Meet Cape Fear's Head Of Water Safety, Aaron Graham

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posted by James Willmott

“It’s on, the surfers want to surf…” The last call over the radio before Red Bull’s Cape Fear event officially kicked into full gear a few days ago. With 8-10 foot waves pounding the slabbing right hander at Cape Solander, the world watched on in preparation for the privileged invitee’s to throw themselves into some of the heaviest waves ever ridden in the world of competitive surfing.

Spanning over two days, the event allowed us to see waves ridden that many would thought may not have been able to, and though there was plenty to yell and scream about as the surfers got spat out into the channel or got collected by the heaviest lips we’ve seen, it’s the guys behind the scenes that are often to unsung, forgotten heroes of events like these.

Here’s where the team at Pro Guarding come into play, aka the official Water Safety Patrol for Red Bull’s Cape Fear. With surfers risking life and limb on every wave, these are the guys assuring comprehensive safety plans and techniques are set in stone exactly as they should be, with extensive training just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to preparation and efficiency. After all, a wave of such consequence deserves the best in the game, whether it be for surfing or safety, and that’s what Red Bull delivered.

To hear more, we caught up with Head of Water Safety, Aaron Graham.

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Thanks for chatting Az, I guess first and foremost, what was it like to be part of such an epic competition like Cape Fear?
Thanks for having me! It was terrifying to be honest, when we rocked up the first day I wasn’t expecting it to run, it was just so big and dangerous, and too much North in the swell. I couldn’t see what waves were even actually makeable. They had a vote amongst the surfers, and then I got the radio call while I was out on the jetski checking it out that just said “It’s on, the surfers want to surf…”, that’s when I was just like, “Boys, it’s going to run, we gotta give this one our best shot even in these sketchy conditions.”

What preparation goes into an event like that?
Our main skills are all learnt from the beach in general, though we did a heap of specific training leading up to it. This involved us throwing rescue mannequins out in the line up, they weigh about 40 kilo’s. We’d throw them into the impact zone and were seeing where they would end up. Then we would rescue it and even made up a few new rescue and pick up techniques along the way, particularly based around scenarios where people would be unconscious. We knew that we didn’t have enough time to get in there and do a normal rescue, so we had to utilize two jetski’s and literally drop a rescue swimmer off, who would then hold the patient up by putting him in a leglock and stay put while the second ski would come in on the next opportunity on the other ski and get both people to safety. You know, you’ve got backwash, rocks, shallow water and everything else, so it was a tricky one to pull off, definitely not your average type of rescue. A lot of planning and a lot of training.

Who’s the crew?
I’ve been a lifeguard for twenty years and all the guys that are in my team are lifeguards currently or ex lifeguards, so we’ve all got a tonne of experience. I wanted to use guys who already knew and were familiar with the break too. I had Deano Gladstone and Ryan Clarke on the team, they were our rescue swimmers, and they are definitely the right people for the job, both are fearless and unbelievable in the water, so I hand picked them for that particular role. My brother and I were on the ski’s. My brother has actually broken his neck out there a few years ago, so a lot of our training was based around how he saved himself from that wipeout, so a lot of techniques were based around that incident. Everything from the pick up plan, to getting the patients back on the boat was derived from that day. We actually had this pontoon style thing that we got made specifically for this event too, which essentially worked as a work platform so we could stabilize the patient as much as possible in case of any neck and spinal injuries.

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How did the mood change after Jugheads wipeout?
Yeah, as if it wasn’t eerie enough, that just made reality kick in of how gnarly the wave and event was. There were no high fives at all, everyone was just worried for all the surfers’ safety. Jug’s doing well though, but it was gnarly at the time. It’s funny now to talk about it, but about 10 minutes before the event started, Rick Rifici, who is a really good cinematographer, actually fell off the ski filming all the sets come through. All of a sudden a 12 footer came through and because he had a life jacket on and a floatable housing for his Red camera, it just picked him up and threw him onto the shelf. There was blood everywhere and the fear in his eyes was something I will never forget. I almost kind of panicked too, but had to keep my right frame of mind and try get in there as soon as possible to get him out of there. I actually fully submerged the ski and I remember thinking ‘I’m gone before the comp has event started!’. Somehow I popped out and Rick was right there (luckily), and he got on straight away. But yeah, that’s just one thing that not many people would even know because it wasn’t on the webcast.

What inspired your decision to switch from lifeguarding full time to having your own water patrol business, Pro Guarding?
It all started when our services were called upon from surfers and photographers. Since then, I’ve started doing a lot of things for Red Bull which has allowed me to go to a heap of unique and cool places. I also do a heap of other things like commercials and other aspects of the world of film too, which is always good and different. But yeah, when it comes down to it I love being a part of events like Cape Fear, very challenging and definitely experiences that I’ll never forget.