If you are from Hawaii, then you know that winter means big waves on the North Shore. Pacific winter season, with the most notorious stretch of heavy-water coastline right in our backyard.
Let's talk about wipeouts and hold-downs, and how to survive them. How you survive during a bad hold-down has a lot to do with what wave you are surfing. If you are somewhere heavy and shallow, that breaks over reef (like Pipeline, for instance), you probably don’t have a lot of control. At best, you should try to maintain spatial awareness so you know if and when you are close to the bottom. Depending on the situation, you may want to use small strokes of your hands to help keep you off the reef, rather than kicking up from the bottom and possibly dinging your feet on the coral.
If you feel that you are upside down, try to protect your head—the last thing you want is a concussion. And don’t be afraid to open your eyes underwater so you know what is going on around you. The good news with shallow reef breaks is that you aren’t likely to get held down too long, so barring a head injury that knocks you out, you aren’t likely to drown. At deep-water big wave spots, however, the opposite is true.
While you are unlikely to hit bottom, you could spend a long time in a very deep, dark place (depending how big of a wave you wiped out on). When you go down on a big one, the best thing to do is relax. Rather than burning your energy and oxygen tensing your muscles and fighting against the beat down, simply go with the flow and let the ocean take you where it wants to. Chances are, it’s going to take you anyway. Some people find that its helpful to count seconds while under water to remind yourself that you haven’t been down for as long as it feels. Others count things like somersaults that they are forced to do by the whitewater, or relax and go into a Zen state.
In general, the thing you are trying to avoid is panicking, as that is usually what will end up killing you. Unless you suffer a two-wave hold down, you are very unlikely to be down for more than 20 seconds, so just cruise and enjoy the ride, and have faith that the ocean is going to let you up eventually. If you do find that you have been down too long and need to get to the surface, make sure you know which way is up.
People have been lost because they got disoriented and swam down rather than up (especially during situations that involved ruptured eardrums). If your leash is still attached to your leg, that should give you a pretty good idea of where the surface is, since your board will be tombstoning on the surface above you. You might also want to invest in a floatation vest or impact suit, as this can mean the difference between making it back to the surface or not, especially in waves of consequence.
Most importantly, make sure that you only paddle out in waves that you know you can handle. Freak accidents can happen in any conditions, but more often than not, when people get in trouble in the water, it’s because they are out in conditions they aren’t prepared for. Be safe and have fun!
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