Tips to remember when it’s time to bail


One of the greatest fears held by big-wave surfers is getting caught inside by a giant, hard-breaking wave. Wipeouts are unexpected and there is no time for fear. But when getting caught inside by an exploding bomb of a wave, surfers generally see it coming somewhat in advance, striking panic in all but the most experienced big-wave surfers.

Getting caught inside by big waves can be as dangerous or more so than a big-wave wipeout. What follows are proven big-wave bail-out tips tested and approved by the Willis brothers in waves 25 feet and bigger.

Surfers that have a big-wave bail out procedure are going to have more chance for survival than those who do not. Even if the waves are not life-threatening, every surfer should know what to do when faced with getting caught inside.

A surfer should bail out only if it is absolutely necessary. The only way a surfer should bail out is if he feels there is absolutely no chance of holding onto his surfboard. Sooner or later, every surfer is going to get caught inside on a wave too big to handle. Getting caught inside is a whole lot easier to deal with when you know what to do ahead of time.

Three-foot waves can break a surfboard in two pieces, so imagine what a 20-foot wave can do. To help prevent board breakage when caught inside by powerful waves, turn your surfboard parallel to the wave. Giving the board a slight push sideways away from the surfer just before the wave hits also helps prevent board breakage.

After pushing the surfboard sideways, the surfer should face the wave and take a deep breath just before diving feet first. Using his arms, the surfer propels himself downward in a motion similar to how a squid swims. Diving down feet first has many advantages over diving down headfirst. Diving feet first takes less effort, thereby helping to conserve valuable oxygen and time. With the feet-first diving method, the surfer’s head will be closer to the surface and air.

Skilled big-wave surfers wearing surfboard leashes invert their bodies sideways, so when the leash pulls, they can use the energy to bodysurf backwards underwater and angle up closer to the surface.

Surfers not using surfboard leashes should not dive too deep. It’s better to dive shallow so the wave itself can help wash a surfer closer to shore.

It’s not easy, but experienced surfers keep their eyes open while under water. When a wave explodes overhead it starts powerful whirlpools of energy that can discombobulate a surfer. Surfers that keep their eyes open while under water can see the whirlpools and try to avoid them.

Time seems to expand under water, so it’s best to focus on enjoying the experience rather than rushing through it. While under water, a surfer should think about anything other than how long he has been under water. Experienced big-wave surfers practice staying relaxed even during the most harrowing of hold-downs.

There is no use fighting it, just practice the ABCs of surfing: always be cool.

E-mail Michael and Milton Willis at