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Interview with Better Surf Marketplace Founder Dr Jon Cohen

Better Surf Marketplace was launched in 2018 to help get innovative products into the hands of the surfers and ocean users that need them most. Far from a typical surf store, the featured products are all geared towards making the ocean a more enjoyable and safer place for surfers and ocean lovers.

Dr. Jon Cohen founded Better Surf Marketplace, with the assistance and advice from Dr Phillip Chapman.

The early years.

I was born in a super-flat industrial area of Canada on the border with Detroit City. Lots of rivers and lakes, but thousands of km from the ocean. Surfing was always my favourite part of “California Games”. I loved those carving 360s.

Introduction to surfing.

I did a month long elective course in Hawaii on Medical Ethnobotany in 2003 – the course was all about how native people have used plants as medicines over the millennia. Went straight to Waikiki from the airport, threw my backpack in a locker and hired what looked like a standard surfboard to me. Looking back, it was probably a 9’6, wooden log. I went paddling for the horizon where I thought I saw some people getting waves (it was dead flat near shore). With absolutely no concept of ocean distances, when I was maybe 200m from the beach I’d started out from, this deep sea turtle popped its head up a few meters from me. It stared straight at me, looked one way, then the other, and then disappeared, seemingly oblivious to the impact he’d had on me. As I made my way back to shore, checking out the lush green Hawaiian backdrop, bloody and half shaved off nipples and all, I was hooked before I even got a wave.

Jon Cohen-Gillas left

Studies.

I did a combo of Biology, Anthropology and Pharmacology at McGill University in Montreal with the hopes of developing medical treatments from traditional medicines in conjunction with native populations in the Amazon.  I was totally shit at botany, and realised I’d probably be more useful getting a medical degree and joining a team to do the research / projects somewhere down the track. After a year surfing in Europe (SW France and Canaries), I started studying medicine at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

The surfing world.

I’ve been surfing for about 15 years now. I feel that surfing does so much for me that I try and just love whichever wave I’ve got access to. The more different waves I surf, the more I miss ones I’ve loved in the past, but it still really comes down to just feeling lucky to get what I can get, when I can get it.

I love pitchy beachies the most – 3-5 foot, lefts and rights, shifting peaks up and down the beach. Always thins the crowd, everyone’s getting waves, flirting with barrels, getting smashed, and smiling like hell. Places like South Straddie, Anglet (France), Oaxaca (Mexico) and a lesser known 4wd access only spot up the coast in WA are probably the best beachies I’ve ever been lucky enough to paddle into.

I love the thrill of heavier waves, but not too heavy for mortals like myself. We get these waves up and down the coast in WA, and the long peelers we get on the East Coast. Everywhere from Noosa down to Crescent Head gets insane on its day.

I’m usually riding a 5’5 Vampirate quad funboard, a 5’9 swallow tail performance shorty, or a 6’1 Ghost as my step up. Needed my 7’0 Luke Studer in G-Land this year, and wished that 7’0 was an 8’6 or so in Jan when I had a free week to just hang and surf in Margs.

Jon Cohen-GLand

The traveling world.

I’m pretty much always on the go – my work as an emergency doctor keeps me on the move. I usually just take half time gigs as my main job, lump all the shifts together and then fill in at other hospitals in coastal towns around the traps. That plus getting back to Canada to visit my family, plus pretty frequent surf trips means I’m at “home” way less than I’m on the road.

While I love getting away and just parking at an amazing wave like G-Land, Nias or Puerto, I’m a huge fan of road trips, whether starting from home or starting from an overseas airport. North coast NSW, and south of Lima, Peru are probably my 2 favourite places to load up the car and go adventuring.

What is Better Surf Marketplace (BSM)?

I was living in the Southwest of WA for a couple of years. There are amazing waves all around there, really isolated spots where so frequently you get to live that dream of pulling up, having a look and seeing perfect, hollow waves in that head high to double overhead range – with next to no-one out. At first I was stoked, but then when I realised just how many of the spots I was surfing had seen fatal attacks in the past 10 years, or even just big shark sightings in the past few weeks or whatever, it started to play on my mind a bit.

