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Big Wave Surfing: Problems and Potential Solutions

I’d like to talk about what’s right and what’s wrong in surfing big waves, and about the experience required of surfers to be able to ride big waves in high surf conditions safely without jeopardizing other people. The world seems to be going really mad right now with extreme sports, including surfing big waves. I think that everybody has the right to surf and there’s nobody that can say they can’t, but I also think that when you step into big wave surfing you should be qualified so that you don’t create problems for other people; so that other people don’t have to stop what they’re doing to save your ass.

For example, in mid-May 2006 Laniakea was a good example of too many surfers in one spot. I mean it’s not even funny to go out and surf waves when there are too many people in the water because 1) you really can’t ride the wave, you’ve got to ride around people, 2) there’s a lack of respect in the water and 3) people start fighting and people stop respecting each other even more. You’re out in the water and you’re going “What am I doing here? I’d rather be at home watching cartoons with my kid.” BUT on a positive note, surfing is the most beautiful sport in the world and everybody wants to do it. I think that in coming times, with the surfing population growing, people should become better water people so that when they go surfing at North Shore surf spots or anywhere around the world, they have a background on what to do and what not to do. It seems like now we’re getting so many people that don’t know what they’re doing, and that creates a big problem for surfers who know what they’re doing. It’s super- frustrating when you’ve got people in the way or people that don’t respect you or people that should be at beginner spots. Hawaii is blessed with channels so people are able to get in the channel and end up in the line-up very easily. You could be coming across on a really nice wave and have to straighten out because there are too many people in the way. You know, like I said before, the world is made for everyone and of course everyone has to get along. Peace, and so forth. But I feel if there was some sort of structure through which surfers would put themselves, there would be a whole lot less frustration in the ocean.

What do you suggest as a solution?

I think children, when you’re young, you learn real quickly. You learn from elders. When someone tells you something you absorb it. Unfortunately the older you get the less you listen to other people and I think that is probably our biggest problem with older surfers, is because they have egos and they’re not going to listen to somebody tell them what they did wrong or what they can do to make it right. I think that people should take beginner surf lessons and listen to their instructors. That’s what they’re there for. And when they take it to the next step, they can get more of an advanced instructor to instruct them through areas such as paddling and punching under waves and surfing in stronger elements. It’s kind of like taking a drivers license test. It’s going to come to that because the ocean is just too small for as many people as there are going to be in the ocean, and pretty soon tragic things are going to happen to people. A lot of people are going to start drowning, people are going to get run over and hurt real badly. And I want to make a change for the better.

Learning from instructors and mentors

There are areas in each level of surfing that people can learn about. Find someone who is right for that level. For instance, Kahea Hart. He instructs the menehunes and the younger generation of surfers, and they listen to him. He nurtures them and chaperones them around the world and in the water, and they learn the foundation blocks that are really necessary to take it to the next level. And there I am for the next level. They’re not asking me things they’ve asked Kahea. They’re asking me things that I know about and I can share with them. So one step at a time. I feel like it’s really important to be a knowledgeable ocean-going person.

Lifeguards and Waimea Bay

North Shore lifeguards are first responders, the guardian angels, there to help and protect you. They’re not there to hold your hand and they are not hired babysitters. Know your limits. When in doubt, don’t go out. On Super Bowl Sunday, I saw some surfers being rescued twice in one session. And there were fifteen people riding each wave. Very dangerous.

Gosh, it would’ve been my claim to fame to go out and catch another big wave at Waimea Bay on Super Bowl Sunday this year. It would’ve been so fun. Sturmar and I sat on the other side of the bay and we counted a hundred and fifteen people in the lineup. A hundred and fifteen people! When the sets came, it was so crowded that no one could catch a wave. It was unbelievable the lack of knowledge that I saw in the lineup at Waimea Bay [that day]. Mark Dombroski was working as Rescue that day; he was on the rescue jet ski. I saw him pick people up who fell off and lost their board and they wouldn’t even attempt to swim in. They would swim into the channel, Mark would take them into the very corner pocket at Waimea Bay, he would go back out to the lineup, and fifteen minutes later he’d have to go over and rescue the same person again, bring them back inside and drop them off. These people were so inexperienced with Waimea Bay, with the shorebreak, with their lives, that they couldn’t even swim in. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Mark said he did over a hundred rescues and assists with Abe Lerner that day. They just went berserk whereas before it was just a group of guys like myself and Tommy Nellis, Peter Cole, Bill Sickler and Booby Jones. Peter Cole, Bill Sickler and Booby Jones were always out there telling us what to do and what not to do, so we learned. We learned so quickly because these guys were such good instructors and teachers, and they liked us so they shared with us. Now there’s none of that sharing going on. It seems like guys say, “Well Double D’s not around anymore. Bill Sickler’s not around anymore,” and they defer the responsibility of helping and teaching others. As much as we’d like to surf at Waimea Bay again we know not to go out there and put ourselves on the line and get killed by some guy that doesn’t even belong out there. This goes back to the foundations of beginner-to-intermediate-to-pro. If you want to learn, you come to a person like me so that when you go into these line-ups, you in turn are able to teach the new generations, and then everybody learns from that. Now it is so out of control. Like I said, the world is going berserk with all these extreme sports, and surfing, being on that list, has created a lot of people that shouldn’t be out there in those extreme conditions.

Do you think lifeguards shouldn’t be rescuing the reckless people who need to “learn their lesson”?

Well, in this day and age, that is a no-no. It’s a public beach. It’s a public ocean. For a lifeguard to turn their back on someone would be extremely liable. Someone could really be hurt. I think the lifeguards should pay a lot of attention to the people in the lineup, go into the lineups and when they see people that don’t belong there the lifeguards should pull them out of the lineup and explain to them why they shouldn’t be there. And they should probably take those people back to the beach or let them go in on their own.

Lifeguards are outnumbered tremendously and they’re overworked. I think that the North Shore needs to have another dozen lifeguards when the surf is up, when there is a high surf advisory or high surf warning. ** And surfers should be good swimmers. If you’re a good swimmer, you can be a good surfer. Every surfer should be familiar with basic first aid and CPR so they can be first responders! Lifeguards are there for a reason, to assist, and when you need more than that they’re there to save you. But they’re not out there to pull everyone out of a situation that they shouldn’t put themselves into.

I think there needs to be patrol out there to let the inexperienced guys know that they’re getting in way over their heads. The same thing’s happening with tow-surfing. It’s happening in all sports. Unfortunately surfing is the favorite one! So we’re getting a lot more surfers who want to be like us big- wave surfers, but forgot about how long we’ve been surfing. I think the large companies that target the big-wave industry are aggravating the problem. A thousand dollars a foot? “Great, all I gotta do is go out there and catch a fifty-footer and I get fifty grand!” But now they’ve upped it to eighty. On a positive note, Brad Gerlach is a great surfer. He’s a great waterman and he deserved to win the XXL Awards. I’m glad that now they’re focusing more attention on paddle-in surfers rather than just tow-surfers. I think it demands a lot of knowledge to go out and catch a twenty foot wave. It takes a long, long time to do that. And anyone who’s ever caught a twenty foot wave knows how long it took them to do that and how long it’s going to take to catch another one. It’s not something where you go out and catch three or four in one day.

Lifeguards and myself and people that have a lot of ocean knowledge are in a really good position right now to educate the future big-wave surfers. I hope this blog helps in some way.

**High surf warnings – 25 ft plus waves
**High surf advisories – 15 ft plus waves

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