Out of Office Reply: Spare-Air Vests

Out of Office Reply is Associate Editor Taylor Paul’s column on surf travel, big waves, and other manly bits

The suggested retail price for the vest is $249, though you can find it cheaper on e-bay.

The suggested retail price for the vest is $249, though you can find it cheaper on e-bay.

Out of Office Reply

"I've seen more big-wave technology in the last three days than I have in my whole life," Derek Dunfee told me last Saturday, as we negotiated the borrowing of his never-before waxed 9'3" Stukeson (best gun I've ever ridden). He'd just finished a Waimea-to-Outer Reef-to-Maverick's run and saw some crazy shit. Shane Dorian had some James Bond gadget he was testing in sketchy situations, and Shawn Dollar...well, Shawn Dollar was breathing underwater.

"It's just a spare-air on a vest," Shawn explains to Chas Smith, Nate Lawrence and me at his office in Santa Cruz. Three 10-foot guns lean against the wall. Next to them is a framed photo of Shawn under the lip and on the bowl at Maverick's. "SCUBA divers have been using them forever, and this company started making them for kayakers and surfers." Specifically, tow surfers. The company states on its site that "Tow-in Surfers love the Spare Air Xtreme Sport. In the severe condition of tall curls and awesome tubes, the difference between life and death may depend upon your ability to get an extra breath..."

Shawn prefers to approach the tall curls and awesome tubes with his bare hands (he holds the world record for the biggest wave ever paddled into, seen below), and envisioned using the spare-air at Maverick's. So when he stumbled upon the device at a wetsuit trade show in Vegas (Shawn is a sales rep for Xcel Wetsuits), he basically stole it.

Shawn Dollar and his world-record wave, before the spare-air

Shawn Dollar and his world-record wave, before the spare-air

"The lady was cool and showed me how to use it and I was like, 'I'm a big-wave surfer. I need that,'" Shawn explains. "She totally thought I was lying but I was like, 'No, you don't understand. I need to take that.'"

So she let him. And he took it home and started practicing in a hot tub. At Pleasure Point. And after a couple months of practice, at Maverick's.

"It's psychologically really tough to use," Shawn says. "Because you have to exhale all your air to clear the regulator. So if it's broken or has been leaking or whatever, you're fucked."

Shawn Dollar and his spare air-vest at his office in Santa Cruz

Shawn Dollar and his spare air-vest at his office in Santa Cruz

But so far, so good. Shawn's fallen in the bowl on a couple of 20-footers ("Standard," he says), and used it without trouble. He's taken the pounding, got all Aquaman, and come up laughing. It's worked so well that he thinks all big-wave guys should have one, and that if Jacob Trette -- the near-drowning victim from last weekend's swell -- had had one, he would have been fine.

Let’s pause for a sec, 'cause I see both of you reading this. Billy is thinking, "Amazing! I've always wanted to surf big waves but I've been afraid of drowning. But now that I can breathe underwater, me and you, Mav's, we're gonna be besties." And Russ is thinking, "Please shut the f–k up. You're encouraging kooks like Billy to crowd the big-wave lineups more than they already are. This will be the tow devolution all over again."

Tyler Fox (deep) and Todd Tisue (shallow) negotiate the already crowded Mav

Tyler Fox (deep) and Todd Tisue (shallow) negotiate the already crowded Mav's lineup

Billy: Big waves can still kill you. They can knock you out and break limbs and pop eardrums. They'll smash you against the rocks (don't think this is unique to Mav's -- last weekend I saw a guy get repeatedly body-slammed against Todos Santos Island). Spare-air won't help you in those situations. So unless you'd do it with just your lungs, don't do it with the spare-air.

Russ. First, you're the man. I know you've been surfing big waves since I was in diapers and that the old days were bigger and glassier. I get it. Much respect. Gimme some knucks...cool. Second, I don't think you have to worry about the spare-air as much as you think. Sure, it might give Billy the confidence to paddle out, but when he sees his first 20-foot set on the horizon he'll find his place on the channel real quick. These waves regulate themselves, and when they don't, the locals do. Don't think that a swelling crowd of spare-air rooks wouldn't get barked out of the lineup. (Note to self: If this happens, mic-up Skindog and Josh Loya.)

Shawn Dollar recognizes both sides. He fears that Maverick's will grow more crowded with people who shouldn't be out there, but knows that the product can save lives. With a lovely wife and a baby on the way, his choice is easy.

Peter Mel. Old school values with a new school vision

Peter Mel. Old school values with a new school vision

Peter Mel is also conflicted. In the middle of writing this, I spoke to Pete on an unrelated topic. At the end of our conversation, I asked him about spare-air and other big-wave supplements. I'll leave you with his words.

Peter Mel:

“I come from a time when we surfed Maverick’s with nothing out there. No boats, no skis. You needed to be aware that there was nothing there to help you. It was just you and you needed to figure it out.”

“When I started surfing Maverick’s, I attempted to use a spare-air, but at that point the thing was super-big and bulky. All this new technology is great, and I hope it can save lives, but at the same time I don't want it to be some false sense of security. [To ride big waves] you need to be in tip-top shape and be educated on where you're surfing. Like with tow surfing, it gives you this false sense of security that anybody can surf these waves, but you need to put the work in first. These waves can break you in two and knock you out. I would say you need to know how to do it on your own and have the ability to swim in. But at the same time, if my kid were out there, I'd want to be right there on a ski ready to save his ass.”

Taylor Paul is neither a Russ nor a Billy -- but he’s probably a lot closer to a Russ.