The inflatable surfing vest was invented in 2011 and was a game-changer for big wave surfing. But despite its obvious benefits, many surfers have turned their backs on these vests.
So, what are inflatable vests, what are the pros and cons to using them, and are they only for big wave surfers?
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What is an Inflatable Surf Vest?
As the name suggests, the inflatable surf vest is an inflatable vest used for big wave surfing. It was designed to protect surfers at the pinnacle of this sport, as they are constantly putting their bodies on the line.
These vests are forms of personal flotation devices (PFDs) and they are designed to be worn on top of a regular wetsuit, or on their own.
How Does the Inflatable Surf Vest Work?
The inflatable surfing vest is a safety vest fitted with air-bladders that can be triggered by tugging a pull-tab.
It’s designed to be activated during big wave hold downs, with c02 cartridges triggering the bladders and propelling the wearer to the surface.
What is a Wave Hold Down?
A wave hold down is when the surfer literally becomes held underneath the wave, forcing them to hold their breath and wait for the wave to pass.
The History of the Inflatable Vest
Safety and surfing haven’t always gone hand-in-hand.
The surfboard leash wasn’t invented until 1971 and this was only 19 years after the first modern wetsuit. Flotation devices were proposed many times, but they never really took off and most technologies were reserved for the boards and not the riders.
Everything changed in 2010 when Shane Dorian was held under the Maverick waves during a two-wave hold down. By the time he emerged, he had been experiencing hallucinations and was severely disoriented. During the panic, he found himself thinking about his family and wondering if he would ever see them again and when he eventually surfaced, he nearly swore off big wave surfing for life.
On the plane ride home, Dorian had an idea to create an inflatable device that would negate such issues in the future. He was inspired by the flight attendant’s safety demonstration, the one we’ve all seen—and ignored—dozens of times.
Upon returning to Hawaii, Dorian contacted a designer at Billabong and spoke about his idea for a pull-tab inflatable vest similar to the ones used on planes.
Prototypes were made and tested and by 2011, the first inflatable surfing vest hit the market.
In the early days, its use was restricted to team riders and the people behind its construction, but it was soon made available to the wider public.
Who Uses Inflatable Surf Vests?
Experienced big wave surfers are the target market for these vests. Big wave surfers are the most at-risk of wave hold downs and so they can benefit the most from their use.
However, all surfers can wear them. If you have the money, means, and desire to wear a surf inflation vest, there’s nothing stopping you.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Using an Inflatable Vest?
When it comes to wearing an inflatable vest, there are many more pros than cons.
Firstly, there’s the obvious one: they increase big wave safety. The risk of death and serious injury are reduced as a result of these vests and in a sport that regularly claims the lives of even the most experienced professionals, that’s hugely important.
Secondly, there’s the fatigue factor.
Being held under the water is draining, and if you’re catching big wave after big wave, your fatigue will plummet. Without a vest, you’ll need to return to shore sooner, knowing that you simply won’t have the energy or power to fight a major hold down.
With a vest, you can stay out longer and push yourself further.
In fact, the added invincibility factor is one of the driving forces behind the popularity of these vests. Many big wave riders are taking risks they wouldn’t have taken if they weren’t wearing a vest. It provides them with a false sense of security that makes those big waves seem much smaller and more manageable.
It’s like walking across a tightrope. If you know there is a net below to catch you, the fear element will disappear and you’ll be more inclined to run, twist, turn, and do all the things you would never do with a sheer drop to a concrete floor.
Therein lies one of the problems with these vests.
When people feel protected and secure, they tend to take bigger risks, and that might result in greater injuries and problems. Sure, they are protected against hold downs, but that vest won’t save them if they’re spat from the top of a 50-foot wave at back-breaking speeds.
It’s also creating more congestion at popular big wave spots, and some big wave surfers have expressed frustration at this fact.
Another issue is the price, as these vests are not cheap. At the time of writing, one of the best options on the market is the Highline Pro Airlift Vest from Quiksilver, which retails at around $1,200. And then you have the Personal Surf Inflation PSI Vest from Patagonia, which is even more expensive.
On the comfort side of things, there isn’t much of an issue. As long as you’re wearing a high-quality vest, it should be flexible and comfortable enough not to hinder you. It can also be worn as a standalone vest or over a rash guard or wetsuit.
Generally speaking, these vests will benefit anyone who regularly catches big waves and wants to push themselves without risking their life in the process.
For more information on the aforementioned Highline Pro Airlift Vest and the Surf Inflation Vest from Patagonia, as well as the Inflatable Surf Rescue Vest and the Blue Soup UP Vest, check out this guide from Big Wave Surfing.
Staying Safe While Catching the World’s Biggest Waves
The inflatable surf vest is not going anywhere. It is being embraced by more surfers and is a common sight at surf spots all over the world.
It’s great news for the big wave community, but it’s also great for surfing in general, as it’s one of the first major safety innovations that this sport has seen in years. It could herald an age of safer and more comfortable inflation devices.
Furthermore, as these vests become more popular and the technology improves, prices should come down and make them affordable even to intermediate surfers.