Big Wave Surfing: a Triumph of the Modern Brain

It was an honor to have my article about Mavericks and the neurobiology of fear and courage published in last month’s issue of Surfer Magazine. There will be much more to come on this topic. Here’s the intro to the article.

A few winters ago, I got all amped on surfing Mavericks. I’d never been all that keen on waves that might end my life, but my girlfriend had dumped me and I was looking for something to re-inflate my ego. Nothing like bombing down a 20-footer with a 10-foot stick between your legs to make you feel like a worthwhile human again.

So I walked to Danny Hess’s shaping shack near San Francisco’s Ocean Beach to show him my dragon slayer: a 9’0” rounded pin, about 20”-wide with 2 ¾” rails. Danny makes gorgeous Mavs guns and surfs the place upwards of 40 days per-season. He always seems uber calm about it all, which made what he told me next all the more frightening. “I can’t let you paddle out there on this board,” he said. “This is not a Mav’s gun.”

What? My 9’0” had seen me through the most epic days of my life, yet here was Danny telling me that Mavericks was going to make my slayer feel more like a broom stick. “I’ve been beaten so badly out there,” he said, shaking his head, “it’s not a place to experiment.”

“How do you deal with the fear?” I asked.

“People call it Mavsiety,” Danny said. “Sometimes you can’t sleep before a swell. But you find yourself going anyway. We’re probably all sick.”

I felt sick. And I didn’t go to Mavericks to see for myself. Not that season. Too scared. But Danny sparked my curiosity. How did anyone deal with the fear of a potentially deadly wave?

I tend to geek out about questions like this and I spent the next year immersed in interviews with neuroscientists, psychologists, and a handful of the core Mavs crew about how fear works in our brains. The science of fear turns out to be ridiculously complicated. In-fact, I proceeded to write an entire book about it, The Fear Project, and barely scratched the surface. But you have to start somewhere; and there are some fascinating basics that start to explain how people like Danny do what they do.

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To find out more about the science of fear and how to manage it, order The Fear Project on: