Posted by: Mark | January 11, 2010

Going Big at Ocean Beach

I am comfortable, based on my experience surfing at Ocean Beach, describing myself as a big wave surfer. While I haven’t surfed at Waimea Bay or Mavericks (with a litany of excuses for not surfing Mavs), those who have caught OB when it is big know that while it may not have international notoriety as a big wave spot, it certainly packs a punch. I’ve caught OB when it is maxing out in the 20-25ft range, and pretty much paddle out as long as I see that at least one other person is going for it somewhere along the beach.

Big wave riding is not necessarily all that fun to watch. It’s basically just guys who look like ants go straight on waves that look big, but their size and power is truly incomprehensible from the shore. Many writers far more talented than me have described riding big waves, and many surfers far more talented than me have discussed riding waves much bigger than I have ridden, but the truth is that “20ft,” “30ft,” and “50ft” are just numbers. You can’t understand it until you are in the water, paddling out into a wave face that eclipses the horizon, or getting monsooned by the spray coming out the back and the whipping wind that the mere movement of all that water creates. It’s unfathomable, and in fact, so unique that I often forget the power of big waves when I’m on land, watching them break.

I’ve posted the picture above on this blog before. It is not of me. It’s of a friend of mine…I grabbed it from his facebook page. It was taken over a year ago around Taraval Street, and is the biggest wave I’ve seen caught on camera at OB. I can say with pride that I was out there the same day, actually close to the same time, and caught 1 1/2 waves. It was the biggest I’ve ever ridden at OB. The 1/2 comes from a harrowing wipe-out….I dropped into a really macking set wave that must have been over 20ft in the face, and as I got to the bottom to dig my fins and rail into the face to turn, my board skidded out underneath me and I found myself sprawled on my back, bouncing down the face of the wave as I looked up and saw the lip unloading onto me. It was terrifying.

If the tone of this post so far seems a bit arrogant, that arrogance come from the defensive stand-point of a big wave surfer who knows he has lost his mojo for the big stuff.

Surfing is a physically demanding activity, but when the surf gets big, it becomes more of a head-game than anything else. The basics are about the same: you paddle out, you see a wave, you turn around and paddle into it, stand up, and then ride it. The variable that changes, obviously the size and power, is what makes big wave riding so mental. When you make it through into the line-up, you are physically and mentally tense, like a sprinter at the start of a race, anticipating the starter’s gun. Any minute a set wave could come through, catch you inside, and give you a pounding. Any minute the perfect wave could come right your way, and the stage is set for your big leap down the face. There is no relaxing in the line-up…I can only compare it to the mentality I have read described by soldiers as they wait for battle. After a session, it’s not necessarily my arms that are tired, but my whole being, as my brain finally relaxes from its relentless existence in fight-or-flight mode.

The waves are cyclical and pattern based, and I’ve noticed that my mental preparedness for big waves takes on a similar nature. The summer at Ocean Beach is flat, and when fall shows up with fun little glassy waves, the surf community goes into party mode and surfs a ton. It’s pure fun, minimal consequence. The first big swell shows up, and I dust off my big wave board to go get some bigger action, and my adrenaline is firing so hard in anticipation that I hardly hesitate. As the seasons shift into winter, and the waves become more consistently big, that adrenaline balances out, and sessions are peppered with epic waves and disastrous wipe-outs. The deeper you get into the season, the more you remember some of the wipe-outs, and the harder it becomes to mentally sharpen yourself to the situation. And eventually, just like the waves die out, you find that you’re not game for it anymore. You can’t shake the hesitation to take-off, you can’t talk yourself into it anymore. You’re done for the season.

I hit my big-wave stride in early December, and surfed the crap out of a swell that will forever be memorable to me. (The picture above is from that swell, posted on stokereport by a rad local photographer who goes by the handle vonstanger.) I had no hesitation, I was in physical and mental shape, and I felt completely in sync with the ocean. This season I have grown to embrace the spirituality and mysticism of the ocean, and I felt my spirit was willing and able to serve me some of the best waves I’ve ever caught.

