Jeff Rowley puts his head underwater and does what needs to get done.
From torpedoing down 50+ foot sea-claws to extreme lung capacity training, Rowley, a professional big-wave surfer, rides waves amongst the world’s best. He is the first Australian to paddle into Maui’s nefarious Peahi “Jaws” without Jet Ski tow-in aid. This wave is considered one of the world’s biggest and most dangerous waves, and until recently it was thought impossible to catch and ride without tow-in support.
Nerve Rush HQ was fortunate enough to catch up with Rowley between summer storm swells. Jeff, we appreciate your time here, my man! Keep pushing the limits.
What were your favorite beaches growing up in Australia? How did you get into surfing?
I started surfing when I was 6 years old, my parents owned a surf shop in Anglesea, Victoria, Australia, and my dad was a surfboard shaper, so I pretty much grew up on the floor of my dads shaping bay. From about 6 years of age I was on my own surfboard, but before that I was riding boogie boards in the tiny little shore break near home. I first started surfing big waves when I was about 17 years of age and I was really launched into that on the southern coast of Australia, just off Victoria. There’s a lot of reef breaks there and they catch a lot of the winter swells in really cold water, and they’re super isolated, there’s no one around, there’s a lot of cliffs and most of the time it was just myself, or myself and one other friend.
Surfing Jaws was your Everest? Could you tell our readers more about Jaws?
Surfing Jaws was my Everest. I spent the last 18 months with laser beam focus on preparation and training for surfing Jaws, so overcoming my fears to paddle into the wave was fulfilling my dream.
Becoming the first Australian to paddle into ‘Jaws’ Peahi on the island of Maui in Hawaii on 4 January 2012 was one of my biggest life achievements. At the same time, I achieved my 2012 Charge for Charity quest to paddle into, and catch a 50-foot wave. I was going to catch that wave no matter what happened, it was massive and I was in the right position and it was my time to go for it. I stood up and the wind hit me and tried to rip my board from under my feet as I started freefalling, I couldn’t see a thing but I pushed down as hard as I could and made the ride. I was like trying to catch and ride a Tyrannosaurus Rex with your bare hands – the best thrill but you’re so glad to be alive!
I had to train hard, overcome a number of barriers and conquer my fears to achieve this.
Paddling in is the ultimate challenge, it’s man vs ocean, actually it’s man vs himself. You have to constantly make decisions that will impact what happens next. For the big wave I caught at Jaws on January 30, I knew I was in exactly the right position the moment I saw it. I didn’t want to waste any energy paddling, I was under it and it was going to eat me if I didn’t make it. It was amazing to be recognized for my achievements when I placed 4th in the world in the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards in the Ride of the Year category for the wave I caught at Jaws on that day.
How do you train (mentally & physically) for big-wave surfing?
Preparation plus opportunity equals success. I know exactly what I want to be doing with my life and I’m giving it 150%, I love it! I train hard in the pool- my empty lung holds are up to 2:23. I eat well. I’ve got 5 boards over 9’6″ because I’m prepared. At the beach I don’t psyche up, I calm down. I perform lung exercises before I paddle out that deprive me of oxygen, so my body is in a state of conserving energy. And then I have to be there on the best days to create the opportunity.
Long hold downs are inevitable. When Im down I count seconds and spins. In the pool I get tumbled for 50 seconds, untie my leash and swim 25m on an empty lung. When you have a serious wipeout, you really lose count of spins. I’m training to make two wave hold downs enjoyable, so when it happens I wont be under pressure.
When I’m surfing and the waves are really big, I prefer to calm down. A lot of my training is around trying to conserve my energy and making sure that I’m in a really good mental state before I go out there. If you get too excited you get too pumped up, you’re getting all your blood flowing and you’re burning all your oxygen before you even paddle out in the surf, and if you’re doing that your going to get yourself in a really heavy situation and it’s going to make you really stressed and that’s when you can get in trouble, so I prefer to really calm down, do a lot of lung exercises to prepare my body for being in a situation where it’s not going to have much oxygen and I’ve still got to be able to maintain coherence and function at 100%.
So there’s been a huge shift in my training and it just gives me so much more confidence in the water. So I think training is really important for me because I want to be the best in the world at big wave surfing and I want to be the best that I can be. For me to train in the pool where it’s in a controlled and safe environment you can push yourself way beyond what you thought was possible, and then when you go out in the ocean, the idea is that it’s never as bad as what you have prepared for.
Any advice/recommended resources for aspiring big-wave surfers?
Fear is always present but you have to refuse to focus on it. You have to leave it behind and focus on what you can achieve if you don’t hold back, if you give 150%. If you hold back the result is certain, but if you give 150% who knows what may come.
It’s definitely just yourself out there in the water and it’s just you that has to turn around and catch the wave but, back on land you actually need the support of a whole team of people – your family, partner, friends, photographers, surfboard shapers. When you ask the universe for what you want, there is a whole world of resources that also opens up to support you achieving your goals.
In 2012, I’m completely focused on big-wave surfing. I want to be at all of the best locations in the world on the biggest days. I’m really looking forward to surfing Jaws 50% bigger, or twice the size of what we’ve tried to paddle into. So I’ve just got my head down – under water, in the pool, in the gym every day trying to get as strong and fit as I can, and increase my breath hold. Because I’m really looking forward to pushing it out there and being the best I can be.