PUPUKEA, Hawaii — The celebratory mood at the Pipeline surf competition on Oahu’s North Shore shifted quickly.
Shortly after the conclusion of the 2019 Billabong Pipe Masters, Hayden Rodgers, the under-14 national surf champion of San Clemente, Calif., took off on a 10-foot wave. Then he disappeared.
Hundreds of spectators watched as safety workers gunned their Jet Skis toward the impact zone, where the distance between the water’s surface and the jagged, lava rock reef below can be as little as several feet.
Hayden’s motionless body bobbed up and down in the sloshing foam. He had collided headfirst with the reef below. He was not breathing and had no pulse. After two forceful compressions to his chest, he coughed up a torrent of sand and sea. He was moments away from a fate far worse.
Hayden, now 15, has made a full recovery in the year since and has returned to surfing on the North Shore of Oahu. But the dangerously close call — witnessed by the sport’s biggest names — sent a ripple through the local community.
Today, many at Pipeline — a surfing mecca in part because it is so perilous — are wearing helmets when they drop in, a somewhat grudging acknowledgment that the sport can be as dangerous as it is cool.
“The ocean can be risky,” Brian Keaulana, one of the retired lifeguards who led the charge in Hayden’s rescue, said. “But it’s all about having the proper knowledge and skill level and the right equipment to reduce all those risks.”
Wearing helmets pushes against the cultural tide at Pipeline, where surfers have always aimed to display how skilled and stylish they are, not necessarily how safe. The community celebrates bravado and prowess so much that it has a pejorative term — kook — for those who are oblivious, overly cautious or unskilled. Nobody wants to look like a child out for a bike ride with their mom and dad.
“Obviously, you look cooler if you don’t have a helmet on,” said the professional surfer Kalani Chapman, 38, of Hawaii. “But I think people are putting that aside nowadays, which is great.”
Hayden Rodgers’s accident terrified everyone who saw it, but the up-and-comers who regularly surf with Hayden, including his brother Nolan, appeared most shaken. The “groms” — a term short for “grommet” that refers to passionate young surfers — stood by restlessly, their faces ghost-white as they entertained some version of the same terrible thought: That could have been me.
Luke Tema, then 13, didn’t witness the accident, but hearing about it prompted a conversation with fellow groms Nalu Deodato and Rivan Rock Rosskopf. They all knew Hayden well, and all frequented the same iconic surf break.
Luke bought a helmet that night.
His father, Eric Tema, wondered if it was necessary. “I was somewhat ambivalent about it, because, you know, I surfed a lot of Pipeline growing up too and never used one,” he said.
Like many surfers, he questioned the efficacy of the helmets. Could they scoop up water during a wipeout, potentially causing whiplash? Could a helmet compromise a surfer’s overall sense of balance?
There’s also potential for a false sense of security that could lead some surfers to take risks beyond their skill level. Wearing a helmet “gives you more confidence,” Hayden says, “but you still have to make sure that you’re not going on bad waves.”
But increasingly, it’s not just the groms who are taking precautions. Elite adult surfers are, too. Among them is Chapman, who hit his head on the reef in 2017 and had no pulse for five minutes. The Pipeline expert now wears a helmet at the break.
Owen Wright, 31, of Australia, sustained a near-fatal brain injury while surfing Pipeline without a helmet in 2015. He won a prominent pro tour event in 2019 while wearing a white helmet, which he called a new precautionary measure.
The Pipeline crowd is already seeing the safety benefits of helmets. While surfing over the same slab of shallow reef at Pipeline on Feb. 14, Mikey O’Shaughnessy, known as “Redd,” plunged headfirst into the hard surface below. Even with a helmet strapped in place, O’Shaughnessy, 29, was knocked unconscious and spent several waves underwater before lifeguards and other surfers saved him. His helmet cracked on both sides at the temples, but he had no lasting injuries.
Pipeline, Chapman said, “can show you the most beautiful experience of your life, or it can take your life.”
Surfing is not the first extreme sport to distance itself from traditional bravado and embrace new safety measures. Twenty years ago, helmets were novel — maybe even seen as kooky — in the skiing and snowboarding community. Now unprotected heads are rarely seen on slopes in the United States.
Nor are helmets the only safety device gaining favor. At deeper, big-wave breaks such as Maui’s Jaws and Oahu’s Waimea Bay, surfers are increasingly wearing inflatable vests that help them surface quickly after a fall.
Today the Pipeline community is redefining what is and isn’t cool. And while peer pressure may have once discouraged the groms from wearing helmets, the reverse has become increasingly true. Hayden’s mother, Stacey Rodgers, recalled what happened when a helmetless young surfer paddled out to Pipeline in December. “He got kind of heckled,” she said.
Maybe not surprisingly, wearing a helmet at Pipeline is already shifting from a pragmatic choice to an opportunity to showcase style. Jake Maki, 16, used to be one of the few young surfers at Pipeline with a signature white helmet. Now, he estimates, there are five or six.
So Maki is on the hunt for a new one, drawing inspiration from a veteran surfer’s helmet that has been customized with orange and yellow flames.
“I just need to find a way to get more creative,” he said, “because I like to stand out a little, so people know I’m there and know who I am.”