Heights of Fear

Pair of surfers riding a gigantic wave together

The question is this: What’s the heaviest thing to happen to you in the surf? And how did it change you?

Shane Dorian surfing a large wave while onlookers in the water watch.
Photo by John Bilderback

Shane Dorian

Commitment is essential in big surf, and Big Island Shane Dorian is committed as they come.

I’m not a journalist. Whalebone asked if I’d call up some big wave surfers and ask them for their heaviest story in the surf. Call them up, press record, and send the recording. 

It’s been fun—hearing these stories. People are good at telling their gnarliest stories. We like hearing them. I have a few of my own, of course. More than a few, actually. So to play fair with everyone who shared their stories—I’ll tell you one I almost never tell anyone. This one I keep for myself.

I was 18 or 19 years old. Just graduated from high school and living on the North Shore with Todd Chesser and Brock Little. Where I grew up on the Big Island, waves didn’t get very big. I was a high-performance surfer. But I was just discovering my love for bigger waves and Brock and Chesser, both about five years older, were my heroes. Those were different times. No Jet Skis. No photographers. Just us in our surf trunks. When the waves got big we pulled our guns from under the house and paddled out.

I was just discovering surfing big Waimea and the Outer Reefs, and one day Brock and Todd invited me and my friends Ross Williams and Matty Lui to surf Himalayas. The swell was the biggest I’d ever surfed, and there was just this little reef channel to paddle out to the wave. Brock and Todd make it through, I make it through, but Ross and Matty got smashed going through and washed back to the beach. So it’s just me and these two older guys out there. It’s proper 20-foot Hawaiian—35 to 40-foot faces, with no one else around.


And when I got there I just collapsed. I cried. I was like a little kid again. 

After 20 or 30 minutes, Brock and Chesser had both caught a few good waves, but I hadn’t caught any. This solid set is coming and Brock is paddling up to the shoulder, like he’s too deep and out of position. I was behind him, deeper and further in—definitely not in a good position—but I whipped it around and went anyway. I got to my feet and just fell with the lip. When I hit the bottom, I got the wind knocked out of me by the impact. Like, being body-slammed by a 40-foot wave. I got pushed way deep underwater. Not a good situation.

I was deep underwater, with no air in my lungs. That’s a terrible place to be. I remember holding my breath as long as I could, and then as the second wave of the set passed over me … I just blacked out.

Now, this part is why I don’t like to tell this story. I’m not a cosmic or mystical person. This all happened more than 30 years ago, but I remember it clearly as anything. I blanked out, and then when I blanked back in, I was just a few feet from the surface. I pop up and it’s totally flat. No waves around. I started convulsing and throwing up. My lungs were full of water. I see Brock paddling toward me and I realized that I was still alive.

Then another set started coming in. Long story short, I got a pounding all the way back to the beach. And when I got there I just collapsed. I cried. I was like a little kid again. 

Brock came in and talked to me for a while. He told me about a similar situation he’d had, and having to accept that we’re not superhuman. It was a really significant moment for me in a lot of ways. I was still so young. Brock made me promise that no matter what, next time it got big out there I had to paddle back out. Get back on the horse. And sure enough, five days later another big swell came through and we all went back out and had an amazing session.

That was a turning point for me. It made me more excited to keep surfing big waves, but also less reckless. From that point on, I became more calculated.

Peter Mel racing down a large wave while wearing a wetsuit.
Photo by Doug Acton

Peter Mel 

Winner of the 2011 Big Wave World Tour and 2013 Mavericks Invitational, Peter Mel is widely regarded as one of the best American big wave surfers of his generation and one of the best to ever surf Northern California’s infamous big-wave Mavericks.

That day was ridiculously massive, very wet, foggy, and dangerous, all the way across the board. The same day that Peter Davi passed away at Ghost Trees. We know it’s dangerous, but we’re still doing it because you’re just overlooking it in a way, which is not the right thing to do. 

We were tow surfing, but I didn’t have my normal tow partner, so I was with a friend who has had limited experience. And that day specifically, because it was so pea soup foggy—Jamie Mitchell and his partner, we all went out there, and we were just like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We got to do it. Yeah, we could do this.” And we could barely see, but we could do this.

I had one situation where I took it way too deep—with the current pulling towards the rocks, I took a very nasty wipeout, extremely violent, very violent. But what it did was it really knocked me silly; I felt dizzy, almost incoherent. I was almost knocked out just from the violence of the water.

