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Shane Dorian, Billabong air self-inflating survival wetsuit

June 5, 2011

After a near-drowning incident in 2010, big wave legend Shane Dorian wondered if he would ever be able to face 50-foot-plus waves again.  But today Dorian is back out in the largest surf he can find, thanks to greater peace of mind provided by his new invention.  Working together with Billabong Wetsuits and Mustang Survival Corporation, Dorian created the first wetsuit with a built-in instantly inflatable air bladder.  With a quick tug on a ripcord, the wetsuit quickly lifts the wearer from deep underwater to the surface.

The revolutionary suit has been dubbed the “Billabong V1” with the V standing for Vertical ascent and the 1 indicating positive altitude, or one foot above sea level.

Dorian, from Kona, Hawaii, is widely regarded as the best big wave surfer in the world today, having paddled into a half dozen of the most amazing waves ever ridden in the last 18 months alone.  But it was one of the waves he wiped out on which made the biggest impression on the 38-year-old father of two. The disastrous ride happened during Dorian’s first trip to Maverick’s, the notorious cold-water break south of San Francisco, California during February 2010.

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

Hubbard’s research quickly lead to Mustang Survival Corporation, a well-known manufacturer of dry suits, flotation systems and other marine lifesaving gear.  While most of Mustang’s products are designed for use at the surface, they had experience in creating heavy duty polyurethane bladders for the US Military and fabricated a new bladder system for Billabong.

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.”

With the Mustang bladders in hand, Hubbard worked with Barbara Mau at Express Wetsuit repair to develop a prototype.

“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 chest…you just pull it like a parachute and up you go.”

Dorian tested various prototypes in calm water and in small surf and with refinement the Billabong V1 suit precisely fulfilled his vision for greater safety, bringing back the confidence to push 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.”

The most public demonstration of the Billabong V1 suit occurred on March 15 of this year when Dorian and a small group of top big wave surfers paddled into record-breaking waves at Jaws on the island of Maui in Hawaii.  Formerly considered a spot so difficult to ride that a jet ski tow-in assist was necessary, 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 Dorian 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, clearly visible to the numerous photographers on hand.

Despite many inquiries about Dorian’s new device, at the time no comment was given to the media as the invention was still in the patent application process.  In the meantime, the application was accepted by the United States Patent Office and the patent registration is pending.

While Billabong does not currently have plans to sell the V1 to the broader market, the surfwear company is committed to make 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.  We have a core group of guys I’m really close to and everybody wants to be out there, everybody wants to charge huge waves and push the envelope but I want all my friends to be safer.  I want them all to come home to their families every night and I’m excited about this new breakthrough.”

Likewise, the staff at Billabong are excited to have developed one of the most innovative surfing products in recent history.

“I am totally honored to be a part of this project,” said Hubbard, “but it was absolutely the collaborative effort of Shane, myself, Barbara Mau, Mustang Survival and the entire Global Billabong Wetsuit team that made the V1 happen.”

Photo: Shane Dorian tests the new suit © Billabong

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