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Jackson Bunch
Jackson Bunch drawing confidence from his skull-cap as he slides under the hood at Pipe. Photo: Heff/WSL

To Wear a Helmet or To Not?

That is the question for any surfer in waves of consequence

The question is prevalent in many extreme sports and is often central to numerous household arguments between parents and young children growing up.

In recent times the debate has become a common topic amongst the professional surfing world and this week it has once again been thrust into the limelight given the extensive number of CT surfers choosing to don the protective equipment during round one of the Lexus Pipe Pro.

A helmeted Callum Robson scored the wave of the day in round one of the Pipe Pro. (Photo by Brent Bielmann/World Surf League)

Out of the 36 male competitors on day one, eight surfers wore helmets ­– possibly the highest percentage seen in a single CT event.

But why now? Surfers have been competing at Pipe since the 70s and the creation of the surf helmet can be dated back to 1981. The opportunity for damage limitation at one of the world’s most dangerous waves has been available for years.

In 1981, Jim Bradley, a teacher who ran the school surfing program at Warilla High, designed a helmet for student Shane Smithers who was only allowed to take part if he wore a helmet due to his rare form of bone marrow cancer.

Jim eventually made the design a viable commercial product and the crowning moment for the world’s first surf helmet came when Tom Carroll wore the ‘RadHat’ during the 1987 Pipe Masters.

Since then, many individuals and companies have built their own, with Ricky Gath of ‘Gath’ being considered another pioneer in the industry.

In 1990 Gary Elkerton won the Pipe Masters wearing a Gath and in 1991 Tom followed suit.

Despite these accolades, helmets had been worn sporadically by surfers in the following years. It hasn’t been until recently that the protective equipment has become more common.

The increase in awareness around brain injuries, the influence of social media and the constant redefining of what is possible in waves of consequence have all played a part in the debate. While it is difficult to pinpoint an exact turning point, there are a number of incidents which stand out.

Following a serious head injury in 2015 at Pipe, Owen Wright went on to win at Teahupoo in 2019 while wearing a white Gath helmet, which was a symbol of redemption, his bravery and a reminder to the rest of the CT field of the risks associated with surfing.

In the same year Owen suffered his brain injury, Jeremy Flores took the win at Chopes. He was also forced to wear a helmet after receiving 35 stitches to his face two months earlier when he head-butted the reef at Lakey Peak.

A number of professional surfers can now be seen regularly sporting helmets at waves such as Pipe and Chopes, with the most prolific being Pipe specialist and YouTube fanatic Jamie O’Brien.

Jamie is considered by many as one of the all-time best at Pipe and through his regular videos of him riding soft tops at second reef and doing board transfers at Backdoor, he has amassed over one million YouTube subscribers.

In a recent podcast on the topic, he said: ‘I see more and more people wearing helmets. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to die surfing Pipeline. I want to live up this life and surf every day of my life and enjoy it and if I take a big crack on my head, it’s a good thing I have my helmet and my little float suit, I am cruising.

‘I’m here year round surfing the heaviest, gnarlyiest, most death-defying wave, so I’m like: “I don’t have anything to prove anymore.”’ 

Recently, Pipe has proven just how death-defying it can be as a number of pro surfers have hit their heads on the reef and suffered concussions and near drownings. Casualties have included: Joao Chianca, Kai Lenny, who during that specific session decided to wear a helmet for the first time and has since thanked it for potentially saving his life and Koa Rothman, who chose to try a helmet for the first time following his incident.

In a recent vlog Koa touched on the other side of the debate, arguing that the helmet limited his senses and made him feel disorientated.

‘When I came in on my last wave, I got hit by a wave. I was underwater and I just felt lost with the helmet on,’ he said, ‘I felt like a kook underwater and I didn’t know which way was up or which way was down.’

The video caused a stir and people in the comments argued that Koa cared too much about how he looked in the helmet. Style has always been central to surfing and has most likely been used as an unconscious excuse for some who choose not to wear the protective shield.

However, the comments forced Koa to clarify that ‘I DO NOT CARE HOW I LOOK with the helmet. I’m only hesitant about it because of what it does to my senses under water. I’m worried it could put me in a worse position. BUT, I’m going to try more out to see if I can get used to them.’

Regardless of where you stand on the helmet debate, given the evidence from a number of the world’s best, it is clear the pros of wearing a helmet in waves of consequence outweigh the cons and you can expect to see more of the CT squadron throwing themselves over the ledge at Pipe while maximising their safety throughout this week.

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