I remember coming up just dazed, and knowing that I was in a very bad situation. But it actually turned out to be one of the most amazing things ever. Because my partner, who again had limited experience, saw that I was in a situation and didn’t stop. He didn’t know what he got himself into. As I was literally dazed and confused, I kind of came to my senses and realized I was really close to the rocks. And all of a sudden, he was there. And I was like, “What the fuck are you doing in here?” Because it was just a situation where no skis should have been.

It literally was the hand of God guiding us, helping us through.

He just got engulfed—completely submerged underwater with the ski. And all he knew to do was just hold on. He was underwater with the ski in this turbulent water. And suddenly, he just came to the surface at the same time that I came to the surface. He put his hand out, and freaking grabbed me. Nothing was making sense. I couldn’t believe he was there. Somehow, he got me on the back, and we were about 20 or 25 feet off the rocks and he was able to skirt underneath this wave and get along the side of the rocks, and then cut through the rocks, and make it.

It literally was the hand of God guiding us, helping us through. I should have been completely smoked into the rocks. Both of us should have gone through the rocks, destroyed the ski, and just had the worst-case scenario. But instead, we came out. He blessed us. God picked us up and sent us through.

Paige Alms sitting underneath a massive dark wave as it heads over her about to crash down.
Photo by Aaron Lynton

Paige Alms

In 2016, Maui-based Canadian Paige Alms (27) became the first female Big Wave Champion and is a four-time XXL nominee.

2018. The Jaws Contest that was so huge it got called off. I got caught by the first proper 60-foot set and it literally landed directly on my back. I saw that set coming, it was moving in slow motion and it was completely black because it was a gloomy and rainy morning. I knew where I was: It was the absolute worst place that you could possibly be to get caught by that. This thing landed directly on my back. I got sent so deep, so quickly, that I stretched out both of my eardrums—I spent the next couple of hours trying to get water out of my ears. I think I got sent easily like 35 or 40 feet deep. I pulled my arm to my vest, it took forever. I was going up and up and up and I’m still going up. I thought, “My God, I got to be there soon.”

The ocean knows when to humble you, right?

As I reached the surface, the next wave behind it was just as big, but luckily I had gotten pushed so far in that it was just whitewash tumbling around. I can’t even remember who picked me up, but I remember talking to Lopez in the channel afterward. He was yelling at me like, “Did you not hear me screaming at you?” and I said, “Oh, I heard the entire channel screaming. I was paddling as fast as I could.” Every once in a while I’m like, “Remember that moment?” And he was on the shoulder looking down into the wave and he’s like, “Yeah, that thing literally broke on your back.”

The ocean knows when to humble you, right? That was definitely a moment I never, ever want to happen again. So I definitely approach things a little differently. Just after the past few winters, I kept having these injuries that would keep me out of the water for months—missing swells and not performing my best. I just don’t really want to do that anymore if I can avoid it. I’m trying to be a lot more methodical, even more so than I thought I was. I don’t want to get caught by 60-foot waves on my back.

Nic Von Rupp 

Portugal’s Nic Von Rupp has chased big waves around the world, but the relatively recent rise of XXL surf at Nazaré in his home country has become his focus.

I’ve been pretty fortunate in my big wave surfing to never have any really close calls personally. But I’ve had two situations that shook me up pretty bad. Both were out at Nazaré, in Portugal.

The first was when I just got my first Jet Ski and it was literally my first time driving it out there. I towed my partner Sergio Cosme into his first wave and when I went in to pick him up, I couldn’t find him. No board. No Sergio. Nothing. 

We kept looking. There were five other skis out, with some of the most experienced drivers in the world, and there was just no sign at all. Gone. I was stressing out so bad. Freaking out. Almost crying. I thought we’d lost him. 

But what happened was another surfer up on the cliff saw him wash away with the current, not knowing if he was even alive or dead. That guy drove down to the harbor, rented a ski, and went after him. By the time he’d gotten to him, Sergio had been swept by the current almost a kilometer to the north. That was really heavy for me. When you’re out there with someone, you feel responsible for them. You are responsible for them.

The other story happened during the Nazaré WSL big-wave contest to my friend Alex Botelho. Alex and I grew up together, went through a lot of stuff together, and we’d just traveled to Peahi and back for the contest the week before this event. We were feeling really connected.

It was such a perfect day and everyone was just having great waves all day. The contest ended, but the WSL decided to run another round because conditions were just so good. I surfed my round and was back in the harbor doing interviews. Then as I was taking the buggy back up to the top I heard over the radio that someone was really badly injured. 

When you’re out there with someone, you feel responsible for them. You are responsible for them.

I heard them say Alex’s name and that he didn’t have a pulse—and then the buggy went out of radio contact for like ten minutes. I was so stressed. When I finally got there I could see the crowd of people on the beach and I just started praying.

