How Not to Panic During a Wipeout: Four Tips to Help You Stay Calm When You Are Caught Inside or in a Hold Down.

Surfer: Dane Gudauskas. Photo: Tim McKenna.

How Not to Panic During a Wipeout: Four Tips to Help You Stay Calm When You Are Caught Inside or in a Hold Down.

Anyone who has spent enough time in, on, or around the Ocean has learned that you can’t fight the Ocean…it will win every time.  For surfers, the tendency to want to fight your way through the water comes mostly during hold downs or while getting caught inside.  Regardless of your ability level, both of these situations can be intimidating; and instead of trying to fight the Ocean, the best you can do is to learn to relax and negotiate with it instead.

So, whether you are an experienced surfer, or just paddling out into the lineup for the first time, here are a few things that you can do while caught inside or being held down to help you stay calm, even in a tough situation.

  1.  Don’t Take Waves Straight to the Face

    When you are caught inside, getting smacked in the face by an oncoming wave is the worst.  It can mess up your breathing, create anxiety, and in general makes an already unpleasant situation even worse.  Having said that, instead of taking the wave to the face, it can be helpful to go underwater, tuck your chin and turn your back to the wave, letting the wave roll over your back.  Once the wave has passed, come up, take a breath and assess the situation and come up with a plan from there. 

  2. Use the Whitewater to your Advantage

    When you are stuck in the impact zone after a wipeout, paddling back out to the lineup can sometimes be a stressful experience.  However, in keeping with the theme of learning to negotiate with the Ocean, oncoming whitewater while caught inside doesn’t have to be a source of stress. 

    Instead of struggling to maintain your position in the impact zone, sometimes it is better to just cut your losses, hop on your board and ride the whitewater in towards shore.  This will give you a chance to get some distance from the bigger, more powerful set waves; and will allow you to regroup, catch your breath, and come up with a plan to paddle out again when things are a little less chaotic.

  3. Use Your Arms, Not Your Legs

    After a wipeout, your first instinct is probably to frantically scratch for the surface as quickly as possible (we’ve all been there…) but flailing around underwater is the last thing you should do when being held down.  While you are under, it is a good idea to minimize the use of your legs.  Your legs contain large muscle groups that burn Oxygen more quickly than your smaller muscle groups, so not using them helps you conserve the Oxygen that you do have.

    If you are wearing a leash, or if your leash hasn’t snapped, you can use your arms to “climb” your leash to the surface.  If you find yourself in a leash-less situation, use your arms to pull yourself toward the surface.  To help conserve Oxygen, try to utilize a few big, strong arm pulls straight towards the surface instead of several smaller, faster pulls.

  4. Find Your Happy Place

    This one is definitely easier said than done, but the secret to dealing with a hold down is to figure out how to control your mind and keep your body as relaxed as possible, even when you are being held underwater. Panicking and fighting until the wave releases you uses your Oxygen up quickly, and by finding your happy place, you can learn to stay in a mentally and physically relaxed state.

    The best way to learn this is to practice.  Every wipeout you experience is an opportunity to practice staying calm, and you can train at home or at a pool (with a buddy you trust) to help speed up the process.  Breath hold training is a great way to experience how you handle elevated levels of Carbon Dioxide (which triggers your urge to breathe) both on a mental and physical level.  The more you understand how your body responds to a breath hold, the easier it will be to learn to work through the discomfort and remain calm during a hold down.
Sydney Terrell in her Happy Place. Photo:

Note: Breath Hold Training, while valuable, can be extremely dangerous. Never practice breath holds alone, especially in the water. Whether you are holding your breath on land or in the water, make sure you have a spotter you trust and make good choices.

To learn more about and practice breath hold training with us, we offer both adult and grom courses in the Orange County area. If you are interested in joining us for breath hold training, click here for more info.