“So, what do you do?”
You know that thing when you’re at a party and it’s kind of tedious having to explain your job to people? Well, I’m no different. My answer can be summed up in four words: professional big-wave surfer. But as the follow-up questions come, it gets a bit more complicated. To put it simply, I chase ocean-born storms — the largest I can possibly find— all around the planet with the goal of riding the waves they create. Like a doctor, I feel like I’m always on call. As the saying goes, “Time and tide wait for no man.”
Surfing, that’s the fun part.
But there’s another part of my job that’s just as important: getting there. Seems obvious, right? You have to get to the wave to catch the wave. The big-wave surfer’s mantra might be the famous line, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Big, beautiful, pristine waves come and go all the time, and no human is there to ride them. That’s the big difference between surfing and big-wave surfing. If you’re not there at the right time, you’re suddenly no longer a big-wave surfer — you’re just a weary traveler standing on a beach, staring out at a flat ocean. Like a lot of sports, luck and timing both play huge roles.
Looking at big-wave surfing as a job, this is how I’d break it down.
First, you have to be a meteorologist. Or at least, you have to be an amateur meteorologist who thinks he’s a real one. Basically, you have to obsess over weather patterns, day and night. Some people call me a “storm chaser,” but most of my storm chasing starts in front of a computer, scouring the Internet. I refresh swell reports like it’s Fantasy Football.
Next, you have to be a good travel agent. You can start to see a storm brewing about five days out. That’s when you first “see” a wave. Surfing is a laid-back lifestyle, but you have to be anything but laid back about logistics. Everything is last minute and you’re always rushing. Then you have a choice: Do you go? If the answer is yes, you usually have one-to-two days to get halfway around the world. If you don’t drop everything right away, no matter what engagements or responsibilities you have, you’ll get to a beach 13,000 miles away and miss the whole thing. It’s happened to every big-wave surfer.
No matter how diligent you are about logistics, there is always randomness. Things can and will go wrong. One stupid little technicality can sink everything. I’ve got a bunch of stories like that.
A few years ago, there was a South African big-wave event at a spot called Dungeons. I had never been there, but its reputation preceded it: Dungeons is a big, spooky place with unpredictable swell that has a shitload of great white sharks. You need at least three days to get to South Africa from Hawaii. But as I found out, three days is the minimum cushion — that’s if you want to be absolutely wrecked and jet-lagged and basically go straight into the water from the taxicab you took from the airport.
So that’s pretty much what I did.
On the way to South Africa, I was connecting in DC when the customs agent looked at my passport and shook his head.
“You need a full page,” the customs agent said without looking up.
My five surfboards were already checked. The plane was fueled up and ready to go.
I had plenty of open spots on my passport for a stamp. I pointed to an open space, on a back page, right below a recent stamp from Fiji and another one from Mexico.
“You need a full blank page, sir.”
This can’t be happening.
I started rambling to the customs guy about how I had already traveled from Hawaii, about how I was in a rush, about my five surfboards, about the sharks and about this place called “Dungeons.” He looked at me like I was an absolute madman. Time was ticking: I had T-minus three days to get to a beach in South Africa and I was stuck in a hotel with a window view of the Washington Monument.
Someone at the passport office answered the next day.
“Yeah, we can schedule you in on an appointment to get more pages put in your passport.”
And I was like, “Great. When is that?”
“Next opening’s three months from now.”
Well, uh, that’s not gonna work.
If big-wave surfing were a desk job, I’d think I’d be the guy always running late to the board meeting. You’re constantly going after a moving target.
I figured that the next morning I’d just show up at the passport office in downtown DC and sort it out and be on my way. But I’d never been to DC for any real amount of time — I’m a Hawaii kid. I learned something that day about our nation’s capital: There is no traffic like DC traffic. It took me three and a half hours to get there. The President must have been signing four bills into law that day. But when I got there, I willed my way to the front of the line and I walked out with a passport full of new pages in it.
The Dungeons event was two days away.
The cab waited for me the whole time and then took me to Reagan National for the last flight to Johannesburg that day. The cab fare turned out to be $500.
Three flights later, I landed in South Africa … but wouldn’t you know … my surfboards didn’t make it. In this sport, if you don’t have patience naturally, you sure better build it fast.
There was no time to waste. I borrowed a board and jumped into the water. The waves at Dungeons were giant, nearing 50 feet — the locals said they were the biggest they’d ever been for this event.
The jet lag must have mixed well with my adrenaline because I won my first two heats and ended up in the finals. That’s when I went for a giant wave in the final and my board snapped, sliding out from under me and hitting me in the side of my head. My eardrum blew out and I was spinning. Jet skis took me back to the dock I literally had blood coming out the side of my head. At that point my body kind of just gave up. It’s as though my body knew the battle was over. I went into a wave of cramps.
At the same moment, the airport delivery van pulled up with my lost boards. All I could do was smile. The funniest thing about it all was that I actually won some decent prize money for making it to the finals. But after paying my friend back for the board I broke and taking into account all the extra travel expenses, I probably broke even in the end. I was lying there with the paramedics on the Dungeons beach, looking out at 50-foot waves, thinking, What a way to take a vacation.
If I knew it was going to be that much of a mission, would I still have done the trip?