I’m not really religious, but I believe in God and a higher power connecting us all. My parents are religious and they’d always told me there would come a time I would witness a miracle and it would change me. 

So, I’m praying for, like, the longest minute of my life and then I hear over the radio, “He’s got a pulse! He’s back! We got him!”

A lot went down after that, but in the end, Alex was okay and lucky he didn’t have brain damage after literally being dead for almost ten minutes. But watching all that made it all very real. It took me a while to come back to surfing after that, but in the end, we all know the dangers, we all want to surf big waves, but we also want to come home to our families. You have to make good decisions, you have to be prepared, and yeah, maybe you have to be lucky too. It’s a thin line between success and failure out there. 

Mark Healey surfs down a large wave as the wave is about to crash over him.

Mark Healey 

Mark Healey is a few things: professional surfer, free diver, fisherman and an all-around water expert.

My first day at Jaws on the tow years. It was January 10, 2012. It was a fucking million feet that day. I had a board that Tom Carroll had left in Hawaii that I grabbed. A tow board that I’d never ridden, I’d never seen Jaws before, and I’d only paddled the outer reefs. And honestly, I hadn’t even seen photos of waves as big as they are on those outer reefs. Oh, it’s fucking big. 

I had the flu, a really bad flu. But being young and an idiot—that giant swell came and it was the first time we were set up and had a Jet Ski lined up and everything. So Jamie Sterling and I went out together. We towed in some bombs, got some good waves. We were running out of gas on the skis and it was the afternoon, there are huge waves. It was like fucking Mad Max, with people cutting you off and you had to scream and play bumper cars with Jet Skis. 

We had to go back because we had our Honda and it wasn’t the greatest on gas, not like the new skis. I was like, “Jamie, let’s wait outside. This is my last chance.” I was so tired and dehydrated. I said, “I want a fucking bomb. We’re going to wait. And when one finally comes, we’re gone.” No matter what, head down. And I had this idea—I saw these waves barreling so hard, and I thought, I’m going to fade one a little bit and wait for the bowl and try to pack it. I’m going to get the biggest back-end barrel ever right now, but I’m going to do it. 

Holy shit. Did that not work out for me. I just remember seeing out of the corner of my eye, the wave was, like, pinching and kind of not barreling where I thought it was. And when I got detonated on, I specifically remember looking at my feet in the straps, 20 feet in the air, and looking at the black cliffs in the background as white water came around me. Instantly my eardrum broke. I wasn’t going to wear a vest, but I got talked into it and it was like a Walmart vest that was three-quarters of an inch thick. The zipper just ripped in half immediately. It was slow motion. It was coming off of one arm and I thought, I should hook my hand and try to grab this thing. I got a hold of it—I’m holding a thin Walmart vest underwater getting thrashed. 

There’s no way I’m making it to the surface.

It sounds like a jet’s going off in my ear. I feel cold water flooding into my mouth through my ear. I got the fucking tar beat out of me. I got down so long and both of my quads are just locked into cramps. I have to hold this crumpled-up Walmart vest to my chest like it’s my only means of survival. Both of my legs are locked up, I’ve already got that diaphragmatic spasm from holding my breath. I thought, “There’s no way I’m making it to the surface.” 

A white light eventually came over me and I made it to the surface and got a breath—I couldn’t hold my head upright. I just remember white. It felt like I was under snow or something, but it was bright white. 

After I got a breath, my body started to reject all of the foam and water that I had taken in while I was blacking out, and then the next wave hit me. And that one, I don’t know if it held me down longer, but it felt like it held me down longer. I don’t know how many more waves hit me before I got picked up. 

But I finally get picked up. And then the next thing you know, I’m on the ski with Jamie in the channel and I’m spinning, I can’t hold myself upright and I’m throwing up in my mouth and swallowing it because I didn’t want Jamie to have the satisfaction of seeing me throw up on the ski. So, I survived, barely. 

Fast forward, two weeks later sitting at the Pipe house, I see Sean Lopez and he is like, “Dude, my dad said he grabbed you by the hair and threw you on the sled when he picked you up and your eyes were as big as fucking baseballs.” I was like, “Bruh, he must be thinking of some other guy because he did not pick me up. Jamie picked me up.” He’s like, “No, my dad said it was you. He picked you up.” 

I’m like, “Dude, we’ll figure this out right now. I’ll put him on the phone.” So I called Jamie. I’m like, “Jamie, tell Sean, you picked me up.” And Jamie says, “What the fuck are you talking about?” I’m like, “What do you mean?” and he says “I tried to come in and get you, but I couldn’t. Victor dropped you off on our ski in the channel.” So there are three minutes where I was literally breathing on the surface where I have no recollection. Conscious, everything, no recollection. 

