Helmets and Risk and Me

(The first version of this story was published in Windsport, and a second version was published on surf-matic on May 2, 2013.)

“Where’s the helmet?” That’s a question I’m asked a lot lately. Most ask it with a hint of hurt, as if windsurfing lost a role model in my decision to stop wearing a helmet all the time. In answering, I must meditate on death and on an injury to my face last summer. But don’t worry about this serious tone! Next week’s post will look at the comedy that is traveling with surfboard bags. But first: Death.

Well, actually, before we get to Death, let me set the scene for my readers about the helmet. I was the first/only professional windsurfer to wear a helmet. When people asked my why I wore the helmet, I had many responses. “What other extreme sport athletes ignore safety so blatantly?” I’d mention the expert windsurfers who died due to a head injury. And my favorite response: “because it’s cool”. My arsenal of custom-painted helmets helped me stand out on the water. A trademark. A trademark I’ve now given up.

Death and Waves

What is more mortal than a breaking wave? As surfers, we know waves in their last moments, as they break into a mess of foam.

A dying wave explodes with energy. Order becomes chaos as a wave trips to its death, turning white and formless. Just a chaotic mass of energy dissipating into the environment.

At my home-beach, Hookipa, waves come from Japan. They travel across the Pacific Ocean, hit Hawaii, and break once—only once. A journey across the ocean to die in Hawaii.

Ironically, the first dead human body I ever saw was at Hookipa Beach. His death had nothing to do with the ocean; the unfortunate man crashed his motorcycle, lost an arm, and bled to death. I must have been around 13 years old when this happened, and at the time, I thought he looked unconscious, not dead. The dead look so much like the sleeping, making it so easy to imagine reanimation.

Waves seem so tragic, like that body, until you realize that waves are merely energy moving in a physical form, in this case water. New waves are the water of old waves inspired with new energy. The water rises and falls, beating against the shore. Constantly being reborn as new energy creates a new wave.

Face Smashs

Last summer, I crashed hard during the AWT event in Oregon. I smashed my face, cut my lip, and broke off one of my front teeth at the gum-line, the nerve fully exposed. I was wearing my helmet when this happened.

I thought, “What can I do to protect my face in the future?” Wear a face guard like in American football? Use a mouth guard like in boxing? These options seemed a bit ridiculous. There was only one sure way to guarantee my bodily safety: to stop windsurfing. Or at least stop trying tricks in the waves or double loops or backloops.

Any form of windsurfing carries a certain danger—albeit a small one. Pro windsurfing magnifies this danger. Wearing a helmet all the time seemed silly and antithetical to my maneuvers on the water. (Also, it should be noted that surf helmets are made to protect mainly against cuts to the head, not brain damage.)

Life is a series of gambles. In choosing to be a professional windsurfer, I choose to live with a certain amount of risk. I bet that I’ll be fine (knock on wood). [Yet, I still think helmets are a great idea for recreational windsurfers. Will I still wear a helmet sometimes? Yes.]

But risk deals with unknowns, like a forecast. And the most important thing to remember about forecasts is that they are always changing. So, to get the best forecast you must look at many forecasts over a period of time and focus on the trends and changes in the forecasts rather than on any single forecast.

So too it is with risk. Maybe I can look at the people around me as an indicator of risk to myself, my peers, and people my age. Despite the large number of my friends who are pro surfers or windsurfers– taking risks in gnarly waves at Jaws and Tahiti, etc– none have died from windsurfing or surfing. In fact, the leading cause of death is suicide.

Unexpected, right? That’s the way it is when risk collapses into impact. Unexpected…

Maybe, the best role model is that of the water, forever rising and falling as the energy enters and leaves, creating waves. The waves may die, but the water of their bodies lives on. So seems a good way to approach life– when everything seems a broken foamy mess, the best thing to do is just wait for the next wave of energy to form you and carry you high.

In January, a good friend and a great windsurfer took his life. The news shook me up, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I still don’t know how to deal with it.

Adventure sports athletes are not supposed to talk about any feelings other than being stoked. This my friend’s father blames for his son’s death. That prison to be permanently happy was a much bigger risk than any other physical risk in his life.

I don’t offer a solution…just thoughts on waves and a reminder that there is no cure-all for risk.

Life, after all, could be defined as taking risk. The moment one stops taking risk, one dies. We can’t control all physical risk– cars crash, waves break. However, we can help those around us by reminding that in every powerful cresting wave is a body of water that will become a chaos of foam before becoming a wave once again. If you’re the crest, expect the foam; and if you’re the foam, take relief in the crest to come.