The 12 Second Rule (of Wave Hold-downs)

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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.)

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19 Responses to The 12 Second Rule (of Wave Hold-downs)

  1. kd says:

    Very nice post, thanks! My sone is 8 and a bit chicken in the surf. But he’s also obsessed with watchint the time, so if I tell him the 12 second rule and get him to count seconds when he’s diving under waves his confidence will go up heaps. Also good for me too.

  2. Keiki Kealoha says:

    Great post! Very useful information! There is another situation that may affect the 12 second rule. Vertical vs. horizontal push. Its the horizontal push that sometimes scare me. Catching a wave in deep water and being held down as the breaking wave pushes you underwater all the way to the shore.

    Check out this clip from 3:36 – 4:29

    Im not sure if this is a horizontal push, but it sure looks like it to me.

  3. garduno says:

    One thing to keep in mind. Should you be held down for 12 seconds it is not uncommon to get doubled up by another wave. 12 seconds can easily turn into 24 if you happen pop up after the initial pounding and injest a mouth full of water or foam.

    Bottom line, work on that lung capacity and pick your spots. If you are winded and decide to take off on the first or second wave of a set you are already behind the eight ball.

    Growing up in Newport is is not uncommon to to have a 14 second interval between waves. A decent hurricane swell usually has sets that only last 1/4 of the time that the lull between sets lasts.

    Go down to Cabo and the opposite is true….I would imagine this is similar in Hawaii, Indo, or anywhere else that you are very close to the source of the swell. This has a drastic impact on endurance.

    Interesting article and some good info.

    Great blog by the way.

    • You’re right. I’ve posted elsewhere about being held under for three waves during a massive cyclone swell…the cyclone was close to Bali and I reckon the period was about 14 or 15 seconds. I couldn’t get up before the next wash cycle hit.

      Thanks for the clarification.

  4. Anonymous says:

    thanks man! I need it those words. I had a lung surgery and lost half lung. The only thing I care is if I will be able to get back in the line up. And you know Obviously I´ve lost lung capacity by I can hold my breath for 15 20 seconds while exercising so I might be ok. Cheers

  5. Craig says:

    Thanks for the info on hold downs . Do you know of any good hold down training near Sydney . Cheers Craig

  6. Anonymous says:

    It is a natural reflex born of millions of years of evolution that plays against you. Adrenaline pumps into your blood when you are under stress, increasing your heart rate and your metabolism and preparing you for the fight or flee instinct when you face a predator. Unfortunately, in the water, this also increases dramatically your consumption of oxygen and energy, making those 12 seconds equivalent to a minute.
    So I believe that not only physical training is helpful. Controlling your emotions and stress levels is vital, not only in the surf, but in everyday life (help you prevent heart problems later in life). Surfing can teach you some very useful lessons for everyday life stressful situations.

  7. Better yet as a training tool – EXHALE- then cycle/run/ row etc as hard as you can as far as you can, rinse and repeat. Kettlebell swings on a breath are also good, help you learn to relax!

  8. Halra says:

    great 🙂
    i like Bones of the Dark Moon

  9. Pat says:

    Hey quick question. I just took a good two wave hold how in 6-7 ft Hawaiin and staying mentally calm was key. The question is what is the best way to bail off a wave that is well over head to double overhead to avoid getting a good thrashing? I typically straighten out and kick my board up and away from me while i try to penetrate in front of the wave. This works most of the time but sometimes i see pros edging back into big waves and diving into the whitewater. This works in smaller waves for me but in bigger thicker waves i have tried and i end up not getting deep enough and getting pulle dover the falls! Any advice? BTW thanks for the 12 Sec rule, its a nice mantra while being punded!!

    • Well, I’m the wipeout wizard. With my bad vision and lumbering reflexes, I’ve entertained numerous folks out in the line up.

      I think the first rule in bailing is what you’re doing, get your board away from you, and the second rule, is make sure your board isn’t going to hit anybody else. I’ve also found that generally speaking trying to ride the white water as far as possible diminishes the pounding, with the drawback that you have a longer way to paddle back out without getting caught again. That’s probably why the pros turn immediately into the wall of white white water (on mortal size waves, not the monsters), cause they don’t want to waste that time, and they are fit.

      • Anonymous says:

        Thanks for the reply! I guess sometimes ya just have to take your licks!!! Cant cheat a pounding on everywave!! HA! Happy surfing…falling!!

  10. Pingback: A historical photograph of Nusa Dua surf | Bali and Indo Surf Stories

  11. thingadonta says:

    Nias is a hold down wave. i got held down for 15-18 seconds on a wave with an 18 foot face going over the falls. I know how long because when i came up, way down the reef, i was level with a shoreline marker and with the next wave right on top of me (luckily it had almost dissipated, i got dragged so far), and later i timed how long it took for a follow up wave to get to where i came up-18 seconds.

    I almost drowned at Sanur going under a 15 wave set with faces up to 15-18 feet, i went under about 10 waves which kept getting bigger, that whitewater there just doesn’t seem to want to let you out. Uluwatu at 15-18 feet faces seems to let you out quick, but maybe i just got lucky there.

    I’ve also seen waimea bay timed at 20 seconds hold down, for a 30 foot+ face.

    • Thanks for the valuable info, my friend. As always with “rules”, there will be exceptions. Anything double overhead plus and I reckon you better take pretty good inventory of your lung capacity and breath hold. As for 20 foot plus, the only way anyone will surface within 15 seconds is probably with an inflated life safety vest.

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