Elite big-wave safety group creates training program for surfers of waves “2-20 feet”

Every winter, a group that includes some of the most respected and most accomplished big-wave surfers in the world convenes on the North Shore of Oahu for the Big-Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG)'s Big-Wave Safety Summit, to prepare for a season of facing 20-60 foot waves around the world at spots like Jaws, Mavericks and Nazare.

Traditionally attended by some of the best in the sport, including Paige Alms, Greg Long, Ian Walsh and Mark Healey, the summit covers CPR education, detailed spot analyses of specific breaks, and open-water jet-ski rescue training.

BWRAG instructors from left to right: Kohl Christensen, Danilo Couto, Brian Keaulana, Pat Chong Tim, Liam Wilmott and Darrick Doerner.

But on Thursday, BWRAG is changing up the lesson plan for a day, and sharing their elite training curriculum with surfers and ocean lovers of all kinds through an inaugural Level 1 class.

"Level 1: 2-20' Surf Risk Management," will be a one-day class held at Oahu's Turtle Bay Resort and taught by Danilo Couto, known for being one of the first to paddle in at Jaws, which up to then had been ridden only by tow-in surfers, and Brian Keaulana, one of the most legendary living Hawaiian watermen and water safety technicians.

Maui surfer Andrea Moller leads CPR training as Ramon Navarro and Liam Wilmott look on. Photo: Courtesy of BWRAG

BWRAG was founded by Couto, Keaulana, big-wave surfer and Patagonia ambassador Kohl Christensen and competitive SUP surfer Liam Wilmott after the death of Sion Milosky at Mavericks in 2011.

When Milosky passed, "there was nobody there to do the rescue," Couto said at a recent BWRAG summit held specifically for female big-wave surfers. "After that happened, it was clear to me there was no communication. All of a sudden, one of our best was gone. I had long nights of not sleeping. That same year I won the XXL Award and Sion won the Performance of the Year Award. It really felt like I had to do something."

Couto competing at this year’s WSL Pe’ahi Challenge. Photo: WSL/Aaron Lynton

Couto and Christensen gathered a small group of surfers in a barn on Christensen's property for what became known as the first BWRAG meeting. They created a safety curriculum with the goal of "reducing the risk of an inherently dangerous sport," according to Couto.

Couto leading a detailed Waimea Bay spot analysis. Photo: Gabriela Aoun

Peter Mel leads a spot analysis of Mavericks. Photo: Courtesy of BWRAG

Christensen sees BWRAG's efforts as a step toward progressing surf safety toward the level of precaution taken in other high-risk outdoor sports.

"The risk management in the snow world is so much more advanced," Christensen told GrindTV. “There are so many more safety systems set up to prepare for avalanches and other dangers. But in surfing there isn't any structure for surfers who aren't lifeguards or who didn't do junior lifeguards as a kid."

Danilo Couto assists Emilia Perry and Emi Erickson with unconscious-body pickups. Photo: Gabriela Aoun

The Level 1 class will cover surf risk management, CPR training, surf spot analysis, past-case scenarios, non-verbal communication, fundamentals of assisted rescues, introduction to apnea training, and surf forecasting.

"We want to teach the big picture," says Christensen. "Instead of just getting to the beach and paddling out, hold on. Where are the currents? What's the tide? How do you assess those hazards? We want to create a different mindset."

Kohl Christensen

BWRAG instructor Kohl Christensen at Mavericks. Photo: Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer/Patagonia

Participants who complete Level 1 qualify to purchase the Patagonia Personal Surf Inflation (PSI) vest. Completion of Level 1 is a prerequisite to participate in BWRAG's open-water training and jet-ski training, and completion of all three courses in addition to an online boating safety course earns a participant certification as a BWRAG ocean safety technician.

Brian Keaulana demonstrates jet-ski pickups. Photo: Courtesy of BWRAG/Matt Paul Catalano

Christensen and Emi Erickson practice pickups at a recent summit. Photo: Gabriela Aoun

BWRAG is also expanding globally with their risk management courses: This month, Couto led a two-day summit in Nazare, Portugal, for surfers who paddle and tow into Nazare's colossal waves.

On Thursday, the BWRAG team will focus on those who may never surf Nazare, but who seek education on how to be more responsible and prepared watermen and women, whatever the conditions in which they choose to paddle out.

"We wanted to create something for that person who feels like a 4-foot wave is a 20-foot wave," says Christensen.

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