By now, some of you might have heard the tale of Nic Vaughan. If not, here’s the basic rundown: surfer dude from L.A. finishes college with a degree in finance, gets a job offer from a big financial company, signs said offer and goes for one last wahoo in Mexico before mounting the corporate pony. Then something happens. While driving through bus-sized caves in Puerto Escondido, he decides to rethink things. “Maybe life as an investment analyst is not for me,” he reckons, paddling back out to grab a few more. That, in a nutshell, is how he ended up a full-time big wave surfer.
At just 21, Nic made a pretty ballsy decision to bin the suit and tie for a 10’6 and a training program. You can say what you like about choosing to surf for a living instead of analyzing numbers being a no-brainer. Making a career out of riding big waves is not the same as posting Instagram shots of yourself throwing air reverses and telling people you’re, like, totally sponsored to be a lifestyle ambassador or whatever. You can’t fake your way onto the big wave scene. I mean, technically you could at first, but sooner or later people would smell your bullshit. Anyways, nobody is going to pay you to post selfies in the channel wearing a PFD.
But that’s where Nic has delivered a solid performance and showed himself to be serious about making this work. After his first official season on the program, he’s put in time at Jaws and racked up multiple Billabong XXL Award entries for his efforts, including two for Ride of the Year – a solid start by all accounts.
So where to from here?
This was your first official season as a pro. What was your biggest concern heading into the season, having not surfed big Pipe or Jaws before?
Yes, it was my first official season where I was 100% committed to doing this and only this. In years past, I had chased swells here and there, but I have never been able to make it my number one priority until now. I would say my biggest concern was that there is a serious difference between big Todos and big Jaws. And on any given swell, the guys are out at Jaws, so if you want to see where you are amongst the best, that’s where you need to be. So I think my biggest concern was, when it came down to it, whether or not I would be sitting as deep and whipping on the same waves as the best guys in the world or if I’d be over in the channel dodging the rogue west ones and scratching for Japan.
The whole notion of plotting out a career in big wave surfing seems impossibly difficult to start. Do you have a five year goal going into this, or is the nature of the beast a bit too erratic to be thinking that far down the line?
Looking forward, my number one goal is to make the Big Wave World Tour. There is so much momentum behind the sport of big wave surfing right now, and with drastic changes being made to the BWWT, I see big opportunity for the future and I am going to do my best to be a part of that. Along the way, I am focused on putting myself in the biggest waves I can find with a goal of winning a Billabong XXL award. You’re right, the nature of the beast is erratic, but just like with any goal setting, you have to define what it is you want, figure out what you need to do to get there, and if things change along the way, adapt.
Was this career path ever on your mind while you were in college?
I definitely dreamt of being among my heroes – Greg Long, Twiggy and Dorian – but it never seemed realistic until recently. I was going to school for finance and had my sights set on being successful in the business world, but as things started to evolve in recent years for the sport of big wave surfing, a career path began to look more doable.
How did you approach Jaws? I mean, for a rookie out there, you sure did a fine job of bagging a few good ones. As far as equipment and mental preparation goes, what did you do to get yourself ready?
I always knew that Jaws was the ultimate and that if you wanted to show you were the real deal, that’s where you had to do it. I watched the forecasts and pulled the trigger when it finally looked like the stars were aligning for a big, clean day out there. During my first session, I watched where the best guys were sitting and what waves they were going on and just did my best to emulate them. As far as equipment, at the start of the winter, I told Rusty of my desire to surf Jaws. He dialed me with the most gorgeous yet terrifying surfboard I’d ever seen. That magic 10’6” is what put me on every one of those memorable waves I caught this winter, so I have him to thank. For the mental side, I focus on making sure my fitness is where it needs to be, which in turn, gives me confidence in my ability to be out there and to withstand a good beating. I’ve learned that being prepared from a physical standpoint does wonders for your ability to be cool, calm, and collected in a heavy situation.
Did you take any serious beatings this season? How do you feel about the very serious risks you run in big waves?
I definitely took a few good spankings this winter, one of which at Jaws really stands out in my mind. On one of the empty days, I found myself out the back, all alone and saw the familiar dark and ominous mountain on the horizon marching towards me. I gauged the wall as it drew closer and put myself where I thought would be a good entry point. At the last second as I’m whipping, the wave jacks and ejects me off my board and out into the flats. I landed head first on my back and was greeted by the lip shortly afterwards. My inflatable deployed and after a good cycle through the wash, I surfaced to find the next wave of the set looming. I swam with all I had and tried to punch through the lip, but with my suit inflated, the wave grabbed me like a buoy and body slammed me. I came up pretty dazed and found that the inflatable bubble in my suit had popped and the compartment that held it had completely blown out. The ski grabbed me and, as I made it to the channel, was coughing blood and realized my board had hacked me square in the shin. That was a sobering one for me, but some very valuable lessons were learned. It reinforced my utmost respect for the power of the ocean and furthered the importance I put on being very calculated when it comes to those sessions. I still haven’t mentioned that little detail of the trip to my mother, so I hope she doesn’t stumble upon this.
What do the XXL nominations mean to you, both on a personal and professional level?
The XXL nominations are unbelievable. On a personal level, they have shown me that if you truly want something in life, you can go out there and achieve it. At the start of this winter, it was my goal and mindset to put myself where I needed to be to catch some of the biggest waves of my life, and now to have them recognized as Billabong XXL worthy is a dream come true. Really, they’ve given me the reinforcement to continue the pursuit of my passion of big wave surfing.
What’s been the biggest lesson/takeaway this season for you so far?
The biggest realization I had was that anyone, including myself, has the ability to achieve whatever it is they want in life. Rewind 12 months, and I thought the only path I could take in life was that of the business world. I wasn’t dreading it – investments and trading stock has been a huge part of my life from an early age – but I just felt like I was following the conventional path and wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do with my life. I am glad to have had the courage to throw caution to the wind and see it through, because I think regret would have haunted me later in life. I still have a very long way to go, but it’s about the journey, not the destination, right?
Looking further afield, do you have a bucket list of big waves to ride?
There are a number of waves I would love to have the opportunity to surf. I was lucky enough to share an empty session at Jaws with Twiggy and got to discuss the heaviness of Dungeons. Hearing about the intricacies of that wave from Mr. Dungeons himself definitely sparked my desire to give it a go if I ever have the chance to. Cortes Bank would be another wave that if the opportunity arose, I would love to be a part of a session there. A big paddle session at Cloudbreak like the one in 2012 would be amazing to be a part of. Also, although I’ve had the chance to surf Jaws sizeable, I hope I will be out there when its 30ft and guys are paddling. I think that will separate the boys from the men, and for my own personal boundaries, I’d like to see where I stand.