Interview: Shane Dorian On The Billabong Inflatable Wetsuit June 07 2011

TransWorld SURF: Let’s start with the wipeout at Mavs in 2010 that got you thinking about a way to make big-wave surfing safer. You’re pretty understated about it—but you were in bed for a few days straight afterward, right?

Shane Dorian: Yeah, I basically had the symptoms of a concussion. I was really rattled physically. I was sick, nauseous, and all that kind of stuff. It was a horrible, horrible wipeout. It was mostly air deprivation kind of stuff. I couldn’t stay awake, and basically slept for two whole days and had a really bad headache, dry heaving a bit. But I don’t want to hype it up too much. It was a terrible wipeout, I almost drowned, but there weren’t any crazy side effects or anything.

Who decides who can get one of these suits?

That’s one reason it’s taken a while for this all to happen, and both Billabong and I have known that’s going to be the hardest thing. It’s tricky. We don’t want people thinking, ‘I’ve always wanted to surf Mavericks,’ or wherever. I don’t want the suit to take the place of experience, ability, common sense, or good judgment. It’s supposed to help make the people who are already doing this and love to surf big waves safer, that’s the point.

What I’ve done at this point is reach out to Twiggy [Grant Baker] from South Africa, and asked him to give me the names of all the guys who are really into it over there. And then I reached out to the Santa Cruz and Maverick’s guys to get a list of guys and girls. The Hawaii guys I sort of know.

But it’s definitely not up to me, I’m not going, ‘Yes, no.’ It’s tricky, and I know Billabong has gotten a lot of requests from people. It’s hard because there are a lot of underground guys who are hardcore big wave riders who surf big waves way more than I do, and who want this suit. I know Billabong is doing the best they can to filter through everything, and make them available for people who love riding big waves. There’s no easy answer though.

The most public preview people got of the suit was at that insane paddle-in session you and Ian Walsh had at Peahi (Jaws) in March, when you pulled in to a huge barrel. The lip closed down on you, and you inflated the vest underwater. Do you think you would’ve pulled in if you hadn’t have been wearing the suit?

Well, if I caught that wave I was going to pull in no matter what. Where I was positioned on that wave, I couldn’t have made it to the channel without pulling in. It was either go straight down and get blown up for sure, or pull in and probably get blown up. So that choice was basically already made for me when I stood up.

But that’s not why the idea came to me in the first place; it had nothing to do with enhancing performance, or giving anyone more confidence. It’s purely to make things safer and save lives. But to be honest, I’d already done some testing with the suit, and it definitely added to my confidence that day. But it’s definitely not to the point of like, ‘I’m going on this wave no matter what, because I’m going to come up no matter what.’ It’s meant to make it harder to be held under for two waves, and an added measure of safety. Again, it’s not meant to take the place of experience, ability, and common sense.

The most obvious use seems like it would be at deep-water breaks like Peahi and Mavs. Do you plan to wear it at a shallow reef like Shipsterns or Teahupo’o?

I would definitely wear it at Teahupo’o, for sure. At a place like that the wave is probably not going to drown you, or there’s a lesser chance because it’s so shallow, but there’s a really good chance of hitting the reef hard, and possibly dying from hitting the reef so hard. If you’re able to get the thing inflated quick enough, I imagine it would help to keep you farther away from the reef.

Falling on a big wave at Teahupo’o, you’re almost guaranteed to hit the reef. At Teahupo’o you get pounded uphill, because it goes from super deep water to super shallow. If you have an inflated air bladder it would help you stay closer to the surface.

Do you feel like it’s pretty well tested at this point?

No, we’re still in a testing phase, there’s no doubt about that. I’m the only one who’s had a suit; no one else has tested it yet but me. That’s part of the reason we want to get it out to a lot of the guys, so there’s more feedback coming in to refine it and make it safer and better.

I’ve only pulled it on three wipeouts. I’ve tested it a lot in flat water, in non-surfing situations. But in big waves, I’ve only pulled it three times, so it hasn’t been tested enough. But just like any other product that makes things safer, the more testing the better.

One thing I want to say is that in the press release it was called an invention. But this isn’t something I feel like I invented. It’s technology that was already in place. Similar things are out there, like this thing backcountry snowboarders and skiers use that in an avalanche will pull you to the top. I didn’t know about that until about a month ago. And there’s another one for freedivers that I’ve seen that’s a little thing on their belt. So, I don’t think of it as an invention, I think of it as an innovation that’s new to surfing and a different application. I don’t want people to think that I think that I invented something.

On a technical note, the bladder is inside the wetsuit, so it’s not something you can put on a regular suit, right?

No, you can’t. But I’m going to have some prototypes made of a vest that could possibly go over a wetsuit, or even something you could wear by itself if you were someplace in Hawaii just wearing trunks. It would make it super simple and easier. But I’m not sure there’s enough room for the stuff you need in there to modify a vest. As it stands now, it’s a modified wetsuit that has to be customized for the flotation device.