Not for long enough, but it did have somewhat of an impact because I still forced things for a long time after that. It made me realize, hey, whatever, you’re down to do—you know the repercussions and you’re cool with it, but show a bit more respect in showing up more prepared. 

Albee Layer rides a large wave near the bottom as the wave breaks behind him.
Photos Getty Stock via WSL

Albee Layer 

Maui’s Albee Layer is best known for pushing the limits both in aerial surfing and big waves, particularly the wave known as Jaws. 

Jaws contest. It was the last time around—2019. 

It was pretty big that day. There were some really, really good waves. Right when I pulled up, I remember watching Russell Beard get a pretty insane wave.

And it put me in the mood like, “Oh my God.” And I think Eli Olson got a good one right after him. I was like, “Okay. Fuck, this is The Day. I’m going to fuck shit up.” This was my day. The waves are finally good at this contest and I really wanted to win. 

I got out there and I think I caught one wave. That’s your warm-up after eight months of never surfing a big wave. It’s one wave. I got back out there after warming up—I’m fired up. I’m getting a barrel, I’m coming out, I’m getting a 10. I’m doing it. And it’s really big. There are a couple of the west ones that just go a little too far in the channel and don’t quite hold shape. So one of those came in and Nathan Florence kind of looked at it like he might take it and I was just like, “No, I’m going, it’s my turn. ”So I turned, I started paddling and I kind of looked down the line and took a mental note of “Okay, this is going to be gnarly.” 

I focused on my drop. I stood up. And I side-slipped a little bit. It was a really steep drop, but I was used to taking a few steep drops on that section—and then I didn’t quite catch. I saw that it wasn’t going to barrel. And I thought, this wave is a pincher—so I side flipped. Thought I could outrun it, to just go straight and avoid the first big explosion—I was in control. 

I could have maybe pulled up into it, but as I was side slipping I made the decision to not pull in to the closeout. I’m going to go straight and outrun it, get pounded, but not too pounded. So I went straight. And then the part that I was on really, really barreled—it just threw out. At the last second I looked up and I realized I was exactly in the worst spot. The wave couldn’t have done anything worse. 

I looked like a dead body at that point. And I have no recollection of it. 

It was one of those moments where it was maybe a half of a second, but it felt like five minutes. I thought maybe it was just going to skim my back. I braced for it and tried to go straight. And I just saw the lip, going over the front of my face. Then, the biggest slam. I compressed into my board and I remember just bouncing. I thought for sure, in the footage, you’d see my body, 15 feet in the air in front of the wave. That’s what it felt like. But you don’t see me at all.

I landed feet first and then just whipped the back of my head on the water. And that’s when I got knocked out for a second; where I got the concussion I fucking dealt with forever. I came to and I pulled my vest. 

The wave started just pulling me all over the place. I’d go down for a while, and when I came up my eyes weren’t adjusting to the light at all. It was just bright white. I couldn’t see a thing until the next wave was about to hit me. So I took a breath, went back down, and got pounded by the second wave, too. It was pretty bad. 

I’ve told this story a couple of times, just talking about my concussion, and I always told people I got pounded by two waves and then got rescued. But my buddy Marcus Imarod sent me the footage of it a year ago and there was actually a third wave. I got picked up by the Jet Ski with my leash still on, and the guy tried to go and I just rolled off the back of the sled and got pounded by a third wave. I looked like a dead body at that point. And I have no recollection of it. 

Once I was out, I sat there for a second and thought, “I got to get back out there.” I was thinking thoughts that I normally never would like, “Oh, that was a pretty big wave, it would probably be a score. All I need is one more.” 

My vest was broken. So I traded vests with one of my buddies who was running safety and just got butt-ass naked in the channel, which should have been a red flag for everyone that I was fucking out of my mind concussed. Literally, it’s the most-watched event in the world and I just got butt naked on the sled. No worries.

My friend, Ollie, who was caddying for me gave me his trunks and I paddled back out. My vision went out, all bright white, and I started puking again. Luckily, I’ve had concussions before that were pretty bad, so there was this little voice that said, “All right, you’re done, get the fuck out of here.”

I didn’t realize at that point that I was in for a year or more of my head fucking with me. I’ve never been completely the same if I’m being totally honest. I remember I tried to watch the final and I couldn’t even stare at the screen, the screen just instantly gave me a headache and spun me out—so I just listened to it. Billy (Kemper) won again. The final was pumping and I just got dead last. And I’m injured.