The Grim Reality Of Head Injuries In Surfing
"One hour of surfing Pipeline is equivalent to one hour of NFL football.’” - Dr Leland Dao.
A smooth, fading bottom turn. A hook into a quick, backdoor cover-up. A punt on the end bowl. It’s the latest evidence that Owen Wright’s recovery is moving forward. Earlier this month he posted on Facebook the first video of him on a shortboard.
“I have a physician friend who always says, ‘One hour of surfing Pipeline is equivalent to one hour of NFL football,’” says Dr Leland Dao, a physician based in Haleiwa, Hawaii, and one of the attending doctors during the Triple Crown and for select WSL events.
“Turned the biggest corner this week with the head injury,” wrote Owen. “It's good to be feeling a lot more like myself again. Can't believe how things change!”
Last winter Wright endured a near-death wipeout at Pipe and subsequently suffered a severe concussion and brain bleed. It’s been nearly ten months since his injury, and he’s just now getting his feet into the wax of a shortboard—a testament to the severity of the trauma to his head. What that means regarding his return the world tour remains in question. He declined the opportunity to comment for this article.
Given that Wright was in the middle of a world title race and had posted back-to-back perfect heats in Fiji earlier in the season, his situation has garnered a lot of attention, but when it comes to injuries to the brain and surfing there’s a lot nobody is saying.
In recent years the National Football League has made news as a result of its struggles in dealing with brain injuries. Outside Magazine just published a thorough piece on the impact such injuries have on action sports athletes. But somehow, even with Wright’s making headlines, the risk of brain trauma surfers face has been vastly underreported.
In a recent conversation with a Pipeline regular he noted, “I’ve seen stars a bunch of times…does that count?”
The American Academy of Neurology defines a concussion as “any trauma-induced alteration in mental status that may or may not include a loss of consciousness.” Symptoms can include headache, feeling dazed, loss of consciousness, amnesia, behavioural changes such as irritability, cognitive impairment such as slow reaction times and sleep disturbances.
“I’ve been hit in the head at Pipe before. I’ve come out of the water, feeling fine then an hour later it got heavy,” says former world champion Tom Carroll, who was an early proponent of wearing a helmet at Pipeline after seeing the impact a head injury had on Steve “Beaver” Massefeller during the winter of ’83/’84 (the same season the Pipeline Underground’s Chris Lundy suffered a concussion and had to withdraw from the Pipe Masters).
“I’ll never forget what he was like before the injury and what he was like after the injury,” says Carroll of Massefeller. “I was surfing with him and talking with him and it scared me to see what could happen from hitting the reef. He started wearing a helmet after the fact, and I thought if I want to push things at Pipeline I’m going to have to do something so I don’t come out a vegetable.
“The adrenaline kind of irons out the feeling at first, but later it’s like, ‘Fuck, that was heavy, I’m sore, and I can’t move my arm or my neck,’” continues Carroll. “It’s very violent. So that’s why I started wearing a helmet. And after that, I got hit pretty hard in the head a couple times—had a board go through my helmet at Teahupoo—so yeah, it’s saved me a few times.”
Given how many lives its taken over the years, Pipeline has earned its reputation as the world’s deadliest wave, but it is also one of the most dangerous when it comes to traumatic brain injuries.
“I would say Pipeline has more concussive injuries than say Sunset or Alii just due to the sheer shallowness of Pipe's reef,” confirms Dr Dao. “I can remember one large rapidly rising swell when two surfers came in the same morning from surfing Pipe; both rattled pretty hard with head traumas and concussive injuries. Fortunately, both are now fine.”
In 2005 photographer Jon Mozo died after hitting the reef at Pipeline. But Pipe’s not always to blame. In 2001 Briece Taerea died as a result of being knocked into a coma at Teahupoo. In August 2011, California rising star Harley Taich was coming off of a month of training in Tahiti and had just made the U.S.A. Surf Team when she was competing at a local contest at Point Mugu, near Ventura.
