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About 50 people came together for advanced safety training at the Oceano Hotel and Spa in advance of the big-wave surfing season. August Howell / Review

Ocean enthusiasts from many backgrounds gathered for a common purpose last week. A healthy mix of surfers, lifeguards, emergency technicians and public safety officers sat in a conference room at the Oceano Hotel and Spa during a sold-out two-day event hosted by the Hawaiian-based Big Wave Risk Assessment Group. 

The group intends to foster a community and works to build transparency with public agencies like the San Mateo County Harbor Patrol and U.S. Coast Guard. 

The 50-plus attendees, who paid over $400 for the two-day course, got instruction on topics ranging from tourniquets, sea spines, emergency action plans, breath-holding techniques, open-ocean first-responder training, and emergency Jet Ski pickup.

The instructors encouraged participants to look beyond BWRAG’s own courses to familiarize themselves with any kind of ocean safety instruction. The group’s purpose is to give a glimpse into the strategies and preparedness necessary to survive in the water when things go south. While it highlights risk management in large surf, the class is applicable to an array of situations beyond big-wave surfing. 

With wintertime swells on the horizon, much of the discussion focused on Mavericks, as many of the instructors were seasoned surfers or had run safety there. One of the instructors was Greg Long, a 35-year-old former Mavericks event winner. Long takes safety seriously, yet even he is not immune to the ocean’s danger. In 2012, Long suffered a near-fatal wipeout at Cortez Bank, an enormous wave breaking 100 miles west of San Diego. He was revived and had to be airlifted to the hospital by helicopter. 

“We oftentimes keep each other at arms distance for whatever reason, like if it’s not your group of friends you’re surfing with or maybe you’re from different parts of the coast,” Long said of the safety group’s impact. 

“Understanding that any moment, the person you may be out in the lineup with and not paying attention to could be the one that saves your life,” said Long.

In recent years, the group has expanded outside of Hawaii and held its two-day course in multiple countries, including Puerto Rico and Mexico. But this was the group’s first full summit held at the same place that prompted its inception.

Formally founded in Hawaii in 2014 by professional big-wave surfers Kohl Christensen and Danilo Couto, it was a fateful day in March 2011 when their friend and professional Hawaiian surfer Sion Milosky drowned at Mavericks. His death galvanized Christensen and Couto to create an inclusive and comprehensive safety course open to anyone willing to learn more about ocean safety. 

For 23-year-old Santa Barbara native Foster Campbell, the event was a way to refamiliarize himself with strategies in emergency situations. One hot topic was high-performance CPR while using an Automated External Defibrillator. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve done any CPR training,” Campbell said after the first day. “The last time I did it they were kind of talking about the importance of compressions, but it was really emphasized today.”

The communal aspect was exemplified by an emotional closing ceremony in Pillar Point Harbor, where every attendee and staff member expressed gratitude and love for participation in the event. 

“As I said in that circle,” Long said, “if it weren’t for this knowledge that I’d learned and had been working on and training with my friends, I wouldn’t be here today.”

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