Out of Office Reply: Spare-Air Vests

posted by / Blogs, Editorial / February 3, 2011

Out of Office Reply is Associate Editor Taylor Paul’s column on surf travel, big waves, and other manly bits


The suggested retail price for the vest is $249, though you can find it cheaper on e-bay.

The suggested retail price for the vest is $249, though you can find it cheaper on e-bay.



Out of Office Reply

“I’ve seen more big-wave technology in the last three days than I have in my whole life,” Derek Dunfee told me last Saturday, as we negotiated the borrowing of his never-before waxed 9’3” Stukeson (best gun I’ve ever ridden). He’d just finished a Waimea-to-Outer Reef-to-Maverick’s run and saw some crazy shit. Shane Dorian had some James Bond gadget he was testing in sketchy situations, and Shawn Dollar…well, Shawn Dollar was breathing underwater.

“It’s just a spare-air on a vest,” Shawn explains to Chas Smith, Nate Lawrence and me at his office in Santa Cruz. Three 10-foot guns lean against the wall. Next to them is a framed photo of Shawn under the lip and on the bowl at Maverick’s. “SCUBA divers have been using them forever, and this company started making them for kayakers and surfers.” Specifically, tow surfers. The company states on its site that “Tow-in Surfers love the Spare Air Xtreme Sport. In the severe condition of tall curls and awesome tubes, the difference between life and death may depend upon your ability to get an extra breath…”

Shawn prefers to approach the tall curls and awesome tubes with his bare hands (he holds the world record for the biggest wave ever paddled into, seen below), and envisioned using the spare-air at Maverick’s. So when he stumbled upon the device at a wetsuit trade show in Vegas (Shawn is a sales rep for Xcel Wetsuits), he basically stole it.


Shawn Dollar and his world-record wave, before the spare-air

Shawn Dollar and his world-record wave, before the spare-air


“The lady was cool and showed me how to use it and I was like, ‘I’m a big-wave surfer. I need that,’” Shawn explains. “She totally thought I was lying but I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand. I need to take that.’”

So she let him. And he took it home and started practicing in a hot tub. At Pleasure Point. And after a couple months of practice, at Maverick’s.

“It’s psychologically really tough to use,” Shawn says. “Because you have to exhale all your air to clear the regulator. So if it’s broken or has been leaking or whatever, you’re fucked.”


Shawn Dollar and his spare air-vest at his office in Santa Cruz

Shawn Dollar and his spare air-vest at his office in Santa Cruz


But so far, so good. Shawn’s fallen in the bowl on a couple of 20-footers (“Standard,” he says), and used it without trouble. He’s taken the pounding, got all Aquaman, and come up laughing. It’s worked so well that he thinks all big-wave guys should have one, and that if Jacob Trette — the near-drowning victim from last weekend’s swell — had had one, he would have been fine.

Let’s pause for a sec, ‘cause I see both of you reading this. Billy is thinking, “Amazing! I’ve always wanted to surf big waves but I’ve been afraid of drowning. But now that I can breathe underwater, me and you, Mav’s, we’re gonna be besties.” And Russ is thinking, “Please shut the f–k up. You’re encouraging kooks like Billy to crowd the big-wave lineups more than they already are. This will be the tow devolution all over again.”


Tyler Fox (deep) and Todd Tisue (shallow) negotiate the already crowded Mav’s lineup

Tyler Fox (deep) and Todd Tisue (shallow) negotiate the already crowded Mav’s lineup


Billy: Big waves can still kill you. They can knock you out and break limbs and pop eardrums. They’ll smash you against the rocks (don’t think this is unique to Mav’s — last weekend I saw a guy get repeatedly body-slammed against Todos Santos Island). Spare-air won’t help you in those situations. So unless you’d do it with just your lungs, don’t do it with the spare-air.

Russ. First, you’re the man. I know you’ve been surfing big waves since I was in diapers and that the old days were bigger and glassier. I get it. Much respect. Gimme some knucks…cool. Second, I don’t think you have to worry about the spare-air as much as you think. Sure, it might give Billy the confidence to paddle out, but when he sees his first 20-foot set on the horizon he’ll find his place on the channel real quick. These waves regulate themselves, and when they don’t, the locals do. Don’t think that a swelling crowd of spare-air rooks wouldn’t get barked out of the lineup. (Note to self: If this happens, mic-up Skindog and Josh Loya.)

Shawn Dollar recognizes both sides. He fears that Maverick’s will grow more crowded with people who shouldn’t be out there, but knows that the product can save lives. With a lovely wife and a baby on the way, his choice is easy.


Peter Mel. Old school values with a new school vision

Peter Mel. Old school values with a new school vision


Peter Mel is also conflicted. In the middle of writing this, I spoke to Pete on an unrelated topic. At the end of our conversation, I asked him about spare-air and other big-wave supplements. I’ll leave you with his words.

