Destroying The Glass Ceiling
Shane Dorian on big wave surfing's day of days
An interview by Vaughan Blakey
Shane Dorian is beat. His voice is scratchy and his breathing heavy. It’s two days since he and a bunch of other legends surfed the biggest and cleanest Jaws session in history, and only a month since he miraculously landed a big ol’ shifty from the lip of a wave that was every inch north of 50 foot. He surfed Jaws again yesterday for a bit of fun but today the swell is gone and the strange readjustment to life without the immediate threat of death is only just beginning to settle in. The 43-year-old is 25 minutes from hitting the hay when SW calls him at his home on Hawaii’s Big Island.
SW: How you feeling man?
SD: Fucking exhausted dude. I’m really tired. I’m decompressing now and it’s craziest the emotional comedown. It’s almost like a depression. I don’t know how else to describe it other than your vitality is gone. I’m physically drained, mentally drained and emotionally drained. It was an intense couple of days.
That’s a couple of amazing swells in the space of a month, the first in early December and the second only the day before yesterday. At what point do you switch on? Is it as soon as you see the weather maps go purple?
Yeah, the second those swells look like they’re going to be on it gets hard to sleep. I’m pretty prepared these days, I have all my shit together, but there’s a lot of thinking and logistics that go into it… booking flights, getting to the wave early, you’re trying to eat well, you don’t want to feel sick or have a little sniffly nose, you want to feel 100 percent. When the waves are that monumental you don’t want anything fucking up your psychology. It’s such a mental game out there that if you have a little crack in your fin box or a sniffly nose or a nagging injury in your elbow, like I had, all that stuff messes with your head. It’s a lot to think about, so when you’ve spent all that energy on preparation and then you surf and then suddenly it all goes quiet… the fatigue slams you pretty hard.
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That level of thinking is so intense. I can’t relate at all to the perfection you need to be feeling to get out there and be on your game.
Yeah, and you can get jaded after a while. You see all the imagery and you see so much going on that you begin to just expect that people are going to come up all the time… but they don’t. Just a little bit of bad luck out there and someone would have drowned very easily. The consequences are so real.
What blows my mind about these swells is that you look at the lineup and it’s absolutely packed. Surely, not everyone can be committed to that mindset of perfection?
I think the big question is; what’s my motivation for surfing these waves? There are a few hungry, hungry dogs out there, guys who are trying to prove themselves in hope of getting onto the Big Wave World Tour, in hope of getting in the Jaws event, in hope of getting a sponsor… and that type of motivation is really, really dangerous. “This is my day, everyone’s gonna know who I am if I go on the biggest wave ever…” whenever you get that sort of attitude that’s really dangerous man.
What’s your motivation in chasing and riding these swells?
My main goal is to come safely home to my family. That’s my main goals number one, two and three. After that it’s just trying to be out there and experience days like that. I honestly don’t feel I have anything to prove to anybody except for myself, so my whole thing is like “Look, I’m gonna paddle out here, I’m gonna try not to listen to my ego, I’m gonna try and not force anything to happen. I’m gonna try and put myself in the right spot and if the right wave comes to me and it feels like I should go for it I’m gonna try and really commit to it.” Other than that I’m not gonna do anything stupid because I’ve got responsibilities.
It sounds like you learn so much about who you are, where you’re at and what you’re doing with your life when you’ve got that kind of self-awareness?
The brain uses a lot of energy to focus when you’re sitting out there and a set comes and you start scratching for the horizon and you’re scared that you’re a little too far in and you might get caught. Or when you’re getting sucked over the falls, everything in that moment and from that perspective allows you to have a really clear head. Things that are actually important, you can really figure out what matters most to you when you’re stuck under that much water for a long time (laughs).
People dedicate their lives to all sorts of physical and spiritual pursuits in the hope of finding that sort of clarity!
Oh, you can have a super cosmic conversation about exactly that. It’s a really unique experience to push your self that far, to be out there and experience that level of fear and then try and figure out how to come to terms with it. Because there’s a lot of fear involved. I don’t care what anybody says it’s scary out there.
Where does the day before yesterday sit for you in comparison to the best big wave sessions you’ve had over the past decade?
It was historic in every way. We’ve never paddled it that big. We’ve never seen it that clean all day. We had it in 2012 and that was really good for half a day, from 2pm till dark it was really glassy and big but it was bigger and more consistent two days ago than 2012. It was definitely the biggest and cleanest I have ever seen it and not only since we’ve been paddling it, but also, like if you go through all those old Jaws days of Laird and those guys towing, you will never find a day that big or that clean. I don’t think people really understand how rare that is. Last time it was like that may have been 20 years ago.
It couldn’t be less than 15 years ago. And for me it was significant in a special way because I’m always wondering how many Jaws sessions I have left in me. I’m very realistic about my age and my goals and what I want to do and I was out there and I was conscious of this thought I was having which was, “This is the best I will ever surf Jaws. This is the best I will ever see it from the water.” Because it’s so rare to see it like that and I guarantee I will not be surfing Jaws when it gets like that again. So that was a cool thought to have. I was stoked that I got to experience that because if it happened three or four years from now I might not be out there.
