How Big Wave Chargers Accept and Handle Fear

Jason Lock

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Updated 606d ago

Fear; an emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm. It’s the innate reaction to an external influence controlling how you perform in a scenario. For surfers, it’s the difference between pulling the trigger on one of the most critical waves of your life, fatally hesitating, or backing down and paddling in.

But what if you could manage that fear? There’s a lot to be said about overcoming, controlling and mastering your emotions when faced with huge surf – and needless to say, we’re no experts. So we thought we’d ask the men and women who are.

Greg Long, Keala Kennelly, Andrew Cotton, Albee Layer and Maya Gabeira all give their advice on how they manage fear when facing the world’s most deadly waves – and a little insight into what happens when it all goes south.

Greg Long:

The current Big Wave Tour champion, Greg is a thinking man’s hellman. Hurling himself into some of surfing's gnarliest situations whist being acutely aware of his strengths and weaknesses.

GL: For me, the greatest trick to overcoming fear, especially in big waves, is the understanding and embodiment of the fact that I have total control over how I interpret and react to every situation I face in life. All of our experiences are a result of how we perceive what is happening around us, and in every moment of our life we have a choice to perceive them in a positive, or a negative way.

As well as being, you know, one of the best big wave surfers on the planet, Greg also gives talks about fear and his own personal experiences.

As well as being, you know, one of the best big wave surfers on the planet, Greg also gives talks about fear and his own personal experiences.

Fear, is actually a very healthy emotion to feel. I simply interpret it as I have stepped outside of my comfort zone…and that is one of the greatest things to do in the world.

Unfortunately many people have been conditioned into believing otherwise and let fear manifest into actions of panic which is the worst thing you can do in any situation, especially riding big waves. Knowing that I have the choice in every moment to decide how I feel and that I don’t have to let the reactive mind take control of my actions has helped me tremendously to embrace those moments of fear.

And most importantly, in the moment, I never forget that I have complete control over my feelings, and actions.  And no matter what you do in life, it is always better to keep them thoughtful, constructive and positive.

Here is something I do regularly to help prepare myself for those inevitable times; Well before any big wave session, I think about all the situations I may encounter that may invoke those feelings; be it getting caught inside, paddling over the steep ledge into a wave, dealing with a long hold down etc.

Then I identify the very best way to react in each situation, as well as what I may also do if I were to react negatively out of panic. In identifying the negative, it becomes easy for me to recognize and change, in the event I do start behaving accordingly.

Long looking to tuck in on a monster.

Long looking to tuck in on a monster.

© 2017 - WSL

By identifying the positive, I have a thoughtful understanding of the best course of action to achieve whatever goal or overcome whatever obstacle is before me.

And most importantly, in the moment, I never forget that I have complete control over my feelings, and actions.  And no matter what you do in life, it is always better to keep them thoughtful, constructive and positive. 

Albee Layer:

His Jaws waves have gone down in history as some of the greatest of all time - it's Albee's backyard, after all.

AL: I don't think it's so much over coming fear as much as accepting it. Like, everyone's scared all the time surfing big waves (besides Aaron Gold, maybe) so it becomes about using that fear positively.

Fear has its place in big wave surfing but panic does not and it's important to identify the difference between them. I read in a book called "The Fear Project" that it's a battle of two brains, your ancient brain and your young brain. You have to battle your most basic instinct which is survival (old brain) with your new brain that's aware of your ability to make it out of potentially lethal situations okay.

Albee sticks the drop pre-barrel at Jaws.

Albee sticks the drop pre-barrel at Jaws.

© 2017 - Aaron Lynton

Your brain and body actually does its best work at a certain level of fear, this is why you can run faster when running away from something, rather than just sprinting but if you get too scared it can make you lose control of normal functions over your body, like, when you're too scared to move and freeze. So what it all really comes down to is understanding and balancing the fear; that you are going to feel there's no avoiding it or over coming it just learning to live and work with it.

Keala Kennelly:

KK’s a trailblazing charger who consistently surfs some of the heaviest waves around.

KK: The best way to overcome fear is to feel strong and physically prepared. Training hard and surfing big waves often builds your confidence to push your limits more.

Keala's a regular at Teahupoo.

Keala's a regular at Teahupoo.

© 2017 - Raihei Tapeta

But, sometimes, the thing that pushes me to turn and dig into a big one is simply the thought that if I don't and I end up sitting out the back for hours not catching a wave that is going to be boring. If I do go, and I make the wave and get a good ride that will be awesome and exciting.

Even if I go and I stack it and get the crap kicked out of me... well that sucks... but at least it's more exciting than just sitting out the back doing nothing.

Andrew Cotton:

Cotty regularly negotiates the world's biggest waves at Nazare and the unpredictable pits of Mully - he's more qualified than most people to talk about dealing with fear.

AC: For me confidence helps the fear, so things like having a good safety team, plan of action and personal safety equipment is all really important. I work on these a lot because in a sport of lots of variables, these I can control and work on.

You probably don't need reminding - Cotty absolutely charges.

Also I found good breathing really helps. Not only does this help my nerves, it keeps me focused and prepares the body for the worst. I use belly breaths, three seconds in, 10 seconds out. I breath like this all through the session as well as before and, sometimes, even afterwards.

Maya Gabeira:

If there's anyone who knows about facing fear - it's Maya, who needed resuscitating on the beach after a Nazare wipeout.

MG: I work on my breathing techniques. That helps with the hold down but also slows down the heart-rate if needed.