HOW TO CATCH A 20-FOOTER
Shane Dorian tells you how to get the ride of your life (even if the thought of 20 feet makes you pale to the gills)…
Why would anyone wanna ride a 20-foot wave? Why not? What kinda reason could you make up not to ride the wave of your life?
Oh, you’re scared. That’s the same reason to paddle into a six-foot wave when you’re used to four-foot waves. We’re surfers, right. We all want to get better and push onto the next level. We all want to experience something new and something different. And for those that are into that, maybe you, paddling into a 20-foot wave is about as challenging and exhilarating as it gets.
Wait, what’s that about dying? Yeah, that is the big elephant in the room. But more people die in little waves than big waves. I know, it ain’t much comfort. But when you get in the ocean that’s part of the deal. The bigger it is, the more the chances go up. But, listen: even the craziest big-wave surfer has more of a chance of dying in a car crash en route to wherever than from having the air squeezed out of him.
That said, let me make something clear. The maybe-dying part doesn’t get me off at all. I don’t get some kind of thrill from the surfing-is-deadly thing. I ain’t in a hurry to add martyrdom to my vices. I love to surf, man. It’s something I just dig. Today I was surfing with my kid and it was fun foot and I couldn’t have been happier.
“The maybe-dying part doesn’t get me off at all. I don’t get some kind of thrill from the surfing-is-deadly thing. I ain’t in a hurry to add martyrdom to my vices. I love to surf, man.”
Anyway, let’s do this thing. First up, the chances of all the ingredients coming together to actually paddle into a 20-footer at Cloudbreak (Fiji) or Mavericks (California) or Jaws (Maui), Punta de Lobos (Peru) or Belharra (France) is low. Everything has to be right. The waves have to turn on. You can’t be sick, you can’t be out of shape, and your boards have to be ready to go. So you gotta be patient.
Butterflies? Yeah, I get ’em too. Serious butterflies. From the moment I see a potential swell on the map to packing my boards I get butterflies. And if it’s extraordinary swell, like Jaws or Mavs, I get a genuine fear. But all that nervousness, all that fear, goes away when you get into the lineup. And it should for you, too. If it doesn’t, if you’re hesitating or overcome by nervousness, maybe it just ain’t your day.
But then again maybe you just need a push in the right direction. I calm myself by thinking about what a special day this is; that it may not be like this again for years. I try and get myself into a mental state where I want to push myself.
So what does a 20-foot wave look like? It looks scary as shit. There’s a huge difference between a 15-foot wave and a 20-foot wave. It’s not just a difference of five feet. It’s bigger, it’s thicker, it’s more dangerous (sorry!). There’s a huge separation of people who surf 20-feet and those who surf 15 feet. Twenty feet is where it gets really, really serious.
What kinda skill set you need? Not a lot. You really just need to the balls to paddle in. To ride one well requires some serious skill but just to make it down the face, you don’t have to be a great surfer.
Now let’s paddle in. If you’re in the right spot, whip it around, put your head down and go. You can’t hesitate. Head down and totally commit. Do I hesitate sometimes? Of courses. I hesitate all the time. Sometimes for good reason, sometimes it’s a big mistake, sometimes it’s genuinely out of fear. It’s part of the deal. I’ve looked at a lot of good waves and not gone. My general theory is that there’s no wave worth killing yourself for.
Once you’re at the point of no return, your tail is lifting and your about to drive down the face, everything, all that nervousness disappears. Sure, you’re hyper-aware of making a mistake but, in the moment, you’re focussed and completely in the zone. You think of nothing and, instead, you’re relying on all your past experiences to get you through.
When everything goes right, like at Puerto Escondido recently, it’s like being a super fucking ugly guy and having sex with the hottest super model on the planet. It’s like you pulled off the impossible. Because everythitng in the universe has to align for you to get this ride that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. And there should only be a handful of these in any surfers’ life, waves that you truly remember. That feeling is rare and elusive as hell. It’s a mix of pure elation and accomplishment.
When everything goes wrong, it’s the shittiest feeling. You immediately go from this mode where you’re out there thinking, I’m going to charge, this is going to make my day, Why and I so fucking selfish? Why did I do this? Now I’m at the bottom of the ocean and about to drown. But you won’t drown. This is what you trained for. Remember that. Breath-holding training is important here. If you know you can handle two waves on the head, you won’t punch that big red panic button lighting up in your head. At least not straight away.
For your first 20-foot paddle experience, and obviously this depends on your ability to travel at a moment’s notice, I’d go to Belharra in France. It’s the outer reef at the port town of St-Jean-de-Luz. There are no rocks, there are channels on both sides and the wave dies out into deep water. And at 20-feet it’s barely breaking. You’ll need a ski to get out there, but I’m guessing you already figured that out.
And here’s something you may not have thought about: the comedown after such a tremendous event. It’s almost like postpartum depression. You have this crazy euphoric moment when it’s happening where you’re on this razor’s edge and you feel like you’ve reached the absolute pinnacle of your life but then…almost in slow motion… it starts to fade as you reach the channel. Even though you just rode the wave of your life and you knew it and felt it while you were riding, it evaporates as you flick off and becomes, immediately, past tense. It’s such an emotional swing! You’re definitely not high forever.