Can surfing be made safer
But there are times when surfing at The Pass is like being in a war zone. That’s not fun.
Anyone who has ever surfed the break during peak holiday times, or when the surf is really pumping, would have witnessed numerous accidents or near misses as surfers compete for waves.
Some accidents are worse than others.
The horrific head injury suffered by 10-year-old Byron Bay surfer, Pascal Dattler, two weeks ago, is a case in point.
His skull was shattered by a stray surfboard lost by an inexperienced surfer, with Brisbane neurosurgeons declaring he was only millimetres from death.
Thankfully, the young boy is recovering well at home and is expected to be back in the water in about six weeks.
Another local surfer, Deb Tinker, had her left heel smashed on a rock as she tried to avoid an out-of-control, stand-up board and another surfer who had ‘snaked’ her at The Pass last November.
As a result, she has a big steel plate and eight screws in her foot and even today, still faces months of painful rehabilitation.
And the question the local surfing fraternity is asking – not for the first time either – is there anything that can be done to make surfing at The Pass safer for everyone?
Can surfing there be regulated?
Can there be segregation of experienced and novice surfers?
Most observers say regulation is impossible. How could it be policed anyway?
As one long-time local surfer told the Byron News: “I mean really, do we want to see government lackeys that don’t surf, telling us what to do out there? God, I hope not.”
It might seem an impossible task, but as a first step, Byron Bay Boardriders and the Byron Bay Malibu Club, with the support of Surfing NSW and Byron United, met this week to start an ongoing forum in which they hope to involve all local stakeholders, to canvass ideas.
While there is no doubt inexperienced surfers, many of them international backpackers, going into areas where they really shouldn’t be create major problems, there are some involved in the industry who say experienced surfers going out without legropes are also a problem.
A board lost by an experienced surfer can cause the same damage as a board lost by a novice.
It’s a point made by Style Surfing School operator, Gary Morgan.
He said ‘tolerance’ should be a major factor and the finger of blame for accidents, or incidents, at The Pass should not be only pointed at beginners.
There were very experienced surfers who went out without legropes, he said.
Gary said all learners who attended his school were told not to go where the experienced surfers were until they were experienced themselves.
He said at the end of each lesson they were also handed information on surfing etiquette and safe surfing.
Don Osborne, the Surfrider Foundation’s local representative, believed it would help if surfboard-shaped ‘surfing code’ signs, such as the one at Captain Cook Lookout, were erected at The Pass.
Don also said it would help if backpacker operators advised backpackers borrowing boards where to go to learn to surf – and where not to go.
“They want to experience surfing, which is fine,” he said. “But there is a place for that and there is a place for experienced riders.”
But Don believes it is surfboard design that could have the biggest impact on reducing serious injuries in the surf.
He said the Surfrider Foundation had been asking board manufacturers for some time to ‘set a new style’ by putting rounded tips on boards, rather than sharp points.
There had been a mixed reaction to that request, because surfers wanted ‘pointy nose boards’, he said.
Don said changing from a sharp point to a slightly rounded nose would not impact on the board’s performance.
Broken Head-based Greens MP and surfer Ian Cohen is pushing for increased use of surfing helmets to help prevent serious surf injuries.
With 40 years of surfing experience, the MP has been wearing a surfing helmet for the last decade.
“When we have accidents similar to Pascal’s we are reminded of the importance of protective helmets for surfers,” he said.
“Statistics show that 80 percent of injuries in surfing are head injuries. Helmets do not get in the way and are a distinct safety advantage with sunnies attached and a shell to protect the head.”
Ian said surfing hire businesses should have comprehensive surfing safety information and hire helmets with the boards.
He said it was also a case of education and encouraging the wearing of surf helmets.
“Surfing is like a last frontier, without regulation,” he said. “Surfers can be difficult to organise, but we all have a responsibility to ourselves and others in the water.
“I would like to see surf helmets become a fashion and professional surfers have a role to play in leading the way. What other sport has participants in the blazing sun for hours without cover.
“Surfing is my great love as it is to many thousands of others. It is a joyous way for kids to let off steam.
"Safety awareness should enhance the enjoyment and governments should investigate subsidising headwear for the kids in the surf.”