Beginner's Guide to Getting Started in Big Waves

Matt Rode

by on

Updated 19d ago

The past couple of swells at Waimea, there’s been a small posse of small people paddling out on their dads’ miniguns and taking a crack at the insiders. This gaggle of pre-teens started charging during the dream run of swells in April, and picked right back up where they’d left off as soon as winter hit and the first XL swell hit Oahu.

Watching a bunch of 13-year-olds tackle proper waves has been equal parts entertaining and inspiring. Some of these kids are literally under four feet tall, but they are out there giving it a go. Sure, they get in the way sometimes—but it’s hard to fault them for being in the lineup. After all, there are very few of us who even considered paddling out in XL surf before we were in high school, let alone actually catching a few waves.

Related: 4 Entry-Level Big Wave Spots

Earlier this year I was watching this kids scramble around the lineup at The Bay while surfing with my buddy Roger, who didn’t buy his first gun until he was in his mid-50s. Sitting there, trading waves and watching the show on the inside, I realised that whether you are 13 or 60, there’s no wrong time to start pushing your limits in big surf—as long as you genuinely want it. So for those thinking about moving into the XL range for the first time, here’s a list of tips to get your started—and in case you were wondering, both Roger and the crew of groms have been doing all of these things, to great success.

Make sure you know why you are doing it

Sometimes, you score, sometimes you don't. And while this wave isn't XXL, it wasn't chased for fame or glory but because as surfers, we crave the unknown.

If you are paddling out for ego or fame—to prove something to yourself, or even worse, to someone else—you are doing it for the wrong reason. Like most quasi-dangerous pursuits, big waves are something that require complete commitment, and you won’t be able to fully commit if you don’t absolutely love it. Ask yourself why you want to surf big waves, make sure the reasons are healthy, and if so, move on to the rest of this list.

Get some floatation

The Quiksilver x Aqua Lung high lines vest.

The Quiksilver x Aqua Lung high lines vest.

There’s been a lot of talk about how impact and inflatable vests are dangerous because they provide a false sense of security to those who are unprepared for big waves and long hold downs. Although there is that danger, we’d rather see people overequipped with floatation and survive than underequipped and not.

Think of floatation sort like a seatbelt for driving—it’s job isn’t to keep you safe every minute of your session, it’s there to keep you alive in the rare and unlikely event that something goes disastrously wrong. Just as you wouldn’t expect the seatbelt to drive the car for you, don’t expect your floatation to make you a good or even a safe big wave surfer—but at the same time, don’t leave home without it.

Get the proper training and experience

Big wave hero Mark Visser jumped off the back of a ski just to get pummelled at Jaws - in order to test his training methods. That's dedication.

The obvious counterpoint to floatation is being properly trained so that you hopefully never need it. Before paddling out into consequential surf, you will want to have established a baseline competency in normal sized waves, gradually increasing your comfort in larger and larger surf.

In other words, you shouldn’t try to graduate directly from ankle-biters at Waikiki to a macking day at Peahi. In the same vein, a course on big wave safety and rescue, apnea, and ocean awareness will serve you far better than any floatation vest.

Get a big board and a thick leash

Dick Brewer knows a thing or two about shaping guns...

Once you have decided that you want to focus on big waves—and obtained the proper training and floatation—it’s time to invest in a big wave gun. If you are a 13-year-old grom, that might mean your dad’s 7'6" Pipe board, while adults should be looking for boards between 9'0' and 10'6".

Modern guns tend to have a bit more volume than the knifier guns in from the mid-1990s, so rather than buying an old board at a garage sale, try to find something that’s been shaped in the past five years or so—preferably by a shaper who is known for their big wave boards. Likewise, make sure you get yourself a proper leash, because the last thing you want to do is lose your board during your first session, half a mile off shore.

Find a partner and start slow

Get yourself a squad. Dylan Stott (left), Barry Mottershead (ski driver) with Conor Maguire in Ireland.

Get yourself a squad. Dylan Stott (left), Barry Mottershead (ski driver) with Conor Maguire in Ireland.

© 2021 - Gary McCall

Heavy water can be dangerous—particularly when you are inexperienced and alone—so try to find a partner you can paddle out with and watch each other’s backs. Not only will this give you a bit of a safety net if something goes wrong, but it will also give you someone to enjoy your sessions with, which will help take the edge off when your feeling nervous. That being said, you don’t have to be a hero during your first session.

Progress slowly, sit wide, watch those who are more experienced, and learn to sit and wait for your moment rather than overfrothing and paddling for everything, only to miss waves and take sets on the head. Eventually, a bomb will come through that has your name on it—and when it does, all that’s left to do is put your head down and commit.

Cover shot by Tom Pearsall