All I knew — lying face down on my bedroom floor in a pool of my own snot and tears — was that this was my bottom and everything had to change. I was sick, constantly feeling that nondescript “crappy” feeling. I was broke. I was going through a messy divorce. I was totally burnt out on my job. I had just gained 30 pounds in six months. The only thing getting me out of bed in the morning was the one hour per day I would get to spend longboarding at Sunset Cliffs, San Diego.
Then the test results came back. Positive. I carried a genetic mutation called BRCA1 putting me at 80% risk of getting breast cancer and 60% for ovarian. “No more,” I told myself. I wasn’t going to live a life I hated anymore.
I didn’t have a plan. I knew only one thing: I wanted to be happy and surfing made me happy. I loaded my boards and bikinis in my truck and set off on a solo road trip to drive the coast of Mainland Mexico. I had never surfed the area, didn’t speak Spanish, and never traveled internationally alone. But that didn’t matter. I wanted to feel alive.
And that right there was the first of six steps that took me from having never surfed anything bigger than about four feet to catching waves at Waimea, Puerto, and Sunset Beach over the course of the next year.
1. Want It
As an inexperienced surfer, I was taking a lot of beat downs. I was particularly frustrated when my car broke down in Puerto Escondido and I was forced to spend two weeks camped out on the beach waiting for repairs. Zicatela Beach was no place for a mellow longboard girl. Without transportation and without manageable waves, I felt more miserable than ever. I had just quit my life so I could surf but there was nothing I felt comfortable surfing.
One day while I was feeling sorry for myself a massive swell was hitting. I was watching from the beach when I saw a guy on a pink surfboard take off on a massive barreling wave. I took a few photos of the wave and then zoomed in on the LCD display.
“What!” I said it out loud. That surfer was Bianca Velenti. I looked back up at the surfers in the lineup, I looked back down at my camera. I looked up at the sky. Holy crap! Women can do that too!
I had been fooled into believing I was a small but all of the sudden, with that woman blasting through barriers, I saw the truth. My greatest fear in life was confirmed: I was powerful beyond what I had ever imagined. My head went wild. I was at once empowered and terrified.
Something inside me snapped. That moment will forever divide my life into before and after.
2. Commit Commit Commit
Deciding I wanted to surf big waves was one thing. Doing the work was something else. I watched and photographed Zicatela for three weeks before I entered the water. Then I bodysurfed it several times just to feel the power and get to know the wave. I made friends with the locals, I got advice about where to sit, where to paddle out, where to line up, what kind of board to ride. When I finally paddled out on a small day it took me almost an hour to catch two waves, one of which I fell on, one of which barreled and I felt like I had won the lottery just before I got smashed inside of it.
Despite the intense fear, I paddled out day after day. I paddled for waves like my life depended on catching them. And it did. I was miserable, fat, divorced, sick, broke and going to get cancer. I had to catch those waves. Many days I would sit too far out while I watched the waves break inside of me until the frustration of inaction outweighed the fear of what might happen if I failed.
3. Train Your Mind
I took a big wave survival course and learned to hold my breath for over four minutes. I became addicted to the feeling of being without oxygen in my body. You want to give up, your body is convulsing, but your mind doesn’t give a crap. At this moment you learn who is boss and that your mind can and will override your body if you train it. There was a moment the first time I forced myself to blackout when I chose to move toward the loss of control rather than away from it.
Although I wanted to surf 4-8 hours per day, I physically could not. After just an hour or so, I would be so tired that I became a danger to myself and others in the water. My fitness level had to change.
When my back muscles refused to paddle, I ran sprints in the soft sand. I went to the gym daily. I chose veggies over ice cream. I meditated and stretched when I was too tired to train. Every decision was affected by my desire to surf big waves from the foods I ate to the friends I hung around. I was becoming an athlete of the first degree.
5. Get Help
I was taking massive wipeouts and long hold downs like a champ. But it quickly became apparent that although I had the physical strength and the mental fortitude to surf big waves, my skills were sorely lacking. I realized I needed to learn to surf really well on medium-sized waves before I would be able to really perform on the big ones. I loaded my truck and set off for the point break heaven of the Salina Cruz region. After one month of sleeping on top of my longboard bag in the sand, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, infected reef cuts teaming with staph infection, and hair so destroyed by the sun and salt water that I had to cut it all off, I returned to Puerto finally able to top turn on a shortboard.
6. Have a Healthy Ego
Near the end of the season, I was in the best shape of my life. My mind was fierce and my surfing skills were better than ever. I had the right board and the proper safety equipment. There was a big swell forecasted to hit in the morning. This would certainly be my last chance to surf a truly big wave until the next season. It felt like Christmas Eve to a five-year-old.
It was really big that morning. Like, really freaking massively big. I was unsure. I hadn’t surfed anything close to that size yet. I watched as wave after wave was ridden and tried to decide if I would have made the same drop or not. Was it fear or healthy respect that kept me wavering on the beach? I watched and undecided for almost three hours. And then the wind came up. It was over. I missed it. As I was leaving, I saw the coach I was working with getting out of the water. He looked at me sitting there with dry hair and asked, “Porque no surfiste?” I wanted to kick myself.
When the Mexican surfing season ended, I packed up and moved to the North Shore of Oahu, ready to try again. I hired another coach and continued my training both in and out of the water. I got some great waves and continued to improve my technique. Once again the season came to a close for the North Shore and I booked a ticket to Indonesia to continue my training as the south swells started to pick back up in the Southern Hemisphere.
It was the week before I was scheduled to leave Oahu and a late season swell was predicted to hit. That morning I drove from Velzyland south toward Haleiwa, checking each surf spot along the way. The swell was too big and nothing was holding it. As I rounded the bend at Waimea Bay my heart caught in my throat. Waimea was breaking and it had excellent form.
“I can surf that,” I thought as I sat watching.
I was worried that maybe it was just my ego talking. After all, one year ago I was a fat longboarder who had never surfed anything over chest high. Maybe I was just full of myself? But was it fear or healthy respect that made me think twice? So I texted my coach, a pro surfer, formerly on the WSL tour and North Shore native. He knew my ability level and he would shoot me straight.
“I’m thinking of surfing The Bay. Bad idea?” I just knew he was going to tell me I wasn’t ready.
“Not a bad idea,” the response read. “Just remember everything we’ve talked about to ensure safety and fun.”
Green light. Game on!
Some waves you will always remember; the first time you stood up on a board, the first barrel, etc. I only road one wave that day but it is one wave I will never, ever, forget.
So you want to be a big wave surfer? Me too! I’m still working on it. The best advice I can give you is to enjoy the ride. Enjoy every minute of training and experience the fun of each small wave leading up to the big one.