Extreme Sports Safety

Big wave surfing: how smart choices, training and staying calm impacts safety and survival

Surfing and the workplace may seem worlds apart, but big wave surfer and MMA fighter, Richie ‘Vas’ Vaculik says the processes for staying safe have more in common than you might think.

Being prepared:

Having surfed some of the world’s most dangerous waves, Richie Vas knows a thing or two about the importance of preparation when it comes to safety and survival.

“There are many dangers in the ocean, because it’s unpredictable, a huge force and many of the big waves are very isolated.” Richie said, speaking to Pro Safety Gear.

From drowning or losing consciousness to hitting rocks or being “cheese grated” by coral on the ocean floor, there are countless scenarios to prepare for.

Richie Vas Safe Surfing

Richie Vas staying calm despite his predicament at the Cape Solander Red Bull Cape Fear contest. The contest was called off later that day. Image: www.owenphoto.com.au | Red Bull

“Anything is possible. You definitely feel small and vulnerable out there so it is extremely important to have your safety preparations in check.” he said.

Much like in the workplace, it’s critical to have the safety equipment and training to be able to make smart decisions under pressure.

“The key is minimising risks through preparation. Trying to foresee and plan for worst case scenarios,” Richie said.

Trust in your mates and safety equipment:

A number of safety equipment items are required for big wave surfing; from sleds on the back of rescue jet skis, to communication signals, oxygen tanks and inflatable buoyancy vests that can be triggered in an emergency.

“Having that buoyancy gives you peace of mind that you will head back to the surface without burning all available oxygen. It keeps panic at bay.” he said.

Richie Vas. Well prepared. Image: Matt Dunbar | Red Bull

The jet skis are also a critical part to safely surfing big waves and being able to rely on your tow partner or the safety patrol to rescue you in the event of a wipeout is critical.

“You form very strong bonds with your surfing mates, because often you are relying on them to save your life.”

The powerful ocean is as enticing as it is fear-inducing, and Richie knows this all too well.

“Surfing for me is risk and reward. That’s what makes it so exciting – but it has the potential to go pretty pear shaped.” he said.

Ramon Navarro surfs gigantic Cloudbreak. Fiji. 2018. Image: Scott Sinton | Red Bull

Making smart decisions:

“The mental side is probably the most important aspect in these environments. Being prepared allows you stay calm which allows you to make smart decisions – whether it’s for yourself or for a mate in trouble,” Richie said.

“If you are the one who has fallen in the water, and you feel your oxygen is fading, panic makes the situation a whole lot worse.”

Unfortunately injury is an inevitable part of any sport or high-risk activity, regardless of how much preparation precedes.

However making smart decisions – in this case selecting the right waves – is as an important component of the safety toolkit, and is the only factor that can be controlled by the individual.

“When I was younger I thought I was invincible. I didn’t care about the consequences of my actions,” Richie said.

“I just wanted to get the biggest wave of the day. That’s changed now. I realise having that attitude has serious consequences. I can make bad decisions and get injured, or make better decisions and continue doing what I love. I strive for longevity.”

“To make a career out of surfing you have to be calculated. You have to incorporate a bit of self-preservation.”

You can find Richie on Facebook.