Don't like surf-borne deafness? Meet the man who found the cure…
Two years ago, I was deaf. Cold water and wind blew out one ear, which was fine I supposed at the time, it’s why God gifted us a pair after all, but a few months later the other speaker was out.
My inquisitive children shrank from the man yelling at ‘em to repeat everything.
In conversations, I had to learn the art of lip-reading.
Phone interviews were out.
I felt like my pal Ido, the Deaf Jewish Big-Wave Stud, even though he’d told me of the myriad pleasures deafness brought.
“It can be a gift,” he said. “No distractions to your imagination, no need to pursue nirvana and mediation sessions, it’s built in. You don’t hear other people’s crap talk. It helps in work too, 100 per cent production. Not hearing crowds in the water cannot ruin your concentration or take away from the beauty of being at sea. And hearing music is incredible but, for me, it’s intuitive. You feel the vibe. And I do sleep good on stormy nights.”
Yeah, well, I didn’t dig.
The ear specialist didn’t give drill me (in either sense). He used a needle to clear the debris and whatever else. Both ears. The pain was so acute I could either laugh hysterically or cry.
My kids were there. I laughed and wept.
The hiss of the wind came back. The world presented itself to me again.
The doctor told me to wear ear plugs.
I did and they worked. But I didn’t dig the being-deaf-in-the-water thing. I like a conversation here and there.
Tom Carroll suggested I try Surf Ears, whom he was sponsored by.
And, just like that, I could hear, I could surf, and deafness was put to the sword.
God bless little Thomas etc.
A few nights back, I called the surfer who invented ’em, Christian Dittrich. He’s a mechanical engineer who’s been swimming, surfing and kiteboarding in Sweden’s cold water since he was a kid.
As a junior swimmer, he says he had “horrible” pain in his ears. The remedy, back then, was to shove waxed cotton into his head. He remembers missing the start to a swim race ’cause he couldn’t hear.
By the time he was thirty, Christian is forty-two now, he was “having a lot of problems.” If he went on a surf trip he was guaranteed ear infections. So he used soft silicone wax which you ball up and stick into your ears.
“The thing was,” he tells me. “It ruined the whole experience. I couldn’t hear a thing. I was surfing with my girlfriend at the time and I couldn’t hear and she’d get annoyed with me. Then I was in Morocco in 2011 and I had a really bad ear infection and the right ear closed completely. It was painful and a little bit scary. And that’s when I started thinking, what can I do about this?”
Dittrich is an engineer. He’d worked at Nokia developing acoustic components for mobile phones, speakers, microphones, as well as working out ways for those components to be protected.
So he started prototyping a new kind of ear plug with different sorts of membranes, one that would protect ears but let in sound.
“It was a revelation,” he says. “You could have an ear plug that lets you hear perfectly and all we had to do was solve the rest, the sealing, the fit and so on.”
For three years Dittrich and his pals, all of whom had ear issues from surfing in the Baltic Sea, tested the plugs.
In 2014, they ran a Kickstarter campaign. It raised 30k. Enough to pay for investment in production.
And enough to spike interest from the Western Australian accessories company, Creatures of Leisure. They contacted him, said they liked his design and that they wanted global distribution rights.
Five years on, the familiar orange plugs are as ubiquitous as Slater Design boards.
Recently, the company loosed an updated model, the whole geometry reduced in size. Narrower. A more flexible silicon seal. Fits more ears.
If you want to sterilise ’em, you chuck ’em back into the case and drop the package into boiling water.
Dittrich says they get a lot of feedback about the plugs. Water-borne deafness is a worldwide curse. A recent call on Facebook drew 700 submissions.
It’s a helluva design, and about as sexy as you can get for such a functional item. (A design agency partnered with Surf Ears to make ’em look good.)
Dittrich, meanwhile, has built a fine little biz. Works with five pals in Malmö and an hour east they got a sweet little Baltic Sea harbour point called Kaserga to thrash around on.
It is, I think, a success story in the classic way of surf co’s like Rip Curl or Billabong, building surf specific gear to fix a surf specific problem.
(Clearly, I got mine for free. Still, I did chase ’em and would’ve paid, begrudgingly, of course.)