How to Handle a Hold-Down

Greg Long on the Science of Surviving

| posted on December 01, 2010

Greg Long smiles just like this during hold-downs, because he knows the key to survival is avoiding panic. Photo: Van Swae

Big-wave hellman Greg Long has gained distinction as one of the hardest charging surfers on the planet. But glory in this realm involves flirtation with monumental risk. For our “Ask A Local” column in the January 2011 issue of SURFER, we asked and the 2009 Eddie Aikau event champion the best ways to physically and mentally withstand long bouts underwater. While we used part of his response in print (on newsstands December 1, 2010) his explanation was so thorough we thought we’d share it in full here.

“When I started riding big waves I read an article that said to survive a massive wipeout, your mental preparedness will be just as important as your physical conditioning. After over a decade of pushing myself in challenging conditions, I can tell you that this statement is absolutely true.

In addition to maintaining a high level of physical fitness and stamina, being able to control your mind, keeping your composure, and entering a relaxed state during a wipeout are essential to getting through each big wipeout. And if you are really trying to push it in the big stuff, it is imperative for survival.

The main idea of staying calm and relaxed underwater is to conserve your energy and oxygen. The more you panic, struggle, and fight underwater, the faster you will deplete both. For me, learning to stay totally relaxed didn’t happen overnight, but rather over the course of a few years.

A huge part of becoming comfortable during a bad wipeout comes from experiencing them firsthand. I gradually worked my way into larger and larger surf, and as I progressed, the wipeouts naturally came. I made sure to never push myself beyond my limits, but rather become comfortable at each new level, until I knew I was ready to progress forward. In doing so I learned about the physical stress my body was put under (which is typically the initial cause for people to panic) as well as the physiological processes that takes place while I was being held under and depleted of oxygen.

I would recommend going online and researching or even taking a free-diving course to better understand what happens internally when your body is depleted of oxygen and your CO2 levels rise. This will help give you a better understanding of the feelings and sensations that will arise and help you work through them and stay relaxed.

Being physically fit and prepared helps to give me peace of mind when I am underwater. Knowing that my body is capable of handling the extreme forces I encounter in a massive wipeout makes it easier to stay relaxed. Over the years I have found that yoga as well as practiced meditation and a strict cardiovascular regimen are amazing compliments to my big-wave training.

Greg Long attempts to outrun some heavy water at Todos Santos. Photo: Van Swae

Yoga is incredible for your overall strength, balance and flexibility as well as learning to become more aware and in control of your breathing habits. One’s flexibility will undoubtedly be put to the test during a bad wipeout, when sent through those relentless rag-doll motions. Being supple and able to move with the water rather the feeling like you are being torn apart by it will not only help to prevent injuries, but once again allow you to stay more relaxed and calm.  The increased flexibility in certain parts of your body (intercostal muscles, low back, etc.) will also allow you to further expand your lung capacity.

It can be difficult to stay calm or find that happy place with so much going on underwater. Over the years I have found it easier to enter that meditative state after practicing regularly on dry land. Getting to that place will be a personal experience, but the idea is essentially to clear your mind of any negative thoughts or emotions that do not serve you. They are simply another form of wasted energy.

You will also find strengthening your cardiovascular system to be extremely beneficial to holding your breath for extended periods of time and increasing your confidence underwater. My regimen consists of swimming and apnea training both underwater and on dry land. The idea behind this type of exercise is to teach your body to operate more efficiently with less oxygen and build up its tolerance level of CO2. I cannot stress enough how imperative it is that you never do any apnea training without a partner, especially underwater!

These are the key concepts I have learned and practiced over the years to help me to stay relaxed during heavy wipeouts. Some may resonate with you and others may not. The next statement however is one fact that cannot be denied: The ocean is far stronger and greater than any one of us. Once you have wiped out or are caught inside, there is no avoiding what is coming. The ocean will let you up when she wants. So in that time, you may as well relax and enjoy the ride, because there are no do-overs.”

—Greg Long

  • jeff

    A question…. are you saying that you just stay relaxed and wait for the ocean to float you back up to the surface? If not, which I’m guessing is the case, at what point do you trigger yourself back into action and swim to the surface?

