Natxo Gonzalez paddles a thin line. At the age of 25, the professional big wave surfer from the Spanish Basque Country has already challenged some of the most legendary waves in the world. He rides giants in Punta Galea near Bilbao and perfect tubes in Namibia’s Skeleton Bay. But he lost almost everything in 2017 as well.
González surfed in Nazaré, Portugal, a wave that can get up to 80 feet high, and crashed at high speed. His inflatable life jacket, a survival tool adopted from almost every big wave surfer, failed to inflate and he had to endure a massive five-wave set where the hold-down of a wave left surfers underwater for over 30 seconds can hold time. González was on the verge of unconsciousness when a rescue jet ski showed up to rescue him from the swirling whitewash.
Despite his near death experience, González was back in the water in just over a week, chasing the mega swell in northwest Ireland. The Basque surfer’s uncanny ability to experience and subdivide trauma, like his close contact with Nazaré, has helped him continue to enjoy success on the Big Wave Tour – the gold standard for competitive big wave surfing – and through the mental at the same time Navigating the peaks and valleys of a sport that requires 100 percent focus, not just to be successful, but to survive.
González, who has been surfing off the coast of the Basque Country for nearly two decades, credits his early successes to mental and physical preparation out of the water. Following the debut of his Made in the Basque Country miniseries and the professional surf season in full swing, we caught up with the big wave savant to see how he deals with fear, sets limits, and maximizes his time in the water when it does becomes big.
Train the body, train the mind
González believes that 80 percent of surfing with big waves is mental, but he says his physical condition allows him to keep his mind sharp and alert in critical situations.
“If you’re not physically strong, I don’t think your mind has a chance to withstand the large amounts of water that can hit you in those big waves,” he says.
For González, this physical training begins five months before the season, which usually starts in late fall, and includes workouts in the pool and gym five days a week. He is also working to develop appropriate breathing techniques that will become essential if he has to switch to survival mode after a major fall.
To prepare for such a scenario, González simulates crashing in a pool and increases his heart rate before diving underwater. He says knowing how long to hold your breath doesn’t actually lead to surfing and big wave survival because it doesn’t take into account the pounding, disorientation, and adrenaline rushes that deplete your normal oxygen supply. González views traditional breathing as a static training situation, while surviving a large wave standstill is dynamic. One of his most strenuous exercises is to swim 50 meters and then immediately swim completely underwater for the next 25 meters. After a 30-second break, he swims another 25 meters underwater before resting for two minutes. Then he repeats the cycle four more times.
In another exercise, his trainer places four dumbbells five meters apart in a 25-meter pool. González swims underwater to the first dumbbell and waits for the signal from his trainer (usually two kicks on the edge of the pool) before moving on to the next. If he doesn’t know how long to wait, he’ll be vigilant between physical outbursts. Slowing down on each dumbbell helps González evaluate and connect with his breath amid physical exertion and fatigue, a process he translates into his surfing.
“You got your adrenaline through the roof, of course,” he notes. “But we practice how to relax in this situation.”
It is a technique that he blames for his survival in Nazaré. Trust in his physical preparation saved him wave after wave and saved his life.
“I had to force myself to stay calm, relax and not move,” he says. “That way I don’t use any energy and I can try to hold out as long as possible. In the end, it’s all about survival – but these are situations you never want to experience. “
Let fear be a teacher
(Photo: Jon Aspuru / Red Bull)
By the time he crashed in Nazaré, González had had a breakout season and was surfing world-class. He admits he was too confident for such a big day – and it almost cost him.
“I think the person who is not afraid of surfing huge waves is going to have some serious problems,” says González. “It doesn’t matter how well informed you are or how strong you are mentally and physically – the ocean always wins. It is important to keep an eye on these mental controls because if you don’t, you can easily die. “
González believes that all surfers, regardless of skill level, can and should learn from their fear. He says it’s important to check in with you regularly before paddling and ask: is this wave too big? Do I feel good when I have to go on bail? Is there a safe entrance and exit for my skill level? These questions can help put fear in perspective, away from the cloud of adrenaline. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right.
“I had pneumonia last year and came back to a really good winter of surfing – we had big storms and big waves,” recalls González. “But I didn’t feel good in the water. I was afraid. If you don’t feel like you can control that fear of anything, you shouldn’t be in the water. “
Grant “Twiggy” Baker, González ‘surf idol and three-time big wave champion, won his first world championship only when he was forty. In González’s eyes, the legendary South African is a prime example of gradual improvement over a longer period of time.
“Baker has been catching big waves for a long time,” says González. “Big wave surfing is really all about experience – experience gained by surfing in big sessions that will make you a better all-round surfer.”
Even for professionals like González, surfing continues to be a lifelong and humble learning process. Your expectations should be realistic, he says, and your progress should be slow but gradual. Respecting such lessons is paramount to a healthy, rippling life.
“For a while, you’re going to be scared of three-foot, five-foot waves,” notes González. “Then you go to six feet and taller. Step by step. It’s a slow development. Of course, you have to see your limits, and that’s the good thing about big waves – seeing that barrier. This limit pushes itself further and one day the day will come when it is too much. By then I will no doubt be in the water. “
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Main photo: Joseba Larri / Red Bull
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