What do you do when your leash or board breaks on a big day? If you’re lucky the wipeout that put you in this situation will wash you straight to shore and the toughest task left is finding your board (or what’s left of it). If you’re not so lucky then you’re left swimming around in big surf with no board, no swim fins, and likely no jet ski to scoop you right up. So what next?
Big wave surfer and expert waterman Mark Healey says about 80 percent of these situations on the North Shore require lifeguard rescues because surfers aren’t willing to swim into the impact zone here. If that sounds odd that’s because it’s counterintuitive for most of us. You’ve lost your board. You’re swimming on your own with no floatation. Why would you swim into the impact zone here?
Intuition might (falsely) tell you to swim for calmer waters out the back or in the channel where waves aren’t breaking at all, then attempt to swim to shore from there. But as Healey explains in his Guide to Heavy Water on Inspire Courses+, that’s a losing proposition.
“All that water’s dumping into the channel,” he says, “and the channel is going back out to sea. You will never make it to shore if you’re swimming directly against that current and that channel. You will not win.”
Swimming into the impact zone, however, is the most efficient use of your and the ocean’s energy, where the force and direction of the breaking waves will push you straight to shore.
Healey admits this isn’t exactly a pleasant experience but it is the plan he sets before entering the water, even if he finds himself in this predicament at a place like Jaws.
“It’s never pleasant for me,” he explains. “Unless that thing’s breaking right on me — if it’s at the point where there’s just giant whitewater — I’m just barely ducking my head under the water.”
The intention here is to stay close to the surface and make sure as much of the wave’s energy is grabbing him and pushing him toward shore. As painful as it may be, a breaking wave does all the work to get back to shore for you.
Mark breaks down swimming in through the impact zone even further in his Guide to Heavy Water, including how to navigate specific safety hazards like rocks, cliffs, jetties, and crowded lineups.
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