Aussies 2010 – need for helmets and PFDs?

14 years 1 month ago #4167 by Johnno
I am sure we are all deeply saddened by the loss of a fellow competitor and surf lifesaver. Even without this tragedy, Surf Life Saving Australia needs to answer a few questions as to why the 2010 Championships were held in such hazardous conditions, and the safety of competitors was seemingly put second behind the logistics of moving the event to another venue. Not since Burleigh in 1989, have I seen a championships held in bigger surf.

As an Open/Master competitor and Ski Surf paddler since 1984, I’ve experienced many different surf conditions in both training and race situations. With a couple of State and Australian medals under my belt, and being a former Level 2 coach, I believe I am qualified to comment on the surf conditions at the 2010 Australian SLSA Championships. To add to this ability to provide relatively expert opinion and an eye witness account, I finished with a respectable placing in the 40-44 years Single Ski race on the first day of competition after leading the race around most of the course. Admittedly, this occurred more through blind luck and risk-taking on the day, than through skill and physical prowess.

To be fair, knowing I only entered the water on the first 3 days, the surf encountered from the Tuesday to Thursday was mostly “manageable” for experienced competitors. This is not to say it was not dangerous! I would have much preferred to compete at a venue with milder conditions. After the first line of breaking waves – standing up at 2 to 3 metres before hitting hard on the sandbank – waves were breaking much further out to sea, as far as the turning buoys, on a moderately regular but random basis. Conditions were worsening each day as predicted by the weather forecasts and there was no real consistency for when the larger sets of waves were approaching. It was a matter of be brave and just “go for it” when you thought there might be a gap. Then you had to “suck it up” and see if you got around the course without encountering a monster swell, all of the 400 metres to the cans and back again to the beach. Quite a surreal experience.

Surf Life Saving Australia was wrong not to have moved the competition to another venue, especially for the U/19s and under. Although it was exciting to watch the thrills and spills, everybody knew it was a risk to enter the seas and were hoping not to “cop a pounding”. Even the usually fearless Boat Rowers stood up to the organisers and refused to race. I personally approached an official to pass on my concerns and was told the “Queensland Championships were bigger and we sent the U/15s out in it, so you should be able to handle it today”. Not the response I was looking for before the 35-39 years Double Ski final! Moments earlier, I just watched 3 double crews get wiped out at the apex and a rescue boat flipped over.

Realistically, it is very surprising that the Saxon Bird tragedy has not happened before. Surf skis (and other craft) are difficult to negotiate once loose in the wave break zone, with the shoulder to shoulder starting formation in most surf races. It is not unusual to see craft flying backward through the air after a dumping wave has broken. You cannot be affixed to your craft for safety reasons in the first place, therefore craft tend to be lost if the paddler cannot successfully handle it passed the approaching wave. Collisions are, regretfully, sometimes unavoidable. Unfortunately now, Surf Life Saving is faced with a retrospective – perhaps long overdue – need to make it safer for a craft competitor to avoid being drowned if knocked unconscious in the water. And preferably, not knocked out in the first instance! I definitely envisage being required to wear a helmet and PFD (Personal Flotation Device) at the next big wave surf carnival.

Lee Johnson BAppSci(HumanMovement)
Bronte SLSC
Long Distance Surf Ski Champion - Rescue 2002 (World Life Saving Championships)

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14 years 1 month ago #4168 by bulldog
I agree with the use of PFDs for all long distance Surf Ski events but maybe not for Surf Lifesaving events.Surely the organizers/officials should have the common sense to make a safety decision-expecially considering the boaties were sensible enough to make a call.Accidents do happen but they can also be avoided.I personelly feel that this accident should not have happened as no one should have been competing in the conditions at the time.???Unfortunately wisdom in hindsight is a lost science-i trust that a similar tradjety will be avoided in the future.My sincere condolances to the family and friends of Saxon Bird. Gary

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14 years 1 month ago - 14 years 1 month ago #4169 by jackal
Without wanting to commentate too much on such a tragic event, all reports from the beach indicate that SLSA handled the situation very poorly.

These questions need to be answered:

1. Why didn't they move venues?

2. Why wasn't there a Dr or paramedics on the beach - 40 MINUTES after Saxon disappeared? When found there was no Dr, No paramedics.

