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How to Face Your Fears in Bigger Waves

With all of the heavy-water antics that the best in the world are doing these days, and the non-stop media coverage documenting every monumental ride, it is easy to become desensitized to big wave surfing. These days it can often seem like if you aren’t charging 50-foot Peahi, then you aren’t charging at all. But the reality is that we all surf at different levels, and that big waves and the fear that comes with them are largely relative. While it might take a massive Mavs bomb to get Aaron Gold’s blood pumping, for the beginner surfer who has only been at it for a few months, a head-high wave can feel huge. Part of the appeal of surfing is the experience of immersing ourselves in something that is so much bigger than we are, and part of that experience is the thrill that comes with leveling up and pushing our boundaries.

No matter what level you surf at or what “big” waves mean to you, it is possible to up your game by becoming more adept at facing your big wave fears. Here are a few tips for becoming more comfortable in heavy water.

  1. Admit that you are afraid: While there are a few lunatics out there who simply aren’t scared, most of the best big wave surfers acknowledge that not only do they get afraid sometimes, but that’s actually a good thing. When we aren’t afraid, it usually means that we are unaware of the potential consequences of our actions. If this is the case, we are liable to push too hard and get hurt (or worse). Besides, fear is what gives us that little shot of adrenaline when we surf bigger waves than we are comfortable with, or ace a sketchy drop. If you have a desire to surf bigger waves, that means you enjoy being scare—at least a little bit. Embrace that fear and you will be able to make it work for you, rather than against you.
  2. Think logically about your fear: What is it about the waves you are surfing that scare you? Is your fear rational, or is it an emotional reaction to the power of the ocean? If you are surfing over dry reef, then you probably have a logical reason to be afraid. But if you are at a deep-water spot and it isn’t downright enormous, you are more than likely reacting to the perceived thread of being out of your comfort zone, rather than an actual danger. Evaluate your fear, and decide if it is one that is warranted or not. If there is real danger, then maybe this is a far you don’t want to move past. If the danger is more in your head than in reality, then it’s time to start chipping away at it and getting more comfortable.
  3. Know your ability: Another part of facing your fears in the ocean is being aware of your physical abilities. It is one thing to push yourself to go bigger when you have the skillset to do so, but it is something else entirely to try to charge when you are lacking basic surf ability. The former is a great way to progress, but the latter is a great way to get injured. As you become a better surfer, you will be able to paddle faster, read the ocean better, and take steeper, later drops. Allow your ability to dictate how far you are willing to push the envelope. But at the same time, don’t undersell yourself. Look around at people who surf at your level, and observe the size of waves they are surfing. If they can do it, so can you.
  4. Count while you are underwater: Perhaps the biggest driver of panic when surfing is the fear of drowning. Being held underwater can be very unnerving, but the reality is that very few hold downs last longer than 10 to 15 seconds. It is very rare for a beating to last more than 20 seconds unless it is a two-wave hold down, and those only tend to happen when the waves are in the legit XL+ range (25+ feet on the face)—and even then they are very rare. Next time you wipeout on a big wave, count slowly underwater and see how far you actually get. Once you begin to realize that your hold downs are never lasting more than 10 to 20 seconds, you will be much more confident surfing larger waves.
  5. Increase your lung capacity and comfort with apnea: A few months ago, Hawaiian South Shore writer and resident big wave surfer Matt Rott was lifeguarding on Namotu Island in Fiji. Most of the guests were middle-aged surfers who were there to surf waist- to chest-high Namotu Lefts, rather than big, bombing Cloudbreak. In other words, these weren’t people who spend a lot of time preparing for big waves and doing apnea work. When Matt sat the entire camp down for an O2 table session, no one expected to make it longer than 30 or 45 seconds. But half an hour later, every guest at the camp had held their breath over three minutes, with one guest making it to 3:45. Matt’s personal best is six minutes, and he doesn’t think he has come close to his max yet. The moral of the story? We can all hold our breaths much longer than we think—and once we know that, we can approach large waves with more confidence.
  6. Train: Surfers never used to train, but these days if you are serious about big waves and you don’t do yoga, cardio, and other cross-training, then you are fooling yourself. But big wave guys aren’t the only people who can benefit from training. Remember, “big” is a relative term. Even if you are only looking to progress from head-high waves to double-overhead, having great cardio fitness will give you the ability and confidence to do so. It doesn’t matter if your training involves gym workouts, paddle sessions, pool workouts, running, mountain biking, Pilates, CrossFit, rock climbing, yoga, or any other type of physical workout—what matters is that you are improving your fitness so you can survive and thrive in frightening conditions.

Have the right equipment: As we mentioned earlier, fear in heavy can often be an emotional reaction that is blown a bit out of proportion—but there are also situations that really do pose a threat to your safety, and are frightening for justifiable reasons. If you are surfing huge outer reefs or super shallow slabs, there are a number of tools you can use to help to ensure your safety (and thereby lessen the fear factor). Helmets are a great idea in shallow barrels, while floatation vests, the appropriate boards and leashes, and even a safety team on a ski can help keep you safer in XL+ wave. Even smaller “big” waves are less frightening when you know you have the right equipment (for instance, you wouldn’t want to paddle out on a traditional noserider with a comp leash the first time you ever face down double-overhead barrels). Whether you are surfing four-footers or 40-footers, make sure you have the right gear! The team here at Hawaiian South Shore can help point you in the right direction, and set you up with the perfect kit depending on your surfing ability and big wave experience, and how far you are looking to progress.