How To Take a Beating

Kohl Christenson on surviving the wipeout of your life

| posted on August 14, 2012

Kohl Christenson, on his way to a swift beat-down in Fiji. Photo: Glaser

At some point in your life, the ocean will give you a beating that might make you question your commitment to surfing. Boards will be broken, reefs will be encountered, and egos will be dragged through the gutter. To keep you both physically and mentally prepared for these situations, we spoke to Hawaiian big-wave charger Kohl Christenson about surviving the wipeout of your life.

Prepare your mind and body. If your head isn’t right to take a bad wipeout, you aren’t going to maximize your potential. That being said, if you don’t feel physically ready to surf big waves, then your head will never be there. To do it well, it has to be a combination of being physically fit and mentally prepared. For me, cardio workouts are an extremely important part of my routine. I love to mix in swimming with some beach runs, and lately I’ve been including some plyometric workouts in my program. Being able to hold your breath well is obviously very important and I’ve found that the best way to improve in that area for me is free diving. Whether it’s diving for fish or just swimming around Waimea Bay in the summer, just keep doing it. If you’re ever in a bad place, you’ll be glad that at least you’re fit.

Anybody can get in over their head. I’ve seen guys out at places they really shouldn’t be, but in those instances you help them get in and hopefully they learn something and prepare themselves more for it for the next time around…if they still want it. As an example, two days ago Greg Long had to help a guy in from really solid Puerto Escondido. It was heavy with the current and the rips and the guy lost his board and didn’t know how to deal with the situation. Before you put yourself in big surf, you need to ask yourself these kinds of questions. “What do I do if I lose my board? How do I get in? Where is the current going to take me and how do I deal with it? Will I be able to handle it if one of those set waves lands on my head?” You need to run through all that before you paddle out in waves of consequence.

Sooner or later, it’s going to happen. I always figure that I’m going to eat it or get caught inside at least once during a big-wave session. If I don’t then I feel like I got really lucky or I wasn’t pushing it hard enough. So I imagine it and mentally prepare myself for what that’s going to be like before hand. When it happens and I’m taking a beating I try to shutdown my body and just relax. To be honest, I actually enjoy the helplessness of the situation sometimes. Sometimes you really have no control over the outcome, but in the back of your mind, you know eventually you will come up so there isn’t much you can do but enjoy the ride.

A lot of times you don’t really have a choice in how you fall. I had a wipeout once where I was down two waves and came up coughing blood. But to prevent that from happening, for the most part, it’s all about penetrating the surface when you fall. If you can get deep enough on your wipeout and let the wave roll over you, that would pretty much be the ideal way to eat it. But then again, that’s not always the case. I also try to cover my head to protect it from the reef or my board. I’ve had instances at Pipeline where if I hadn’t covered my face or head with my arms then I might not be here today.

Know when to call it quits. I’ve had several two-wave hold downs, and you can usually hear or even sense the second wave go by. If you get a good breath before you go under, they aren’t as bad as you think. It can also be tricky because you don’t want to come up to stare down the next wave breaking right on top of you. I’ve had a situation at Maverick’s where I was down a really long time and I really needed a breath. It was heavy, deep black water and I was trying to pull myself up to the surface with my leash but just wasn’t making any ground. I knew the next wave was coming but I didn’t feel like I could handle two waves because of the small breath I got before I went down. All of a sudden, the energy of the wave stopped pulling me down and the color of the water lightened a little and I decided to use what little energy I had left to breast-stroke to the surface. I went for it and just as I broke the surface, the next 20-footer broke top to bottom just a few feet from my head. I got a little more than half a breath before it hit, but just that taste of air saved my life. The next wave was so violent that I went in and called it a day. Sometimes you just have to know when to bow out. Go with your instincts and if you’re feeling tired and not on top of your game don’t push it. The ocean will always win.

You’ve got to have each other’s backs. We’ve all put in a lot of time preparing ourselves to handle the worst-case scenario. A lot of us have actually been doing CPR classes and we want to set up a more structured protocol that we can all follow so that if something terrible does happen, we know what steps to take. Danilo Couto has been really involved in the creation of a big-wave safety system. We have to realize there won’t always be lifeguards out there watching us and that we have to be prepared to help our friends if the worst happens.