There was this one day I remember clearly, running up to Inji point – a left-hand point that can wall up and offer fun rides for a couple of hundred meters on its day. It’s about a 15-min jog up the beach to get there from the car-park, and on the path there was this fit, middle aged surfer still dripping wet, standing there in the stiff offshore, looking super frustrated as he watched a perfect 5 foot set roll through unridden. I asked him “haya gon”, and he almost sheepishly admitted that he’d gotten a bit spooked by something he’d seen in the water. It’s a pretty sharky feeling spot, and generally breaks on pretty sharky feeling days. I was absolutely frothing that day so took my chances, hoping that someone fatter and tastier looking would paddle out and reduce my chances of becoming dinner, but it was far from a relaxing surf.

I was chilling in the Jacuzzi after the surf; full belly, unwinding and having a beer and the idea of a tourniquet you could use in the water came into my head. I had a basic design concept come to me pretty much straight away, and then sharks, hemorrhagic shock and tourniquets became a bit of an obsession for me over the next few months. Knowing fuck all about business, but having some savings to burn through, I cut down my doctoring hours, started researching existing products, business and design basics, and decided to have a go at getting my design patented and manufactured for people like me, WA crew that I know and care about, and old mate on the path that day.

By chatting with people about the project over the coming months, it became clear that there was a bit of a niche open for providing medical education to surfers / travellers. I’ve been with the Surfing Doctors for a couple of years now, but we’ve kinda been focused on up skilling medical professionals that surf, more than teaching your average punter about tips and tricks they can use to enjoy their surf trip more safely.

Jon Cohen-Mamas right

The BSM product line

The idea that started me on this path was “The SET” – The Surfer’s Emergency Tourniquet. I wanted to have a model that was in the $50 range so basically everyone could have the power to save their own life, or the life of someone they’re surfing with. I’ve also come up with a second design that’ll cost a bit more but might suit some people better. Now that we’ve got the patents filed, we’re focused on getting some working prototypes built, and doing small runs that me, some mates from Surfing Doctors and other surfing buds are going to try out and refine a couple of times. The three main things they each need to do to be better than anything else on the market is be unobtrusive, easy and quick to deploy, and be 100% reliable.

Because this has taken longer than I was hoping (who knew – inventing stuff and getting it manufactured takes longer than a couple months!), I wanted to make the best existing products available to surfers who want to be able to save a life in the case of shark attack.

These are the https://bettersurf.com.au/shop/tourniquets/swat-t/“>SWAT – a CE marked American military tourniquet that you can tuck into the chest zip of your wettie or a pocket of your boardies without pissing you off. It’s super easy to use and really cheap.

The other is a clever product by Omna. A surfing ex-military guy from the US invented it. It is an industry standard quality https://bettersurf.com.au/shop/tourniquets/legrope-tourniquet-omna-6/“>leg-rope that incorporates a fully functional tourniquet into the cuff part. As a surfer who travels around getting waves a fair bit, he’s got a great story about the day he came up with the invention, as I’m sure you’d imagine.

I’m currently working on getting a line of ultra high quality https://bettersurf.com.au/shop/first-aid-kits/remote-surf-travel-first-aid-kit/“>First Aid Kits designed for surfers, adventure sport travellers and people who go super remote in 4-wheel drives. We’ve got about 5 models that we’re really excited about. The main thing about these kits is that they’re stocked with products that are tried, tested and heavily curated by myself and a couple of other experienced emergency doctors. The second thing is that they’re coming in primo quality, custom designed bags that suit each of our intended users needs in terms of portability and extra storage sections.

We’re also selling https://bettersurf.com.au/shop/deterrents/shark-eyes-shark-deterrent/“>Shark Eyes – a cheap visual deterrent that could potentially decrease your chance of getting nipped by a shark. Deterrents are quite controversial, as it’s basically impossible to prove, or disprove, that they work. I chose Shark Eyes because they’re cheaper than other visual deterrents; way cheaper and simpler to install than electromagnetic deterrents, and rely on the highest level of scientific evidence that you can really hope for in a product like this – expert consensus. Shannon Worrell, a big wave charger, abalone diver and all around Waterman who’s grown up in the shark-rich waters of southwest WA invented them.

