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Before reading further, hold your breath for twelve seconds.
Seriously. Twelve seconds.
Easy as a mouthful of black rice pudding, wasn’t it? (If you’re old Bali; if you’re new Bali, make that easy as organic tofu scrambled with sun-dried tomatoes with a side dish of wild brown rice, seasoned with natural sea salt and hand-picked jungle herbs).
One lesser known but quite relevant fact of surfing is that most waves, even ten foot boomers, do not hold you down for longer than twelve seconds, and of those that do, most let you up by fifteen seconds.
I was told this fact some twenty years ago by a heavy water man, an Alaska fisherman, North Shore regular, blue water speargun hunter. We were out at Nusa Dua. This was the wet season that Nusa Dua Did Not Stop, and after days and days of double overhead surf with spring tide currents to match, that afternoon was a pleasant overhead on a calm neap tide. I did not believe Mike when he told me. I said no way. After all, I’d spent not an insignificant fraction of my life during the previous week proving him wrong. Those hold downs were way longer than twelve seconds.
But then I started timing my hold downs, and counting others from cliff tops and channels and boat railings. And sure enough. He was right. I did some checking around, and it appears that Rabbit Kekai was saying the same thing way back in early North Shore days.
When my son first started paddling out to big surf, I told him about the 12 second rule, and I believe he found it reassuring.
However, there are a couple really big caveats. One is that the 12-second rule isn’t all that comforting when you pop up in time to see a the next wave of a stepladder set ready to dump on you. You still have to get comfortable in heavy water.
And of course, we talking mortal-sized waves here, not Jaws or Cortes (check out the Patagonia video of Jaws and note the hold-down at the end. Shane Dorian’s tube that he didn’t make was posted over and over again on the Internet, but this is the only video that showed the consequences)
Also, and this is an update based on a reader’s comment, this “rule” might not apply on solid, short-period swells, from nearby storms or cyclones. On, say, a 13-second period swell, if you go down on the first wave of the set, you might just be getting to the surface when the second wave of the set smashes you back down.
is that there are bound to be Exceptions to the Rule. If the surf’s ten foot, chances are pretty good one wave in a session or two is going to hold you under for, oh, thirty seconds, with the heels of your foot torqued over your back and scratching your scalp, which seems about five times longer than fifteen seconds. Most surfers, looking at heaving ten to twelve foot surf, are probably thinking about the exceptions to the rule, instead of reassuring themselves that they’ll be all right mate, only a twelve second hold down.
Related to this, it isn’t just how long you can hold your breath underwater, but how quickly you can expel said breath and inhale a big deep one as the wave explodes in front of you. This takes a lot of aerobic conditioning and strengthening of diaphragm muscles.
Also, the real danger isn’t hold-downs but knocking yourself unconscious on your board or the reef, or your leash getting tangled up on the bottom, or a fin chopping through a major blood vessels. Deaths by long hold-down drowning are pretty rare. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Todd Chesser’s drowning as in giant surf as one (it’s believed Mark Foo had his leash tangled up).
I have in the past, during sporadic fits of discipline, worked on my breath holding at the gum. A treadmill is convenient. Jogging at a comfortable pace, hold your breath for twelve to fifteen seconds, exhale and inhale, and hold again. Jog for thirty seconds of normal breathing and then repeat the cycle. This can be varied of course. I’ve discovered that a few weeks of this really truly does help me be less winded in big surf (since I wipe out or blow it with embarrassing consistency, thanks in part to my lousy vision & lack of depth perception). You’ll discover some else that’s interesting. The second breath-hold is actually less difficult than the first. What’s causing the distress and pain you feel isn’t lack of oxygen but the CO2 buildup, and the second time around your body is adjusting. (Note: I am not a fitness expert. I am also not an idiot: DO NOT DO APNEA/BREATH HOLD TRAINING IN THE WATER WITHOUT AN OBSERVANT PARTNER—you can go unconscious via shallow water blackout and drown).
Have a look at the following clip (number 14)
of a surfer getting blasted while paddle surfing giant Jaws. Count off the seconds when the wave swallows him up and when he pops up.
You might point out he’s wearing a buoyancy vest. To which I reply, I know, I’m thinking of getting one. I’m getting old, my lungs are shriveling.
(Is it chicken to wear a buoyancy vest in ten foot surf? Although I think it makes the duck diving all that harder.)