Riding & Surviving The Waves

I’m not a surfer, but I write this from Santa Cruz, California where surfing is everywhere. During my visit here to see a close friend, I read a book he gave me, written by a local surfing legend, Frosty Hesson. The book, Making Mavericks, contains a number of important lessons which the author identified on his way through life, and which he has passed on to many aspiring surfers over the years in order to help them become not just better surfers, but also better human beings. This post touches on what that story has taught me.

One lesson – work with what you’re being given – pertains specifically to competition surfing in which surfers have only 15 minutes per heat to catch and ride three scoring waves. Inexperienced surfers easily fall into the trap of waiting for the big waves in order to have a chance of scoring the most points. As the clock runs down they continue to wait for something which isn’t coming and, having passed up the average waves offered by the ocean, they exit the tournament. No matter who you are, how hard you have worked or what you think you deserve, you must take what the ocean gives you.

The book’s main lesson for me came from Hesson’s training of a keen 12-year-old surfer named Jay Moriarity who was prepared to do whatever necessary to achieve his goal of becoming a big-wave surfer. He was told from the start that he had to be in peak condition to tackle Mavericks at Half Moon Bay, the biggest waves around. Peak condition meant being in shape physically, mentally and emotionally. It took years of training, initially just to be able to take part in competitions and then, later, in order to be ready to surf the waves at Mavericks.

Hesson taught Moriarity to be more observant of the surfing conditions and to be more aware of his own body. He taught him to visualise his surfing when he wasn’t in the water so that, when he had to, he could react to the conditions without having to think. He had him write essays on all sorts of subjects about surfing and life, in order to stimulate the kind of reflection necessary to be the best. Moriarity did everything asked of him. He trained his body, prepared his mind, and observed his environment. He practised holding his breath for as long as possible and he worked on remaining calm when doing so, rather than panicking the way most of us do when our heads are underwater against our will.

The reason for such an intense, all-encompassing training was twofold. Only by practising his art and being fully aware of his body and his surroundings was he able to surf each wave like no-one else could; and only by being physically and mentally strong, as well as emotionally equipped, was he able to survive a wipeout described in the book as one of the most spectacular failures the surfing world has ever seen.

He was dumped onto the ocean floor by a 50-foot wave and pinned there by the sheer volume of water. His board was broken in two and the people watching thought he would surely die. Under water he waited patiently on the sea bed for the chaos above him to subside before fighting his way back to the surface. Then, after claiming his spare board, he paddled out and carried on surfing, nailing every wave he caught for the rest of the day.

Life is not just about performing to the best of our abilities whenever we get the chance, or about working with whatever we’re given. It’s also about being fully prepared for when everything comes crashing down. When the waves pin us to the bottom of the ocean, our job is to remain calm and have confidence in our capacity to make it through. We can only do that if we have put the work in.

As Hesson writes: ‘Your peace comes from knowing you’ve done all the things that you could have done. That’s why you don’t shortcut your training’. It’s a thrill to ride the waves, but we have to make sure we give ourselves every chance of surviving them too.

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