Big. Really Big

Photo Sylvain Cazenave

At the end of November 2009, I was greatly anticipating the coming winter and the waves I would ride. One morning as I was monitoring all the swell prediction sites I came across a WAM (wave action map) that sent a surge of adrenaline into my veins. But just as quickly my better judgement  countered the spike of excitement because what I saw had to be a mistake. There was simply no way the entire North Western Pacific could suddenly switch from green with little patches of yellow, into the deep, dark red behemoth I was seeing on the long range forecast. I just completely believed it must be a mistake, some kind of computer glitch creating  a storm twice the size of anything I had ever seen.

But of course I’d keep an eye on it just on the off chance it was indicating something real.

Next morning it was the first thing I looked at, and the monster that haunted my sleep was not only confirmed, but multiplied. The forecasting map of the North West Pacific looked like it had been consumed by some type of dark red ocean eating cancerous blob. It was a storm three times the size of any storm before it, potentially capable of producing surf twice the size of anything I had ever seen, and I have seen surf as big as anyone.

The realization that this monster was probably real and going to happen sent me into a mental tornado. I began to question everything. Doubt everything. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to surf 100 to 140 foot surf  (at least that’s what my imagination was seeing). The numbers seemed possible given the size of the storm predicted. I had a cold feeling I couldn’t shake. How big, was big enough for me? How big, was too big?

For three solid days I contemplated if I still wanted to ride the biggest surf ever. Did I have what it would take to negotiate such a freak of nature? Was I skilled enough? It had been about five years since a really big swell had hit so I wondered if I still had what it would take. Did I still want it? Was it worth risking everything for that ride? This wasn’t the size surf where something “could” happen if you fall, one fall and you pretty much could count on never seeing  the surface again.

I had to go through the process that every big wave rider goes through at some point. How much was I willing to pay?  How much was I willing to sacrifice? How much did it really mean to me? Was I willing to lose everything that meant something to me, my family? Was I willing to live with myself if I backed down?

The questions wouldn’t stop. The doubting wouldn’t stop. The questions interrupted my sleep, and I’m the undisputed master of sleeping. Finally the stress got so bad I had to stop thinking and just decide. I had to find something that would make it make sense. I needed some clarity–you simply can’t undertake waves that big without total focus.

I remember clearly, as I was driving down the road in front of the Kula Fire Station it finally came to me. THIS IS WHAT YOU DO!!!!

The doubting stopped instantly. I had to trust myself. If I didn’t, then everything to this point would have been meaningless.  If I’ve done anything on this planet, it’s that I have ridden big waves. It’s what I know, what I’ve worked long and hard to do. So it became clear, it wasn’t a question of what I was willing to sacrifice. It was a question about doing what I have trained my whole life for, making all my experience count for something.

I had to trust in what I had done to prepare for this moment, and believe I would be prepared when my moment of truth came. Once I had gotten my mind around it and was finally able to calm down, I could begin getting myself ready  mentally. I could envision surf that far exceeded anything I had ever experienced, and I could visualize success. I could see myself speeding down one of the largest swells ever ridden, and I could eliminate doubt from my consciousness and focus on what it took to achieve that success.

In conversations I’ve had with others, they say that’s denial at it’s finest. That I don’t want to accept something bad can happen.  It’s true, it IS denial, because any athlete willing to go beyond the boundaries has to deny space in their brain for doubt. There’s no room for it because it could kill you. We’ve all seen someone on the verge of doing something spectacular, who falters for a microsecond and the result is catastrophic. You have to be 100% sure of yourself because the slightest hesitation could cause disaster.

Riding a monster wave demands that you be completely and unhesitatingly in attack mode. A split second of doubt could cause you to hit a bump with legs uncommitted and you get bucked off your board. That could be the last mistake you ever make. You have to deny that possibility any form of existence in your mind.

As the days transpired and the time drew closer to the moment of truth, the stress had subsided.  However there are always butterflies associated with the thought of riding really large surf, not so much from the fear of what could happen but more from the anticipation of the excitement to come. The morning of the day, I got to the beach before sunrise and was unable to see just how big it was. Judging by the sound booming from the ocean, it was big, really big.

As we readied ourselves there wasn’t much talk, just terse comments like  “what board you riding” and “you got everything?”. Which in surf talk means this is not a drill, shit is about to hit the fan and you do not want to be the one who gets sprayed.

With first light, came confirmation. It has potential. Hard to tell for sure because all we could see was white water to the horizon. We’d have to get out further to tell just how big. When we saw the whites of their eyes, so to speak, it was big. Really big. We passed an outer reef on our way up the coast that looked like 40 foot G-land and perfect. Any other day there would have been no way to pass up a wave that good, but we knew what lay up the coast.  Only one destination would suffice. Peahi, our beloved girl who could be incredibly bitchy now and then.

Finally we could see the beast, and a blanket of prickly calmness shrouded me.  Yes it was big. Really F’n big. But mercifully, not as big as my imagination had prepared me for. I had built visions of waves so big that you could be looking Haleakala in the eye before you dropped over the edge. I had prepared myself mentally to ride waves literally twice as big as anything that had come before. To my relief what I saw was in range of my past experiences and not waves that would mean absolute sudden death should there be an accident.

Yes, we rode incredible waves that day. Waves I will remember for the rest of my life, it was perhaps the zenith of my partnership with Laird. A true test of all the work we had done together.  In all honesty it wasn’t my best day surfing, but it was perhaps the most memorable.

But this story is not really about surfing, or the particular feats of that day. It’s not even about a giant wave.  It’s about trust, meaning, and belief. My fear and worry gave purpose and meaning to a very selfish pursuit. Until that point I was feeding an ego. Ego driven by the desire for recognition and respect. But because of fear (more fear than I had ever experienced) I was forced to recognize what it really all meant, and why I was doing what I do. It also helped me answer the age old question, ” do you ever get scared riding those giant waves?” in a meaningful way. The answer is yes. But you had better have enough belief in yourself and trust in your decisions to deal with it on land, because the minute you step into that ocean, your doubts could kill you.

In the end I came to realize that I can meet any challenge because I trust myself. And while I still love to ride big waves, I don’t do it for anybody else. I love the feeling, I love the experience, I love the camaraderie that goes along with the sharing of waves. I love the lessons that the ocean has taught me and has yet to teach me. I love the adrelanine and zest for life, that comes with sliding down a monster wave.

And finally Big, and even Really Big,  is a relative term, fear is relative to your perspective.  Growth and learning are relative to your starting point. You don’t need 80 foot waves to have this experience. You just need to challenge yourself, you need to get out there and do something. Small at first, but work your way up to something that goes beyond your limits. For me, that’s where the real learning happens and ultimately where real satisfaction resides.