    • Moshe Gutierrez

      I’m (guessing) you stay calm, and wait… After the ride is over, swim to the surface, since you’ll need to breath air. I guess you swim to the surface calmly as soon as the ride is over. Watch out for anymore waves once at the surface, you don’t want to get held down by a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th wave!

  • durbanboy

    Yep, that’s the basic principle. Being naturally bouyant, you will tend to pop to the top, but if not, you’ll know when to swim for the surface, because you’ll know where the surface is. I don’t profess to have ridden monster waves, but even a 5′ wave can do this, so relax, enjoy the ride…NEVER panic or FIGHT it, you just aren’t strong enough to fight off the ocean.
    I learnt this a long time ago and it has saved me from sucking water and thinking “I’m dead”

    • Moshe Gutierrez

      Yes. You must not work against the ocean, instead work with the ocean. People die in rip currents because they work against them, while if you know how to work with a rip current, it can help you by taking you toward the line up!

  • Damo

    Thank you Greg for sharing your hard earned survival knowledge with us.
    Your passion for big waves shines through your calculated strategy and discipline. Great to see you charging and inspiring and enjoying that well deserved confidence and keeping that all important respect and humility for self, others and mighty mother nature. I just may find myself needing some of your tips tomorrow.

  • Gene Murrieta

    Greg, Change a few words and it’s about surviving life. I learned this at age twelve at the wedge in New Port beach. At 57 I’ve used it in the water, snow and in life.

  • holly

    Very good things to think about before going underwater again!!
    Note to self…take up yoga again…

  • Jo

    Very nice to read from your experience. A huge wipeout or being caught inside monster waves can actually be enjoyable in some cases, when you know you’re fit. It cannot be avoided, so be smart…………

  • Jones

    Hold your breath

  • erinroxanne

    great ideas man, what do you suggest for cardio?

  • Snake

    Extremely articulate. Can’t wait to read the print edition.

    Hope G. Long makes an Evan Slater type of venture into the surf publishing world when he gets tired of owning it.

    We stand to learn a lot from this incredibly well-rounded surfer.

  • Jeremy

    Really great read. Thanks for sharing all this, Greg. Some of this just seems to apply to life in general too, such as any negative thoughts just being a waste of energy.

  • Whamo

    I hope, for your sake, that your luck holds out.



    rest in peace ANDY. Your spirit is always in my heart and soul.

  • Bill Hill

    It’s also worth remembering that waves come in sets 🙂 If the first one gets you, you’ll be inside enough that you’re going to take the second and third on the head, too. All the advice Greg gives is great. But you do want to try to make it to the surface between waves if you can (that’s not always possible in really big waves, of course – you might get a two- or even a three-wave holdown, which gets really serious).
    Three waves of a 14-16 foot set took me for a 200-yard underwater trip once. First waves took my board. Second one took my paddle (SUP surfer) and the third tookall that was left – just me. What worked for me, in those waves, was relaxing and letting the first one take me where it wanted. As soon as I could tell by the light which way was up, and I was close enough to the surface, I swam up to catch a breath before Wave #2. Lather, rinse, repeat for Wave #3.
    I got a nice song out of it, though: “Baptism of the Dragon”, for my CD, “Dancing With The Dragon” 🙂

  • embarrassed

    Feel lucky to be reading this article after an absolutely horrible hold-down at Snapper today. A surreal experience to be right out the back with only Fanning on the inside, then to be absolutely smashed by a big one out the back, breaking really early, losing board, fighting to come to the surface for what seemed like an eternity, giving up fighting for a while, body screaming out for oxygen, making another push to the surface to finally ger head out to take a breath of air, only to be taken straight back down by another monster. Only a surfer knows the feeling!!!!

  • Francois

    After a while the initial “oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit” changes into “ahh, not this again.” And eventually, you stop caring all together. That is when you are ready to take it up a foot or two, till you get comfortable again. Weather it is transitioning from 4ft to 6ft, or from 10ft to 15ft, the same basic principles apply.

    Also, it helps your confidence a lot if you know you are really fit. I’m aiming to be able to do 100 consecutive pushups before the winter swells come, so that I can be sure of myself when the waves push double overhead. I doubt I’ll be surfing anything over 6ft till next year though.

  • j

    Seek Jesus and HE will solve all of your problems, nothing else will. God Bless.