TIME ESTIMATE: 4 MIN
STORY BY: Ambassador Mark Healey
LOCATION: North Shore, Oahu, HI
Ambassador Mark Healey is an elite waterman and professional surfer. He earned 3rd place at the 2023 Eddie Aikau Invitational and works to educate fellow surfers on big wave safety as a BWRAG instructor. Here’s what he does to prepare to take on 30+ feet of water.
To me, big wave surfing, at its core, has always been about the challenge. When I’m riding that wave, I’m in a complete flow state. Experiencing the raw power of the ocean like that, I’m forced into this demanding sense of presence. Every breath, thought, movement, heartbeat – I remember them all.
It goes without saying that surfing big waves comes with a certain amount of inevitable risk. The danger of these waves is inherent to the sport and being prepared for them is a necessity. Even with years of training, bad things can and do happen, and lives can be lost.
Emi Erickson and Mark Healey catch their breath between exercises in a BWRAG Marine Rescue Vehicle (MRV) training. Photo: Nick Kelley
Everything in big wave surfing is, well, big. The swells, the risks, the physical and mental demands, and, especially, the wipeouts. Once you go over the falls and the wave hits, you can’t see much at all. It tosses you limb over limb and feels like you’re getting ripped apart. With fifty feet of water coming down on you, it sounds like there are explosions going off above and under the water. In that moment of sensory overload, it’s like you’re the last person on Earth. But the fight to get out of it has only just begun.
“Have you ever seen a pitbull get ahold of chicken? That’s how it feels when getting pounded by a really big wave.”
– Mark Healey, Ambassador & Big Wave Surfer
“Going over the falls is probably one of the most intense and lonely feelings you’ll ever have in your life.” – Mark Healey; Photo: Ryan Miller
The risk of big wave surfing is inherent to the sport. Having a safety kit prepped and ready can be key to survival in these conditions. Photo: Jeremy Koreski
LEFT: “Going over the falls is probably one of the most intense and lonely feelings you’ll ever have in your life.” – Mark Healey; Photo: Ryan Miller
RIGHT: The risk of big wave surfing is inherent to the sport. Having a safety kit prepped and ready can be key to survival in these conditions. Photo: Jeremy Koreski
5 Ways to Prep For 30 Feet of Water
When someone’s charging on a perfect wave, you’re only seeing 10% — the guts and the glory bit. But what you don’t see is how much time that surfer invests in learning to read and track swells, showing up and getting skunked, making sure all equipment is dialed, spending hours tweaking fins and playing with leashes — the list goes on and on. And that doesn’t even touch on the physical and mental aspects. Here’s a quick look at the remaining 90% of the sport: the preparation.
Prepping for big wave conditions should be meticulous – this is the gear that could be the difference between returning from the water or not. Photo: Jeremy Koreski
1. Embrace the Misery
Much of my training is preparing for the inevitable: getting hit by a big wave. So I do my best to simulate these moments of great physical duress by pushing my CO2 tolerance. My on-land method is a combination of a stationary bike workout and breath holding: I bike for forty minutes, holding my breath for 30 seconds every other minute, pumping up the resistance every 5 minutes while maintaining the same output. It’s absolute misery. But it works.
2. Become One With the Water
Reading and understanding the water is a huge part of the equation. The ability to pull the signal from the noise is necessary to identify hazards and opportunities. You can’t physically impose your will on a force of nature like that, so you have to see where you can fit into what’s going on. Fellow North Shore charger Emi Erickson practices this with body surfing, working with the waves and using their energy to maneuver in the water.
3. Watch What You Drink
If I’m not properly hydrated, my muscles will tense up and waste precious energy. Limiting my caffeine intake helps with this as well as with any digestion issues. I add Protekt Liquid Supplements to my water because they help hydrate on the cellular level, they’re easy on my gut when I get tossed around in the water, and allow me to last a lot longer in the waves.
4. Avoid a Sleep Hangover
It takes only 24 hours of poor quality sleep to get to about 0.08 BAC, leaving a person legally intoxicated and impairing judgment, equilibrium, and cognitive abilities. So when I travel 18+ hours to remote big wave destinations, I try to have extra time to catch up on any lost sleep before I hit the water.
“You only get about ten seconds on a wave – a moment. But you’ll remember each second of that moment for the rest of your life.” – Mark Healey; Photo: Christa Funk
5. Be Your Own Risk Technician
A good rule of thumb for the average person in large surf is KAT (Knowledge, Abilities, and Technology). It’s a quick way to assess your own risk: what do you know about the surrounding beach, waves, and currents? What are your physical capabilities in the water? And what kinds of tools (like a personal flotation device, first aid kit, or jet ski) do you have at your disposal? In short, take note of how you match up to the environment before you dive in. Learn more about big wave safety from the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group.
Mark runs a tight route during a BWRAG MRV training. Photo: Jeremy Koreski
“Big days in the ocean will always have an aspect of unpredictability and danger, but all the training and preparation help minimize it. If I was looking for a safe sport, I’d play golf.”
– Mark Healey, Ambassador & Big Wave Surfer