Inflatable wetsuit: it might save your big wave riding life

The first wetsuit with a built-in instantly inflatable air bladder has been invented. This outstanding new survival development was developed by big wave legend Shane Dorian, Billabong Wetsuits, and Mustang Survival Corporation.

Named "Billabong V1", the revolutionary wetsuit was designed after Dorian's 2010 near-drowning incident in Mavericks, the notorious cold-water break south of San Francisco, California.

"I took off on the wrong wave and had a horrible wipeout," recalled Dorian.

"The wipeout was terrible. I got held under for two waves, and I almost drowned. After that, I had an idea to incorporate an air bladder, something like the airplane vests where you pull the tab, and it inflates immediately with a CO2 cartridge."

With a quick tug on a ripcord, the wetsuit quickly lifts the wearer from deep underwater to the surface.

The 38-year-old surfer, a father of two, wanted to play it safe in the future.

Dorian wrote an email to Hub Hubbard, the wetsuit product manager at Billabong USA, describing the idea, and the project was underway.

The design evolved over time.

"Their initial thought, as was mine, was to position the bladder on the chest of the suit so once the wearer surfaced, it would help them to be face-up," said Hubbard.

"Not so, as Shane pointed out because once you have surfaced, you still need to be able to paddle your surfboard. So logically, we decided it should go on the back, which still keeps the wearer face-up while inflated."

"The design of the suit is pretty simple, actually," said Hubbard.

"We added a large zippered pocket on the back of the suit to contain the bladder, which is attached to an inflator and CO2 cartridge, which are 'docked' between your shoulder blades, so you don't even notice it. A pull cord runs over the shoulder to a handle on the upper just pull it like a parachute, and up you go."

Tested in All Surf Conditions

Dorian tested various prototypes in calm water and in small waves before pushing the limits in larger and larger waves.

"The first time I used it was at Cortes Bank this winter, 100 miles off the Southern California coast," recalled Dorian.

"The waves were super big, and I paddled into a really big wave and had a bad wipeout, got pushed under super far, and I thought, 'this is the perfect time to test this thing.' I pulled my cord, and I went from nearly panicking to being totally relaxed.  I didn't swim, I just let the thing bring me up."

On March 15, 2011, Shane Dorian and a small group of top big wave surfers paddled into record-breaking waves at Jaws on the island of Maui in Hawaii.

Dorian caught an amazing 57-foot wave on that day, winning both the Monster Paddle and Monster Tube categories of the 2011 Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards.

When he pulled into the biggest tube of all time and failed to come out, he was pounded by the wave and driven deep underwater, where he deployed the Billabong V1 inflation mechanism.

He rocketed to the surface and climbed back onto his surfboard, paddling off to the channel with a conspicuous hump on his back.

While Billabong does not currently have plans to sell the V1 to the broader market, the surfwear company is committed to making it available to all members of the big wave-riding elite.

"First and foremost, we designed this thing to help save lives," said Dorian.

"I've had three or four really close friends die surfing in really big waves, and every single one of them drowned. And now that it's done, now that the thing is ready to go, I'm excited to give it to all my friends who are the very best big wave surfers in the world".

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