Australia’s enormous coastline boasts many of the world’s finest beaches. In summer it’s the playground of millions who flock to the sun and surf and is the reason for our renowned surfing culture which has spawned some of the world’s greatest surfers. But there is a danger disguised beneath the waves that very rarely gets exposed… that of the number of eye injuries caused by surfboards. It is this danger to eyes caused by the fin or nose of a surfboard that is now the subject of a major study by a team from the Save Sight Institute at the University of Sydney.
It is because of their love of surfing, and concern about the many eye injuries from surfboards they see in their practices, that two doctors have come together to form a team to document the type and frequency of surfing eye injuries occurring along the eastern seaboard.
Ophthalmologist Dr. Raf Ghabrial, has been surfing since he was a teenager and it’s an activity he intends doing until he can no longer stand upright on a board. It is a passion shared by Dr. Mark Gillett, an emergency specialist at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, who has been surfing for more than 30 years.
“It’s because of our specialties that we have noticed these eye injuries and we’ve seen an inordinate amount of them,” says Dr. Ghabrial.
Surfboards are made with pointy noses for purely aesthetic reasons – rounding the last half inch has absolutely no effect on performance
“I see quite a lot of injuries because I’m at the beach and then I also see them when at the eye hospital.”
The pair are now part of a team operating under the auspices of the Save Sight Institute, which is about to launch a major study, to gather evidence about the number and type of eye injuries caused by surfboard accidents, and how they can be diminished.
The 12-month prospective study on surfboard related ocular and orbital trauma will be conducted by Dr. Ghabrial and Dr. Gillett, along with Sydney University Associate Lecturer Dr. Juliette Howden, oculoplastic surgeon Dr. Jenny Danks and headed up by Institute Director Professor Peter McCluskey.
Some of the most notorious and gruesome injuries in surfing have been caused by the pointy nose of a surfboard or the fin contacting either the body or the head.
In 1980, Aussie pro surfer Derek Hynd was competing in South Africa, when his board bounced back and finned him in the right cheekbone and eye. An operation to save his eye didn’t work. Amazingly, surfing one-eyed, he managed to improve his world ranking the following year.
In 2004, champion surfer Serena Brook almost lost her eye in a freak accident during practice for a Western Australian event. Her board shot up from under her and the fin slashed her face. Her upper and lower eyelids were sliced through and another cut ripped through a tear duct. Rushed to a WA hospital for emergency surgery, she then flew to Melbourne and was operated on by renowned oculoplastic surgeon, Dr. Rodger Davies, who managed to save her sight.
Dr. Ghabrial says he’s come across some horrific eye injuries, both at the beach and through his work, and even witnessed an argument in the surf which turned violent, when one surfer swung his board at another, lacerating his tear duct.
“That’s the first time I have ever heard of someone using their board as a weapon,” he says.
Dr. Gillett, Royal North Shore Hospital’s Director of Education and Research, says he was involved in a previous study a number of years ago, documenting all injuries caused by surfboards and noted that several of those injuries were to eyes.
“I think any time someone loses their vision, it is always catastrophic. Eye injuries are always a bit daunting, even for the hospital’s emergency staff,” he says.
Dr. Gillett, who has fitted his board with a nose guard to help prevent injury, says he hopes the study will act as a catalyst to encourage the surfing community to think about surfboard injuries and take action to minimise them.
A similar study conducted by the Department of Ophthalmology, California Pacific Medical Centre in San Francisco evaluated the clinical characteristics of surfing-related ocular trauma to learn the nature of such injuries and propose possible preventive measures.
It reviewed 11 cases of surfing-related eye injuries caused by direct trauma from the surfboard, studying their mechanism of injury, the associated ocular complications, and the anatomic and visual outcomes of surgical repair.
The published results stated that: “Surfing-related ocular injuries occurred exclusively in young males (mean age, 24.8 years; range, 14 to 37 years). The mechanism of injury most frequently responsible was impact with the sharp nose of the surfboard following a fall. Serious posterior segment complications were observed in all 11 patients, with nine patients suffering ruptured globes. Despite immediate medical attention, five patients did not recover ambulatory levels of visual acuity (> 5/200)”.
The study concluded that: “Surfing-related ocular trauma presenting to the retinal specialist typically leaves the patient with a permanent visual disability. Important factors contributing to these high-velocity injuries include the sharply pointed nose of the surfboard and the leash keeping the surfer in close proximity to the board following a fall. A simple modification in surfboard design such as blunting the sharp nose of the surfboard, or appropriate protective guards fitted over the surfboard nose, should lessen the severity of such injuries.”
There are currently no regulations governing surfboard design, but there are those within the surfing community who advocate changes to surfboards to reduce the risk of injury.
John Ogden is a cinematographer and former photographer for the surfing publication Tracks. In 1999 John was surfing at Whale Beach and the fin from the surfboard took out his eye.
“It was a big swell, beach closed, late takeoff, off shore wind, shallow sand bar. I got worked on the takeoff and the fin hit my eye and slashed the eye and hooked it all in one go. It was the right eye and I lost it.”
Ogden believes pointy tips on the nose of surfboards are unnecessary.
