Why — And How — To Watch Women’s Surfing in the Olympics -Part 2, The Wipeout

What’s at Stake: Navigating the Power of the Ocean -The Wipeout

Keala Kennelly in 2019’s “Wipeout of the Year” at Peah’i, Maui. Watch it here on www.worldsurfleague.com!

To have any sense of what is at stake in surfing, of the absolute pounding a surfer takes each and every time they practice their sport, it might be best to start with the wipeout. Unlike other board sports where dramatic falls are the anomaly, not the norm, the surfer experiences wipeouts in every session. It is true they are not falling on concrete or hard-packed ice or snow with the obvious dangers these surfaces pose, but the punishment of a wipeout is much more intense than it looks.

What you don’t see when a surfer falls off a wave, is what happens underneath it. Waves have a circular motion when they break that I could best describe as a churning combustion chamber. The foam, which looks soft and heaven-like from a distance, is actually more like a pounding, thrashing explosion, and when you are inside of it, you are a part of that explosion. Lest you think that smaller waves weaken in their intensity, smaller waves can be more hammering than large ones, because the enormous power of the wave is unleashed in a tiny corridor, with maybe just a foot or two of water to act as a “cushion,” — if you can call a thrashing explosion a cushion — between the surfer and the ocean floor.

And that ocean floor is anything but a welcoming oasis. It is either a hard-packed sandy bottom, or a sharp, jagged reef with protruding rocks and edges. Every time a surfer falls, especially in world-class waves, they face the very real danger of being pinned or smashed against the hard floor.

Inexperienced people venturing out to body surf in such surf can end up with broken necks or snapped ankles. More often, surfers are cut, scraped, jarred, drilled, and dragged along this bottom. Every surfer pays their dues to the sandbar and the reef.

Trapped beneath the foam ball and the reef,

Most of the time, the surfer does not hit the bottom. They simply get “ragdolled,” which is a lot like being the ragdoll toy of a big dog who shakes his toy from side to side, up and down, until the stuffing comes out. To be fair, most surfers kind of like this feeling, if they end up with all their stuffing intact. They kind of have to. But it can also result in serious neck injuries, torn rotators, and unnaturally bent and strained limbs. Relaxing into the fall helps, but any surfer at any time can be manhandled by this churning chamber and Gumby’d beyond their own body’s limitations.

There is also the danger of the board itself. Surfers are tethered to their boards by leashes that are approximately the same length as the board itself. Shortboard surfers ride boards that are around or just under 6’ long, so that means you have a 6-foot bungee cord that can rebound the board back towards your body as the wave has its way with it. These boards have pointed tips and three very sharp fins on the bottom. They can flip and slice with the sharp edges, or the hard surface of the board itself can clock you as you tumble down and into the explosion. For longboarders, who ride 9’-10’ massive logs, the volume and weight of the board create their own hazards.

Aussie Olympian Sally Fitzgibbons showing the pointy parts of the board, Rottnest, www.worldsurfleague.com

In bigger conditions, when a surfer falls, they also may get “held down,” meaning the circular energy of the foam ball keeps them pinned beneath the surface. There is no fighting this power. Surfers train to hold their breath with deep water breath techniques, and learn to “relax” while the massive churning tumbles and pins them until they can rise to the surface and breathe precious air. They learn to release fear so that adrenaline doesn’t burn the oxygen in their bodies while they wait for precious air to return to their lungs.

Big wave surfers do this at a level any normal person would find the stuff of nightmares, like being locked in a glass case underwater.

On especially large and powerful waves, the surfer may fall and not be able to penetrate the surface of the wave. In this case, the surfer will get taken up and “over the falls,” actually becoming one with the lip of the breaking wave. They receive not just one thrashing, but many, as they fall, go up and over the top, then get drilled with the power of the crashing wave into the bottom of the ocean floor.

All of this is happening, to some extent, each and every time a surfer falls. So what looks like absolutely nothing, like a fun little splash into a foam pit, is actually an event unto itself. A breaking wave can apply pressure of between 250–6000 pounds per square foot (Surfer Today), depending on its height. There are many variables in calculating this: the size of the wave, the thickness of the lip, the period of the swell, the slope of the bottom, the salinity, etc. Bottom line: it is heavy!

Anyone that has ever been knocked down by even a modest-sized wave on the beach will have a LOT more empathy for what is going on out there. Even so, the scope and size of what is being faced are hard to grasp.

For perspective, here is a glossary of the different types of wipeouts so you can follow along when you see them, and understand what is happening when the announcers call them out.

Getting lipped, or clipped or picked off by the lip: When the leading edge of hundreds of miles and pounds of wind and water conspire to flick you off a wave at full speed, sending you flying onto the face below and all the consequences that follow.

Ragdolled: As mentioned above, like being shaken by a very large dog, or lion. You end up in that friendly-looking foam ball that is exploding and churning above and below the surface. Your limbs have no say which direction they are all going, along with your board, leash, neck, shoulders, and head. On a bad day, this can mean wrenching injuries to any part of your body not meant to bend the way the wave takes it.

Drilled by the lip: When that leading edge treats you like an extension of itself, driving the body through the base of the wave and smashing it into what lies beneath. This might be your board, the sandy bottom, or a reefy cheesegrater. Also known as “becoming the lip.”

Over the falls: When you try to paddle for a wave and misjudge when it will break, or try to pull out to let another surfer go who has the ride of way, and you fall over the waterfall of the crashing lip. You may become the lip, or simply tumble over the outer edge of it, get sucked up and over again, or simply explode. In any case, there is no escaping the force of a wave once you are a part of it.

Hold down: The churning whitewater can totally disorient you, so you don’t know up from down. More than that, the circular cycling motion of the foam ball can literally hold you under for as long as it likes. Big wave surfers wear inflatable vests developed by fellow pros to help them stay alive.

Tombstoned: When you are held down so fiercely that your board sticks out of the water like a tombstone. This implies a longer hold down as you and your board are imprisoned by the power of the wave until it releases you. A surfer can often pull themselves up their leash to their board to escape the hold-down, but in this case, the wave has control of you both.

Caught Inside: When you go for a wave and fall, and you turn around and a bunch of giant mo-fo’s start falling on your head, holding you down or at least captive until the set ends and you can paddle towards freedom.

In larger conditions, even once the surfer is freed, the currents may drag them back into the belly of the beast, the impact zone, where the waves keep breaking and breaking, and keep them pinned in a relentless pounding that exhausts and depletes them.

The bottom line, all of this looks like absolutely nothing while we watch this on a screen, like surfers are just gliding through the beautiful froth, popping up unscathed and determined. But for mere mortals, just surviving the wipeout would send us in to the shore to relive our near-deaths with an adult beverage and a wide-eyed grin.

(If you get the bug, feast on events, replays, videos, and articles on the Women’s Championship Tour and World Qualifying Series at worldsurfleague.com.)

Sheila Gallien is a writer, channel, conscious creativity coach and soul surfer. Her screenplay, Dropping In, inspired by her own story of finding true courage through surfing is soon to be a major motion picture. She lives on the Big Island of Hawaii, where she dreams of someday getting barreled. Visit www.sheilagallien.life to find out more about her transformational work.

Writer, Channel, Mother, Soul Surfer, Conscious Creativity Coach, Marketing Director, Be Who You Are No Matter What You Do, You Are the Bomb! sheilagallien.life