Eye injuries prompt debate on design of surfboards
"We're going to have to scoop your eye out" … Andrew Mainsbridge remembers the doctor's words after he was thrown off a wave and struck by the nose of his surfboard. Photo: Janie Barrett
THIRTY years ago, Andrew Mainsbridge was out in big surf at Newport beach when he was thrown off the lip of a wave. His leg rope snapped the tip of the board back towards him - and then, darkness.
He remembers vividly the specialist's choice of words: "We're going to have to scoop your eye out". He no longer surfs.
Raf Ghabrial, an ophthalmic surgeon at the Sydney Eye Hospital and longtime surfer, said: ''Every surfer knows someone who's had a severe eye injury. If you ask any eye doctor, they've all dealt with surfing eye injuries.''
Dr Ghabrial and researchers at Sydney University's Save Sight Institute are about to conclude a study that attempts to quantify the number of NSW surfers who injure their eyes every year. The study, which concludes today, found seven cases in the past year.
The surfers were between nine and 44 years old; their injuries ranged from torn tear ducts to fractured sockets and lost eyes.
''We're pretty confident there are many more out there,'' Dr Ghabrial said. ''We think there are a lot of people who didn't report their injuries.'' The researchers are now asking surfers who have had eye injuries to contact them.
George Greenough, a surfing filmmaker and surfboard inventor from Byron Bay, has campaigned to take the sharp edges off surfboards to reduce the risk of a penetrating injury.
''Cars look great with [big] hood ornaments but they went out of fashion because they started hurting people,'' he said. ''How long before we do the same with surfboards?'' He argues flat noses should become an Australian safety standard and advises surfers to saw the tops off their boards, creating a flat edge bigger than an eye socket, and overlay them with fibreglass.
But tinkering with surfboard design provokes strong reactions. Ron Wade, who began shaping surfboards in Mona Vale nearly 50 years ago, says the number of surfing injuries do not merit changes to board design. He believes surfers should be responsible for the risks they take.
''Do we need to use rubber golf balls because you might get hit?'' he said. ''People on the golf course have been killed.''
Mr Wade argues that flattening a board's nose increases its surface area and makes aerial tricks more difficult.
Mr Greenough, who is credited with developing the modern surfboard fin and ''shortboard'' in the early 1960s, says sharp noses are prized only for their dangerous aesthetic and are clumsy in the water.
''Surf corporates encourage [pointy noses] because they hold contests based on a subjective judgment: how cool you look,'' he said.
Dr Ghabrial said it would be difficult to make a case for changing the way boards are designed until further study is done.
Mr Greenough does not believe the government can lead reform either: ''The only way it's going to change is if someone gets their arse sued.''
If you've had an eye injury sustained through surfing, email firstname.lastname@example.org. edu.au