How do surfers stay alive in big water?
July 17, 2012 7:25 AM   Subscribe

I've always wanted to know: As a surfer, what happens after the giant humongous wave you're surfing crashes over you? How do you not drown? I'm mesmerized by amazing surf videos like this and this, but the camera obviously can't film what's happening inside the wave/under the water, and the edits never show how or where the surfer (and their board) come back up.

So, surfers: what is going on after the wave crashes?
posted by Kololo to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You hold your breath and relax. You might be tumbled, but your body and board are naturally bouyant and will surface if you wait it out. Then you look out for the next wave breaking & get the f*ck out of the way.

I was just recently told that warm, tropical waters are 'soft', whereas a wall of cold water can hurt like hell.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 7:42 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hi, daily surfer here. I'm in San Diego, I think the biggest wave I've ever been crushed with was about 15 feet. The hold down was about 15 seconds (but felt like 15 minutes). I usually surf at Sunset Cliffs, which is a moderately shallow reef break. The biggest fear is hitting the bottom, not drowning.

The sensation is rather intense. You have NO idea what direction is up, if you are going to get dragged along the ocean floor, when it will be over, if you are going to collide with another surfer.
Every time you wipe out you are quickly reminded that you are a speck in the ocean and the waves can have their way with you if they want. Fun stuff! You relax, pretend you are a rag doll, and eventually swim your way to the top.

But, it's not too bad.

The first video you link to is of Teahupoo, in Tahiti. When you wipe out, you are crashing in about, oh, 4 feet of water on to a sharp reef. It's not the depth that gets you there, it's the bounce. Same with the second video. In order to have a barrel that fierce, there generally is a shallow reef causing it. There is a hold down, but generally no longer than 20 seconds.

This is what happens at Teahupoo *GORE Warning*

Take a look at the bigger waves of Jaws or Mavericks, there you are being pushed under about 40 feet or so. The hold down is much longer, MUCH more intense and if another wave (and another) comes along, the hold down can be minutes.

A great book to read is Susan Casey's "The Wave", which takes you through, in vivid detail, the dangers of big wave surfing.
posted by remlapm at 7:54 AM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just relax and realize that the body is buoyant. One loses one's sense of direction under water, but (if it is not a coral bottom), if one can locate "down," then "up is in the opposite direction. Trying to find the bottom by swimming down an seaward (away from shore) will get you out of the turbulence faster, then you can pop up and hopefully there is not another big wave on top of the one that rolled you.

FWIW, I came near drowning twice in large waves, but both were because I was tired and then panicked when getting washed around.
posted by Danf at 7:58 AM on July 17, 2012

Speaking of Teahupoo, Here is a great video, from the excellent movie "Riding Giants" of big wave god Laird Hamilton taking it on.

Gives you some wave dynamics and whatnot.
posted by remlapm at 8:08 AM on July 17, 2012

And here is the "Riding Giants" segment on California's own Mavericks.

Soon to be featured in a movie starring Gerard Butler, who almost drowned while filming.
posted by remlapm at 8:12 AM on July 17, 2012

Having been slashed by the fins of my own tumbling board before, I tend to protect my head with my arms during the initial disorienting turbulence.

When I was cut by my fins, I didn't realize I was actively bleeding from my foot, and unknowingly chummed the cold water with my blood for another 45 minutes or so. You could have offered me a million bucks to do that, and I would have turned it down.
posted by itstheclamsname at 8:39 AM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I bodysurfed a lot as a kid, and got washing-machined plenty. No board to watch out for (well, not my own - there were bodyboarders we had to look out for, as well as boards from surfers farther out), but you just hold your breath, do your best to relax, and pull your limbs in so they don't get yanked off.
posted by rtha at 9:23 AM on July 17, 2012

At a beach break - shallow sand/shell bottom - as here on the east coast US - we call it getting "Washing Machined". You can't get below the turbulence - you're being rolled and bounced off the sandbar. You get inklings which way is up from time to time, but are powerless to fight it. As others have said - relax and protect your head.

In deep water if your leash has not broken you can "climb" it. To anyone on the surface your board is tombstoning (3rd pic down) aka pointing nose to the sky.

I'm an east coast US surfer and the only serious hold down I've experienced was west coast Costa Rica. But the worst thrashing I've ever had was at the Outer Banks of NC. Washing machine indeed.
posted by ElGuapo at 11:25 AM on July 17, 2012

Because waves come and go fairly quickly and the human body floats (and floats even more in a wetsuit) if you just ride out the turbulence by relaxing, once the wave has done its thing you can get to the surface fairly easily. The hold-down period only seems long if you get gripped and think you aren't going to make it and start a panicked scramble to what you hope is the direction with air.

Then there are two-wave hold-downs, which are no fun at all but will still be over in less time than you can hold your breath. Add the prospect of getting your leash snagged on a submerged rock or your head knocking something hard and no wonder I never surfed waves like the ones in the vids anyway.
posted by ecourbanist at 1:54 PM on July 17, 2012

Most surfers are not riding those huge waves that you linked to. Those guys are pros and there is a lot of money, fame, and craziness involved with that circuit.

But, your question essentially gets to the heart of what is so great about surfing. There is actually an area of a breaking wave that is called the impact zone which carries the most energy and thus, ability to hurt a surfer. The impact zone usually occurs at a specific point in time as a wave breaks and once the wave passes through this zone, it has significantly less energy. So, it can bring harm but the impact zone can also deliver pleasure. A huge part of the skill and thrill of surfing is to 'dance' with the impact zone. So surfers avoid impact zones by duck diving, or swimming quickly through them between breaking waves, or by swimming completely around them through channels of deeper water. But when the fun begins and a surfer is riding a wave, the goal is to essentially ride as close to the impact zone as possible and then to make a sharp seaward turn just before the wave breaks over you.

So, in the cases where the title of the video says "Biggest Teahupoo Ever!" there is a serious threat to life if you want to dance with the impact zone. In my opinion, those folks are a little nuts- but that's why we watch it with mouth agape. But for the vast majority of us, when we get slammed by the impact zone it's like a hard punch followed by a tumbling, bubbly massage. I always curl up into a ball, cover my head and face with my arms, and just wait it out for the 7-15 seconds that it happens. The main thing is to stay calm. You can lose your breath pretty quickly when your scared.
posted by surfgator at 8:28 PM on July 17, 2012

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