Another perspective

Testing the Patagonia PSI Vest with Swedish Sea Rescue.

Big wave surfing is getting bigger! The waves have always been there but nowadays more and more surfers of varying ability are hucking themselves over massive ledges.  Some of these waves can be as thick as they are high. Riding giants used to be the domain of seasoned watermen from the islands and a chosen few that train their asses off in order to survive.  Self-rescue was more or less, the only rescue. You had to swim in, often long distances after ditching your board when a clean-up set broke outside the line-up. Everyone has seen those iconic images of Da Bull waiting to paddle out at Waimea.  Just imagine the exhilarating anticipation and lurking fear before paddling out into the unknown. Respect to the pioneers with balsa and boardshorts.

Personal Water Craft (PWC) and ski-assisted towing was once a way to explore the unridden realm of outer reefs and fast moving liquid avalanches. But motorized support and straps also opened the gates to those with more bravado than skill in some cases. However, not just anyone can take a ski out to Peahi and think they are gonna ride to glory and the next cover shot. Luckily, the classic macho pecking order has kept the numbers in check.

Big wave surfing has even come full circle, tow-in surfing is now reserved for the most extreme conditions and more & more veterans are using their arms with longer boards again. Snips remarked during the Mavericks Invitational last night “Paddle surfing is where it´s at”.

At the same time water safety has progressed. Surfers and rescue professionals are getting together for big wave risk assessment summits to talk about and teach CPR, breathing training, communication techniques, coordinated surface rescue skills and equipment. If you watched the Mavs contest you may have noticed that most, if not all contestants were wearing vests. Not traditional displacement life vests but inflatable bladder vests specifically designed for surfing under their wetsuits that are activated by pulling a “rip cord” much like a parachute.

Patagonia Portable Self Inflation Vest

Last fall I got in contact with the Patagonia Research & Development division, known as The Forge and the field testing manager Walker Ferguson as I was interested in rescue applications of their prototype. After a couple of Skype meetings discussing  the possibilities it was time to do some field testing in Nordic conditions. The vest looks and feels like a normal 1-2mm neoprene vest but with an air bladder, inflator mechanism and 4 Small 25g CO2 canisters between the neoprene and mesh fabrics. Surprisingly low profile and minimal weight, it is worn alone in warm water or underneath a wetsuit. In this case an adapted Patagonia hooded R3 that has snaps to secure the pull-cords near the upper chest, clavicle area. That way, you know where the cords are while being rag-dolled underwater not knowing which way was up.  The vest inflates almost instantaneously when the user needs to ascend quickly. The major difference between these surf specific vests and traditional sailing vests is the fact that you choose when to inflate the vest. Sailing vests inflate upon contact with the water when a salt tablet disintegrates tripping the bobbin mechanism. Also you can deflate and decrease the buoyancy by pulling on a third cord attached to an air release or “dump” valve. The dump valve also functions as an over-pressure valve to release excess CO2 preventing over inflation. The multiple canisters allow the process to be repeated without interrupting a surf session by stripping off a wettie & reloading. The fourth CO2 however should be considered as a back-up in case the third doesn´t work for some reason.  I was able to test the system during the multiple low pressure systems in December, surfing decent size storm waves off of Bohuslän & Halland and on a Rescue boat during the hurricane strength - Sven. The vest worked amazingly. It got me to the surface immediately and I could swim or even paddle with it fully inflated. This is not an easy task with a traditional inflatable vest. In fact most people have a very difficult time climbing back into a boat if they fall overboard and their vest inflates. Talk about paradox. No problem with the Patagonia. The ergonomic design allows full arm motion and most importantly you can breathe when it is inflated. If you have ever experience an inflated sailing vest, you know what I mean. Plus I could adjust the level of inflation simply by pulling the dump valve cord. This allowed me to duck dive under oncoming sets with it half inflated. What I liked best was how slim the whole system was. No bulk to hinder movement or straps flapping. You remain agile. The vest stays put since it is under your suit. Regular Life jackets, even with leg straps rise up high over your shoulders making them less effective. I then took the vest over to the Åland Maritime Center the week before Christmas where I tested over 40 different rescue, sport and leisure boating vests in a quasi-scientific study. Most of the models and variations left me disappointed, even questioning user safety. At the end of the day, slightly hypothermic, I was the last one left in the water at the test center with the wind & waves full on, happy as a seal with the Patagonia. As part of the test I moored a Zodiac and was able to climb onboard over the pontoons into the boat as it bobbed up & down in the swell. All other attempts with the traditional life jackets required the assistance of another person or had to use a swimming ladder at the stern.

These vests are here to stay among the elite big wave riders. We´ll see if they will become available to consumers considering liability issues that usually accompany safety equipment. Technology has a tendency to increase a false sense of security.  No matter what, it´s important to remember that these devices don´t replace strong swimming skills, training and ocean knowledge. Instead they are a fantastic complements to insight and self-reliance. There is amazing potential to use these vests in near shore rescue operations in varied surf conditions especially when used together with PWCs. These vests will save lives whether it is self-rescue or part of a professional rescue kit while saving casualties at sea.

Educational Coordinator

Photo nr.2 by Jeff Flindt /

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