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And with that understanding comes a feeling of gratitude and you’re free to enjoy all of it a lot more.
Yeah, and I did. I had a great day man. I was super stoked. It was really difficult that day. I mean a lot of really good surfers, Jamie Mitchell for example, I consider him one of the best big wave riders – his technical ability, his fitness, his mental game, he’s very fired up and he’s an aggressive surfer and he always gets good waves – he only caught one wave in six hours that day. Billy Kemper, he just won the Jaws event, he’s super dominant out there a lot of the time and he only caught one wave that day too and I think he ate shit on it. It was big and perfect and the best it ever gets and even so, a lot of really top surfers had a really difficult time out there. So I was really grateful to get a handful of really great waves.
How was the vibe in the water compared to the first Jaws swell when the comp ran? Was it a more enjoyable space to be in this time around?
Oh yeah, much more enjoyable on this swell. I was talking to Dave Wassel about it today and he was saying that he wishes that they didn’t have the contest when they did so that they could have run this swell… and I couldn’t have disagreed more. The Jaws event was a huge success and everything but personally I don’t like to compete at all so I was so stoked to be able to freesurf all day. To not be in a specific heat and to not have that pressure of like “Hey your heat’s on, you gotta surf right now. And if you don’t catch a wave in the next hour... you lose.” I got to sit out there for two hours and get the waves I really wanted.
After watching the big wave events at Jaws and Todos it seems really obvious that the standard competition format of heats working towards a final throughout the day just doesn’t make sense.
It doesn’t. Almost always the best surfing in big waves happens in freesurfs. Ninety-nine percent of the time. And until the guy who wins the Big Wave World Tour is the same guy who everyone agrees is the best big wave rider then it’s always gonna be that way. Big waves and surf comps are a super difficult fit.
The bar has been raised again with this Jaws session and I guess the obvious question now is, where to from here? Is it equipment that allows you to actually start turning on these waves? Is it hunting even bigger surf? Where does it go after what we’ve seen over the past month?
I don’t think we’ve seen a ceiling yet as far as size goes. There are certain swell directions for Jaws that make it easier to surf than what we saw the other day, and if you got it glassy with that different swell direction I think you could actually catch a much bigger wave. I mean, it’s possible, I don’t want to do it but I think it’s possible to catch a wave quite a bit bigger than that wave Aaron Gold caught. I wouldn’t want to do it but it’s possible. And I think the equipment will change. You could see that a lot of the guys who caught waves that day… they basically just went straight. They did amazing to make the drop, incredible, but you could see their boards didn’t want to react, they weren’t able to draw a line, they weren’t able to get on edge halfway down the face like they needed to successfully ride the wave.
I think Albee Layer is onto something for sure. Not that you need to ride an 8’6” on that wave that Aaron Gold caught but, I will always ride a 10’6” out Jaws, and I rode a 9’6” out there yesterday and felt super, super good. I felt like I was able to make much quicker turns and more subtle adjustments on the wave which was super exciting because I was able ride the wave differently. And that’s what it’s all about. I watch Kai Lenny out there and Albee and they surf the wave really, really good. They’re actually surfing the wave, they’re not just charging. It’s their performance on the wave itself that’s incredible and a lot of that comes down to the fact that they’re on the right equipment.
I have to ask you about that drop from the first swell, because even watching it at home, when you got stuck up in the lip, I felt like I was choking on an avocado seed.
(Laughs) Oh dude, I was already taking my breath. I was already preparing for a super long hold down. I was positive I was eating it on that wave. I was out of control. I don’t know how to explain it and I’m sure there’re people out there who think I knew what I was doing and I stuck it or whatever, but I literally just landed on my board and somehow rode out of it. I could do that another 99 times and I’d fall every time.
Tom Carroll was saying in a Coastalwatch interview yesterday that he wondered how you guys deal with a beat down in surf that size – which is interesting because he’s no stranger to getting absolutely flogged. Can you enlighten us as what goes on?
I did a breath holding class and I got taught what to do right before a big hold down, so if I’m at the base of a wave and I can see it coming and I have a couple of seconds, like three seconds, then I do that breath sequence. The biggest thing is not to panic. The most dangerous thing for your breath hold is panicking. You have to learn how to not fight it because even if you get held down at North Narrabeen on a big day and you’re underwater for a long time the moment you start struggling and fighting you’re burning up your energy and burning up your breath. It’s like stepping on the accelerator in your car it just burns up all your gas. So if you’re able to go with the flow and relax you can hold your breath way, way longer. And if you have a vest and your vest is inflated then you’re able to not panic so much because you know you’re going to come up eventually and so you can kind of just kick back… even though you’re getting absolutely destroyed (laughs).
I’ve always tried to imagine what the human body looks like during a really heavy wipeout, but with the water removed. It would be so amazing to see how many cartwheels and contortions our bodies make under there.
It really would be. I think the technology is there, surely some sort of science team could put someone in a lycra suit with senses all over it and they could do a computerized model of what sort of stress and trauma the body goes through when you get bounced at Jaws. That could be frightening.
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