OK, let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: big wave surfing is for only the most talented surfers in the world, and even they spent years climbing the ladder before reaching the top at places like Nazaré, Maverick’s, and Jaws.
If you’re just beginning to surf but have aspirations to ride big waves… take a real big deep breath. No, seriously. You’re going to need to wait years before dropping into a 10 plus footer (three plus metres). And you’re going to need to be able to hold that breath for a real long time.
For this lesson, we decided to put five questions to Conor Maguire, who rode one of the biggest waves of 2020, at the Irish slab Mullaghmore. Take it away, Conor!
What would you say to an intermediate surfer who has the skills and is eager to step up to bigger waves, but is feeling nervous? How should they prepare physically and mentally?
Firstly, I’d make sure they are comfortably making drops when their local beachie or reef are at their biggest, before encouraging them to venture out into solid surf. It is necessary to push yourself outside of your comfort zone to progress, but take it step by step and keep your safety as your top priority. Paddle out with a more experienced surfer who can show you the ropes and give you tips on what to do when everything goes pear-shaped.
If you’re hoping to surf bigger waves, getting a set on the head is inevitable, and so preparing for that mentally is essential to staying calm in a high pressure situation. Never paddle out alone, or if you are second guessing whether you’re fit enough or not. Putting yourself in danger means risking the safety of the person who has to rescue you, so also bear that in mind.
Always paddle out with someone who has experience in bigger waves, as their knowledge will be invaluable in a heavy situation
To sum it up, ensure you have done some training and feel fit enough for the worst-case scenario. For example, a broken board or leash followed by a long swim. Prepare mentally and visualise paddling into the wave you dream of dropping into, but don’t forget to imagine getting worked also. Always paddle out with someone who has experience in bigger waves, as their knowledge will be invaluable in a heavy situation and also to get lined up for a good wave. The big wave community is pretty welcoming from what I’ve experienced, so someone will happily show you the ropes if you’re willing and ready.
How key is breath-holding technique? Can you explain the difference between holding your breath while sitting in the safety of your home or in a pool versus when you’re getting thrashed beneath a 20-footer (six metres)?
Breath holding is key to mental confidence. Being sure of yourself is very important if you want to push your limits in big waves. Holding your breath for five minutes while sitting in your armchair at home is impressive, but it isn’t going to do all that much good when you’re under for two waves.
Holding your breath for five minutes while sitting in your armchair at home is impressive, but it isn’t going to do all that much good when you’re under for two waves.
When you wipeout, you have already exuded a lot of energy just paddling into a wave. On top of that, adrenaline is pumping through your veins with a raised heart rate to go along with it. Because of this, your body will use up a lot more oxygen than when you’re static and in a relaxed state. Throw in a turbulent couple of seconds under water with limbs flying everywhere and you can start to lose oxygen fast when panic sets in.
Again, visualisation plays into an experience like this, so imagine getting washed around and think of how you can conserve energy and calm your mind. I like to curl into a ball to keep my limbs close to my body (this also could save me from possible injury, too.) If I feel like I’ve been under a while, I start to count slowly, which reassures me that I haven’t actually been under that long at all. Training your mind and lungs in a way where you can get used to holding your breath in a high intensity situation is a very valuable asset to your progression in bigger waves.
There are many ways to this. I like to do sprint lengths in the pool, followed by underwater lengths to simulate paddling into a wave and wiping out. There are lots more techniques you can use, too. Do some research, book a free-diving course and practice until you’re comfortable. But remember to always work with another person when doing underwater training.
Best workouts for big wave surfing training?
Surf lots and lots. Stay limber to prevent injury (yoga or whatever works for you). Cardio, breath training and strength training.
Best training for preparing your mind for the inevitable fear?
I think you have to really want to push yourself in bigger waves. You either have that desire or you don’t. Building on your motivation to surf bigger waves will help you progress though. Personally, I like to visualise a lot – but different strokes for different folks. I’ve never had to force visualisation. I used to do it when I first started surfing on my own accord, before I even knew what ‘visualisation’ was.
You either have that desire or you don’t.
I think being obsessed with surfing drove me to think about it all day, before I fell asleep and the first thing when I woke up. And I still do! I think that has helped me stay focused on surfing more than anything else. I imagine everything from my worst wipeouts to the wave of my life, and new lines to take on my favourite waves. Just enjoy the process. Don’t force anything too hard.
How important is developing a team around you, so that you have people to not just motivate you but also be there as safety support?
You might save someone someday and that is a lot more important than the wave of your life.
I would advise anyone who is thinking of surfing big waves to introduce yourself to a safety team in your area and work with them. I also highly recommend doing first aid and surf-specific safety courses. You never know when you, or a mate, might need it. It’s all good until it’s not – so be prepared for the worst. You might save someone someday and that is a lot more important than the wave of your life.