No one enjoys having their ass handed to them by the surf, but it happens. Unexpected waves, continuous sets on the head, and gnarly wipeouts can all lead to a longer than usual hold-down. We’ve all had moments where it’s felt like we’ve been underwater a little bit too long. This can happen whether you’ve been surfing all of your life or if you just embarked on your maiden paddle ‘out the back’ session.
Several pro surfers are making a career out of charging “death pits”, as I like to call them, and tales of double wave hold-downs are all a part of the death-defying acts of bravery that pay the bills. But for most of us, that are not throwing ourselves down 90-foot waves, hold-downs are not something to panic about.
As surfers, we quickly learn to get used to the regular “spin cycle” from a wipe out. The manic churning of a wave pushing you around is usually followed by a gentle float back up to the surface after a couple of seconds. We just shrug it off, grab the board, and paddle out for another wave. We know that when we wipeout, the time we spend underwater getting “rag-dolled” is just part of the sport. What catches us off guard is when we’re held underwater for longer than we’re used to and the instinct to panic sets in. Some surfers are naturally born without fear of drowning and never get fazed in big surf, but for us mere mortals there are a few ways to conquer our fears and avoid panic when the surf gets heavier than normal.
Control Your Fear
When being held down, the reality is that usually you’ve probably only been underwater for a just a couple of seconds longer than usual and you will still pop up to the surface at some point (you always have before, right?). The human body is buoyant and naturally floats up to the surface so there’s no reason to be afraid.
For humans, the fear of drowning is a natural instinct that has contributed to the survival of our species. If you panic, it’s just your instinctual fear setting in and, unfortunately, it will do more harm than good. Panicking underwater triggers an alarming thrashing of your arms and legs as you frantically claw at the water in a desperate attempt to scratch your way to the surface. Although, it’s completely natural/instinctual to panic like this, flailing your limbs around in turbulent water is not actually helping you find the surface any more quickly; it’s just burning more oxygen.
Really, there is no reason to panic. Being underwater without air isn’t a problem – you’ve held your breath before, right? Fear of drowning is scary, but it’s not lack of oxygen that leads to someone attempting to breath water, it’s panic! And the only way to stop panicking and conserve your oxygen supply is to relax.
More than likely you are perfectly capable of holding your breath underwater for an extended period of time. Most wipeouts only last a few seconds so if you’re able to hold your breath for at least 10 seconds then you have the physical ability to survive long hold-downs.
So, just to make sure, while you’re at your computer hold your breath for 10 seconds with no preparation. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10!
It wasn’t that bad was it? In fact, I’m sure you feel like you could probably hold it longer if you needed to.
Hold your breath for another 10 seconds, but this time exhale all of the air out of your lungs first. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10!
That should have been a bit more of a challenge without the air in your lungs, but you probably still could have held your breath for longer.
The Good News!
If you’ve managed not to pass out in front of your computer (apologies if you did, note: we are not liable!), you already have the lung capacity to survive long hold-downs.
I know what you’re thinking…that 10 seconds holding your breath in front of your computer isn’t the same as holding your breath for 10 seconds when you’re being thrashed around underwater and panicking! Yes, that’s true. While at your computer you are in a relaxed state (sitting calmly and not exerting much energy) so you’re not wasting any oxygen. The key to conserving your oxygen while taking a beating in the surf is to be just as relaxed underwater as you are right now, sitting in front of your computer. So, in addition to being able to hold your breath for 10 seconds, you also need to learn to relax when you take a set on the head!
Techniques To Help You Relax During A Hold Down
It sounds very simple doesn’t it? But it’s a great way to relax and give you that extra bit of survival time underwater.
The next time you’re underwater after a big wipeout, relax, let your body go limp, and start counting from 1 to 10. Focus your mind solely on counting and don’t give in to panicking. Most of the time you’ll only make it to 4 seconds before you pop up to the surface and you’ll end up feeling a bit silly for ever being afraid in the first place!
When you feel yourself starting to panic during a stressful underwater situation, it is great to have a mental trigger to cue you to relax. A common technique that I have personally always found very useful is singing to myself. Pick any song that relaxes you (I like the “Happy Day’s” theme song) and whenever you find yourself in a bad spot, hum or sing to yourself in your head.
This can also work with mental images. Find something that works for you, something (a peaceful sunset, an empty meadow) that triggers your body to relax. This technique works because of mental association; the song or image will trigger your body going into a relaxed state. Once you find the right song/image, practice employing it all the time with smaller wipeouts or even when holding your breath in the pool. The more times you do it, the more automatic the trigger will be when you need it and the more mental control you can create, the easier it will be to deal with your next long hold-down.
Relaxing will give you extra seconds underwater, burn less oxygen, and also give you mental clarity instead of blind panic. So hopefully the next time you are underwater longer than expected, you will be relaxed and in control (possibly singing “Sunday, Monday, Happy Days”) and pop back to the surface composed and ready to paddle out for another wave.