Tom Carroll discusses helmets now and then.
As the top 34 prepare to duck and weave Teahupoo’s sledgehammer lips, the question of head protection again becomes relevant. Jeremy Flores gave renewed validation to helmets by winning last year’s Billabong pro, Tahiti in a Gath hat. It’s worth noting that Flores wore the surfing stack hat because, shortly before the Chopes event, he had incurred a major head injury, requiring 36 stitches. His lid was less about preventing an injury than it was about making sure an existing one didn’t get worse. Come Pipeline, another wave with skull-crashing potential, Flores had abandoned the headwear, indicating he didn’t feel the helmet gave him a competitive edge when he was fully fit.
Although several surfers, including Barton Lynch and Mick Lowe, have experimented with helmets the most famous was undeniably Tom Carroll. Looking like some kind of invincible wave warrior, Carroll rode to victory in the 1990 and 1991 Pipe Masters wearing a Gath helmet. His glorious gouge in the’91 Pipe semi-final is still regarded as one of the greatest manoeuvres of all time; it was almost as if the helmet emboldened him to perform the iconic turn. The helmet was also a feature of Tom’s groundbreaking bio film All Down the Line where he took on giant G-land, and most recently he reacquainted himself with the helmet for his masterful performance in the 2014 Pipeline Heritage heat.
Talking to Tracks on the phone, Tom explains he initially decided to don the helmet because he had seen what happened to competitive surfer, Steve ‘Beaver’ Massfeller, who went head first into the reef at Pipe in 1983. Although Beaver eventually returned to the water, he had to have a plate inserted in his head and still struggles with his speech and sight as a result of the accident. “I knew him before and after and saw the impact it had,” explains Tom. “It’s hard when you see someone change like that.”
Tom suggests that he was also sufficiently self-aware to realise that he was the kind of guy who wouldn’t pull back and was subsequently at risk of injury. “I just wanted to keep going for it… but I also knew that I was kind of a bit prone. ”
Carroll explains that the helmet probably saved him from incurring major head injuries on a number of occasions. “I hit the reef head-first a couple of times and then at Chopes (Teahupoo) the board speared through the helmet and into my ear… It was a freak accident, but I’m just glad I had the helmet on,” chuckles Tom.
Tom readily admits that while the helmet definitely instilled confidence it wasn’t always an easy adjustment to make and he understands why other surfers may have an aversion to wearing one of the existing models. “When I first started wearing one at Pipe I use to get collected by the lip, it was just a shocker … you kind of have to be prepared to wear it when it’s two foot to get use to it.”
Despite the complications, Carroll still strongly believes there is a place for protective headwear, particularly at the elite level where surfers are consistently putting themselves in deeper and heavier situations to win heats or impress fans. “I think we’ve got to learn to protect ourselves because we are going to keep going harder. It’s part of our nature,” states Tom emphatically.
Tom’s well-qualified insights into the psychological make-up of professional surfers combined with recent events have even inspired him to start tinkering around with the idea of a more sophisticated form of head protection, surf wear.
“Watching the Cape Fear event and then having this real sense of the absence of Owen Wright have prompted me to really start thinking about it… I’ve put together some drawings … I think if we make use of the best quality materials that are available today it’s possible to come up with something that may not necessarily be a helmet but definitely offers head protection.
Although the forecast for Teahupoo currently looks small, most fans are still holdingout for the eight-ten foot coils of liquid concrete that bring the contest alive. Medically, there is no dispute that a direct head-clash with the reef at Chopes in such conditions could end lives or cause major trauma. Would we cheer any less for our surfing heroes if they had something between their craniums and the shelf? We certainly didn’t think any less of Tom Carroll when he performed the ‘Snap that was heard around the world’ in a helmet.
Main Photo: Jeremy Fllores going steep and deep with his helmet on at Teahupoo. Photo WSL Cestari