How to Prep for an XXL El Niño Year

With big-wave surfer Nic Vaughan

Vaughan, on a Mavericks beast that earned him a nomination at the 2015 XXL Big Wave Awards. Photo: Pompermayer
Vaughan, on a Mavericks beast that earned him a nomination at the 2015 XXL Big Wave Awards. Photo: Pompermayer

If El Nino swell materializes this winter like we all sure hope it does, big-wave charger Nic Vaughan will be busy chasing monster waves around the world. Currently on the 2015/2016 Big Wave Tour, Vaughan trains year-round and keeps his eyes perpetually peeled on darkening swell models. “I think big-wave surfing is very much a lifestyle choice,” says Vaughan. “There really is no break to the big-wave surfing season, because as soon as the Northern Hemisphere season is done, our sights are then set on the Southern Hemisphere. And right now, it looks like we’re on the eve of a big opportunity, something that hasn’t happened since ’98.” While en route to the NAKOA Fitness Training Center to work on his strength and endurance, Vaughan shared some tips for how experienced surfers can prep for a potentially epic XXL winter.

Match your boards to the type of wave you’ll be surfing
“First, think about what kind of wave you’ll be chasing before you decide what size and shape of board to ride. If you’re surfing a big, open-ocean outer reef wave, where the take-off zone is the size of a football field, then you’re going to need a much bigger board to track down waves, for example, I’d be riding a 10’2” or a 10’6”. When it comes to steeper waves with a more defined take-off zone, you can get away with much less board. You’ll need paddle power, but if your board is too long, it won’t fit nicely into the curve of the wave and you’ll have a hard time making steep drops. I’ve been working with Clint and Rusty Preisendorfer to build shorter, thicker and wider boards that will provide the needed paddle-power, but will be more maneuverable once you get to your feet. Be sure to work with an expert shaper who really knows the science behind surfboard design when preparing your big-wave battle spears.”

A varied quiver for the big-wave charger. Photo: Lowe-White
One more tip: neon boards. Photo: Lowe-White

Prepare your safety equipment
“First and foremost, when it comes to safety, never rely on anything man-made. It’s imperative to put in the hard yards in terms of training and physical preparation so your body can survive any situation. Only after you’ve done that is it okay to invest in the gear. You want to start with a good big-wave leash with an emergency release on the cuff, in case you find yourself tangled on a rock and held under the surface. Get a paddle-vest, which in warm waters can be worn by itself, and in colder waters, can be worn under your wetsuit. The padding helps dull the inevitable impacts you’ll withstand during wipeouts, and although nowhere near as buoyant as a lifejacket, they also provide some lift to get you to the surface sooner. Finally, if you find yourself in a lineup with water safety guys, introduce yourself and offer gas money for their ski. Those guys are absolute heroes, out there on their own dime to have our backs if and when something goes wrong.”

Photo: Lowe-White
Taking proper precautions with a nice safety set-up is a wise move. But according to Vaughan, it should never be wholly relied upon. Photo: Lowe-White

Study your target big-wave spot
“Studying the intricacies of a big wave you’re interested in surfing is hugely important. Watch as much footage as you can of your target wave, good conditions, bad conditions and everything in between, and try to visualize how you would successfully ride that wave. Before catching some of the best waves of my life, I’ve studied the spot, watched any footage I could find, and then visualized myself successfully riding waves there. Doing your homework is crucial for knowing what you’re truly getting yourself into. The consequences are real and it’s important to remember that.”

Vaughan, scratching into a meaty one at Jaws. Photo: Pompermayer
Should be safe to take advice from someone who catches waves like this one. Vaughan, scratching into a meaty one at Jaws. Photo: Pompermayer

Start your training regimen early
“It doesn’t really help to be big and muscular when it comes to the big-wave game. You want to be as gazelle or cheetah-like as possible. At the gym, I focus on low-weight high-repetitions with all of my exercises. Speed, agility, flexibility, and endurance are the pillars. I focus on circuit training with little rest, switching from push-ups to pull-ups to box-jumps to mountain-climbers– anything that will simulate a ton of movement and activity. For my cardio and breath training, I use a routine I learned from Mark Healey and Greg Long that involves a stationary bike and some serious determination. You start pedaling at a strong cadence that you can sustain for an extended period of time. When you hit the minute marker, hold your breath and maintain that cadence as you continue to pedal for 25 or 30 seconds. Upon completion of that breath hold, exhale and breath for the next 30 seconds as you continue at that steady cadence. At the next minute mark, do it again. Repeat that cycle for a 20-30 minute routine. I’ve found this routine to be helpful in getting the body used to operating with a lack of oxygen, and it’s extremely valuable for the mental game. When it comes down to the real deal, you’ve put yourself through countless 30 second hold-downs back at the gym.”

Photo: Lowe-White
Neon shoes, almost as important as neon boards. Photo: Lowe-White

Keep your eyes peeled on the forecasting models
“If you’re a surfer going after these types of waves, I’d hope you have some basic knowledge of how to forecast a swell. Stormsurf and Surfline are both great tools for this. Keep your eyes on the models and before you know it, you’ll start to see some pretty colors swirling. At 10 to 12 days out, a swell is still pretty hard to predict, but something to monitor (and maybe a nudge to get on that stationary bike routine). If it gets closer to a week or 5 days out and the swell is still looking promising, you can start prepping your gear and strategizing your plan of attack. Finally, at 2 to 3 days out, you’ll know with pretty good confidence what it’s going to look like come game day. There are a group of guys that I will text to hear their thoughts on the swell, but as far as surf etiquette goes, it’s always favorable to do the mission alone and show up by yourself. This is out of respect for the locals as well as the other guys as committed as you to chasing these adrenaline pumping experiences.”

Follow Nic through the El Nino winter via Instagram