I don’t want to jinx it, but it’s looking like all of the El Niño hype is real, and that we’re in for a wet, but wave-filled winter. According to forecasters, many of us will have the opportunity to drop into some of the biggest waves that we’ve ever experienced. Whether you’re planning on charging Maverick’s or just looking to push your boundaries at your local break, preparation is key to excelling in big surf. I took the opportunity to learn how one of the best and ballsiest in the big wave game, Mark Healey, is gearing up for what could be an all-time winter.
With this being an El Niño year, do you have higher expectations for the winter big wave season?
This is it…the biggest El Niño event since the ‘97/’98 winter. We’re looking at the possibility of some of the biggest waves ever being paddled into or the largest waves ever ridden being towed-into.
Historically, during an El Niño year, the storms that spin off the swells aren’t located as far north as they are during a typical winter. Because of this, you have much higher potential for very large swells hitting Southern California and spots further south. We’re keeping our eye on spots like Todos Santos, Cortes Bank and some other spots that haven’t been ridden yet. It’s exciting to think about some of the waves we’re expecting right off the coast of So Cal.
What marks the beginning of the big wave season for you?
For the Northern Hemisphere big wave season, I have to have everything together by mid-Oct. Traditionally, that is when we start to get big swells here in Hawaii. We didn’t get a big swell in October this year, but in the past we’ve had good days at Jaws. So, I look to be ready by then.
When do you officially start training and planning for the season?
I train all year long because the season never really ends for me. We have the Southern Hemisphere big wave season in the summer, and the Northern Hemisphere season is during our winter. The Northern Hemi season is less mentally draining for me because it involves much less travel. I get to stay home [in Hawaii], spend more time in the water, get my boards glassed and get my gear ready.
What do you do to prepare your gear?
I just make sure I have it all there. The longer I’ve done this, the more I realize how important preparation is. When getting ready to surf a big swell, you don’t want your mind scrambling if you’re missing gear. Having everything prepped and ready is key. I used to be a yard sale when I was younger. I just flew by the seat of my pants. Surfing big waves involves a lot of psychological games, and you want to eliminate as many distractions as possible.
What do you do to prepare physically?
Right now, I’m training with Kid Peligro in gymnastica. It’s a hybrid workout that involves movement, cardio, breathing and strength. I can can get my strength and cardio up quickly, but it takes longer to acquire full range of motion. Full range of motion and stability are key to feeling better and being more coordinated.
How do you prepare mentally?
To prepare mentally, I focus on anaerobic workouts. You’re doing the mental training when the workouts start becoming miserable. It has to be hard. A cruisey, fun bike ride or mellow swim isn’t going to change your mental conditioning. Your workout has to be brutal, and you have to become accustomed to being in that miserable mental and physical state.
How do you feel the night before a big swell hits? Do you get nervous?
I don’t really get nervous that often. I just get excited and cross my fingers that it will be what it is forecasted to be. I try to manage expectations as to what the size and conditions will be. Leading up to the swell, it’s more about coordinating with friends that I travel with and coordinating with safety crews. I’m on my phone a lot try to get everything together.
As a swell chaser, how do you plan and manage your schedule?
It’s completely normal for me to jump on flights last minute. I’ve been living like that for the last 18 years or so. It’s not normal for a lot of people, and I have to take a step back and realize that. I’m usually the one to coordinate all of my travel. Sometimes, I use my travel agent, Sean Walker. If I know I’ll be in a place where I’m going to have limited wifi or cell reception, I’ll call or email Sean. It’s nice to be able to send off one email to a travel agent and know that everything will be taken care of. In most cases, guys like myself, Greg [Long] and Twiggy [Baker] will be doing the heavy lifting ourselves.
How do you manage your participation in your other sports such as spearfishing?
Spearfishing is good in Hawaii in the winter, so I just get out as many days as I can when the surf is flat. I’ll also hunt pigs in the winter. They come out of the mountains because there is more food and water at lower elevations. If the wind is blowing hard and the winds are blowing hard from the north, the hunting is great.
What are your favorite big wave spots?
In the Northern Hemi my favorites are Maverick’s, Jaws and a few outer reefs here in Hawaii. I love spots that actually have a left. I never get to go left when it’s big.
Living in Hawaii, how do you prepare to surf cold water waves such as Maverick’s or Dungeons?
It’s super hard to adjust if you haven’t been in cold water in a while. The cold water feels like a shock to your system. I take ice baths to get used to it.
Any words of wisdom to anyone that is looking to step up their game when it comes to surfing big waves?
Don’t ever think that just because you have an inflatable vest, a thick leash and a water safety crew that you should be out there. A lot of people have a false sense of confidence because of all the safety measures, but those things can go wrong at any time. You can get yourself into a situation when you’re on your own, the safety team can’t help you, and your equipment might fail. Before going out there, you need to wrap your head around that and ask yourself if you really want to do it.
Mark Healey is a professional big wave surfer, spearfisherman and all around waterman. He is also the co-founder of Waterman’s Pack, where every other month, members receive a surprise package of water-related gear selected by a world-class waterman with a portion of proceeds going to a featured charity.