For those of us who weren’t born with cojones the size of tennis balls, we can only make superficial attempts to relate to the beatings we see dished out to the world’s best big-wave surfers. The occasional gasp that slips out from behind our computer screen, making our coworkers wonder what the hell we’re watching at work, only does so much to help identify with what these guys are actually going through.
On a recent trip down to Mexico, my brother and I got to talking about some things surfers wonder, but very few actually have answers to. One question in particular stimulated our curiosities: When is a wave too big to duck dive? The answer to this question, of course, is largely situational, but there are a few points to acknowledge that may be useful for both beginners and those looking to aspire to be more like their big-wave heroes. Speaking of big-wave heroes, I caught up with one of them, Ricky Whitlock, to clear a few things up.
“Different scenarios call for different actions,” said Ricky. “If it’s a 15-foot white water, I’m gonna try to duck dive it. But if it’s a 6-foot double up on my head, and I’m on dry reef or super shallow water, I’ll probably ditch my board. For the average person, I would say trying to duck dive anything over 6 to 8 feet is going to be more dangerous than beneficial.”
Because bailing your board comes with its risks, Ricky tries to duck dive whenever he possibly can. Still, he’s cognizant of, for example, board size, position in the lineup, and a host of other related factors when opting to duck dive.
“More times than not, I duck dive. I would rather get pounded trying to duck dive than swim under it and come up with my board in two pieces. I feel like every time I ditch my board, my board breaks or my leash breaks. Either way, I’m usually swimming in. But I’ve been out at Jaws and looked over and saw Ben Wilkinson duck dive a 20-foot Hawaiian wave. Ben is a beast and can duck dive a 10-foot+ board like the average person duck dives their shortboards. I personally can’t duck dive my Jaws guns so I don’t even attempt to do so.”
And while not all of us are built like Ben, that quick decision more or less is based off intuition. Unfortunately, it’s probably going to take several relentless beatings or more to make that right decision.