Conquering Big Waves


Hey there Big Wave Chaser,

Big waves. They seem to have been in the surf news a lot recently. I guess it may have something to do with the northern hemisphere winter & Hawaiian season being underway (Eddie Aikau Memorial contest was called on first time in years), as well as a dedicated Big Wave World Tour, and in December, a live webcast of an awesome session/competition held at Peahi (Jaws). Read on for some tips & suggestions for helping you push your big wave game.

Andy Irons during the 2004 Eddie Aikau memorial contest

But for mere mortals, what constitutes a ‘big’ wave is entirely down to personal definition. In fact, I believe it can all be related back to familiarity. Hawaiians are known to do well in the Hawaiian world tour events, and I have no doubt that this is at least in part, due to their familiarity with the big, heavy waves they regularly surf. Similarly, children can grow up with different views of what constitutes ‘big’ as a direct reflection of average wave heights in their region; one grommet may see head high waves as big as they only get to surf it rarely, while another grommet may call the same height waves normal. It all comes back to familiarity and at the end of the day, everything is relative.

Whatever the case, if you want to progress your surfing, chances are that you would like to surf bigger waves. But what happens when the barrier is not the conditions, not access or not equipment, but your own mind. How do you overcome this?

I am no expert, and certainly woulnt want anyone taking risks when they aren’t aware of the potential consequences, so please take the following for what it is – a couple of tips I have tried in order to improve my confidence in waves that are bigger than what I am used to, in order to help my push my comfort zone (I'm not charging Waimea or Nazare in any hurry...).

  • Relax & distract your mind; The most commonly cited, and good starting point (if you don't already do it). Firstly relaxing and not fighting the futile fight against the wave will save valuable oxygen (which in turn, stops panic rising). Secondly counting breaths will help you realise how little time you are actually underwater and help you relax '1-1000, 2-1000, 3-1000...'
  • Fitness & hypoxic training; knowing you can physically stand up to the challenge is the first part in mentally being prepared for the challenge. Cardio fitness that helps your lung capacity is a great starting point, but if you really wanna get technical you want to work on hypoxic training which works on how your body responds to reduced oxygen. An example of this is the people who swim down, grab a rock, then run along the seabed, but simply swimming lengths of a pool freestyle (without breathing) can help too. Check out this little article Nick Carroll wrote for Surfline for a training regime.
  • Mind games; Others aren’t concerned, they may even appear to be (confusingly) excited, so what is stopping you from enjoying this moment too?
  • Just don't go; I’m not joking. Surfing big waves isn’t for everyone, and if you genuinely don’t have the confidence or you gut tells you otherwise, then don’t go. Don’t let yourself be bullied into it either – in many people’s opinion (including mine) the best surfer is the one having the most fun, not riding the biggest waves, or boosting the highest airs etc
  • Sacrificial; A controversial approach and a blatant contradiction to 'just don't go', but surprisingly effective. If it isn’t dangerous, purposely place yourself in line for a set on the head. This strategy works because it removes the unknown factor – once you have been held down by a set and know what you are in for (and that you will be ok) the fear will melt away.

What tips and tricks do you use in order to improve your preparedness for bigger surf?

Enjoyed this blog?

  • If this has been helpful or interesting at all, please share it. Go ahead, forward this email, share on Facebook, or follow SETT on Twitter & Instagram using the buttons below

    • I would also love to hear from you about what you think about SETT, the website and what I am up to so feel free to drop me an email to james@settsurf.com


Leave a comment