3. Why did it take so long to get a chopper up?

4. Gath Helmets are worn in big surf comps for a reason, and that is without 18kg skis flying around.

5. Why did the SLSA officials order the 1000 odd surf life savers out of the water when they were trying to find him? It was only for the effort of a bunch of renegade surf life savers who ignored the ongoing harassment of the officials yelling 'get out of the water' that eventually found him.

I hope the police get to see what actually happened instead of the spin SLSA will no doubt try and sell.

Saxon's family deserve to know the truth, and all future competitors deserve to compete in reasonable conditions.
Last edit: 14 years 1 month ago by jackal.

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14 years 1 month ago #4172 by westo
My sincere condolances to Saxon Birds family and friends. From the readings of his mates, he sounded like a top bloke and an all round true champion. His memory will live on in all lifesavers hearts and minds, as does Robert Gatenby.

Johnno, good to see you at the aussies again. But, dont join the media in condemning SLSA before you think about your own involvement. No one forced you to compete did they? Possibly it was the hardcore psyche of the sport that made you do it, i dont know. Sure the officials could have moved it to flat water but why? Most competitors like you and me were getting out and back. Yes Jackel i agree, where were the ambos, doctors and chopper? All would have been too late though.

Realistically, this is a dangerous sport when the surf is big and the people who do it know the risks. And, if we can't save our own - bring on the helmets and PFDS when the surf is big.
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14 years 1 month ago #4178 by Johnno
Cheers, Westo! Good to see so many familiar old faces still having a paddle, and going quick!

Not sure if I'm joining in on the condemnation per se, but there are going to be more questions than sufficient answers regarding the safety considerations taken by officials. It's true that most, if not all, experienced paddlers taking part at this year's Aussies would have got in and out around buoys. However, not all participants are "experienced" or able to give adult consent in accepting all risks. It is not a closed competition just for the elite. The old question of needing to qualify for Aussies may need to be resurrected.

Peer pressure certainly pushes you to enter the water on a big day, when perhaps if you were on your own, you might have gone down the lake for a training session. I'm happy I had a go, but the risks were real and I believe Surf Life Saving Australia did not properly assess the situation. The term "duty of care" comes to mind. We've had overkill before with cancellation of the Noosa/Sunshine Beach Qld State Titles (2003?), however this time the pin was pulled a little too late it seems.

Enough said on the negative from my end. The future of SLSA surf ski racing will all be revealed next season I imagine. See you on the starting line, hopefully!

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14 years 1 month ago #4180 by svengali
a terrible tragedy, one over which the entire ocean sports community is grieving
its natural that people question why, and there will be an element of truth in nearly every response
i find the apparent retort of the QLD SLSA official to be nauseating - i wonder whether they feel so hairy-chested now?
helmets and perhaps PFDs are a possible solution - certainly you would have to ask whether they would have helped Saxon in this case
i disagree with Gary though that PFDs make sense in long distance ski events but not life-saving events. How could you possibly say this when such an event has occurred? the chance of getting knocked unconsious further out in the ocean has to be far less than in the break zone on a big day

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14 years 1 month ago #4182 by bulldog
What i am saying is that with surf lifesaving competitions their are lots more competitors on the beach-everyone is usually close together and everything happens in the surf zone-try duck dive under a wave with a surfski on it with a pfd on-i am saying that officials should make a sensible call in relation to the conditions.In long distance paddling the field is spread out and you can fnd yourself alone-this is when a pfd can help.I am all for wearing helmets in the surfzone.I think the important thing for all of us to do and remember is:Lets all be SAFE and SENSIBLE and avoid another tragedy.Sven i hope my reasons explain in my opion why i would prefer not to wear a pfd in surf lifesaving competition-i never paddle long distance without my pfd.I feel dissapointed about your comments above regarding my thaughts.

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14 years 1 month ago #4183 by Johnno
Sven, the apparent retort of the QLD SLSA official was from a woman (tough "matronly" type - whom I know used to work at the Gold Coast Hospital in that exact role!). I imagine a high percentage of the officials at Aussies would not have been able to swim in and out through that surf. One marshal was actually using the term "victims" instead of "competitors" when calling for the next heats. Tongue in cheek at the time, but sadly ironic now.

Do PFD's inhibit big wave surfers in duck-diving? This I don't know. The only minor issue - besides some movement restriction - in SLSA surf ski racing would be "rolling", I imagine. And when you do roll, the momentum from jumping in the water should be enough to get you under the wave. Hopefully, this and other assumed safety implementations will be tested under appropriate conditions.

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