NICK CARROLL: Big Wave Survival

1 Dec 2018 4 Share

Pic: WSL

Pic: WSL

“I was just trying to relax.”

Well, you would wouldn’t you? This was Billy Kemper yesterday morning after the wave of the day at Peahi, before the whole place went next level and they pulled the BWT event and handed the stage to Kai Lenny.

Billy, like Kai, feels that joint right at the core of his being. Yesterday it knocked him unconscious underwater. Fortunately he’d already pulled the ripcord on his vest.

He came up, finished the heat, then as the ocean pushed itself toward 60-foot faces, told his fellow competitors he was fine with charging on with it all. Which tells you a little bit about the head space involved — the passion and commitment carrying you into these circumstances.

But how do you get yourself back out the other side? Could it be that simple: relax?

Last Friday, along with Surfing World superhero Doug Lees and CW’s master of ceremonies Nick Gregory, I subjected myself to the Ocean Warrior big wave survival course. The course was designed by Mark Visser in concert with people like Hawaii’s Brian Keaulana and freedivers William Trubridge and Anthony Williams, and while I’ve had some absolutely splendid wipeouts in my life, I was somewhat blown away by what just an hour or so in a lap pool showed me about what I’d been managing so far out of witlessness, confidence, and sheer dumb luck.

Visser flew down from the Goldie just to walk us all through the process.

I’d heard a bit about his training behaviour — 100 metres underwater no fins, six minute plus breath holds — but couldn’t help laughing when he wrote all that off as “bullshit”. Mark was laughing too, but reinforced what he meant. “I was doing that out of ego mostly,” he told us. “This course is about getting closer to the real thing — what really happens when you’re getting smashed."

The course opens with a series of talks from Brian on CPR and rescue techniques: what works and why it works. Visser then took us through a series of land exercises designed to stress us a tiny bit — a test of how well we could tolerate limited oxygen under load. (Push-ups and burpees without breathing — much.)

He then got us in the water — a 25-metre lap pool. This was at the Manly Boy Charlton aquatic centre and if you remember last Friday, it was blowing a god damn gale. Almost like a bad Hawaiian tradewind.

“Right you guys, swim a lap underwater, try to do it quick,” said Coach Visser, and being a bit special, I decided to go first. 25 underwater is not hard and didn’t feel hard, but I was surprised to find that when Visser timed my pulse rate, it was over 130bpm. At rest it barely moves above 50-odd. 20 seconds of breath-free exercise did that? Shit.

Doug and Nick swooped gracefully through their 25s and Visser sat us down and talked with us.

Surviving big wipeouts — two wave hold-downs, 20-foot-plus whitewater burials and the like — is about obtaining and conserving oxygen. Anything that burns oxygen, whether it be generic tension in the body to erratic movements of the body’s larger muscle groups, shortens your safe time underwater.

Clear your lungs, take deep breaths, and do as little as possible, especially with the big muscles of the legs and back, and that safety time expands.

Visser had us do a simple drill, what freedivers call a “dump breath”: a full deep exhalation before a last-moment inhale. He showed us how to plane more efficiently underwater, not kicking but instead extending a sweeping arm stroke past the hips to the knees. Then we got back in the pool.

This time it was a 15-second underwater “rest”, followed by the 25m swum more smoothly, followed by another 10 seconds at the other end — almost a full minute under. 

I figured this would be a little easier for sure, but was completely stunned to find my pulse sitting at just over 70bpm. Like, it’d barely moved. 

I could’ve swum back down the lap without a worry.

All that, just because I DIDN’T do much?

We did some other funny shit, wipeout-style “realistic” training where we swam the 25 quick then got pumbled by each other, allowed a breath every 10 seconds. This all felt easy and natural — I suspect partly because I thought it was funny. Above oxygen, above any situation really, is mindset. Visser finished the course with a short exploration of how to produce relaxation as a deliberate choice, even when all the evidence is stacked against it. You know, like in a wipeout at 50 foot Peahi.

I thought of this again as Billy talked more on camera yesterday about what happened, and about why he was OK with heading back out, even after a blackout. “You know, I’ve got my friends and family,” he said, “I’m at home here.”

His mind and body weren’t back there, in the dark and unable to breathe. Instead, he was already on the next wave.

Check out the Ocean Warrior course HERE and for a limited time, grab it at the special price!

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