“Waves are not measured in feet and inches; they’re measured in increments of fear.” The late Buzzy Trent coined this phrase. In 1953, he was one of the first big-wave surfers to be published in newspapers across America before the birth of surf mags.1
Wave size, regardless of surfing skill, reaches a glass ceiling that’s guarded by fear. Can fear—a weapon that big-wave surfers wield—benefit us all? Do liquid mountaineers, like Laura Enever and Tom Carroll overcome fear by suppressing, ignoring or turning it off, and do they even acknowledge it? We prove to become a better surfer you must add fear to your quiver (custom-made of course).
Aussie legend Thomas Victor “Tom” Carroll is known as the world’s first goofy-footer to win back to back ASP World Tour titles (’83–’84). He’s notorious for roaming the globe and prospecting for unridden waves, making him surfing’s oracle of fear: “The fear response is underneath just about everything we do,” he says. “The fear of dying … that’s the basis of all our fears.”
Is this why fear is typecast as the villain? Either as a weak, wussy kook or an undefeatable psycho who undermines every move, is always one step ahead, and terrifies us with a two-wave hold-down.
Leaving the WSL Tour and becoming an ocean mountaineer marks the beginning of Laura Enever’s cinematic journey—gasping for breath, tossing around the jaws of the world’s most dangerous waves, rocketing down Shipstern’s steppie face—permitting her to neurohack fear. “Fear can be a superpower or just something that can rip you apart. Recognise when negative thoughts are made-up scenarios in your head. Know that you can choose to believe them or not. And then recognise the difference between that and a really bad gut feeling.” Laura pauses … she reflects on Undone—her recently released documentary, which unbiasedly shows the challenging relationship a big-wave warrior has with fear: “There were times in the film where I got up at 4 am, went to a wave, watched it and said, ‘Not today.’ I wasn’t feeling it. There were days where I tried. It’s trying in your own time and you’ve got to trust yourself.”
Fear is a primal instinct; a self-defence mechanism. Its auto response is two-pronged. One version is a real protective device that kicks into gear to save our lives when we feel threatened. The other is when our basic needs are met, we sense danger and participate in the fictional stories in our head: If I don’t surf my friends will think I’m a kook/wuss (based on the fear of “not being enough”). This wave could drown me (based on the fear of “having no control”). Experts say that identifying our fictional fear, as either not being enough or losing control, can help dismantle its effects.2
Part of Laura’s trust process is to classify fear into two categories: factual/fiction. For surfers, sometimes the line blurs. It’s hard to grasp the truth because the same visceral responses are triggered for both: shaky hands, accelerating heart, dry mouth, etc. These reactions happen because the body shuts down all non-essential systems (like digestion, which is why we feel butterflies in our bellies) as energy surges toward our muscles so we can fight or flight.
Getting rid of fear is the same as telling a person who’s allergic to dust, not to sneeze during a dust storm. The secret is how we respond to it and powerhouse surfer Tom muses on this. “We’re all different in our approach. Some people are crazy: they just throw themselves over the edge. I had a natural urge to be in the storm.” He chuckles before adding, “But others just didn’t. I know brilliant surfers—who’ve made an incredible impact on our sport—take years to take a risk in the bigger waves with bigger power, particularly in Hawai’i. When you’re more confident, the nervous system relaxes. We’re not driving so heavily on the adrenaline even though the adrenaline would be there.”
If we are constantly bombarded with life- or surf-stressors—big waves, big hold downs, health, finance, relational issues—our body doesn’t get a chance to clean our systems, so rampant cellular regeneration leads to cancer.2 This changes our relationship with fear from benefitting our surfing to extending our lives.
How do we know when to feel the fear and go anyway, or when to pull out to avoid danger? Performance psychologist Richard Bennett says, “Sure fear might come into it but if there’s not a ‘pleasure and joy’ feeling alongside that then, it’s a good indication that maybe I’m not ready for what the ocean is delivering today or I’m not feeling quite on it.”
