In this picture the wind was blowing strongly offshore, creating a mist flying off the top of this backlit wave on the West Shore, Oahu, Hawaii

Sorry to break it to you, but if you plan on living a life of surfing and want to progress into more challenging wave riding experiences, you will get caught inside when a huge set comes rolling in at some point in your progression. You will get held under and dragged and tossed, pushed to the bottom and/or raked across the reef. Let’s hope it’s not all at once, but the assertion here is that you can’t push your surfing without venturing outside the edge of your comfort zone. But the question arises (and I seem to get an email every month or so on the subject): what do I do when I get caught inside by a huge set?

The assumption is that Mark Healy, the Long brothers, or Laird Hamilton have some go-to techniques they use in heavy situations. You know…like some kind of step-by-step process that will insure safety. The answer is yes and no. Those guys have one VERY important way to insure survival in heavy aquatic situations: they surf huge waves all the time. That builds loads of confidence that no matter how heavy things get, they’ll make it. It’s not some specific process but rather a gradual building of bigger waves and gnarlier conditions. Each wipeout and each hold down will establish what you can endure and survive. I mean really think about it, for all the millions of surfers paddling out every year, relatively few lose their lives or are seriously hurt. However, that reassuring statistical reality does not represent how many surfers get in over their heads or into situations that get way out of hand. We’re talking board short soiling events that make one question his/her place on this earth. The ocean is heavy duty and you need to be ready if you plan to paddle out in big waves. So the number one way to stay safe in big waves is to slowly gain lots of experience.

But you wanted some quick and dirty tips. So let’s get to some basic tips to help you the next time you get caught inside by a huge set.

#1. I will start out with the most basic, most important, and most difficult concept to master – Don’t Panic!!!!
 Remember, most waves (even on those giant days) will hold you down for far less than a minute, usually somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds, so knowing that can empower you. Practice holding your breath in a pool and you’ll see that your lungs can hold much more time than that.  Granted, things change when you are getting rag-dolled down into the dark and turbulent depths, but again, with experience you will come to the realization that the wave will let you up pretty quickly.

#2. Okay, that’s dealing with one wave, but if there are 3 more right behind it? Well, that’s simple. Get a breath before the next one comes. Again, one good breath is all you need if you stay calm. One issue that arises is when the white water forms a layer of foam on the surface. This is sketchy because when you get your breath. You are also getting a lung full of vapor. So when you come up, make it a habit, to get your head as high as possible between waves just in case.

#3. Use the wave’s power. Don’t fight the natural force of the oncoming wave. Think about it, the wave is actually trying to get you to shore, so don’t fight it. Let it take you as far in as possible. This will get you out of the impact zone. Note: some factors such as cliffs, exposed reef, and jagged rocks can negate this tip.
#4. This last tip is up for debate, but in my experience, I try to hold on to my board at all costs. This, of course, depends on the situation. If  the lip is coming down directly on you point blank, it’s best to toss your board  to avoid several possible problems, but if the wave has already fully broken and is essentially a massive, rolling ball of white water – hold on to your board. Its flotation will help the wave bring you farther in towards shore and will be there for you after the wave has had its way with you. Plus, that will help avoid breaking your leash which is never good.

The Real Deal
These are simply helpful ideas as opposed to concrete strategies as big wave situations are as varied as waves themselves. Remember, the best way to survive big waves is to slowly build experience so you can make confident split-second decisions as conditions get hairy. That said…go rip!