No, you're not looking at Igor, The Hunchbacked Waterlad. This is Shane Dorian, one of the best (if not the very best) big wave surfers in the world, and he's wearing the world's first inflatable wetsuit.
In 2010, while attacking monstrous waves at Mavericks—a notoriously dangerous surf spot in California—Dorian suffered the worst wipeout of his life. He was pushed down to the ocean floor (25 feet below the surface) and held there as two more waves steamrolled him. He nearly drowned. Once he was safely back on land, he knew he never wanted to find himself in that situation again. And that's when he came up with the concept for an instantly inflatable wetsuit.
Drawing inspiration from the type of life vests found on airplanes, Dorian contacted Billabong wetsuit designer Hub Hubbard. Hubbard contacted survival wear manufacturer Mustang Survival, who was excited about the idea, and together Dorian, Billabong, and Mustang put together the first prototypes of what would become the V1.
It works just like an airplane life vest. You pull a cord, a CO2 cartridge instantly inflates an air bladder, and you are rocketed back to the surface. If, after enduring a situation where you actually had to use this thing, you're crazy enough to want more, paddle back to shore (the inflated bladder is on your back to facilitate paddling), swap out the CO2 cartridge, and you're all set to go back out and almost drown again. Dorian has already tested this in the real world situations (read: poo-your-pants-sized waves), and claims he hasn't been held down for longer than ten seconds, tops. The video below has some great shots of it in action, and some waves that will give you nightmares.
The V1 is not yet commercially available, and there is no word yet on when or whether it ever will be, or if it will only be distributed to the world's elite big wave riders. I think it would be criminal for Billabong not to release this into the wild, eventually, but I'm not convinced that it couldn't use some refinements first. I understand putting the pouch on the back so you can paddle once you're back on your board, but what if you are unfortunate enough to pass out on your way back to the surface? The air bubble on your back would leave you floating face down. Wouldn't it be better to have a full vest that you could keep inflated until the set has passed, and then you manually deflate it through a valve on your neck and paddle away? Also, you can't pull a cord if you've been knocked in the head (by your board, or a rock) and are out cold. Could some sort of auto-release be integrated for that contingency (perhaps a pressure gauge that activates at a certain depth)?
We love big wave surfers. They are inspirational, incredible, and daring as hell athletes, but we lose them too often. Just a few months ago the much-beloved and uber-talented Sion Milosky drowned at Mavericks. Hopefully, with wetsuits such as the V1, such tragedies will someday be all but eliminated. Good on Shane and Billabong for thinking outside the box on this one and coming up with the first wetsuit that can accommodate an inflatable life preserver.