(The following is an excerpt from The Red Bulletin, read the full article here.)
Any trip Justine Dupont makes to the diving tower at La Teste-de-Buch near Bordeaux is a return to a bizarre world, a stark contrast to a big-wave surfer’s regular life; a still, peaceful parallel universe in which the churn and violence of the surface are left far behind.
Last winter in Nazaré, Portugal, one of the globe’s major big-wave hot spots, was no different. There, the waves—vast 100-foot-high slabs as tall as a city block and collapsing like dynamited buildings— are Dupont’s playground. And yet within seconds of a dive, and 30 or 60 feet down, she’s overcome by calm, cocooned by the deep and wrapped in a cloak of serenity. “You can’t hear a thing below the surface,” says the 26-year-old. “It’s as if time stands still. Plus, there’s this unbelievable three-dimensional freedom —a lightness. You concentrate on the here and now. It’s magical.”
Dupont has been practicing freediving twice a week for two years to learn how to react as calmly as possible should something happen while she’s in the water. She goes to the diving pool at La Teste-de-Buch as often as she can. Her trainer, Laurent Gamundi—an expert in freediving and underwater hunting, whose club, Biarritz Chasse Océan, has a diving course for surfers—watches over her while she’s there.
“At first, I had difficulty letting go,” says Dupont, “but now I feel totally liberated. I used to think too much about the exercise itself and whether the time I spent in the water was long enough to prepare me for the conditions in the sea at Nazaré or at Belharra in the Basque Country.”
But the composure that the Bordeaux- born surfer needed developed over the course of her diving sessions, so improvements came by themselves. For big-wave surfers, this composure is vital for survival, simply because the essence of the conditions they face is always the same: tons of water slamming into your body, pummeling it with relentless force and hurling it like a rag doll into the torrent over and over again.
“You get cramps, you get battered, your diaphragm seizes up; your tensed muscles burn and stop reacting. It can really hurt,” Dupont explains. Yet somehow she finds these moments in the churning wave soothing. “It sounds odd, but I’ve often enjoyed those moments underwater because it’s just the sea and me. And the sea reminds me that it’s not me making the decisions. All I can do is prepare meticulously so that I can deal with the situation as best I can.”
Dupont explains that the greatest risk with waves that size is simple— drowning. “But I surf better and more calmly if I know there’s a safety buffer.”
All fears are taken into account from the very start, so they can be gradually overcome. For some surfers, the process takes several months. Dupont found it a lot easier. Her awe of big waves, which she’d had since childhood, has simply vanished.
When did she first surf big waves? “Last winter was the first time I only used a shortboard, and I spent a lot of time surfing big waves.”
Belharra, situated off the coast of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, is scheduled for this autumn, but the priority is Nazaré and its huge swell, which makes it the perfect place to pit yourself against monster waves and gain confidence. And to push your own boundaries.
Read the full interview at RedBull.com and in the October issue of The Red Bulletin – on news stands including Hudson News, Barnes & Noble, Target and Walgreens across the U.S. from September 19.