Better Surf Marketplace is really an evolving concept. It started as a place from which I could get these potentially life-saving products out to people as quickly and cheaply as possible. 

I really wanted to make education a big component of the project, and so when it came time to talk to someone with an Instagram and Facebook account and see what happens in the world of social media, we went through a couple of the old names I’d brainstormed and passed on when Better Surf Marketplace was born!

I really just want this to be a way of getting reliable medical information that’s pertinent to surfers and adventure sport enthusiasts in an easily digestible, approachable and maybe even entertaining way. I want to help non-medical professionals access the types of things that myself, my nurse, paramedic and doctor buds bring with us when we go on overseas surf trips or 4WD strike missions up the beach, far from cell service let alone medical backup.

Down the track, I’d love to collaborate a bit more closely with Dr Phil Chapman, a good friend, awesome Emergency Doctor and founder of Surfing Doctors, on trying to formalise an education program for medics at surf camps, and maybe even start some sort of an accreditation system for surf camps to increase the level of medical competence surf travellers can expect when they fork out big bucks on their week in paradise.

When it comes to your average surfer’s travel mistakes, I think it’s just really hard to contain the froth. Whether it’s in the water, in the bush, or in town after the lights go down and the bass gets turned up – if you’ve only got a few weeks or months living the dream, and you want to just leave it all on the field. I mean, in some ways these are the moments that make the rest of life worth living. I guess just knowing your limits, whether it be in the water, hiking, on the piss, in ‘da club – just knowing that missing out on the next week of waves (or worse!) for that reo in the shallows, unmakeable barrel, waterfall jump or last line of festivities might not be worth it.

I think the main thing when it comes to surf trip advice comes down to planning and controlling the froth. Medical problems on a surf trip can be broken down into these main categories:

  1. Pre-existing conditions – if you’re a diabetic, on blood thinners, have a dodgy knee – anything that could pose a problem to you while away from access to medicine and medical advice, just make sure you’ve got enough of your meds, supplies, etc., and importantly insurance and a medical summary for your treating docs in hospital in case things go really pear-shaped.

  2. Local diseases you’ll be exposed to – Vaccines for Hep A / Typhoid, Yellow Fever, preventive meds and supplies for things like Malaria, Dengue, HIV (yes, condoms). Hopefully we will be able to provide some general advice in upcoming vids / posts, but really this is where seeing a GP in a good travel clinic before you go is really worthwhile. Know before you go.

  3. Surf Carnage – a basic kit to sort out all of the common things like reef rash, urchin spines, fin chops, tweaked ankles and shoulders. If you’ve got a medical background it can be comforting to have a more comprehensive kit to deal with shit that properly hits the fan. Things like a tourniquet, knowing how to improvise a pelvic binder, or having some basic airway tools can be the difference between a mate’s life and death.

  4. Para-surf carnage – sunburn, dehydration, next level alcohol or polysubstance intoxication, jock rot, gastro, or even a common flu – all of these can seriously fuck up you and your mates time in a remote setting.

If you can think about what you might need in those 4 broad categories, you should have most bases covered.

Sometimes shit goes down.

When there’s a medical emergency, distance is a very relative concept. We’re lucky in the Southwest of WA to have a couple of really good hospitals at Margs and in Busselton. The thing is, despite being pretty close to medical backup, neither hospital is capable of dealing with a lot of the really heavy stuff that you’re going to experience in the surf. At the end of the day, when we’re in remote areas doing potentially dangerous things, we need to be able to provide the first aid that’s going to give us enough time to make it to a big hospital where most of the life-saving operations and procedures like massive transfusion can take place.

I’ve been in the ED a few times waiting for the ambulance to bring in really sick people they’ve called ahead for, only to have them die en route. These deaths aren’t always preventable, but in those situations every link in the “chain of survival” is more important than the one that follows.
Jon Cohen-Gillas right

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