Photo: Gods Left, 2019. © Jason Childs
My history with surf helmets began in the mid-90s while living in Santa Cruz, CA, surfing seven days a week and doing everything I could to manifest my pro career. It must have been around 1995 when I met Danny Cortazzo, Gath’s sole distributor. Danny came into the Seabright Surf Shop where I worked and asked if I’d be interested in wearing a helmet. I jumped on that free helmet.
A year earlier, I started to have ear problems from the cold wind and water, a condition commonly known as Surfer’s Ear. After meeting with the ear master, Doc Scott, he said I had 60% closure in my right ear—which was very common among Californian surfers. So when Danny handed me that helmet, I wore it every day, hoping it would help my issue.
Wearing a helmet day in and day out gave me confidence, saved my head several times, prevented numerous perforated ear drum shots and also kept me warm. If you’ve ever surfed The Lane in December at 8-foot with east wind blowing 15–20mph, air temp 40 degrees plus windchill…it’s freaking freezing! That first helmet eventually fell apart but left a lasting impression and, as it turns out, became a prelude to my future endeavors.
Photo: Steamer Lane, CA. 1992. © R.J. Dobbs
Around that time, I launched my travel coaching career and was suddenly taking novice surfers to remote, shallow reef passes in Fiji. I made them all order helmets. They listened, wore them, and I am certain we warded off some injuries and possible mishaps. Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it!
Fast forward to 2016 and I was living back in Southern California with my wife and our 5-year-old daughter. The surf conditions are much more temperate here than in Santa Cruz, but I was missing the security and warmth of my helmet, even in warmer water. I had a vision, a seed was sprouting in my head to design, make and promote helmets and safer surfing practices.
After my wife came home one day with six stitches from her lip down her chin, she asked me if a helmet might have protected her before a surfboard cracked her in the face, almost knocking out a front tooth. We started talking about surf helmets again and questioned why they were no longer seen in local surf shops, the lineups or the media.
I researched the heck out of historical helmets and became very interested in early designs—such as those made by the Assyrians in 900 B.C. and 17th-century Mycenaean Greeks. Then I remembered the old 80s Surfer Magazine cover with a gladiator surf painting, complete with packed grandstand in the background, surfer clad in full futuristic battle gear, bloody sword, and a dude duck-diving for his life. CLICK! My brain said let’s try to reinvent the surf helmet by using those early helmets as inspiration.
So I cut a helmet shape from a red rubber schoolyard ball, put it on and showed my wife, Nancy. After a little screaming, she said, “Oh my gosh, that looks cool!” She then went searching for a passionate product designer and was introduced by a good friend to Gamal. We met him in LA and kicked off the design process. After a few draft designs, I showed the work to a good friend and he decided to come onboard and back our dream.
We slowly built a team and got a test helmet made. For the next two summers in Nihiwatu, Indonesia, some friends and I tested the helmet in various sizes and conditions at the main break—a hairy shallow, top-to-bottom tubing wave. I even tried it without a chin strap to see just how well it would stay on my head. Dropping into a triple-overhead barrel at Nihiwatu is daunting, at best. It’s unpredictable, fast, strong, and needs total commitment to make it. The helmet endured every test God’s Left threw at us.
Photo: God’s Left, 2017. © Nancy Opitz Simms
During this R&D phase, as fate would have it, I reconnected with Danny Cortazzo. He jumped onboard, too, helping us further refine the design. I knew we’d hit it on the head when I felt comfortable with the final prototype in 8-foot solid surf. And now, after more design fine-tuning and test sessions by surfers around the world, I’m beyond stoked to unveil SIMBA SURF Sentinel 1 helmet.