Playing it cool doesn’t always get you barrelled.
The helmet will never go down as one of surfing’s coolest inventions, but for one surfer at least it was the difference between paddling out or standing on the beach and watching everyone else have fun. Shane Smither’s stubborn determination to surf ultimately led to the creation of the helmet, which gave Tom Carroll the added confidence to take out the 1987 Pipe Masters.
Back in 1981 Shane Smithers was a year seven student at Warilla High who had been granted permission to take part in school surfing on one condition – he wore a helmet. As a five-year-old Shane had been diagnosed with a rare form of bone marrow cancer, which meant footy and other contact sports were off the agenda. However, surfing was an option if he could just find someone to make him some suitable protective headwear. “I wanted to be part of it so much,” recalls Shane, “But everywhere I looked I came up empty-handed so I approached Jim.”
Jim Bradley, the teacher who ran the school surfing program at Warilla High, wasn’t the sort of person to walk away from a challenge. A couple of years earlier, in 1979, Jim had overcome massive opposition from teachers and headmasters around Australia to have surfing recognised as a school sport. At one point Jim had been tossed out of the department of education in Bridge st, Sydney by security guards for pressing the issue. After a chance meeting with Neville Wran two years earlier, the then premiere had told Jim in no uncertain terms, “Only call me if all other avenues are closed.” After the Bridge street incident Jim called Nifty Nev on a Sunday night and a half a week later Wran made a statement in parliament that paved the way for school surfing to be ushered in across NSW.
Shortly after becoming the architect of school surfing, Jim found himself in the garage of his house on Jones Beach on the Sth Coast, fashioning a helmet for a kid with a rare bone marrow disease, who was determined to surf. Now 53, Shane can still remember what it was like to get the helmet.
“It looked weird but it got me in the water…! I was stoked. I got called some bad names, but I was surfing and that's what mattered to me.”
Jim eventually refined his design to make it a viable commercial product, which he dubbed the ‘RadHat’. The crowning moment (pardon the pun) for Jim came when Tom Carroll used the RadHat to bolster his charge towards victory in the 1987 Pipe Masters. Tom had seen good friend Steve Massfeller hit the reef at the Pipeline Masters in 1983 and knew he wasn’t the same man afterwards. “His speech was kind of slurred,” recalls Tom. “I was so down for wearing a helmet after seeing Steve… I wanted to push it at Pipe and Jim Bradley just came out of the blue. It took a while to get use to it but once I did I felt a lot freer and a lot safer… It was a really good design and had a good system for draining water really easily, which the Gath didn’t so much.”
(Tom later used the Gath but the Jim Bradley RadHat came first) It was The RadHat that was also worn by Barton Lynch and Damian Hardman at Pipe when they claimed world titles in subsequent years.
While Tom chased Pipe glory, Shane continued a love affair with surfing that Jim had made possible. Shane likes to boast that he won his Sth Bridge Boardriders Masters title the same year Occy claimed the world title – 1999.
According to Shane, as result of the excessive radiation treatment he received to address the original bone marrow problem, he has endured a recurring battle with brain tumours. He chuckles with pride when indicating that renowned brain surgeon Charlie Teo has operated on him on four separate occasions.
Despite the ongoing medical battle Shane is still surfing and remains upbeat. “I’m just off to surf Cowries now (a heavy sth coast reef),” he stated enthusiastically over the phone, when we spoke.
Meanwhile Jim has retired to Victoria to be closer to his two daughters after a career that also included a stint as the president of the Disabled Surfing Association, an induction into the Surfing Hall of Fame and an Order of Australia Medal for his services to surfing. While he is proud of the other awards there is one prize he treasures most – the original RadHat worn by Tom Carroll in the 1987 Pipe Masters. “I have had two crews wanting to buy it but I said no way it sits on my mantle piece thanks very much.”
These days Tom Carroll suggests he still gets modern pro surfers asking about the helmet, particularly in the lead up to the Pipe Masters. “I think right now there is a really good opening to present a good product for head protection,” he insists. “At somewhere like Pipeline it’s really easy to get hit in the head from any angle… I know I made contact a few times and the helmet was the difference.”
If surfers do allow substance to trump style and once again embrace the helmet, it’s nice to know that the whole thing had its humble beginnings in a year seven surf program on the south coast of NSW nearly forty years ago.