“The year it happened to me there were six surfboard injuries in the eye hospital and they were talking about doing a study paper at that stage. All these eye injuries resulted from the nose of the board.
“There are also lots of fin chop accidents and my feeling is there is no real design need to have that really sharp arrow at the end so you might as well round it off and try to minimise the impact, or use rubber guards that are not going to decrease performance, but increase safety by a long shot. You don’t need that spear at the end,” he says.
Former world champion and elder statesman of surfing, Shaun Tomson, who spoke to mivision from his California home, agrees.
“Surfboards are made with pointy noses for purely aesthetic reasons – rounding the last half inch has absolutely no effect on performance. Pointy noses are dangerous, but as surfers we are willing to sacrifice safety for looks.
“For a number of years Channel Islands, the world’s largest surfboard company, blunted their noses to prevent eye injuries. I was surfing with Al Merrick, the founder, in Santa Barbara in the early 80s. He lost his board on a late takeoff and it hit a young girl, permanently blinding her in one eye. There was a lawsuit and he changed his board designs for a number of years. I’m not sure of the incidence of eye injuries but it would take a massive effort to get surfers to change. You can buy a plastic safety tip called a nose guard that was popular for a number of years.”
Recently, the Tweed Heads local newspaper, the Tweed Daily News ran a story quoting Broken Head surfing legend and eclectic inventor George Greenough as saying there was “absolutely no point to pointed-nose surfboards”.
“If you look at the basic design of the pointed-nose surfboard, it really is a fashion statement,” he said. Mr. Greenough’s comments were prompted by the shocking head injuries sustained by 10-year-old grommet, Pascal Dattler, at Byron Bay’s famous surf break, The Pass, in January this year.
“How easy is it for some kid to fall off the back of the board shooting their pointed nose into their brother or sister’s eye? It (the pointed nose) doesn’t make the board surf any better, in fact it adds extra length, increases swing weight and wind resistance. It can also be used as an offensive weapon to intimidate other surfers,” Mr. Greenough said.
Long-time Byron Bay surfer, shaper and former instructor Chris Brock said surfers had long questioned the design logic, but it had taken a serious accident for people to pay attention.
“There is absolutely no performance value to sharp-nosed boards,” Brock said. “You’ve got to hand it to Kelly Slater (eight times world champion) who has just cut the noses off his boards, and now the kids are catching on.
“There’s better displacement on a round-nose board, and once you go back to a sharp nose they just feel stupid.”
Surfboard maker and designer, Neal Cameron, who has been prominent in the surfing industry for 35 years, has had two friends who have had eyes knocked out and he’s angry about it.
“I won’t put a pointy nose on a surfboard and haven’t done since the 80s when… the government (pressured) the surfboard industry to regulate itself. The government threatened to regulate, but didn’t do it,” he said.
“It’s purely aesthetics and has zero to do with performance of the board. It has no effect at all and it will never be overcome until surfboard fashion changes – when the pros start riding boards with rounded noses then everybody will change.”
He also suggests that fins should be rounded to the radius of a 20 cent coin which would not affect the performance and make that part of the board safer.
“I repair a lot of surfboards and a lot of nose damage and I tell people I will not put the pointed nose back on. They ask why and I tell them because I have two friends who have lost eyes and another lost a kidney. They generally accept that.”
Mr. Cameron says the change to surf board design should come from within the industry and be supported by surfing professions and surfing publications.
Surfrider Foundation of Australia General Manager, Kristy Theissling, says any outside move to regulate the design of surfboards would be extremely controversial, as surfboard shaping was an art form and the surf community lived by its own rules.
However, the Foundation, which is an Australia-wide, non-profit organisation, does encourage and endorse the use of Dolphin Nose boards on its website, saying that although the pointed nose of surfboards “might look aesthetically pleasing, their danger factor has to date caused many unnecessary serious injuries, including pierced limbs and rib cages, head fractures and eye loss”.
An article on the Foundation’s website asks all surfers to enter a “voluntary pact” to choose to use a board with a minimum nose curve of 75mm.
“We ask all surfers to help out by carefully considering the logic of this standard and request retailers and manufactures to promote surfboards with rounded noses.”
It also argues that trailing edges of surfboard fins cause least drag when the backside or trailing edge is blunt, not sharp.
The approval for the Save Sight Institute’s surfing study covers 20 New South Wales hospitals and will run for 12-months from 1 January 2011.
Ophthalmologist Dr. Jenny Danks says the main aim is to document the incidence of surfing-related eye injuries.
“We’ll be looking to see if there are any factors we can identify that might predispose a surfer to injury, whether they’re surfing on a bad day, what part of the board hits people and any other factors that may be identified.”
With this in mind, the study questionnaire asks for specific information on what part of the board caused the eye injury, the surf conditions, and the experience of the surfer, as well as detailing the nature of the injury and the outcome.
The last word goes to Dr. Ghabrial, who has had to deal with many horrific eye injuries. “Surfing is a wonderful sport and pastime and it is part of our culture. Let’s take whatever action we need to make it safer without interfering with the sport itself.”
Further information on the study can be obtained by contacting Dr. Juliette Howden at the Save Sight Institute on [email protected].