28-year-old Laura, “Lauzy” to her friends, explains how she overcomes her anxieties. “Learning to trust my instincts and gut was the biggest thing that I had to do. Saying ‘no’ in a situation that felt so uncomfortable was more empowering than saying ‘yes’. In the film, I pushed through a day that didn’t feel right and got hurt,” she says. Her tone is quiet and calm as if she’s re-living the moment: “If you feel a bit out of control, you’re not trusting your own judgment; then it’s just a recipe for disaster. I think being patient is super important—not putting a time limit on it. There’s always going to be another swell.”
Although Tom has decades of adrenaline-pumping big-wave action, he’s still learning: “I’m definitely a work in progress—ha! Early this year, my gut was telling me not to go surfing on the North Shore this one day. On the second wave, I ended up getting a fin in the head—gouged a big hole.” Experience lets Tom see the whole story. “If I’m not in touch with myself and I make a decision to go out in big surf, because my head’s saying, You should be going out there. If I don’t get to see that for what it is, then we miss the goal that is going on inside. It’s a lifelong journey.”
Our goal to overcome surf-stressors can be done through a variety of strategies, and surf psychologist Richy believes that each strategy isn’t a one-size-fits-all. But after committing to a realistic amount of time if it doesn’t “resonate” with you, then Richy suggests that it’s time to try a different approach. This doesn’t mean meditating for a session, or a week, then giving up (we know sitting still may not resonate with adrenaline junkies—give it time).
Visualising certainly resonates with Laura. “I’ve heard a lot of psychologists talk about how if you do visualise yourself going through motions, you can trick your mind into thinking you’ve done something before that you haven’t,” she says. Before big-wave tows, Laura says, “I visualise myself on the wave, visualise making the wave, and just do it over and over again.”
Social conditioning in First World countries have changed our natural responses to fear. Stressed children seek comfort from parents through physical touch and positive affirmation. Yet as adults, we withdraw or lash out when we face fear (aka jealousy, anger, greed). Do adult surfers with a adrenaline-induced bravado and a “toughen up” attitude seek support to deal with fear, or do they prefer independence?
Tom thinks the solo man is mythic. “Every now and then I’ll surf on my own,” he says. “I seek friends out to surf with. I’ve got more courage and felt better about it. I can’t—we can. Looking out for each other, we like to see each other take a risk. It’s alright to stuff up, otherwise we wouldn’t do anything.”
Laura agrees, she also relies on her supportive crew. “I work well with words of affirmation. When I didn’t have confidence in myself, my brother would say, ‘You can totally do it.’ She remembers the boys hooting from the boat during filming. “And if you’re thinking about not committing, you hear their voices yell ‘go’ and you have that extra bit of confidence to commit. That’s why everyone hoots and yells: everyone’s there and you’re stoked that everyone’s pushing themselves.”
Movement is part of Tom’s repertoire to combat surf-stressors. “The more I engaged with the adrenaline, the more I engage with my physical body—I didn’t sit there and get poisoned by it. I paddle around or dive into the surf—something that moves the system along so I’m not just sitting there.”
A direct strategy is to face your fears head-on. Laura recalls her first time to Fiji. “I was surfing Cloudbreak some years ago. I had this fear of hitting the reef. I almost knew the longer I was sitting there not catching a wave, the more I was locking up. I needed to get a small wave and even touch the reef to get it out of the way and know that it’s fine.” Lauzy’s advice to any girl (or guy) that’s scared—even in two-foot is: “Paddle out, stay on the inside and wait for a set to come through a little bit and dive under it. You need to get that tossed-around-by-the-wave feeling to know that it’s not that bad.” To go over the falls on purpose can reset your “actual” fear baseline.