“I was winning by so many points that I didn't have to take another wave, but I did — a barrel, where you ride under the curve of the water. I probably rode out a second too long, and then the beach was right there, and I hit it headfirst,” explained Taich in Seventeen Magazine. “The sand was wet and packed and hard as cement. I don't remember hitting my head, but after, as I was walking up the jetty rocks, I fell, and a paramedic rushed to me.”
Fifteen years old at the time, she would spend the next 18 months bedridden. By the time she was able to get back on a board her once bright future had all but passed her by. Today she’s back in the water and has written a surf-themed children’s book about concussions, but the symptoms of her injury persist.
In 2015 Jeremy Flores went headfirst into a reef while on a surf trip in Indonesia. Against doctors’ orders strapped on a helmet and won the Billabong Pro Tahiti, but today he reportedly still struggles with headaches related to the injury.
Given all of the cautionary tales, how at risk are surfers of actually sustaining traumatic brain injuries? A 2007 medical study gives us our only reliable medical data. From 1999-2005 they looked at 32 professional and amateur contests around the world. Wave size, bottom contour, and the number of heats surfed were all documented each day. The total number of injuries was then divided by the total number of competitors to deduce an “injury rate.”
“There were 116 injuries documented, 89 of which occurred during competition. There were 15,675 athlete exposures, yielding an injury rate of 5.7 per 1000 athlete exposures, or 13 per 1000 hours of competitive surfing,” reads the studies results, which proved surfing to be considerably safer than football and soccer. “There were 13 acute surfing injuries per 1000 hours of competitive surfing. The risk of injury was more than doubled when surfing in large waves or over a hard seafloor.”
“Concussions can have deadly consequences for surfers because of the increased risk of drowning during the period where the surfer may be confused, disoriented or unconscious. In fact, of the concussions reported 8% resulted in near-drowning episodes,” reports the Surfer’s Medical Association.
The WSL has a well-articulated protocol in place when it comes to severe head trauma.
"All WSL events have trained medical staff on site to treat a variety of issues that may come up throughout the course of competition, from relatively minor muscle strains to serious head injuries and trauma," says WSL Commish Kieren Perrow on the WSL's policy on head trauma. "In addition to the on-site medical staff, the events have emergency protocols in place should a patient require safe and speedy transport to an off-site medical centre for treatment."
"Outside of competition, the WSL has a medical board that reviews cases involving our athletes. In the event of head trauma, such as Owen's, he would need to be cleared by this medical board before he is permitted to return to competition. The athletes' health and well-being are the top priority of the WSL."
Regarding preventative measures, there are a variety of styles of helmets available but convincing surfers to strap on a peanut shell remains a daunting task.
“Through the early ‘90s they were popular, then new generations come through, new surfers, and they kind of write off the idea. Then the lesson has to keep getting learned over and over,” says Carroll. “Sometimes we just don’t want to listen. It’s like a classic surfer thing where we think we’re above something. You’re the fucking Lone Ranger or something—just man against ocean. At times I’ve been one of the culprits.”
While he may be one of the culprits, Carroll is also working on a solution. “I’ve been drawing up a whole other kind of headgear for surfing, and I’d like to try and make it,” he says. “Surfers need something different than your standard helmet, and it’s something that people might enjoy wearing. It’s not something you can impose on anyone, so the decision to wear a helmet has to come from somewhere inside the surfer. We need to build more options to offer surfers head protection. There're so many cool materials out there; we can build some cool, comfortable stuff that can make a difference in surfers’ lives.”
So what now? What does all of this mean for Wright’s future? What does it mean for the kid that wants to go slab hunting with his pals?
“There has been a greater level of awareness of concussions in all sports, including surfing,” says Dr Dao. “The medical community recognises now that in some instances there can be more long term and possibly permanent ramifications from a concussive injury, and we should make efforts to understand these better, and to work on prevention of head injuries wherever we can as well.”