Big-wave life vests reexamined

John Salanoa

Kala Alexander gives the Patagonia vest a test on dry land. Research and development is key to a piece of equipment like this that may end up saving lives.

There's no surf on the North Shore during the summer. Everybody knows that. So, figuring a few big-wave watermen would have some time to kill, Patagonia called for a meeting of the minds. They invited Mark Healey, Dave Wassel and Kala Alexander to stop by a Pipe-fronting rental house and talk about their years of nearly life-ending hold downs and how the safety of inflatable vests is helping better protect them.

The three very educated, articulate men, while prone to heavy doses of sarcasm, spoke academically about their pursuit. They spoke of pounds per square cubic inch of water versus the weight of a 200 pound man to the air pressure in four CO2 canisters. They described how to make the ripcord of an inflatable vest safer to pull when going into an oxygen deprived blackout. They asked questions about everything from how the seams are stitched to how the air bladders fill when needed. Healey was going through conversion tables in his head.

Wassel offered the example of how these inflatable vests saved him from drowning at Cortes Bank. "I went down on this 20-foot-plus monster, and I was pushed all the way down to the reef. Luckily I found myself on the only soft corral around. As I went through my first series of convulsions I could see rolling through the water was another big one that would have pushed me all the way through the coral ledge where I would have ended my career, or more likely something much worse."

"As I started my second round of lack of oxygen convulsions I pulled my vest cord and there I was on the surface," continued Wassel. "I needed that vest and it came through for me."

John Salanoa

A career North Shore lifeguard and big-wave rider, Dave Wassel puts an expert's eye on the vest.

Mark Healey added, "I was there when that went down, that vest worked perfect. We need these things. Look at who we've lost already, and Greg Long almost drowned that same day."

"You know if Sion [Milosky] had one of these vests on it could have saved his life," said Alexander. "I've been wearing a vest for 15 years, and these two, I would always see them out there with just board shorts on."

"Yeah, you're right Kala, I never wore a vest until these last few years, and now will never go out without one on," confirmed Wassel.

Then a pause in the conversation. Everyone was checking their smart phones for the latest storm models for Fiji and Tahiti. Eventually Healey starts explaining ways to get their inflatable vest through TSA airport security. Yes, they've even preoccupied their minds with how to get on an airplane with these inflatable vests.

"I print out all the TSA rules and bring them with me," said Healey. "And if I'm given any problems I just ask for a supervisor then go over the TSA rules. Might take a little extra time but it works."

For hours the three carried on like this. Technically this qualifies as the down season for the big-wave crew. The North Pacific goes to sleep and life moves on. Counterintuitively, the Hawaiian down time is the busiest time of the year. For these men it's now about conditioning, traveling, family time, and dialing in their watermen craft. By the time they parted Wassel was booked on a flight to Fiji. Healey and Alexander opted for Tahiti instead.

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