A less confronting way is writing about worst-case scenarios and possible thoughts that trigger fear when you’re performing. Ask yourself, What’s the worst that could happen? Break it down: fear of sharks is usually because we can’t see or hear them, and our fight/flight mode seems useless in the ocean, except for Fanning of course—he punched a great white in the schnoz in his J-Bay heat.
Journaling your successes is important: breaks you’ve surfed, goals you’ve smashed, wave-size, breath-holds—whatever is triggering your fear. Lauz jots notes, ideas, feelings—not necessarily a daily journal but just as the inspiration appears. She believes it’s valuable and says, “It’s a reminder when you’re feeling down to be proud of what you’ve achieved and not be too hard on yourself.”
Although Tom has countless achievements, our surfing elder recalls his first wipeout in Hawai’i, which answers that what-could-go-wrong question. “Simon Anderson (one of Tom’s surfing elders) and some of the older surfers in my first trip to Hawai’i gave me the stories, which were numerous and endless.” He laughs—ha-ha-ha-ha-ha—unloads a round of jolly ammo. Is it nervous laughter or happiness as he recollects his first trip to the land of Aloha?
Let’s set the scene: a “weedy 16-year-old”—his phrase—is ready to make his mark in Hawai’i. But our Aussie big waves look like their grom-riding ankle-tappers. He’s surrounded by a burly crew of Narrabeen hellmen during the blokey era where tall tales are re-spun and embarrassing stories are stashed in the shadows. The ocean is booming. Its right of passage torments you with every bone-crushing wave. Even its froth has fury. You’re a teenage grom amped on processed-film pics and grainy ’70s movies of Hawaiian waves, not to mention their soul-scarring stories. What’s the worst that could possibly happen? (Obviously after death, shark attack, or injury.)
“My first wipeout inside Sunshine Beach …” Tom pauses, then blurts, “I literally crapped myself. I’ve never actually had an involuntary evacuation of the bowel. I just went with it: Well that’s what happened. I just crapped myself.”
Between his sentences were splatters of laughter—we wonder, What’s the takeaway from this? “I think the experience is cool,” he says unapologetically, “because however brown and embarrassing and smelly it was, it wasn’t so bad. I actually got pounded, but it wasn’t as bad as all the stories—not necessarily the stories themselves, but how it was translated in my head.”
Now here’s the bonus, should anyone have the crap scared out of them. “I only had a pair of boardshorts on—well I was kind of lucky,” he says. (Wait, lucky? Talk about glass half full, even if it’s chunky chocolate.)
“I could just take my shorts off for a bit—to swim around to clean off. It’s not like I crapped myself on the land, you know?” Truuuee—stories with sizzling starts often have strong endings and Tom’s is no different: triple-winner of the Pipe Masters (’87, ’90, ’91). Not to mention, the revolutionary “Millennial Snap” where he left the standard straight line to carve his own. Quick question about involuntary fear responses: anyone now motivated to overcome their poo-stance?
Fearlessness—can we live without fear, or at least learn the seven secret steps to fearless enlightenment? Sorry, we can’t—fear is a primal auto response. Can we teach how to overcome fear’s stressors? Tom explains that it’s taken him a long time to get there. “It’s a personal journey. We can talk about it and build stories around it, but my true feeling is that fear needs to be experienced and I can’t teach someone not to be fearful,” he says. Then he reminds our youngsters to understand: “Courage is not necessary doing ridiculous things to prove to your peer group that you’re fearless.” Tom quickly adds, “But we can’t tell them that ’cos they’ve got to experience it.”
Laura, our mutant-wave hunter, shares her successes: “It’s knowing yourself better and connecting with the ocean. I somehow worked out a way for me to flick that switch and commit—not have any negative self-talk, and feel in control.” Her epiphany is genuine and simple: “Know your why: Why are you out there? When I surf big waves, I feel like I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. I’m the best version of myself. I just love, with big waves, I’m only competing against myself.”