Since then, I feel that I am losing, or have already lost, my mojo for big waves. I learned that phrase from a buddy of mine who surfs Mavericks regularly. He says he lost his mojo relatively early on this season, over Thanksgiving. You can see the wipe-out in the video that follows (his wave starts at around 0:45). He hits a phantom chop, and then cartwheels down the face. As he tells it, that first wipe-out was the easiest part. What followed off camera is a six-wave set that pounded him worse with each wave, and eventually got his leash tangled around his legs so he couldn’t move them. He was dangerously close to getting dragged through the rocks when a lifeguard on a jetski puttered through and saved his ass. Understandably, an experience like that would haunt you, and going back out at Mavericks might not be as thoughtless as it was before.

For me, I think I lost my mojo when I went to New York City for Christmas. I had been surfing with so much regularity before the trip, that a 10-day interruption threw my rhythm off in an irreversible way. I came home, and got heavy into bodysurfing, and didn’t ride a board much.

A new swell hit two days ago, and I paddled out with a friend of mine. Inside my head I was a bit cocky as I was suiting up, already counting the waves I had yet to even paddle out to catch, and was welcomed by a brutal pounding in my paddle out. It took me close to 40 minutes, and actually is a cool anecdote about the spirit of the ocean. At about minute 35, when my arms were screaming for me to quit and my pride was sufficiently stuffed down into my booties, I began to accept that I might get denied. It would be the first denial I have ever gotten at OB, and I was trying to figure out why. Why today, on a day that wasn’t nearly as big as some of the biggest days I had surfed, was I unable to paddle into the line-up? As I kept churning and thinking, I finally admitted that it was my arrogance, and lack of respect and humility, that had screwed things up for me. No sooner had that thought crossed my mind when the waves settled into a lull, and I snuck through.

Even though I got out, I got skunked. Badly. My first wave, a right, I spent most of the time tentatively making sure my feet were securely placed on the board. I had no control over the situation. Then my second wave, a left, popped out of nowhere and without fully thinking, I turned and went for it, on a wave that was way too steep. I somehow got hung up in the lip for a second, before my board slid out from underneath me and I free-fell 15ft down the face. I popped up, my mind scattered, and I whimpered my way back into shore.

I surfed big waves again today. It was bigger than I had thought, and the whole time I was out there I kept toying with feeling like I had lost my mojo, all the while trying to remind myself that I had surfed waves this size dozens of times before, so what the hell was I so scared about. The mind is a difficult thing to control, but your mind needs to be in control to ride big waves. I let about 5 perfect ones pass me by, waves a month ago I wouldn’t have thought twice about and would have loved riding. I ended up catching a decent right, followed by a decent left, but that was after pulling back from countless waves bigger and more perfect than the ones I caught.

I had been out about an hour and a half, and was drifting over into a rip, and knew I was ready to get out. I had mentally written much of this post while out in the water with my thoughts about losing my mojo tormenting me. I noticed that the rip was created some ugly surface chop to the wave faces as they were breaking, and wanted to just get out safe and sound. I finally got a beautiful peak served up to me, I turned and stroked to get into the wave, and as I felt its power surge beneath me I jumped up to my feet. I flew down the face, constantly gaining speed, and just as I was getting ready to hit bottom I hit one of the bumps I had been observing. When a turkey is done, that little thermometer thing *pops.* I basically did the exact same thing. I was popped off my board, as if Ocean Beach seemed to be the oven telling this turkey – “Sorry brother, you’re done.”

I will paddle out for any other big swell that comes through this season, but I don’t know how well I’ll do. I need to accept that my big wave riding mentality has peaked, and I’m in the lull that inevitably follows a peak. I don’t want to accept it, but I think I need to.

Sorry folks, I’m done.



  1. I kinda top off at 15′, Mark 🙂 And I know *exactly* what you mean. The minute you take a couple on the head, even if you’ve had the perfect season, you’re going to re-evaluate, haha. I’m kinda right there with you unfortunately. Playing with the bull and getting the horns forces a timeout. I’m kinda in that timeout period now myself 🙂 I’ll look for smaller desserts for now.

