In late November, an international cast of chargers gathered for Kohl Christensen and Danilo Couto’s annual Big Wave Safety Summit in memory of Sion Milosky at Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore. Throughout the two-day course, revered instructors like Brian Keaulana taught rescue techniques, risk management, and first-aid in the wake of Kirk Passmore’s tragic death and Maya Gabeira’s near-drowning. Among the attendees at this summit were East Coast up-and-comers Brian Pollak and Casey Goepel, who eagerly absorbed as much knowledge as possible. And after taking some time to process it all, they summed up their experiences for EasternSurf.com. Here’s what they had to say…
Brian Pollak: It was a very humbling class, and I was honored to be a part of it. Thanks to Casey Goepel and Kohl Christensen for the invite. It was such a great learning experience; one that I won’t ever forget. Growing up on the shores of Long Island, where the surf is small for most of the year, surfing big waves was never a norm for me. I was fortunate to travel and experience places of consistent high surf, but I always returned home where the surf could stay flat for weeks, though the surf does get very dangerous during times of hurricane swell.
Being at this course with such experienced, highly trained big-wave surfers, most of them raised in Hawaii seeing huge swells year after year, was intimidating at first. My experience level with big surf is not too high. If anything, it’s still very new to me. So going to the class, for me, was not about brushing up on skills but opening my eyes to a new take on surfing: this whole team-safety aspect, where a crew of highly-trained surfers and survivors work together to complete a task safely.
In the course, we learned so much: from CPR to how to use inflation vests to how to use an AED to Jet Ski rescues to simple techniques to save someone who is unconscious. We also learned how to take care of someone who injured their neck and back in the ocean. The North Shore lifeguards came down to help Brian Keaulana demonstrate the proper rescue techniques. We learned the difference between risk takers and risk technicians. A risk technician weighs out all of their outcomes and knows how to handle all situations, whereas a risk taker acts without knowing the consequence or survival approaches and techniques.
I feel like I learned so much, but at the same time, I feel like I am far from prepared to surf high surf. I need to get a ski and a team together and start training before I ever can consider surfing waves like Jaws, Mavericks, or any other spot like that, which I would like to do soon.
Casey Goepel: My girlfriend and I have been living and working on Kohl Christensen and his brother Nick's land this year, and Kohl invited me to the event one afternoon while we were weeding the orchard. Since moving out here last year, I have seen and surfed some solid days at Pipe, Sunset, and a few of the outer reefs. Most of the swells here are much bigger than the hurricane swells I grew up chasing in North Carolina.
It was a great honor to be at this event and to be a part of this effort to become more safety conscious in large surf, especially since I’m someone who’s just starting to gain experience in such conditions. All of the different crews of surfers that are usually competing with each other for waves were brought together to think and work as a team. Surfing can be a selfish sport, but big wave surfing should be about the camaraderie.
On the first day, legendary waterman Brian Keaulana delivered a presentation on “High Surf Risk Management”. It emphasized engaging in calculated risk as opposed to taking chances in dangerous and risky situations. We learned to think about “layers of safety,” ranging from our nearest exit point to the channel to the nearest hospital or AED. We also were put into groups to work through different hypothetical scenarios. We learned to manage risk and be better prepared to handle worst-case scenarios. Later, nurse representatives of the AED Institute of Hawaii taught us CPR and how to use an AED. This information was priceless and emphasized CPR: call, pump, and respond. It's best to react immediately and call for help and then proceed to give compressions until emergency services arrive. The worst thing to do is to do nothing.
The second day was more hands-on. We were brought out to the middle of the bay at Turtle Bay on multiple Jet Skis with multiple rafts together making a floating classroom. From there Brian Keaulana instructed and did a few demonstrations and then we split into groups and tried the techniques we learned. These ranged from quickly mounting the sled with your board to picking an unconscious person out of the water while driving the Jet Ski. Back on the beach, two of the head North Shore Life Guards taught us how to properly remove a person with head or spinal injury form the water.
This event taught me real rescue techniques as well as gave me a broader understanding and awareness of how to manage risk. It is important for us to share what we have learned and spread safety consciousness so this sport of big wave riding can progress in the safest way possible.