Shawn Alladio pioneered big wave safety techniques


Words by Neil Pearlberg • Photos by David F. Pu’u


Shawn Alladio is a hero that few have heard of. A soft-spoken mother of two, her company K38 Water Safety
has been responsible for saving the lives of big wave surfing competitors for over 20 years. In that time she has developed and taught cutting-edge techniques for personal watercraft (PWC) rescue for both big wave and tow-in surfing.

All twenty-four surfers awaiting the 2013/2014 big wave surf contest at Mavericks acknowledge that if they get burned by some of the world’s meanest waves, K38 Water Safety may be the only hope they have. K38’s use of the rescue board attached to the stern section of the jetski has proven to be the standard of the industry in extricating victims in big, potentially deadly surf.

It was after the death of Mark Foo in December 1994 that Alladio was asked by the Pillar Point Harbormaster to develop a program for providing water safety at Mavericks.

“After training a few of the deputies, they convinced me over a period of several years to return and to meet with Mavericks pioneer and contest organizer Jeff Clark to address some safety concerns they had regarding surfer recovery.”

It was in 1998, prior to Quicksilver’s “Men Who Ride Mountains” surf contest at Mavericks, that the harbor department at Pillar Point made it a requirement in the permit process that Alladio become involved due to safety concerns at a highly publicized professional surfing event with the eyes of the world upon it.

She had just finished working the Big Wave World Team Championships at Todos Santos, and her courageous work there was noticed by more than a few.

“The success of the rescue work at Todos Santos, along with the support of the athletes, created the groundswell of opinion as to the viability of the PWC platform.

K38 Rescue trained surfers and tow-in surfers from around the globe for no charge up until about 2006. That’s when NOAA and other groups placed a block on Rescue Water Craft (RWC) training.

“I was no longer able to train out of Half Moon Bay and neither was anyone else, and rescue agencies had restrictions applied to them as well…basically it was a discriminatory opinion not based in science,” stated Alladio.


Photos by David F. Pu’u

Her company K38 has gone on to train the United States Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, and Border Patrol along with fire rescue, law enforcement, and disaster relief, most notably during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Closer to home, Alladio has studied every contributing factor that makes Mavericks a monster on the days it comes alive.

“When it’s firing, Mavericks’ personality is dependent upon many factors. Those include underwater terrain in relationship to the swell pattern, the degree of fetch from a favored north/northwesterly direction, the type of storm system that generates the wave energy, and a host of other variables including tide, winds, weather and time of the day.”

Alladio stresses that there really isn’t one way to describe the personality of Mavericks from a surfer’s perspective. The best story is told through a combination of historical analysis, scientific study, and the human drama that defines the magic of the place.

“Mavericks is a majestic wave, but it is fickle. Waves over 60 feet high will come in during peak conditions, but typically only a few solid hours of consistent swell comes through before it begins to wane or the winds change.”

Rescue and safety are words that define Alladio’s life, though she never discloses who she has rescued, acknowledging that her most important rescue will always be her next.

Photo: David F Pu'u

Photo: David F Pu’u


Photo: David F Pu'u

Photo: David F Pu’u

Photo: David F Pu'u

Photo: David F Pu’u

Photo: David F Pu'u

Photo: David F Pu’u