  2. In any sport w/ consequences we’re always reinventing our mental wheels. The early-season is frenetic excitement and getting back to “where you were.” Eventually you push yourself further than you did the previous season and it feels great. Keep going and eventually you “get saturated,” as we say in kayaking. Once you’re saturated you lose direction. You don’t know why you’re doing it anymore, you start doing it badly and hopefully you don’t get hurt.

    Some of it comes from tying happiness to progress metrics such as bigger waves etc. In the end you get your stoke from learning more about water and how to interact with it. But we sometimes trick ourselves into thinking that bigger / faster / more is what makes us happy. The two objectives overlap in the beginning but fray at the outer edges.

    The most impressive risk athletes I know can get off the couch and jump into the soup at any time. I think it’s b/c their mind is not hung up on placing them on a trajectory between yesterday and tomorrow. It’s keeping them in the here and now. Their confidence comes from within, not from yesterday’s performance or tomorrow’s expectation.

    I highly recommend reading “The Rock Warrior’s Way.” It’s essentially a sports psychology book written for sports where physical risk is an inherent component. It’s written from the perspective of a climber but it translates well beyond that, and at it’s core is independent from climbing.

    I will likely wrestle with the same thing my whole life. You put it to words nicely and you are not alone.

  3. Serious swells and rip currents this past weekend…
    You were not the only one who had a rough day.

    Check out the end of this report:

    I made it down to the beach just in time to see the Coast Guard having a tough time of it after two rescues.

    I’m with you, Cheers!

  4. I don’t surf nearly as big of waves as you, but your post sounded like me a couple weeks ago. I was missing waves, letting waves pass and my mojo was all messed up. It was like i got depressed because i was sucking. I started doing other activities (joging/lifting weights) and it totally reset my mind. Kind of like “get in shape, so you aren’t such a baby and get some waves.”

  5. Fun story. I think you may just be feeling a little down on yourself for today’s performance rather than out for the season, but I can still relate to the feeling. Especially the part where you were talking about getting skunked. That has happened to me twice (once in Uruguay last year and once at Morro Point several years ago) and it is such a terrible feeling. And you’re right about the reason for being skunked is pretty much always arrogance that you can power your way through. Glad you didn’t get skunked today.

  6. Thanks for this post touching on a subject near and dear (and dreaded) to my heart. I can relate to much of what you’ve described here. I can tell you the year, month and day that my mental capacity for big waves peaked. It was December 23, 1994 — 16 years ago — and I am STILL pissed off about losing my mojo. Yes, I still paddle out in the middle or south end of the beach on bigger days. (I was out today, and on Saturday, and on most of the other bigger days this year.) Even when I have low-yield, low-performance sessions I try to tell myself, hey, you’re 46 years old, you have a wife and 2 kids, at least you paddled out and caught a few. And don’t forget, you had your day, you’ve been out countless times when no-one else was out anywhere on the beach. But it doesn’t matter, I am not happy with the situation and I am not aging gracefully at all in this respect. I think about it a LOT.

    In an unrelated matter: for those who are feeling humbled and/or out of the Ocean Beach mindset these past few days, bear in mind this has been a VERY westerly swell track. IMO Ocean Beach is infinitely more enjoyable with a WNW or even NW swell. Even though there were many perfect waves scattered out there today and Saturday, I find that big west swells are usually really hard to line up — the takeoff spots seems to shift around more, both north/south and inside/outside — and something about the way they break, especially for some reason the dreaded 15 second interval, always f***s with my mind.

    – yawny

    • I totally agree with you on the West-ness of this winter. I don’t have nearly the historical perspective that you do, but these waves are unleashing in full force, rather than at an angle that lines things up more. That, and it seems we’ve had consistent offshores, sometimes strong, that add an element of steepness to the whole experience. Thanks for commenting.

  7. 4 season’s? You’re still learning.

    That’s like saying you’r a pro football palyer becasue you played four years of HS ball.

    • @mark – loved the post. I don’t really aspire to be a big wave surfer but I can still feel empathy for what your going through. do you think it is as simple as getting one amazing big wave session in to get your mojo back?

      @greg – not to split hairs…but isn’t 4 years of surfing big waves at OB like saying you’re a pro football player because you played pro football for 4 years? I would understand your analogy if @mark said his main break was Linda Mar (like me).

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