Words and photos Nathan Myers
"You shouldn't be listening to heavy metal before big wave surfing," says Big Wave World Tour surfer Jeff Rowley. "Best thing you can listen to is classical music. Anything that helps calm you down."
Rowley's talking about breathing. Or more specifically, not breathing. Holding your breath. It's the body's single most vital function, and a big topic amongst big wave surfers lately. Many have been traveling to Maui recently to take $700 sessions with a freediving specialist, but Rowley has invented his own program. And it's gnarly.
With his physical therapist girlfriend Minnie, he goes to the pool every day. He curls into a ball and has her spin and thrash him around for some thirty seconds, to simulate a wipeout. Then, he takes off his leash, finds the lane-line underwater, swims 15 yards, turns around, and swims back, just in time for another balled-up thrashing at the hands of Minnie (to simulate a second wave hold-down). All without taking a breath.
"The key is staying calm," he explains. "When you get scared, your body sends blood to your feet and fingers, to help you run. This supposed self-preservation technique will not help you survive a long hold down."
"On the other hand," he continues, "if you can stay calm and continue deep, yoga-style breathing, you body draws oxygen back into the places you really need it, like you heart and your brain."
There's a lot of theory here, but it mostly boils down to staying calm. Which is kinda funny coming from a guy who quit his job, sold everything and moved straight to Maui as soon as he saw a monster swell on the charts.
SURFING: How much did it hurt to miss that first Jaws swell this year?
ROWLEY: Enough that my girl and I left on the next flight without even packing our bags. I would have loved to be there, but from what I've seen there were only a handful of waves that were significant. I'm preparing for bigger things to come.
SURFING: So you left it all behind just to chase big waves. How did that happen?
ROWLEY: Well, basically, I'd been working a job in the surfing industry for the last ten years and I just decided to follow my dream. Most of the guys my age I know are buying longboards now, but I'm picking up a 12'0" gun. I just made the finals at a big wave event in Peru, and now I'm posted up here for the full winter to try to get a few good ones at Jaws.
SURFING: That's commitment. But what do you do between Jaws swells? Just going surfing?
ROWLEY: Well, I brought these shortboards over here, but now I don't even know why. I'm not going to ride them. I'd just rather stay in tune with my gun and not think about switching back and forth. For me, it's entirely about big wave surfing.
SURFING: So, what do you do then?
ROWLEY: I try to train pretty much every day in the pool and gym. Go for paddles. Stay in shape. Just generally keep my focus on big wave surfing. And Maui's a really nice place to just take it slow.
SURFING: With free-dive guys charging $700 a class to train big wave surfers to hold their breath, do you ever think about teaching some classes of your own?
ROWLEY: I'm super focused on my own training and performance, but at the same time I'm aware that this program I'm doing is unlike anyone else's and it definitely help save the lives of other big wave surfers.
SURFING: What's your recipe for big-wave success?
ROWLEY: Keep it really simple. Stay calm. Choose your wave, take six strokes, stand up like you do every other time. Make the drop, enjoy the view, feel the rush, high five your mates and do it again.
SURFING: Do you think it's possible to make a living just surfing big waves?
ROWLEY: The general public is becoming really aware that big wave surfing is a completely different sport to small wave surfing, and it's more appealing to a broader market. The sport is blowing up, performance is going through the roof and things are on the up and up. So, yeah, I hope it is. I'm giving it a shot.
SURFING: Well, good luck on the next swell.See some of Rowley's waves from Jan 2012's first big Jaws paddle-in sessions – just don't mention the latest one; he's still beating himself up for missing it.
To find out more about Jeff's training program and big-wave adventures, check out his website: http://www.jeffrowley.com/