In February 2010, Shane Dorian chased a winter swell to Maverick’s, a surf spot south of San Francisco known for its massive waves. Things were going well for the then-37-year-old Hawaiian, a celebrated pro surfer, until he lost his balance on a 50-footer, and the crashing mountain of water pushed him deep below the surface.
After about 60 seconds without air, Dorian managed to fight his way back to the surface. He was exhausted and rattled, and soon came to realize that without an adequate flotation device to reduce the risk—at least five professionals have drowned in the past 18 years—he couldn’t justify challenging giant waves again. The difficulty was finding something that wasn’t so bulky that it would hinder his ability to paddle. “I thought, what I need is no flotation when I’m surfing, and then a ton of it when I wipe out,” he says. “That was my aha moment.”
Dorian thought the best compromise between sleekness and safety would be a wetsuit equipped with a quick-inflate mechanism, like those found in airline life vests. In a tough situation, he would pull the cord, the suit would inflate, and up he would go. He couldn’t find such a suit anywhere, though, so he asked Hub Hubbard, the wetsuit product manager at Irvine, California–based Billabong USA, to help him make one.
Hubbard, an avid surfer himself, loved the idea. He commissioned Mustang Survival Corporation, which manufactures inflatable life preservers for the military and recreational boaters, to develop a heavy-duty polyurethane air-bladder mechanism. With guidance from Dorian and Barbara Mau, a prototype designer, he put together a suit housing the mechanism in a zippered pocket on the back. A pull on the ripcord at the chest would puncture a carbon dioxide cartridge, which would in turn fill the bladder in about three seconds. The now-inflated pouch between the shoulder blades would, in theory, quickly pull the surfer to the surface.
In October 2010, the team began testing prototypes in flat water. The suit inflated just fine, but the ascent was too slow. Hubbard and Mustang tried various combinations of bladder and CO2-cartridge size and finally settled on a 14-by-16-inch bladder with a 35-gram cartridge.
Days later, a massive swell on the Pacific coast provided the perfect opportunity to test the suit. Less than a year after his near-drowning, Dorian was back at it, surfing big waves at Maverick’s and Cortes Bank in Southern California. On his last wave before the end of the day at Cortes Bank, he wiped out on a five-story-tall wall of water. After being forced under, he pulled the ripcord, and the suit sent him to the surface in about six seconds.
Billabong has produced an initial batch of 200 suits, which it is selling at cost. Dorian eventually wants every big-wave surfer to use the suit, now called the V1. “Surfing big waves will always be dangerous,” he says, “but hopefully it’ll give surfers an element of safety they’ve never even come close to before.”–Mark Anders