Pro Diaries: Jeff Rowley – Jaws Wave Rider

We caught up with Jeff Rowley, a professional big wave surfer from Australia, who has certainly got some exciting stories!

Now, I’m sure you’ve been asked this more than once…how did you get into wave 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 dad’s 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.

Sounds like quite a wild surf, how often are you taking to the waves?
Over the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to score some really good waves, which is pretty amazing. I’ve been to some of the best big wave spots in the world including Cloudbreak in Fiji, Teahupoo in Tahiti, Jaws in Maui, Mavericks in California and Albatross in Australia. I’m always watching the weather maps, waiting for big swells to develop somewhere in the world, ready to travel at a moments notice.

When I’m not chasing monster swells, I surf a few times a week in small to medium fun waves – it helps me keep up my surfing and catch up with good friends in the water.

I’ve always wanted to learn to surf! What would you say is your biggest motivation?
My biggest motivation is pushing myself harder every time I go for a surf. That means riding bigger waves, paddling into more challenging waves, go faster, take a later drop and go where no other surfer has gone before. I love all aspects to surfing big waves from the preparation, the surfboard design, how my equipment feels, the wetsuits and floatation systems, and the excitement.

I love being at the forefront of big wave surfing and I can’t wait to see where we’re going to take it in the next decade.

This all sounds so dangerous, have you ever been injured while surfing?
When I was younger I had my share of minor injuries, which led to time out of water, but nothing worth mentioning and I’m certainly not going to complain. I’m grateful to be fit and healthy and train as hard as I can to make sure I’m prepared.

What has been your best memory or most memorable surf so far?
Every time I get the chance to surf really big waves it’s one of the best experiences, and those moments are burnt into my memory forever. However, the one surfing experience that means the most to me, was paddling into jaws on January 30 2012. It was just myself, Greg Long, Albee Layer and a few friends in the water and they really were the perfect waves. We had to push ourselves as hard as we could in that historic paddle in session.

I noticed on your website you mention your own personal training program, can you tell us more about it?
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 I’m 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 I when it happens I won’t be under pressure.

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.

There must be so much to think about! Any tips on how to stay calm under water?
When I’m going 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. If this happens, you only end up getting 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%.

I know you surfed ‘Jaws’ this year, how exciting! How did it feel to be surfing waves that could get as high as 70ft!?
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.

I’m definitely on the hunt for bigger waves. I’m not as afraid of the waves as I am of missing the opportunity to surf bigger waves.

An amazing once in a lifetime experience then! Has anything exciting been happening since ‘Jaws’?
I’ve been invited to compete in the Big Wave World Tour (BWWT) as an alternate this year. The best big wave surfers in the world compete on the BWWT and this competition showcases some of the best big waves in the world. I have been surfing big waves since I was about 17, so I’m really grateful to be invited to surf on the BWWT this year, the pinnacle of competition for big wave surfers. I’m looking forward to competing with some of the best big wave surfers in the world at some exciting big wave destinations. Usually, I free surf with all these guys at various locations throughout the world so the opportunity to compete with everyone formally is going to be really fun.

In March 2012, I was the first Australian to paddle into Mavericks Left in California which is traditionally known as a Right hander. The Left Hander at Mavericks is really heavy – the take off is a vertical free fall into a nasty slab barrel. I wiped out on a monster wave and tumbled down, it drained all of my energy and I didn’t know which way was up.

The water is so cold and the waves are so powerful, one mistake and the wave eats you for breakfast, and next thing you know, you’re washing in towards the rocks. I rode my 10’2” (3m) Al Merrick quad fin surfboard dubbed the “Magic Carpet”. The wave is crazy, I’ve never had my 10’2″ surfboard free falling on the take off on my backhand like I did today. It was just me, a handful of great local surfers and a couple of seals, classic day.

I scored some big waves at Albatross in July 2012. I’ve been waiting months for the Southern Ocean to come alive, this might prove to be the Swell of the Year. When I saw the weather charts, I was prepared for the biggest and best day of the year in Australian waters. I had to jump off a cliff to get out to the waves, and paddle about 2 kilometres out to sea against crazy rip current – it’s a total adventure. Albatross is a challenging wave, you’re so far out to sea and there is nothing to line up on or get your bearings, just the waves. It took me over two hours to catch my first wave, but it was well worth the wait – that was the wave of my winter so far. These waves have been entered into the Australian Big Wave Awards for 2012/2013.

So many exciting things, maybe I shouldn’t ask but what does the rest of 2012 and 2013 hold for you, any big events to watch out for?
We’re currently in the waiting period for the Big Wave World Tour event at Pico Alto in Peru, until 31 August 2012, so I’m really looking forward to competing in that event amongst the best big wave surfers in the world.
I’ve got my eye on the weather maps and waiting for a big swell to hit some of the big wave destinations in the world. This year, 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. I’m really looking forward to pushing it out there and being the best I can be.

Surfing Jaws again and the BWWT, so many exciting things happening for you! Any other advice you’d like to tell us about?
There is a lot more to riding really big waves, you can’t just go out – you have to be familiar with the location, friends helping you, resources towards travel and filming and most importantly, commitment. When you watch big wave surfing, it might look like we just turn up and catch these amazing waves, but there is a lot more that goes into it like the logistics of getting there and making it happen. It’s a challenge to be there at the right place at the right time, and there’s always the opportunity cost of going to one location over another.

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.

My advice for people who want to take up big wave surfing is that the most important thing is to have belief in yourself. You have to know that you really want to do it. Once you know you want to surf big waves, you have to train, prepare and get the equipment and then hunt down the waves. It takes a ‘go for it’ mentality, giving it 150%.

For any surfer, 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 hold back the result is certain, but if you give 150% who knows what may come.

Great, well thanks for talking to us today Jeff, I certainly feel like I’ve learnt something! Good luck for all the intense and amazing surfs you have planned! Hope to hear about it in the future!

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