One hundred percent yes. If you’re in my profession, when you have to see about a wave, you have to see about a wave. There are always silver linings. With my blown-out eardrum, I couldn’t fly back home, so I was stuck there for 11 days. After I healed up, another amazing swell came to Dungeons. But by then I had the beach all to myself. I got some of the best waves of my life. No one was watching that time around, but I didn’t care. The ocean gives and it takes.
One aspect of my job that’s similar to other sports is this: You’ve got to be obsessed, or it’s a waste of time. The advice I give young surfers is, “You better love it. Period.” If it’s in your DNA and it’s the kind of person you are, do it. Otherwise, it’s not worth it. People don’t stay in big-wave surfing for long. You’ve got to risk your life each and every time out — and you’re going to end up eventually having a really close call, or you’re even going to see somebody die. And even if you can deal with the grueling aspect of it, it’ll turn your life and the lives of the people that are around you upside down at times. By now, I’ve achieved a certain level of success in the sport, and I’m grateful for that. But in my hungrier days, when I was rubbing a couple pennies together and had to come back from a trip successful or risk a massive financial loss, it’s not that glamorous at all.
The surfer’s relationship with nature may be the most important part of my job. I see surfers as the environment’s first responders. We experience the ocean firsthand. We’re the first to see when it’s polluted. We’re the first to see when a beach is contaminated. As surfers, we value the ocean like a family member, not an economic resource. The hard part is whenever you say you’re a surfer, some people automatically assume you’re a dumbass. They assume you’re an airhead or an idealist. There’s always that dismissive aspect that you have to get over.
Take climate change, for instance. When surfers talk about acidity in the ocean or rising sea levels, some people are like, “Look at that surf bum. He doesn’t understand economics. He doesn’t understand the business world.”
Hold up. Surfers do business, too. We own businesses. I own several businesses myself. But good business shouldn’t mean destruction of marine life and it shouldn’t mean denying the effects of human lifestyles. Most of the places I go, I’m coming in contact with people who live off the ocean. Most of these places are very poor countries. Whether it’s the local surfers or the local fisherman, a lot of people tell me how their environment is being sold or used up in the name of big business.
Where I grew up, on the North Shore of Oahu, is one of the most heavily poisoned pieces of dirt in the United States. In fact, Hawaii is ground zero for chemical companies to test out new pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in open-air fields. Because we have an extra grow season, and poison laws are very much more lax because none of those crops get used for human consumption, Hawaii — the picture of paradise — is home to the most toxic land in America. I try to tell people: It’s not just things we see happening in far-off places. That’s why I call us the first responders: The people who are in the ocean the most are going to notice changes first. It’s up to us to roll our sleeves up. I’m proud that surfers are some of the biggest doers when it comes to environmental protection. As it is said, “To whom much is given, much is required.”
Surfers are social creatures, but a lot of big-wave surfing is very solo. You have to be comfortable being by yourself. You don’t have to be a loner, but there are lots of times when it’s just you and the ocean. Or you traveling solo to meet up with the rest of the crew at some far-flung locale. I like it that way.
Surfing might be the oldest sport in the world — or it’s close. Its beauty lies in how simple and timeless it is. When you’re paddling into a wave on your own power, you’re literally comparing yourself with every human that has ever been in an ocean. You’re taking a plank of floating material under your own power and catching a wave. Everybody in the history of mankind that’s been around an ocean at least had the opportunity to do that very same thing.
Think about something like space travel. How many people get to go to the moon? It’s such a select few that have had the opportunity. You have to have been born in a certain era and place, and then get lucky to land a job at NASA, and so on.
I love other sports, but surfing is great because stats don’t matter. Big-wave surfers aren’t there to pad the stats; we’re there to surf the biggest damn waves on the planet and live to tell about it. You can’t blame a weird referee call if you lose the competition. The ocean doesn’t care what connections you have or what color your skin is, how much money you have — none of that comes into play. To me, it’s the most even playing field there is, and I love seeing who rises to the surface out there. Sometimes it’s some of my friends who are big-wave surfers or it’s maniac bar fighters who love adventure. Other times, you’ll have a guy who’s the most soft-spoken and gentle guy — and then you get him out in the ocean and he turns into a wild animal. It’s so cool because you can see what’s really inside people. Once you’re out there, you can’t fake it.
But surfing is not all this spiritual stuff all the time. You have to be a little crazy, too. You definitely have to be a little impulsive. However, you can’t be reckless. It’s a fine line that’s built into the evolution of our sport. How many waves seemed totally crazy 50 years ago — suicide mission-type waves — that now people are riding all the time?
But I have zero illusions about the kinds of risks that I’m taking. I’ve seen it go bad plenty of times, so I don’t take it lightly. I’m not a daredevil. If guys act belligerently and think they’re going to just go charge on every giant wave, your number could come up. Everything that pro big-wave surfers do is calculated.
We study, train and prepare, like any athlete. Then we size up the rising swell and try to push the limits of what humans can do. But before any of that, we have to actually get to the wave.
Which reminds me, there’s a swell report I’m supposed to be checking.
Mark Healey is the co-founder of Waterman's Pack, a curated package of water-related products that arrive in the mail every two months and benefit a charity of the consumer’s choice.