“They make it look so easy,” former competitive surfer turned big-wave hunter, Mark Visser tells ASN.
You hear that a lot when you stand on the sidelines watching pro surfers do their thing. (And they do.) From heaving caverns at Pipeline and Teahupoo, to playful days at Trestles or Snapper Rock, the guys and girls that get paid to spend their time in the water are usually the ones that feel the most comfortable.
Visser's trying to change that. He’s developed his Ocean Warrior Course to help surfers of all stripes get more comfortable in their briny environment.
Working with big-time names like Garrett McNamara, Shane Dorian, Kai Lenny and Kelly Slater to help them achieve their performance goals, he also spends a lot of time with average, work-a-day watermen and women who just want to be able to enjoy their time in the lineup a little bit more.
“This has all been developed to help surfers of all skill and ability levels,” Visser tells ASN. “There are things that guys like Dorian and Slater can take from it, but there is also stuff that somebody who’s just getting on a board for the first time can benefit from.
“I really wanted to put something out there that benefited everyone. I mean, I used to be deathly afraid of the water, so I really understand and empathize with what people go through.”
Visser’s motivation for creating the Ocean Warrior training goes all the way back to when he was three years old and almost drowned in a sheep’s trough when he dropped a piece of fruit he was eating into the water and went in after it. His brother pulled him out just in the nick of time.
Freaked out by the experience, Visser’s spent much of his life trying to overcome his fear of the water. Initially that led him to try and charge bigger and bigger waves, going so far as to be towed into giant Jaws at night and parachuting a jet ski out of a plane to ride another big-wave break in the middle of the ocean.
“I was over compensating,” he laughs today.
It wasn’t until Visser really dove deep into his own psychology that he began to confront his fear of the water. That’s where the inspiration for his Ocean Warrior Course was born.
He worked with world-class free divers, military special forces personnel, career lifeguards and anybody else he could glean information from. The curriculum he compiled covered everything from lifeguard and basic first aid skills, to techniques to extend one’s breath-holding ability, to strategies for dealing with turbulent hold-downs and wipeouts.
A video series that you can access wherever in the world you happen to be, Visser does a lot of the teaching, but brings in notable guests.
These guests include renowned Hawaiian lifeguard Brian Keaulana, who teaches lessons on basic CPR, how to get an unconscious victim onto a surfboard, and other techniques that could save a life in an emergency situation in the water.
“People forget how dangerous the ocean can be, even on a small day,” explains Shane Dorian. “But if we’re all looking out for each other and we all have the skills to respond if something happens, that’s a best-case scenario.”
As far as the physical training portion of the course, you don’t have to be an elite athlete to enjoy the benefits. Recognizing that someone like Dorian is at a different level than somebody that’s just graduated from surf school, Visser made sure that all of the exercises could be adapted for surfers of all levels.
A lot of them deal with how to breath better when you’re under duress, how to manage oxygen in the body when underwater, and what you can do to stay more comfortable in pressure situations for longer periods of time.
“Most wipeouts don’t last that long, so a lot of this is learning how to silence the panic button and relax,” said McNamara after a training session with Visser. “It’s just scaling it up as you challenge yourself more. Once you feel comfortable being held under by a three or four-footer, then it’s a stair-step up to a five-footer and so on.
“Nobody just goes out and surfs 50-foot Nazare, you work up to that … if you even want to do it at all.”
In the Ocean Warrior course Visser explains how different parts of the body use different amounts of oxygen, and how during a wipeout, if you can essentially shutdown the big muscles that burn a lot of oxygen and quiet the mind, then you can stay underwater a lot longer than you think.
“From the tips of your toes to the tips of your fingers, it’s about being aware of what every part of your body is doing and quieting it as much as possible,” says Visser. “It’s learning how to slow the heart rate when under pressure and remain as calm as possible. Panicking is a waste of oxygen."
One of the most valuable lessons Visser offers is the “dump breath” technique that he’s fine tuned. It’s meant to expel as much CO2 out of the body as possible before inhaling a lung full of O2. It’s performed when a surfer is stuck in the impact zone and needs to grab a quick gulp of air before getting hammered again.
McNamara, Lenny and Dorian all utilize this technique when they’re getting rag-dolled at Jaws, but the dump breath is just as applicable when as swell’s running at your local beachbreak.
“There are a lot of places where Mark’s training could be applied, but I feel like it could be really useful in small waves,” said Slater after one of his first training sessions with Visser last December. “If you think about how much more time we all spend surfing small waves, to be able to relax, be focused, be in the moment, and be prepared if something happens, those are all skills that can benefit any and every surfer.”
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