Kohl Christenson, on his way to a swift beat-down in Fiji. Photo: Glaser

At some point in your life, the ocean will give you a beating that might make you question your commitment to surfing. Boards will be broken, reefs will be encountered, and egos will be dragged through the gutter. To keep you both physically and mentally prepared for these situations, we spoke to Hawaiian big-wave charger Kohl Christenson about surviving the wipeout of your life.

Prepare your mind and body. If your head isn’t right to take a bad wipeout, you aren’t going to maximize your potential. That being said, if you don’t feel physically ready to surf big waves, then your head will never be there. To do it well, it has to be a combination of being physically fit and mentally prepared. For me, cardio workouts are an extremely important part of my routine. I love to mix in swimming with some beach runs, and lately, I’ve been including some plyometric workouts in my program. Being able to hold your breath well is obviously very important and I’ve found that the best way to improve in that area for me is free diving. Whether it’s diving for fish or just swimming around Waimea Bay in the summer, just keep doing it. If you’re ever in a bad place, you’ll be glad that at least you’re fit.

Anybody can get in over their head. I’ve seen guys out at places they really shouldn’t be, but in those instances, you help them get in and hopefully they learn something and prepare themselves more for it for the next time around…if they still want it. As an example, two days ago Greg Long had to help a guy in from really solid Puerto Escondido. It was heavy with the current and the rips and the guy lost his board and didn’t know how to deal with the situation. Before you put yourself in big surf, you need to ask yourself these kinds of questions. “What do I do if I lose my board? How do I get in? Where is the current going to take me and how do I deal with it? Will I be able to handle it if one of those set waves lands on my head?” You need to run through all that before you paddle out in waves of consequence.

Sooner or later, it’s going to happen. I always figure that I’m going to eat it or get caught inside at least once during a big-wave session. If I don’t then I feel like I got really lucky or I wasn’t pushing it hard enough. So I imagine it and mentally prepare myself for what that’s going to be like beforehand. When it happens and I’m taking a beating I try to shut down my body and just relax. To be honest, I actually enjoy the helplessness of the situation sometimes. Sometimes you really have no control over the outcome, but in the back of your mind, you know eventually you will come up so there isn’t much you can do but enjoy the ride.

A lot of times you don’t really have a choice in how you fall. I had a wipeout once where I was down two waves and came up coughing blood. But to prevent that from happening, for the most part, it’s all about penetrating the surface when you fall. If you can get deep enough on your wipeout and let the wave roll over you, that would pretty much be the ideal way to eat it. But then again, that’s not always the case. I also try to cover my head to protect it from the reef or my board. I’ve had instances at Pipeline where if I hadn’t covered my face or head with my arms then I might not be here today.

Know when to call it quits. I’ve had several two-wave hold downs, and you can usually hear or even sense the second wave go by. If you get a good breath before you go under, they aren’t as bad as you think. It can also be tricky because you don’t want to come up to stare down the next wave breaking right on top of you. I’ve had a situation at Maverick’s where I was down a really long time and I really needed a breath. It was heavy, deep black water and I was trying to pull myself up to the surface with my leash but just wasn’t making any ground. I knew the next wave was coming but I didn’t feel like I could handle two waves because of the small breath I got before I went down. All of a sudden, the energy of the wave stopped pulling me down and the color of the water lightened a little and I decided to use what little energy I had left to breast-stroke to the surface. I went for it and just as I broke the surface, the next 20-footer broke top to bottom just a few feet from my head. I got a little more than half a breath before it hit, but just that taste of air saved my life. The next wave was so violent that I went in and called it a day. Sometimes you just have to know when to bow out. Go with your instincts and if you’re feeling tired and not on top of your game don’t push it. The ocean will always win.

You’ve got to have each other’s backs. We’ve all put in a lot of time preparing ourselves to handle the worst-case scenario. A lot of us have actually been doing CPR classes and we want to set up a more structured protocol that we can all follow so that if something terrible does happen, we know what steps to take. Danilo Couto has been really involved in the creation of a big-wave safety system. We have to realize there won’t always be lifeguards out there watching us and that we have to be prepared to help our friends if the worst happens.