them up.

However, on any given swell only a handful of surfers hire drivers dedicated to looking out for them. Typically, surfers rely on the good faith of whoever is running safety to rescue them. Waverunner drivers, however, can make upwards of $600 per day by allowing photographers to sit on the back of their skis and take photos from the channel.

“The ski drivers weren’t making any money … and they were risking their own safety to rescue strangers,” says Layer.

There are more skis sitting in the channel than ever before, but the majority of them are carrying media. Photo: Gabi Aoun

The problem comes when a disaster occurs. “If someone were to go down, who’s that gonna fall on?” asks 2012 Big Wave World Champion, Peter Mel. “Of course, the world’s gonna look directly at that guy who’s running safety.”

Every year, more and more surfers are eager to test themselves at premier big-wave spots like Mavericks, Jaws, and Nazare. The question is, do surfers have an obligation to account for their own waverunners? Do drivers have an obligation to save anyone in the lineup? Would it make sense to chip into a collective safety fund or should everyone continue to fend for themselves?

Activities like skiing, rock climbing, and hiking have already had their own versions of the “who’s responsible?” conversation. According to Mother Nature Network (MNN), in 2014, “The National Park Service conducted more than 2,600 searches and rescues, spending more than $4 million in taxpayer dollars.”

As a result, New Hampshire passed laws that established a program called Hike Safe. This program gives individuals the option to purchase $35 insurance cards to offset the full costs of a rescue. In 2015, a family who didn’t purchase the Hike Safe cards was hit with an estimated $500 bill from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department after they got lost on their hike and required search and rescue (SAR).

The collective-pot model is already implemented on big-wave days within smaller groups of surfers. One safety driver can keep an eye on about four surfers at any one time, so a group of four surfers could pay $150 each to match what a ski driver could get from a photographer.

Like backcountry snowboarders who hate resorts though, surfers cringe at any talk of further systematizing the sport. The idea of a larger collective pot where every surfer at Mavericks paid $35 (or likely much more) to get saved also poses the basic problem of knowing who paid. I can attest from personal experience that collecting beer money from surfers is hard enough, let alone accounting for 60 surfers on a big day at Mavericks.

Tucker Patton, a blonde 37-year-old outdoorsman and lead guide at Triple Point Expeditions, has a unique skillset of being both a helicopter ski guide as well as a waverunner driver at Mavericks. “Unfortunately I’ve lost a ton of friends skiing. It felt like for a while I was getting bad news about a close friend every winter,” Patton told ASN.

Tucker Patton taking avalanche safety precautions in Alaska, digging a snow pit to determine snow structure and stability. Photo: Ming Poon

The frequency of deaths on the mountain led to the advent of the American Avalanche Association (AAA), a group which offers courses in assessing avalanche risk conditions. “If you’re buried by an avalanche, you have about 15 minutes to live,” Patton says. “The AAA teaches classes on how to use a beacon, probe, and backpack with an airbag, but that’s not a license to do whatever you want. If you need to use anything, you’ve done something wrong … The classes are more about how to avoid those mistakes.”

The growing trend in the big-wave community has been to follow the lead of backcountry skiers and create tools for the individual to become more capable of identifying hazardous conditions and acting well when an emergency situation occurs.

After Sion Milosky’s death at Mavericks in March of 2011, Kohl Christensen – a Hawaii big-wave surfer and avid snowboarder – and fellow big-wave charger Danilo Couto created the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG).

“The risk management in the snow world is so much more advanced,” Christensen told ASN in a 2017 interview. “There are so many more safety systems set up to prepare for avalanches and other dangers. But in surfing there isn’t any structure for surfers who aren’t lifeguards or who didn’t do junior lifeguards as a kid.”

Layer practicing unconscious body pickups from a jet ski at a BWRAG training course. Photo: Gabi Aoun

This April, up Pupukea Road on the North Shore of Oahu, I sat in a yoga room that we used for the day’s Level One BWRAG course led by Danilo Couto. On a table in front of him sat a Patagonia inflation vest, a tourniquet and a defibrillator. Over the course of the seven-hour class the four other students and I learned basic first-aid skills as well as risk assessment protocols such as spotting hazards before paddling out and learning universal hand signals. BWRAG is also in the process of creating a fund from their courses to pay for safety teams to be present on the XXL days.

The author in a Level 1 BWRAG course, practicing tourniquet application with Danilo Couto. Photo: Gabi Aoun

“On this last Fiji swell we were able to use BWRAG funds to help bring safety teams over to watch out for all the guys,” Couto told ASN. “The idea is still in the initial stages, but we want to be able to do this more as BWRAG grows.”

Frank Quirarte from Powerlines Media has rescued more people at Mavericks than anyone else, and he’s done it on his own accord. He agreed with Mel and Layer that responsibility should be put on the individual, and wishes that fewer people expected to get saved without paying. “It’s not cheap to be out there all day,” says Quirate. “A new ski is around $15,000, a sled is $1,500, gas is $70, and tuneups are expensive too.”

The growing trend in society has been to care more about how an experience looked than how it felt. We spend more time adjusting our plate of food to take the perfect photo than we do considering the nutritional substance of the meal itself. This misguided outlook can bleed into lineups and result in the situation Layer called out at Jaws this year. “If you want to have photos, that’s the bottom of the list,” says Mel. “You need to take care of your safety first.”

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