How To Paddle Into Big Surf with Kohl Christensen

On a truly epic day on Tavarua this year, Kohl Christensen waited patiently for this absurdly terrifying wave and stroked right into it. Photo: Glaser

There’s a part of every surfer that thinks they want a piece of a 20-footer. Somewhere inside of us, we tell ourselves that we want to taste the unbridled adrenaline that places like Waimea and Maverick’s produce. But in reality, the view from the cliff with a soy mocha in hand is a lot more appealing than actually being in the lineup, dodging waves that want to kill you. Since it turns out that most of us are voyeurs (present company included) when it comes to big-wave surfing, we tapped the shoulder of Kohl Christensen to give us a touch of insight into what it actually feels like to paddle into a 20-footer.

The night before a big swell there's a lot of anxiety building up inside me. The anxiety I get from thinking about the surf is always worse than actually seeing it first hand. Well, almost always. Everyone gets nervous. That's just part of it. The trick is keeping that emotion in check and turning it into focus.

Surfing big waves isn't for everyone and that's okay. But I'd definitely say that there's a connection or thread between all of us. Big-wave surfing requires you to work, train, and really want it. But at the end of the day, it's something you're almost born with. There's something in you that differentiates you from the rest of the crew. You either have it or you don't. But a lot of the time, you're really not gonna know if you have it or not until you get close to it.

What kind of board you're riding in big surf really depends on the wave. If you want to use Waimea as an example, I normally ride a 10’0″ out there when it gets to be about 20 feet. You really want to ride a board with a lot of float. Nothing too thin. Most of all, you want to be able to catch the wave early.

It feels like you're paddling down a hill. You’ll always want to take two or three extra strokes to get into the wave. That’s crucial. There’s gonna be a lot of water, and sometimes a lot of wind, so you want to make sure you’re really in the wave before you stand up. Some days, the waves themselves will generate wind. Basically, when you feel like you're paddling into the wave and you’re ready to stand up, keep paddling. It’s something everyone figures out the hard way.

It's all about drawing your line early. As soon as you stand up, you want to pick your line. That’s pretty crucial. Unless you’re Ross Williams or Slater, you’re not going to be looking to get barreled. So find your line early. And most of all, don't lean too far forward. You really don’t want to pearl on a 20-footer.

Editor’s Note: Please take Kohl’s words as an insight into the mind of a big-wave surfer and an overview of what’s it like to be in such serious conditions. It can take decades to learn to properly handle yourself in dangerous surf. By all means, know your limits, surf with friends, and be safe.