Psychology of the Big Wave Rider
reflections on a colossal waste of time
There is one God, and the Earth is his prophet.
The beauty of things is the face of God: worship it;
Give your heart to it; labor to be like it.
— Robinson Jeffers, “Double Axe”
Surfers are a strange breed. Fundamentally different from most other hard-core athletes, surfers exemplify a monomaniacal, obsessive-compulsive need to be in or near the ocean, riding waves when (and if) the occasion arises. It’s an unrequited love affair, never totally consummated, only partially fulfilled — that’s what keeps us enthralled, endeavoring moment to moment, day in and day out, season to season, year after year — once and always coming back for more in a state of constant expectation.
Stranger still among this curious breed are the so-called “big wave riders.” These zealots are supremely committed, extremely passionate, and apparently the most crazed of all those who love to surf. These aquanauts pursue the utmost intensity, danger, beauty and sublimity of oceanic experience. Yet for all that big wave riders seem to share in common, among their ranks finer distinctions can be made.
There are essentially two types of big wave riders: the “human cannonballs,” as I deride them; and, in contrast, those who are in it for more esoteric reasons, not least of which is the long run. Neither type is “normal” in any sense of the term. Both remain on the literal and figurative edge of social and psychological normality. Indeed, both types are in every sense abnormal simply because they are willing to devote an absurd amount of time, energy, and effort toward a pursuit of something that is so fleeting and otherwise ephemeral. In any case, it could be argued that the life of a big wave rider is a colossal waste of time.
But what of the reckless, careless, and often thoughtless “human cannonballs” who are all too willing (if perhaps not always that able) to hurl themselves into anything that comes their way, over the ledge into oblivion in pursuit of an intense rush and perhaps also some fame or glory? We’ve all seen the type. They court fear and danger with wild abandon. Every thrill sport has them in droves. These seemingly fearless (or is it just stupid?) “thrill-seekers” tend not to last very long however. Inevitably, they bite off a little more than they can chew or they run out of luck; they get injured or they get scared. At some point — sooner rather than later — they disappear, fading into the mists of PTSD oblivion. I have seen scores of these guys come and go over the years, generation upon generation. Some might have a couple of outstanding waves or sessions, even a season or two or three; but, without exception, they do not last long. Some drown.
On the other hand, there’s the rather more esoteric, “long run” type of big wave rider I mentioned. He is perhaps more thoughtful, reflective, alert, calculating — above all: careful. It’s not about fear or courting death or danger. This type doesn’t search for fear or things that scare them. Being out of control scares them more than anything. Rather, this type seeks out experiences that fascinate, that lead from wonder to aweand get one closer to the divine that Jeffers summons the rarest among us to emulate and commune with.
So, when conditions get serious, the overwhelming sensation (at least for me) is one of intense concentration: a curious mix of exhilaration and fascination. Nothing else matters. Total presence and focus. Adrenaline. Dopamine. One is fully attuned, alert, awake to the world. Surfers call this: “pure stoke!” As Owl Chapman — one of the greatest and most infamous of big-waver riders in Hawaiian history — remarked: “I might think twice, but I’m rarely scared.” If one knows one’s limits and has developed enough confidence to push them in extreme situations, then fear doesn’t come into the equation that often.
Observation and experience teach that it takes a certain attitude — a consistent, sustained manner of thought and feeling, indeed a peculiar kind of equipoise. We might be bold and appear to the distant (or not so distant) observer to be “crazy” risk-takers, yet we are extremely deliberate, careful, controlled, measured, and, in the best case, reverent. As in any enduring relationship, one cultivates certain habits of mind and body that conduce to the realization of the highest of psychophysiological possibilities.
On this perspective, attunement to nature and the essential flux of things is essential. Awareness develops over time into instinct — and vice versa. Complete and total commitment, whether it’s a mile out in the ocean or dealing with the myriad hassles of everyday life, exemplifies this attitude. The ability to focus like this translates into what Schopenhauer described in terms of
that purely objective frame of mind [that] is facilitated and assisted from without by congenial objects, by the abundance of natural beauty which invites contemplation and solicits our complete attention. 
Schopenhauer’s insight into the essence of the sublime may not necessarily regard the mindset of the big wave rider, per se; but he might as well have been sitting outside Waimea Bay waiting for a 25’ set when he composed this sage wisdom.
These declarations sound intense and extreme, as they should. Such is the nature of the extremities of natural human possibility. In practice, however, living, exercising, or surfing is rather more a matter of flow: a delicate, balanced, concentrated effort involving a reciprocal process of give-and-take, positioning and timing, a proverbial co-responding with or mirroring of the world itself. Consider that waves are a fluid manifestation of the cosmic spiral. Our planet rotates on its axis in space, revolving in orbit around a star, resulting in eternal friction between earth and sky, which produces oceanic swells — progeny of the sway of ether over the earth’s liquid surface. To be attuned to nature in this way — as a wave rider — presupposes presence, spontaneity, patience, and a will to act immediately without hesitation or mistake: like a predator.
On land or in the ocean, the ebb and flow — flux — remains constant, eternal. One adapts to the way of things, gliding from moment to moment. Bill Hamilton (Laird’s father), another big-wave rider in the pantheon, puts it well:
. . . concentrated effort is the glue that holds and directs the instinct of action. To go beyond the feelings and thoughts of fear, and project a cool, positive relationship with the forces. To become the energy of the wave, that’s the main idea. You take when the water gives, and you give when the water takes. It’s a constant interplay of bold confrontations and mellow respect.
- Surfer Magazine, March 1977
Here surfing becomes a metaphor for life, a crucible of an eternal cosmic principle. Here and now one is reminded of this existential truth as often as when one is confronted with a glorious, big blue wave.
Huelo Hale, Paumalu 2021
 The World as Will and Idea, Book III § 38.