  • curt johnson

    great article and insight, good info to put into our first aid manual.

  • Paul Litchfielder

    I think, “knowing when to call it quits” is the most important thing you said. How are the inflatable vests coming? And are they something serious big wave riders need to consider?

  • Rat Pat

    Kohl is the man. This guy came out of nowhere and is owning the big wave movement.

  • Dan Hodul

    Really important information. There is nothing like being in shape for what you are doing. That way you have the confidence to relax into situations that might otherwise be threatening. Thanks.

  • CT

    Fantastic infomation and insight,very helpful for those of us that seem to
    become more worried and less courageous as we get older.

  • Mik

    best big-wave advice i’ve come across. many thnx kohl!!!

  • Bronson @ StokeTV

    “At some point in your life, the ocean will give you a beating that might make you question your commitment to surfing.” – so true!

  • Peter

    It’s definitely key to run through all sorts of scenarios once you’re out there. For instance, if it’s a rocky coast, ask yourself how you would get in if you got swept toward the rocks. Would you ditch your leash? How would you help someone else? Where don’t you ever want to be, and how would you avoid putting yourself in that situation. The worst beatings I’ve had have been unexpected, in areas where I didn’t know the currents or topography well.

  • Cory Thoulion

    Thank you
    So much !!
    Waves in Lj have been and do get real
    44 yr old grom

  • Ad Rock

    great article

  • Paul S

    Having CPR skills should be compulsory for anyone out there in the lineup in huge surf.

  • Zen Del Rio

    Thank you Kohl and Jeff for this article,very sound advice.

  • Charlie

    Being prepared and knowing your limitations are key elements in high risk endeavors. But never let a vest or knowledge of CPR lull you into thinking that is going to save you. Having worked as a paramedic for 30+ years (now retired) I know that CPR is valuable but only helps in a significant way if it is applied immediately when needed and followed up by advanced life support with in minutes. The fact that a few people have been revived after CPR only after a near drowning is truly miraculous. While CPR alone is CERTAINLY better than nothing, I would say that the survival rate for CPR alone in a near drowning is less than 1%. Stay safe out there guys.

  • Blootoobz

    Just give punch 3 foot and clean thanks 🙂

  • Brain Lab

    Brings back memories of getting slammed and washing machined.

  • Troy Reifschneider

    Great article. I almost drowned surfing in Puerto Rico while stationed there in the Coast Guard. Your advice to relax and go with it is spot on, that was the biggest lesson I learned on my worst beating. In the Coast Guard we were trained to cover our heads and to ball up if we went overboard in rough surf, it’s protected me numerous times surfing.

  • Old ‘n gray

    There was the “rule” of riding a wave in, but during my years at the North Shore, sometimes “that” wipeout was the last wave. It adds up too. Enough wipeouts, a few years go by, and you can’t do that anymore.

  • Dustin

    This happened to me at Ehukai a few years back. I had ripped all the normal bodyboarding spots on Oahu and decided that it was time to step it up. Needless to say I went out on a rising swell and it had not reached consistency yet.

    I paddled out to break and caught a couple, it died down and I decided to play around on the inside. Next thing I know I see sets rolling and I try to get back out. I get under the first, pop up the second is a lil further out. I paddle towards that one except it starts to break already. As I duck dive the lip crashes down and knocks one of my fins off and the turbulence under caused my board to plane in the wrong direction pulling me up as the wave went by.

    I for pulled off the board and had to scramble because I had lost all forward momentum to get past the third wave. As that approaches I try to duck dive, but ended up getting pulled over the falls backwards and underwater. Everything goes black for a lil bit and then all I see is white bubbles everywhere, can’t tell which way is up or down. I tugged at my leash and didn’t feel any resistance. The bubbles started to clear and I finally figured out which way was up, only to get a half breath and a wave in my face. This one drilled me even harder than the previous and I thought was going to drown. This time I was able to tug at my board and get up quicker. I turned around, jumped on my board and let the wave beat me in. One of the scariest moments of my life, but man did I feel alive after.