Peter Mel:

“I come from a time when we surfed Maverick’s with nothing out there. No boats, no skis. You needed to be aware that there was nothing there to help you. It was just you and you needed to figure it out.”

“When I started surfing Maverick’s, I attempted to use a spare-air, but at that point the thing was super-big and bulky. All this new technology is great, and I hope it can save lives, but at the same time I don’t want it to be some false sense of security. [To ride big waves] you need to be in tip-top shape and be educated on where you’re surfing. Like with tow surfing, it gives you this false sense of security that anybody can surf these waves, but you need to put the work in first. These waves can break you in two and knock you out. I would say you need to know how to do it on your own and have the ability to swim in. But at the same time, if my kid were out there, I’d want to be right there on a ski ready to save his ass.”


Taylor Paul is neither a Russ nor a Billy — but he’s probably a lot closer to a Russ.



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  • Sir Seves of the Sea Alot

    He may be a Billy…No you’re right, totally a Russ.

  • The bodhi zaffa

    Eyy Petah – You need to be in tip top shape to surf Mavs? If you mean tweaking on crystals and sipping your sparky drink, then yes, tip top shape it is. Get off the high horse Mel and stick to commentating for Quik. I agree with the waves regulating themselves, I wouldnt be caught dead in that cold wats regardless even if I did had a bit more air.

    Lets get that degenerate Vince Collier to comment on the subject, wait, he cant read so itll be tough to explain this article in coloring and picture books. East Coast 4 Life.



    While you were a man, alone with your thought in the Mav’s lineup, I think you forgot the legions of photographers on jetskis trying to get a cover shot of you, and helicopters hovering over your heard while you surfed…..ahhhh…the good old days…

  • RCJ

    ha ha ha. post # 2 is such a wanker hiding behind his fake name. coward rail bogger, no wonder everyone hates him.

    and # 3 guess what, photographer aint gonna save your life and neither is a helicopter.

    pathetic you guys would talk sh*t on a guy like mel. back to your looser computer day jobs.

  • dgb

    I think big wave surfers, and more importantly their industry handlers, will be bummed. Curtain pulled back by technology. A device like this may or may not allow the average surfer to get into big waves but it will for sure crowd the big wave rider market niche with talented surfers who were opting out for safety reasons or that they could make a living on more refined talents. It will allow so many more to angle in, tack along and try not to get clipped before the shoulder and catch that ferry ride out the back. I guess the core will have to put on more bells and whistles to keep themselves relevent – like donning LEDs and helicopters with spot lights for night surfs, Santa Suits … chair and parasol, perhaps. Pay no attenion to that man behind the curtain.

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  • yeah guy

    @RCJ… really the REAL RCJ?

    “and # 3 guess what, photographer aint gonna save your life and neither is a helicopter.” – RCJ

    Didnt Russell Ord pull bail out that Jacob kid with his ski? And isnt he a photographer?

  • no left takers!

    how come I never see anyone going left??? At Mavs..

  • Solid…

    Kooks are annoying in normal waves, but downright dangerous in the heavy stuff. I can understand the concern.

    Air breathing devices are a good backup plan, but not a guaranteed life saver in critical situations. Any surfer with common sense knows this is especially true at a break like Mavericks. If someone thinks otherwise and paddles out there they will be corrected quickly and firmly by the wave.

    The guy commenting on Peter Mel is right. He did meth and surfed that place numerous times. He should refrain from speaking about personal responsibility in big wave surfing when for a while he had none. Not to take anything away from what he’s done.

  • SICK of Haters

    Thank u RCJ…!!!!

    and yeah guy… Russell Ord was a photographer who help save Jacob… but he got damn lucky… ASK any big wave guy most photographers wouldnt go into the impact zone… and most photographers dont usually have sleds attached…

    Sure everyones there to help… but the danger is Real!
    why the fuck are u idiots talkin shit to Mr.MEL

  • mic

    I think Solid said it all especily in the first line.


    While you are getting pounded will be a difficult time to reach for the spare air.But after the beating and still stuck under 5 feet of foam might be feezable.Or about to take the second one on the head Bust out the tank and take a cruize to the bottom.


    that is compressed air. Take a breath 15 ft down have it torn out of your mouth,swim to the service without blowing some bubbles out and you are DEAD.Scuba cert would be neccesary.

  • Nerv Unit

    To surf Mavericks, I think it requires a great nerve in your big toe to be totally honest. If you don’t believe me, ask the doc.

  • Pablo

    It is amazing what the human body can endure. We can last a long time underwater if you remain calm, even with minimal air in your lungs. No matter what extreme sport you do, eventually you have to pay the piper. Most of the time we make it, some unlucky few don’t. Mel and company charged hard, with or without meth. I saw it first hand, especially back in 1998. So, enjoy what you do, spare air or not.