The Salvation Army Aquatics Center in San Diego is hardly synonymous with big-wave surfing. It's the kind of community pool where you'd normally find lap swimming and water aerobics. But on this particular day, alongside the elderly women engaged in AquaZumba, an entirely different kind of class was taking place. It was a Waterman Survival course, developed for the specific purpose of helping surfers prepare for life-threatening situations. AquaZumba this was not.
It was the last day of the three-day course, and heavy-water veterans Damien Hobgood, Josh Kerr, Taylor Knox, and Jojo Roper were in the middle of a drill. They were paired off into teams of two, taking turns swimming multiple pool lengths on a single breath. By the end, everyone's lips had turned a different shade of blue.
"That's the buildup of CO2 in their bloodstream," explained instructor Mark Lozano. "It's important to focus on safety in these exercises and have a partner looking out for you, because you can push yourself too hard and lose consciousness."
Lozano is bearded, broad-shouldered, and barks with a drill instructor's intensity—pretty much exactly whom you'd picture whipping big-wave surfers into shape. He helped create this class with champion freediver Martin Štěpánek back in 2011, and the curriculum has been constantly evolving ever since. In this particular day's class, which Lozano taught with fellow instructor Bobby Kim they added an exercise called "touch-and-go's," which requires surfers to take a deep breath, dive down and touch the bottom, return to the surface, and repeat as quickly as possible.
"Everyone who surfs serious waves has experienced this," says Lozano. "You get pushed down to the bottom by a wave, you fight back to the surface, and all of the sudden the next wave is right on top of you. Our goal is to make this class as true to life as possible. Mike Stewart gave us some input and recommended we make them jump off the diving board onto the concrete, and then roll into the pool and hold their breath. He thought that would be the most realistic."
Sadly, the Salvation Army Aquatics Center has to draw the line somewhere. But the focus on realism raises an interesting question: Can these surfers really remember something they learned in the safety of a controlled situation when a furious ocean is bearing down on them?
"Yeah, I think so," says Taylor Knox. "You'll have to do refresher courses and keep at it, but it definitely helps you get better lung capacity and teaches you breathing techniques. Honestly, for me it's more about learning a feeling than a technique. As long as I maintain that confident feeling in big waves, I'm fine. It's when I start overthinking that things go wrong."
It's a sentiment echoed by many Waterman Survival course alumni; what drew them to the program was the prospect of gaining confidence and controlling their fear. The instructors argue that any surfer can benefit from that, whether they plan on tackling an overhead day at Blacks or a Mack-truck barrel at Jaws. After all, maintaining a relaxed state allows you to conserve oxygen and roll with the watery punches. But confidence can be superficial, and instructors like Lozano and Kim want to make sure that their pupils know their limits and don't go chasing purple blobs on the swell charts half cocked.
"It feels good to get that confidence boost," says Lozano. "But it's just as important to actually change your physiology if you want to surf serious waves, and that takes focus and training over the long run."
1. Although some people naturally have higher lung capacity, anyone can improve their own through breathing exercises. Just take it slow, because passing out really sucks.
2. For reasons unknown, Taylor Knox can hold his breath longer while being jostled, jabbed, and punched underwater than when sitting still. "Getting tumbled around just feels more natural to me," he explains. "I don't spend much time in pools."
3. If your face breaks the water's surface while you are on your back, you instinctively exhale. This is beyond your control.
4. No one is actually expected to complete every exercise in the Waterman Survival course. "Not on their first attempt, at least," says Lozano. "We set high goals that our students have to work toward. I've trained Navy SEALs who couldn't complete some of these exercises."
5. Before going under a big wave, remain calm and take as many successive deep breaths as possible before diving. This will maximize the oxygen content of your blood in the event of a long hold-down.