Big Wave surfer Rafael Tapia
Because it’s where most of the big waves during wintertime are and it has been a mecca for big wave surfers forever. Laird Hamilton invented tow surfing here in the late 90s. Paddling into waves will only take you to a certain point, tow surfing is essential to gain enough speed when you’re trying to surf the biggest waves. There are huge waves during the winter season in Hawaii, so I’m trying to spend part of my winter here but also spend a lot of time in Chile, Tahiti, Portugal and anywhere in the world where the waves are big. In Hawaii the weather is good, waves are big and there’s so much history. The surfers out here are a part of surfing history and they understand where it’s all coming from. Here you have a mix of both the new generation big wave surfers and the older surfers. There are people in their sixties who are still out there when the waves are really big, and I’m thinking; wow, these guys are still charging! They’re surfing big waves and there’s not many other places in the world where older people are still doing that.
Why then big waves? I mean, there’s always a big risk involved.
Big waves are something you have within you. Ever since I first started surfing I’ve always searched for bigger waves, it’s something that has always attracted me. One day it just became apparent to me that I was surfing really big waves and I was always seeking them out. I still love to surf small waves as well as SUP, kite surfing and many other different water sports but ultimately what I like most is surfing big waves. There is risk involved but we try to minimize the risk through training. I personally like to do a lot of mental work with yoga and meditation. You can die doing anything in your life; you can die walking over the street. In the end of the day it’s about living your life. We know the risks involved with the sport but all we can do is try to minimize them through being as prepared as possible. There’s no point in putting yourself, or someone else at risk through being unprepared.
How do you train for a big wipeout? Except for mental training, do you do underwater training too?
Everyone has different ways of training and there are even those who don’t train at all, but I wish I could train even more than I do. I realize taking really big wipeouts is going to happen sooner or later. Most of the problems during wipeouts are caused by desperation and oxygen deprivation. Of course there’s also the risk of injuries like breaking bones or dislocating your shoulder, it happens, What most people are more scared of though, and what gets really in your head is oxygen deprivation, drowning. It’s been proven that there are ways to train you to better handle lack of oxygen. When I start my day with yoga or meditation I can put myself in a place where my mind is more quiet and relaxed during wipeouts. Keeping your calm and relaxing your body instead of panicking will save energy and oxygen. The more prepared you are, the more risks you can take and in the end perform better. There have been times when I had really bad wipeouts and felt like I needed more training. All the physical training helps you in these situations but at the end of the day it’s mental training that’s going to keep you more focused and calm.
And I guess it’s also important knowing that you can handle the wipeouts to keep you from hesitating?
Yes, I mean, there is always fear. Any big wave surfer who says they don’t have fear, I wouldn’t believe. You might not be scared all the time but if you keep pushing yourself to explore new and bigger waves, you will be scared at some point. It’s all about how you handle your fear. You’ve been there before, you know there are other people who have been there before, you know that you’re prepared and can stand wipeouts. When you surf big waves, wipeouts are bound to happen and if you know you can handle it you don’t hesitate. It’s like surfing small waves, if you hesitate you’re more likely to wipeout, if you don’t hesitate you’re more likely to surf well. Your mind has to be ready so when it’s time to go, you go and you put your heart into it.
So you spend most time surfing Hawaii, Portugal, Haiti and Chile?
Yes, those are my four favorite places in the world. I’m from Chile and that is where I started surfing. Chile is amazing because you can find really big waves while being alone out there. From a young age I started seeking out bigger and bigger waves, which has lead me to places such as Hawaii and Tahiti. I go to Tahiti for the really big swells and really, really good barrels, it’s truly amazing there. I only went to Portugal for the first time this year. I came to Nazaré the day before the huge swell. It was the biggest waves I have ever surfed and they are much heavier than you might think. The town is beautiful, the people are nice, the food is great and the waves are pretty much big all the time. Nazaré is my main focus next year and I’m going to be spending a lot of time training there. There are many other places I’d like to go to but there’s so little time and in the end of the day you have to choose. You’re only one person and you have to be where the waves are. It’s a constant seeking for the biggest waves.
Is it difficult getting into the big wave surfing community in a new place when you first arrive? How does it work?
The real big wave surfing community is a very small, we pretty much all know each other and if I don’t know someone personally I will still know who it is. I have a group of people around the world that are really good friends of mine. I have a pretty good setup where I live for people to come and surf with me, so I help them out when they come to Chile and they help me out when I go overseas. The people in Portugal for example are amazing. The Portuguese government wants to promote Nazaré and the big waves so you’re treated like a rock star when you’re there. Anywhere else in the world you would be just another big wave surfer, nothing too special, but there you’re someone who’s helping them putting their town on the map. There are so few people around the world who are willing to risk their life surfing these dangerous waves, so you’re treated with a lot of respect. The other really important aspect is that you have someone on your team that you can really trust. Big wave surfing is not an individual sport, when you surf really big waves you often tow surf and you have a jet ski as assistance so it’s a team sport. I have a very good partner who had everything set up for me when I arrived in Portugal. It was a last minute trip for me I was in a SUP paddle contest in Peru when I was invited to go to Portugal. I’m glad I changed my plans because it was amazing, such a good experience.
So you compete in SUP too, and kite surfing?
Yes, I compete in SUP, not that often because I don’t have that much time, but I compete in the National Championships and I’ve done some ISAF events and SUP World Tour events. I don’t compete a lot in kite surfing right now since there’s not an official tour when it comes to wave kite surfing, which is what I mostly do. Both kite surfing and SUP are really great sports and for me it’s really all about being in the ocean. Doing all these sports helps you to develop a feel for different boards, which will be beneficial to the big wave surfing. Everything relates at some point and I like the way the sports complement each other. Some people think doing different water sports, using different sized boards will mess up their surfing. For me it’s totally the opposite. Even snowboarding or any other sport where you practice your balance will help you in your surfing. Right now, here in Hawaii, I’m into foil boarding. At first I actually did think it might affect my other surfing in a bad way, but I’m sure it won’t. In the end of the day it’s just another dimension that I never thought was possible, it’s like flying in the waves!
Also, the thing about Hawaii is that you can meet the people that have created everything and you can pick their brain. If you show respect, motivation and you show them that you can surf the big waves and that you’re doing it for the right reasons– then you gain respect and people will be very open towards you. Some people say ”aloha” doesn’t exist but ”aloha“ does exist, you just have to earn it.