You are sitting on your board, slowly drifting towards the peak. Your mind wanders to the new phone you bought yesterday and how you can’t wait to show your girlfriend when you see her later.
Suddenly, the horizon goes black. You look around and the five other surfers are way over to your left, paddling outside like maniacs. There is a huge set coming and you are right in the impact zone. Your mouth goes dry and your heart feels like it wants to hammer its way out of your chest. Your daydreaming is quickly replaced by a needle-sharp awareness, and any notions of smartphones or girlfriends suddenly cease to exist.
You feel the adrenaline searing into your limbs and you begin paddling as fast as you can. The first wave looms up and you barely scratch over it, knowing that the second one will be bigger. As the turbulence and spray behind the first wave subsides you see the second wave just about to pitch, about 50 metres further out. You can feel the panic welling up inside you, and it takes all your mental effort to not just freeze on the spot.
Miraculously, you make it to the channel. Totally drained, you lay flat on your board and watch the third wave break from a safe distance. You are in two minds about whether to just paddle in and call it a day, or paddle back to the impact zone and give it another go.
What you experienced back there was what we commonly call fear – a physical reaction to the anticipation of something bad happening in the near future. It doesn’t matter if the waves were five feet or fifty; the important thing is that you were out of your comfort zone. If the experience was particularly intense, even just thinking about it happening again might bring you out in a cold sweat.
If the experience was particularly intense, even just thinking about it happening again might bring you out in a cold sweat
Fear is just one of many survival instincts we have as mammals. All the physiological symptoms we experience during fear are part of a system of self-protection deeply entrenched in us from our days as hunter-gatherers, when we had to face real dangers every day to survive. When our brain judges a situation as potentially hazardous, it releases a series of chemicals – the so-called stress hormones – into our bloodstream.
As a result, our heart rate and blood pressure increase, the air passages into the lungs are opened up, and extra sugar and oxygen is boosted into the blood and diverted into our muscles; our pupils dilate, our senses become super-sharp, our impulses quicken, and our perception of pain is suppressed.
Sometimes, there is a big difference between how dangerous a situation really is, and how dangerous we perceive it to be. Our brains have been hardwired through thousands of years of evolution to recognize and react to things that posed a threat to our survival as hunter-gatherers. But those things – such as large predators – no longer tend to occur in our modern society. Instead, we have other things – guns, for example – that are much more dangerous but aren’t as scary as they should be, because our brains haven’t had enough time to adapt to them. Our fear mechanism has become confused.
Even though we almost never confront those ancient, fear-inducing threats any more, we can simulate them, provoking the same physiological reactions, even if the situation isn’t actually very dangerous. If you are out in the surf and you find yourself just about to be caught inside by a big set, like I described earlier, chances are you are not going to die. If the wave breaks on your head it might thrash you around a bit but it won’t eat you.
However, what the primitive brain sees is what it recognizes from its genetic memory – a large carnivorous animal, or perhaps a pile of rocks about to fall on you. Therefore, it sets off the alarm bells of fear, and puts you into survival mode.
Later on you will remember it as an intense experience. You might think of it as something horrible that you hope never happens again; or you might feel unavoidably drawn back, wanting to repeat the experience. It all depends on your personal approach.
A little fear in our lives, especially in the natural environment, is not a bad thing. It helps us mimic part of our ancient lifestyles, keeps us more connected to Nature, and simply more ‘alive’.
So what is the scariest situation that you can imagine in surfing? Going over the falls backwards?Being caught inside? Drowning? Rips? Live coral? Sea snakes? Sharks?
Cover shot, Tony about to cop a set on the head by Jakue