Surfing is a solitary experience. It is something one does alone regardless of how many others may be around. Most of us surf because of this opportunity to spend some quiet time to reflect, clear our minds and refocus on what is really important in our lives. For some surfers it is akin to a ritual challenge where the skills of survival are matched against the immensity in both volume and strength of our oceans. For competitive surfers especially, the lure of catching waves alone and being able to ride whichever you chose is definitely appealing. But surfing solo should be always tempered with the adage "never surf alone."
Every big wave surfer has, at sometime in his or her life, been out in huge conditions alone; whether by choice or by the simple fact that no one else wanted to surf when it was that big. It doesn't really strike you when you're paddling out, but once you are sitting alone and waiting for a set you feel it. That same sense of anxiety you get waiting for the first wave of a session amplifies in intensity when you are alone. You are surrounded by a force much larger than you can control and it hits home. It isn't all bad. As a matter of fact it can become compulsory behavior. The imminent danger without the option of aid is the ultimate challenge. Risking your life sends your adrenaline into overdrive. Riding a wave at this point is as close to one's roots as you can get.
When people ask me if I am afraid when I am surfing big waves, I am reminded of a sailing trip across the Atlantic I was lucky enough to survive in my early twenties. We encountered 20-foot seas in the open ocean in a small wooden boat. My response to the fear question has always been, "At least I can see the shore." The risk is factored and always relative. The key to survival is in accurate assessment and follow through. Without those two elements in place we are playing entirely with fate.
Todos Santos is an island about 10 miles off the Coast of Mexico and in the early days of surfing out there I experienced sessions alone a number of times. The one experience stands out was going out with a friend who, upon reaching the peak at Killers, decided that it was too big and windy for him. He decided that he would go to the other side of the island, which was a lot smaller and protected from the wind. I was having no part of it and jumped out of the boat to surf.
As his boat disappeared from sight, all I could see was open ocean and the shore. I began to wonder if I had in fact made the right decision. It wasn't too long of a wait until the first set came through and I got the first of many great rides all alone. It was awesome. When my friend returned at the end of the day to pick me up my smile told the story. I had chosen the best path for me on that day.
Last month we lost two longtime surfers that went to explore the solitude of surfing alone. Kenneth Mann died in California surfing small waves in the moonlight. Alex Cooke paddled out at dusk in Hawaiian big wave conditions and was never seen again. Both of them had done the same thing more times than they could count and were comfortable in the conditions. Unfortunately, we will never know exactly what happened. Suffice it to say riding a wave alone is an opportunity few surfers would leave on the table, but one that also comes with risk. For me it is the ultimate surfing experience -- and yet I am reminded to keep a balance.
Gary Linden is the founder and VP of the WSL Big Wave Tour. His column, Big Wave Diaries, appears monthly.