Surfers survive big waves by learning how to fall with the least risk of injury. This alongside specific safety equipment like buoyancy vests, jetskis, helmets and reinforced surf leashes all help big wave surfers ride and bail on large waves.
It takes years of surfing experience before you can start to tackle big waves in the double overhead range.
Whether you’re just starting to paddle out in big waves or you just want to learn more about big-wave surfing this guide’s perfect for you.
We’ll take a look at how surfers survive big waves, what happens when you fall on a big wave and some common questions we hear around the question ‘how do surfers survive big waves?’.
How do surfers survive big waves when they’re surfing
If you’re new to surfing or you haven’t surfed before the idea of surfing 30ft walls of water can seem a bit ludicrous. But there are thousands of committed individuals who devote their lives to exactly that.
Big wave surfing has grown in popularity alongside surfing’s overall growth as a sport and with the addition of ever-improving surfing equipment and apparel, it’s become much less dangerous.
Even though this has lowered the bar to entry to really succeed as a big wave surfer you need a combination of skill, experience and the equipment to back it up.
Let’s look at all the things surfers need to master to survive in big waves.
Knowing how to fall when you’re surfing big waves
Riding the largest waves on the planet requires experience in the ocean and overall water competence. A massive part of this is knowing what to do when things go wrong when you’re riding a wave.
One of the most important parts of falling on a big wave is learning how and when to jump away from your surfboard.
Get this wrong and you could end up getting ripped over the falls while still entangled with your surfboard risking a serious surfing injury.
You’ll also want to brace for impact to avoid hitting your head. This involves tucking your chin into your chest and wrapping your arms around your head while bringing up your knees to meet your chest.
This ball shape will help reduce the risk of hitting the ocean floor or suffering a dangerous head injury.
Breathing techniques for big wave surfing
Better lung capacity is critical to surviving big wave wipeouts. Surfers can be held underwater for as long as 30 seconds before they’re released from the powerful undercurrents created by large waves.
Lots of big-wave surfers on the WSL Big Wave Tour enrol in Apnea survival courses to increase their ability to hold their breath underwater during tense and stressful situations.
Ensuring you stay calm and control your breathing is a matter of life and death when you’re dealing with thousands of metric tons of water.
Intense training in and out of the ocean
Making sure your body is ready for the rigours of big-wave surfing is paramount to success. You’ll likely be paddling large distances, dealing with extreme conditions trying to pick off a suitable wave.
Diving, swimming, cross fit, yoga and various other external training will all help strengthen your body in preparation for dealing with the extreme force you’ll experience riding big waves.
Having the right surfboards
Big waves require special equipment to allow surfers to even catch and ride them. If you’re paddling into large waves you’ll need a surfboard called a ‘gun’ which is much like an oversized shortboard with significantly more length and volume.
This allows surfers to reach the speeds required to even catch large waves which would be otherwise impossible with a standard shortboard in the 6 to 7ft range.
If you’re attempting to catch big waves with the assistance of a jetski then you’ll need to invest in something called a tow board.
Tow boards are much closer to shortboards in appearance and size with the addition of two straps to allow surfers to lock their feet to the board.
This handy addition alongside the motor-powered assistance allows surfers to ride significantly shorter boards meaning more manoeuvrability on the face of the wave.
Reinforced surfboard leashes
Surfboard leashes play a critical part in how surfers survive big waves. They fasten around a surfer’s ankle and ensure they don’t lose their surfboard but they also play another perhaps more important role.
When you’re driven deep below the surface your leash can be one of the only indicators of which way is up when you’re disorientated. You can even pull yourself up to the surface using your leash making them a lifeline in heavy surf.
Big wave leashes will come with a stronger, thicker cord and will normally be much longer to account for the longer surfboards required for big wave surfing.
Buoyancy vests are a relatively recent but welcomed addition to the big wave surfing scene. They look like bulletproof vests but serve a very different function.
Each vest has pre-installed cartridges of carbon dioxide that can be released to quickly bring the wearer to the ocean’s surface after a wipeout.
How do surfers survive big waves when their leashes snap? Luck or one of these vests it’s that simple, without the assistance of your surfboard as a flotation device these vests can literally be the difference between life and death.
Jetskis have played a pivotal role in allowing big wave surfers to tackle ever more challenging slabs and otherwise unsurfable waves.
But more importantly, they’ve made surviving big waves considerably easier. With their ability to whip into the impact zone, they can quickly remove surfers from potentially life-threatening situations in a matter of seconds.
Understanding the surf spot
Great big wave surfers take time to familiarize themselves with a surf spot before they even consider paddling out and catching a wave.
They will carefully consider the ocean floor, sand, reef or coral. They’ll watch sets roll in assessing for waves that go wide rouge sets that catch the line up off guard and which waves provide the highest chance of a successful ride.
Only when armed with all of this knowledge will they consider paddling out to try and hunt down a wave to surf.
While not considered particularly cool in the world of surfing, helmets are more common in lineups all over the world especially big wave surf spots.
With many big waves breaking over a rock or coral reef the addition of a helmet to your surfing gear could save you a nasty head injury or worse drowning.
Common questions about how surfers survive big waves
We answer some of your most frequent questions surrounding how surfers survive big waves.
How do big wave surfers not drown?
With a combination of experience, training, breathing techniques and specialist safety equipment like jetskis and surfing buoyancy vests.
Do big wave surfers wear life vests?
Big wave surfers wear buoyancy vests rather than life vests. They’re preloaded with carbon dioxide capsules that the wearer can release to quickly shoot them up to the ocean’s surface after a nasty wipeout.
How long can a big wave hold you down?
With the extreme amounts of water being moved around when large waves break it can mean surfers can’t reach the surface for as long as 30 seconds, making lung capacity and a calm mind state critical to survival.