Five Big Wave Surfing Tips with Mark Visser (part 1)

Mark Visser somewhere in remote Tasmania, this was a long trek for an even longer drop.

Mark Visser somewhere in remote Tasmania, this was a long trek for an even longer drop.

© 2014 - Stuart Gibson

The first of an exclusive two part series serialising Mark Visser’s Top 10 Big Wave Surf Tips. If you want the other tips in this series, head over to his site to download the ebook. For free. And don't paddle out to 30ft Mavericks unless you have read them.

–Mark Visser

During my career, I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some of the greatest names in the surfing industry. My own transition from a World Qualifying Series (WQS) surfer to following my strengths and passion to focus on big waves, has given me a diverse range of inside knowledge from other people; whether it was from other big wave surfers, World Championship Tour (WCT) professional surfers or world champions themselves. These people have helped me so much along the way and when I mentioned these tips to other people and realised how beneficial they were, I knew I had to get them out there. These tips can be beneficial for anyone wanting to know more about ocean safety, people learning to surf or already confident surfers who want to know some simple inside tips. I’d just be stoked to see everyone safe and having fun.

Tip #1 – Watch For Reactions

There are many different ways to read the ocean but in some situations you can’t see what is happening from where you are positioned in the water. That’s how watching people’s reactions can help. By looking at other surfers that are out the back of the break as you are paddling towards them, you can predict two things:

1. When and if a set is coming
2. Which direction it’s coming from and how soon it’s going to break

This is demonstrated by watching surfers out the back glance around and then start to paddle towards the incoming waves. Usually the bigger or better the wave, the more reactions you’ll be able to spot. For example, people kicking or paddling franticly means there is a good size wave coming in fast. Knowing what is coming towards you before it arrives will help you stay safe, out of someone’s way and monitor where the best position is to catch the next one for yourself.

Tip #2 – Deep Duck Diving

I’ve found in a lot of situations when I needed to go deep and duck dive at the last minute, I use my foot. Mark Visser

I’m often asked how to duck dive a board deep enough to get under a large wave. I’ve found in a lot of situations when I needed to go deep and duck dive at the last minute, I use my foot. You do this by grabbing your rails, locking your arms out to sink the board, lean forward and press your foot down on the tail of the board to drive the board down. With the drive of your foot, your other foot (not on the tail) lifts out of the water because you’re using it to counter balance. Your ‘tail’ foot is driving you down and the other free foot is stabilizing you. You then use your foot on the tail to raise the nose of
the board to project yourself back up to the surface once the wave has rolled over you. It’s always good to practice in the pool or in the shore before you head out into the waves when you’re learning.

Mark Visser at huge Cloudbreak over the sharp but fragile Fijian reef.

Mark Visser at huge Cloudbreak over the sharp but fragile Fijian reef.

© 2014 - Andrew Sheilds

Tip #3 – Avoiding Reef And Rocks

Some of the best surf spots in the world break on reef or rocks. Pipe Line, Fiji and my all time favourite Teahupoo in Tahiti, just to name a few. Reef and rock bottom waves are often the most consistent but have the risk of some nasty cuts and injuries to come along with it. In the beginning I seemed to be an expert at hitting the reef and learnt the hard way on what to do in these situations.

Reef can be very fragile and filled with deep cracks and holes. In some cases a whole leg can break through a fragile reef surface. Mark Visser

People usually ask if they should wear booties when surfing over reef so they can just stand up if they fall off. Although it seems like the perfect solution, reef can be very fragile and filled with deep cracks and holes. In some cases a whole leg can break through a fragile reef surface, get trapped and cause more damage to you and the reef.

On shallow reef or rocks, the best tip I was ever told was to ‘starfish’. The trick is, the moment you pull off or fall off a wave, cover your head and avoid putting you feet down toward the bottom. This will not only protect you from the reef but also any surfboard that comes flying past. Sometimes hitting the bottom is unavoidable but you can prevent yourself from doing more damage by following this simple drill. The moment everything settles, the most important thing to remember is NOT to stand up, kick or kneel on what’s below. Stay as flat and as horizontal as you can and keep treading water and breathing calmly. Reach back for your leg rope to pull your board towards you, stay as flat as you can, get onto your board and paddle away to deeper water.

Tip #4 – Open Your Eyes

It’s a simple tip that many seem to forget but it makes a world of difference. By opening your eyes when you duckdive a wave you can navigate to miss the most intense turbulent white wash or be able to see air pockets to swim up through. With your eyes open, you’ll notice lighter colour variations in the air pockets, which usually means a smoother rise to the surface. Whether you are in the crystal clear waters of Fiji or dark gloomy waters in Chile or California, you will still be able to see the easier air pockets to travel through.

Choosing the smoother path will help you to stay calm and reserve energy when you’re being held down instead of kicking and fighting to stay on your board or reach the surface. It makes a big difference when you’ve been surfing all day and you have tired arms.

Tip #5 – Safer Than You Think

If you’re out in surf that’s a bit bigger than normal and not what you’re used to, here’s a few tips that will calm you down and make you feel a bit more confident; even in a situation that seems scary at the time. If you’ve had a wipeout or you’re caught in the impact zone and being held down for what feels like an eternity, always remember your board can be a lifeline and it’s attached to your ankle. If you’re in a really sticky situation and you have no idea which way is up or down, reach to your foot, grab your leg rope and climb up it until you reach your board. From the surface, your board will be ‘tomb stoning’ which will indicate to other surfers or even a safety ski where you are and that you may need help.

Another thing to remember is that even if you’ve snapped your leg rope, just know that you’re actually being rolled and swirled into shore which means you’re getting further and further away from the impact zone. Try to go with the flow of the waves and don’t fight it. Keeping that thought in mind will make you feel more relaxed and conserve your energy.

I hope these tips have helped and you feel safer in the water,

Have fun, MV

If you are impatient for the other tips, head over to his site to download the ebook.


Ed Temperley

MSW editor. Twitter @edtemperley