Surfing has the humblest of beginnings. None of the ancient Polynesians who rode wooden boards could’ve envisioned that through the years their favourite past time could morph into what it is today. Corporate sponsorships, overcrowded waves on strategic two-week boat trips, and an obsession with progression are now the norm. But that’s just one side of the wax covered coin. The essence of surfing has not been lost, and it never will be. Just like those pioneering Polynesians, having a highly personal relationship with something so voluminous as the ocean keeps surfers surfing, and fishermen fishing too. No amount of corporate involvement could ever change the culture at its core. Big wave surfing is an evolution of both the sport and the person riding and catching those waves. Endorphin induced chest beating is as natural as a bottom turn to some big wave chargers. For others, it’s an internal discourse that can spark a lifetime obsession pushing the limits of self. Somewhere within this spectrum, you will find those that paddle out and ride waves of deathly consequence. Big wave surfing is as extreme as it gets. Innumerable people have paid the ultimate cost pushing the boundaries of what is rideable.
Too many in fact. Today’s crop of Chargers know the genuine risk facing them every session. And while the power of the ocean is inconceivably greater than any human body, we’ve devised intelligent ways to minimise the risk as much as possible. 4Here are the foundations needed to survive in heavy water situations.
Depending on the session, big wave surfers are either using a traditional surfboard in the 9-12 foot range called guns. Or if the waves are deemed too big to paddle into the surfers use a tow board, which is much heavier and likely to be around the 5 6” to 6 feet range. A relatively recent addition to the arsenal of big wave riders is the inflatable vest. Still, in its development stages, the vests have only recently hit ocean situations. They contain carbon-dioxide cartridges that inflate the vest at the pull of a chord. Leashes are getting thicker and lighter every year and now come with a release system that frees the board from the surfer to prevent boards from ‘tombstoning’. The Jet Ski or PWC is arguably the most important element to a secure session in dangerous waves. Doubled up as both a wave catching tool when surfers are towed in behind them and also as a quick way to get to surfers if they get demolished when riding a wave. Big wave chargers will often have lifeguards on the back of the ski and even possibly a filmer. The operator and grabber work as a team with a rescue sled attached to the back. This is used as a way for rescued surfers to get out of the impact zone as quickly as possible by just grabbing onto the sled instead of trying to get onto the back of the ski. When it comes to safety the equipment needed is extremely pricey. But what price can you put on someone’s life? Getting security down to a fine art has meant that people have had to pay the ultimate price. It’s this risk/cost factor that’s left so many families distraught but also left so many big wave surfers with the option of charging full time and watching the progression of the sport surpass anything imaginable.
TRAINING (MIND AND BODY)
This is where preparation of the body meets stillness of the mind. Imagine being flung 50 feet into the air off the lip of an incredibly fast moving and powerful wave. Then skimming down the face of the wave until being pummelled again by the wave’s thick lip. The impact pushes all of the air out of your lungs. Your body contorts and gets pulled in every direction by the underwater currents. That’s when having a good tow partner on a fast ski proves lifesaving. Hopefully, they’ll get to you and pick you up before the next set of 3-4 50ft waves rolls onto the reef pass. If not, you could be facing upwards of a couple of minutes under pitch- black water. So what do you do? Panic? It’s only natural to be fearful. But if you panic, you’ll probably drown. Every big wave surfer has his or her views on what makes you surfing fit, and it usually involves a lot more surfing than training. But for waves of this size, being so infrequent and hard to track down, other activities outside of the water are crucial. Twiggy believes ‘the stronger you are physically, the better prepared you are mentally to tackle bigger waves.’ For that reason, he tries to stay in the best possible shape at all times through the use of Stand up paddleboarding, kiteboarding, swimming, spearfishing and most importantly surfing in big waves whenever he can. Mental toughness is just as crucial to survival in heavy-water situations. Kelly Slater fasts for several days at a time. Some surfers use Yoga and meditation to get into the zone.
RESCUE TECHNIQUES AND AWARENESS
There’s been a concerted push towards shared knowledge amongst the big wave surfing community. The thinking behind it is that everyone who is in the ocean when the waves are big should be trained in ways to prevent loss of life. It goes beyond simple ocean knowledge, like being able to identify hidden water movement, reading tide and swell direction, and being able to spot a rip. This culminated in 2012 with the first organised meeting to discuss emergency reaction situations. The North Shore-based Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG) has been running the annual event every year since. Training includes CPR, first aid training, spine protection skills, jet ski training and emergency rescue breathing. These are now the industry standard for anyone who wants to tackle big waves. It’s all about promoting awareness and responsibility in the water.