Editor’s note: The following is an exerpt from the author’s new book, The Average Surfer’s Guide to Travel, Waves and Progression.
I was about 18-years old when I experienced my first terrifying wipeout. The one where you think you may die. I had experienced wipeouts before and gone over the falls a lot but this day was different.
I was surfing in North Devon at a beach called Croyde Bay. I had been surfing for a few years at that point and had begun to progress quite quickly. My skills and technique were getting better and my confidence was high. That had a lot to do with the competitive nature of my friends. We were all progressing at a fast pace because we all wanted to be the best. Surfing was the first time I had been one of the more talented individuals in our group. From that moment, I was content with being a bad skateboarder and a half decent guitarist. I was going to be a good surfer, though.
One of the main things I kept from my friends at that time was that I couldn’t swim. I learned to surf before I learned to swim. When you are an 18-year-old boy and all your friends are doing something, you don’t want to be left behind. So you do what it takes. Even if it might kill you. Logic comes later.
My friend Nick was easily my closest competition at the time. The thing about Nick was that he loved big waves. So by default, I too had to like big waves. To be honest, though, I hated anything over head high.
Croyde, the wave we were surfing one particular day, can be great when it’s not closing out. In the summer, you could be forgiven for thinking it is a beginner’s wave. On this day, though, it was big, dark, powerful, and menacing.
As Nick and I watched from the parking lot, he looked excited and eager to get in the soup. He was always like that on big days. I often wondered if he was genuine or if he knew that I was nervous and was winding me up. As we were changing into our wetsuits, we would both yell things at each other like “time for a beat down, son” or “Daddy’s angry today.” Yes, we were a little weird. I was excited in these moments too but I was way more scared than eager.
Walking from the parking lot, as our booties crunched on the chalk and rocks, my stomach was in my throat. We could see a huge set coming in on the horizon and both began to hoot and holler. I couldn’t help but think I was hooting and celebrating my own imminent death. We passed a local family walking their dog. They were wrapped up in warm in coats and scarves and gave us a fated smile as they wished us luck. I felt like a warrior going off to war. The chances of my return were faint.
I was confident in my surfing at the time but not for conditions like that. The next set we saw looked like it had a twelve-foot face on it. The biggest I had surfed before this point was a head high wave. There were no more than six surfers out that day. It was serious. As we approached my fate, Nick was gone and I was left putting my leash on at the water’s edge. Did I mention I was riding a round nose fish? My chances of surviving that day were slender at best.
I paddled out and somehow made it through to the outside with just a few duck dives. I was out the back in no time sitting next to Nick. We sat for a while before we saw the first shadow appear. It was approaching fast. I had never seen a wave that big in real life before. “Go on then, son. Your wave,” I said to Nick as I turned and paddled toward the horizon. Nick began to scratch and paddle. The wave was upon us and Nick was gone, over the ledge like a soldier. I, on the other hand, was paddling up and over the back of the wave. I do love that feeling, even to this day, when you paddle over a big swell line and drop down the other side. It is even better when you are paddling over it with other surfers and they don’t make it but you do. Everyone has to pay their dues.
The first wave passed and I looked back and saw Nick’s hand-painted luminous yellow board tombstoning as he came up for air. He looked a little shaken and was yelling something that I couldn’t make out. He began to point at the horizon behind me. I turned and saw what he was pointing at. Another wave was approaching, this one was an absolute behemoth. The thing was getting bigger and darker as it approached. The ocean was not messing around today. I didn’t have to ride any of those things, I told myself — just survive.
The thing was massive. It had at least a 10-foot face and I was paddling up it, trying to get out the back to the relative safety of the open ocean and away from the impact zone. I was about halfway up the face and I was stranded. I wasn’t ever going to make it. As it began to break, I knew I was going with it but having no experience of that type of power before I stayed on my board and closed my eyes. As I held my breath, it happened.
At first it was quiet and strangely peaceful, like I was floating backward through the air. I wasn’t. I was going backward, headfirst, upside down on my board, and in the lip of a 10-foot wave. As I penetrated the water it was like getting hit by a big rig truck from two directions. But then it happened again. I was going up over the waterfall again, this time underwater. And this time I got pushed down hard. It was absolute mayhem and violence. I was tumbling every which way like a piece of lint in a washing machine. It was pitch dark and I didn’t know which way was up. The force and and power of the turbulence was like nothing else I have felt but that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the complete powerlessness I felt as I was flailing, my arms trying to somehow swim out of this nightmare. The panic was starting to set in. How long is this going to last. I can’t hold my breath much longer and, oh yeah, I can’t swim. At least I have my board to help me float. As the terror began to end, I started swimming for the surface only to hit the ocean floor. I was swimming the wrong direction. I was so disoriented. I turned around and made it to the surface as the brightness hit me like someone had switched on a light in the middle of the dark night and woke me up. I looked down to see a small tear in my suit. I summarized that at some point my board had hit me fin first and cut my leg. Speaking of boards, where was mine?
I pulled on my leash only to feel no weight on the other end. The leash had snapped and the board was gone. Panic began to set in again. I had to get to the beach. I looked up and saw Nick in the shallows. He had taken a fair beating also and was heading for safety. I turned the other direction to see another monster wave crashing about 15 yards behind me. Time to learn to swim.
Somehow I made it back to the beach. I think the waves did most of the work by washing me ashore like a bit of driftwood while my doggy paddle did the rest.
I was lucky that day. I think every surfer can tell a story like mine where we’ve found ourselves in over our heads. We all have that horrific wipeout. In fact, I have had numerous in the years since but I did learn to swim after the fact. It comes down to how one processes those experiences in time. Scary wipeouts can help or hinder your surfing, depending on how you look at them.
There was no shame in walking back up the beach that day with Nick. We felt great. We’d forged a bond in survival. We were gratified with a sense of perseverance. It was a case of losing the battle but not the war. We would learn from that defeat and we would be back to fight another day. That fear had turned to fuel.
Fear has a part to play in dictating the way everyone surfs. Whether you are a beginner or Kelly Slater, we all get scared out there. Let us never forget that the ocean is a dominant force in our world. She has moods, she can be friendly, playful, grumpy or angry. Her moods can change in an instant and we should never get complacent or underestimate her. 15 years later and I feel a little more comfortable in larger surf than I did that day.
Every surfer experiences the exact same emotions and feelings during a session. It may be on a different level, but the emotion is the same. The beginner feels the exact same emotion on a two-foot wave as the pro charging 10-foot Pipe. We also feel the same fear. The only thing that changes is our tolerance level, the amount of chemicals released in our brains, and our perceptions of the situation. When you first start paddling out as a beginner, a two-foot wave can be intimidating. We fear the unknown. Once you ride enough two-foot waves, they become fun. Next, a three or four-foot wave becomes intimidating until you experience and conquer them. In the end, consistent progression is the key to conquering your fears. Get out there, be smart, and push your limits.