Surviving World War flight missions and the Nazaré waves

February 13, 2020 | Surfing
Big wave surfing: surviving waves of consequence in Nazaré | Photo: Poullenot/WSL

Maybe you've heard of the Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. I only know the name thanks to Charles Schulz and Snoopy.

He was Germany's flying ace of World War I, and he died in combat.

Have you ever heard of Eddie Rickenbacker? He was the United States' flying ace in World War I. But he survived.

The goal of early aircraft piloting, car races, and current big wave surfing is to push the envelope and survive.

And then improve on current standards.

In both world wars, pilots and crews died from safety failures more than enemy bullets.

Manfred von Richthofen: Germany's Red Baron died in combat in World War I

After World War I and driven to advance safety, Eddie Rickenbacker went broke after he started his own car company, creating the world's first four-wheel brake system.

The bigger companies publicized that four brakes would snap yer head off. Eddie bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1931 and ran it for ten years.

And he advanced tarmac and cars and oil and rubber and driver safety and poised mechanical advances that contributed to US production during World War II, with more durable stuff, and at a higher quality, on a mass scale.

A lot of the work was done by women like my grandmother at the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia.

It was a time when how you worked was more important than what kind of work you did.

During World War II, Eddie returned to the military as a consultant. He was on a plane going to meet General Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific theater.

For a fair idea of how many things can go wrong on a plane, a bump on a runway caused an instrument to shift - just a little.

So, the plane Eddie was flying in went a little off course until they ran out of gas in the Pacific.

He floated with eight others for 23 days and wrote a book about it: "Seven Came Through."

And then he completely revised all military open water emergency survival kits.

From near death each time, Eddie Rickenbacker sought to improve the safety of others in the future.

Eddie Rickenbacker: a World War II hero

Safety Take-Aways from the 2020 Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge

Led lights on the rescue team: headlamps and skis. No black skis. Bright colors on riders (no brown). Two-man rescue ski teams.

Currently, there is only a pilot on a rescue ski.

If the rescue victim is a non-active swimmer (unconscious or badly broken/cut), the pilot has to hold the throttle side of the tiller (with their right hand) and then grab the victim with their left and then drag the victim onto the ski?

Two skis pulled up to surfer who had already failed to hold onto the rescue sled, and I thought: "So what now... one of you has to ditch your ski?"

Rescue skis need a pilot and a rescue swimmer.

Water safety teams: not all big wave tow surfers are rescue ski pilots | Photo: WSL

Not all big wave tow surfers are rescue ski pilots and not all rescue ski pilots are Nazaré rescue pilots.

Maybe the 20 people on the ten teams are about equal pilots when it comes to slinging a rider, hitting the gas, and getting to the shoulder.

But they are not all equal when they're on the wrong side of the wave and tacking to avoid 30-foot whitewater walls that bear down from three sides in front of the lighthouse at Nazaré.

And the best of the rescue ski pilots at Nazaré are the ones who live there. The ones who see the wave all season, at all sizes and tides and currents.

All water moves the same, but every break is different.

It takes a discrete skill set and physical ability to pilot a rescue ski. And then, there is a separate skill set involved in surfing. David Langer, pictured below, is one of the few that can manage both tasks efficiently.

David Langer: an accomplished big wave surfer and jet ski rescuer | Photo: Soares/WSL

Stick to the Plan: Don't Extend an Event

I have a friend who is really strong and fit. He rode a motorbike around the track for half an hour and flew through the air each time.

It was mad how fast and how high he went.

Until he fell coming slowly around a turn. He tried to push the bike off him, couldn't do it, and fell to the ground exhausted.

Boxers only go for three minute rounds for a reason: on many occasions, a boxer loses because he just can't hold his hands up anymore.

Accidents are more likely to occur when people are tired.

The 2020 Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge was a scheduled four heats. Four Hours, and then they went for two more hours.

Consider that those pilots and surfers were up before dawn and riding rough. If we're not improving safety while pushing the limits, then it feels more like a money-making operation.

And there's no stoke in that.

Words by John P. Murphy | Writer and Kpaloa Fins Team Rider | @jpmwrites | www.jpmwrites.com

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