How Tragedy Sparked the Evolution of Big Wave Safety


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Updated 136d ago

When Sion Milosky tragically drowned at Maverick's in 2011, fellow big wave hellmen had a bit of a wake up call. It was time to take safety training seriously.

“Safety was not a priority,” says Kohl Christensen in the video below. “It worked for years — until it didn’t. 2011 was a really crazy time, exploring big waves and pushing the sport. It was just loose. But it takes things [like Sion] to remind you that bad sh*t can happen.”

And so, Kohl and Danilo Couto created the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG) with the aim of teaching surfers about safety protocols to be used in all types of waves. And since that first meeting, when a group of the world’s best big-wave surfers met in Kohl’s barn to learn CPR, the movement has grown exponentially to annual summits involving everyone from XXL elite to average joes.
And in time, they recruited some of the world’s greatest watermen as mentors, like legendary big-wave pioneer and lifeguard Brian Keaulana. In addition to on-the-ground lifesaving techniques such as CPR, Keaulana brought BWRAG firsthand experience of water rescues for when someone needs saving in the impact zone.

“It affected me really strongly when Mark Foo passed away,” Keaulana said in an upcoming podcast with Jamie Mitchell. “It was so long before anyone even noticed he was gone. I don’t blame anybody, but what I do blame is the process. So, we needed to establish a platform and a process. Then, years later, Kohl and Danilo got together after Sion and they realised they needed to do something. They contacted me. And the only thing that I wanted out of it was that we teach people to teach, and that we share this knowledge around the world. Today, BWRAG has evolved into such a force of goodness.”

But it’s not just big waves. BWRAG empowers surfers to be prepared for the worst in all types of conditions, from two-foot to 20-foot. And since the inception — since that tiny group of chargers met in Kohl’s barn for CPR lessons — the movement has gone worldwide with one main goal in mind: to keep surfers and swimmers safe and informed, so they can know what to do when sh*t hits the fan.

A safety training session from BWRAG featuring Greg Long.

A safety training session from BWRAG featuring Greg Long.

© 2021 - Tony Dooley

“Being able to get home after a day in the ocean or mountains is something that I found super important,” Kohl says. “Especially as I got older, now having two young daughters myself. You definitely want to come home, and you want to come home for them.”

The 2020 BWRAG schedule was canceled due to COVID-19. In its place, BWRAG’s Surf Responder Online Course will be available in January 2021. Enroll here.  

Cover shot Kohl Christensen at Pipe by Ryan "Chachi" Craig.