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Wave Warrior 1 | 2

Why are larger waves so much harder to surf? Is it because it's difficult to catch up to the speed of the wave?

Before the advent of tow-in surfing, in which surfers have the benefit of the aid of a personal watercraft helping them catch waves, we couldn't match the speed of these big waves. This "unridden realm," as we called it, was unsurfable -- we didn't even talk about the possibility of riding these enormous waves in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, we began to talk about it and figure out how it might be done, and in the 1990s we actually began to do it. What made it even possible to talk about was the development of stand-up personal watercraft in the mid-'80s. These weren't very powerful, but when the true personal watercraft came -- the sit-down kind -- this was really the event that allowed us to surf the kind of waves we had only dreamed and talked about before.

You began tow-in surfing in 1995. Was there initial resistance to this new kind of surfing?

Yes, there was. But once photos were published for the first time in a surfing magazine showing tow-in surfing, it became more valid. Personally, when I first started doing a few tow-ins, I discovered that the boards we were using -- 10 and a half and 11 feet long -- were really slow and big and clumsy. So we started to use shorter boards -- first 9 feet, then, the next year, 1993, some used a 7-foot, 2-inch-long board. It changed our whole perception of how to surf big waves; instead of merely riding the waves, we could turn and go much faster.

Can you describe what happens to your body and mind when you wipe out?

To get beat up by a wave, survive it, and get up to do it again in the space of 15 minutes is as much about physical conditioning as it is about mental toughness. There's no way a lay person could ever understand what it feels like, but if I were to describe it I would say that it feels like getting hit by a car, a soft car, and then spun around in a washing machine. This all happens in complete darkness, so that once you stop spinning you're presented with the challenge of finding your equilibrium and figuring out which way is up. Not to mention the pressure change: You can be pushed from the water's surface 50 feet down in less than a second, which is a pressure change of two atmospheres. If you survive the pounding of one wave, you can be hit by a second one in less than 20 seconds, and then a third can pull you down into what we call a "triple hold." Getting held underneath the water by three waves is probably the maximum that a person can take and still survive. I've only known two people who successfully negotiated a triple hold. After that, you're out of luck.

Is surfing a sport that the "Average Joe" can do? How many years does it take until one can surf the North Shore?

Not really. It takes about 10 to 15 years for a regular surfer to become proficient enough for true big-wave surfing. It doesn't just happen overnight, but it is a gradual process of starting with small waves, then trying to surf in Hawaii, first at Sunset Beach and then moving up the ladder to Waimea, and then, finally, the outer reefs. You'll find that most big-wave surfers are in their late 20s or early 30s; younger surfers just aren't experienced enough to ride the big waves.

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High Seas
All waves share some common traits

Wave Warrior
Read an interview with Ken Bradshaw

For Teachers
View the CONDITION BLACK Lesson Plan

Find out more about big waves and surfing

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