Previously, when competing on the world tour, Laura struggled with anxiety; now she’s creating new stories with fear. We can too, if we break fear into its three modes, flip it and use it.
Fight mode: Fight is flipped to support. Be prepared: equipment, ocean awareness, physical bodies (strength, speed, power, breath, health)3—you get the gist.
We can shift our focus onto something as simple as breathing, like Laura does during the film when she surfs The Right: “All I could think about was getting eaten by a shark or breaking my leg or drowning. There was no one else out at The Right. Everything that I’d done every other surf session, like watching the boys and being able to visualise, wasn’t available,” she says before revealing a new strategy she learnt. “What I ended up doing was a breathing exercise with Shannon. We did five minutes of breathing, kind of like a breath hold, and then some Wim Hof breathing—some really heavy breaths so you get that light-headed feeling. It reset my whole nervous system.”
Freeze mode: This fixed state is flipped to change, flow, grow. Education systems grow our intellect, but what about emotional growth or synchronicity? That is, making sense of our internal and external connections, affirming we’re on the right path, and enhancing our mental health involving our body (energy—physical feeling), mind (will), and soul (intuition).
Tom is no rookie at this. “Meditation is counterintuitive to thought. We can point our mind to a feeling. Rather than the mind going off with all this fantasy, we’re pointing our mind to what’s going on inside the body. So decision-making becomes more trustworthy. I’m not trying to take my mind off the fear. I’m actually going into it. Take the time and don’t rush off or rush into anything,” Tom says.
Then he explores why humans should take risks. “It’s super important for recalibrating the mind, the body, and the nervous system. But we know just by experience as humans, if we don’t take a risk with ourselves at some level, we don’t get to grow. Meditation is excellent for developing a coherent resilience.”
Flight mode: Running away—doing-doing-doing—is flipped to being still. Focus is a form of stillness. Calming and clearing our minds is fundamental in our progressively noisier world by decreasing distractions (social media, tech-saturated fiscally-driven lifestyles).
Fear is no longer trapped in the shadowland of our mind. When it’s revered and given time and space to evolve, it’s the life-flow of surfing. Tom says, “The fear is there to spark all your senses in order to be truly alive in the moment. Whereas, if you’re trying to run away from the fear, you’re actually missing the point of the feeling of fear.”
What is the point of feeling the fear? Tom says that we should go into the feeling of fear: “It might be this energy buzzing underneath the skin. You might be shaking the energy because your adrenal glands are popping. And that might not be comfortable, but it’s there for a reason. It’s who we are in the moment. And we can use that energy to save ourselves or engage depending on what we need to do. We just have to be careful about the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism, which is probably going to be there. We’re going to be oscillating between that and being present, being that, being present, in that moment because we’re so charged.”
Our conversation began with Tom: the root of fear is the fear of death. If this is the case, what’s above its dark soil: what’s the fruit of fear? The energy of life produces delicious nutritious fruit: ecstasy, tranquillity, kindness, love … etc. In the West, we value intellect: the mind’s rational thought, reasoning, analysis—science. Why does fear shut down this higher thinking part of the mind? It must need something else.
The secret to embracing fear is embracing our potential—knowing yourself, loving yourself (even perceived weaknesses), and being yourself. This is where gut instinct is necessary and grows in incremental steps of faith (belief in something/someone plus self-belief). Embracing life is enjoying the rush of adrenaline and its lingering after-effects: passion, happiness, satisfaction—your present place in the universe is feeling spot-on.
We control fear’s glass ceiling. Transitioning out of fear changes how we respond to life’s triggers. Terror and exhilaration have the same gut-feel. We determine if it’s fear or excitement: a villain or hero.
- Warshaw, The Encyclopaedia of Surfing, Harcourt Books, 2005.
- M Poffenroth, The Science of Fear: Online Course, Mary Poffenroth Media, 2020.
- R Bennett, The Surfer’s Mind, Griffin Press, 2004.