“I OPENED MY EYES, figuring I was near the top, but it was pitch black,” says Frank Solomon. “I was wearing a floatation vest and thought, you know, just calm down. It’ll get you up. But I was stroking up – four, five full strokes – and it just wasn’t getting any lighter.”
Frank Solomon was deep under water a kilometre out to sea south of Hout Bay. Here lies a reef where the waves start breaking only once the west swell gets over four metres. On this day surfers were calling Dungeons – as the spot is known – “40-foot”, meaning the waves were peaking at 15m or more. But that’s a guesstimate. While the size of unbroken ocean swells can be measured accurately with special buoys, it’s nearly impossible to calculate the true height of a breaking wave’s face. Swells jack up as they hit a reef and bigwave surfers size it on ego. Your “40-foot” is way smaller than Solomon’s – and he’d just wiped out on the biggest wave of the day. “It finally started getting lighter, then boom! Another wave hit and I was driven deep again. I remember wondering how I was going to hold my breath through the second wave when I didn’t even have enough air for the first. I was down so long I had time to think.”
It’s been 10 years since Solomon survived that two-wave hold-down, but it haunts him to this day. “I still think about that one. I think about it all the time,” he says. “You can surf 10, 20 [big-wave] sessions and not have a wipeout and start feeling a bit invincible. But you know – we all know – it’s coming. And when it does, it’s going to come with consequences.” Solomon counts the casualties, among them is Sion Miloski, a Hawaiian professional big-wave surfer who died in early 2011 at Mavericks, a big-wave surf spot near San Francisco. “Those guys are toned athletes. They surf every day, go to gym, eat properly. But some situations no one is going to come back from.”
Given the risk, you have to wonder where these guys get the balls to take off from a building-sized wave. Is Solomon genetically blessed with the courage to throw himself over the edge, or did he build it up over time? If the latter, what can you learn from him about overcoming your own fears?
SMALL STEPS TO GREATNESS
When it comes to describing fear, Indie band The Temper Trap seems to have gotten it half right: “There’s a science to fear/It plagues my mind/And it keeps us right here/And the less we know/The more we sit still.”
Fear can be instructive, keeping us away from situations that may be dangerous for our mental, physical or financial health. But it can also be thought-consuming and counterproductive, paralysing us to the point where we fail to achieve our goals or make a move to escape from a bad situation.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Clinical psychologist Gerard Finnemore is convinced everyone can overcome their fears. The key, he believes, lies in making a gradual progression. Finnemore is in the process of profiling adventurers to investigate why they do what they do, their coping mechanisms in stressful situations and whether they suffer from postexpedition depression. “All of them told me, ‘I’m a normal person, just like you’,” he says.
At the time of writing Finnemore had studied 12 adventurers. All of them had started with a small challenge and built up to the extreme stuff. “They’d climb, say, Kilimanjaro which isn’t that hectic –and then have such a good feeling from doing it, from having achieved something like that, that they’d start thinking, ‘Well, what next?’,” he says. Solomon’s experience bears out Finnemore’s observation. “I didn’t just wake up one day and decide I’m going to be a big wave surfer. My dad was big into lifesaving and he took me down to the club at Llandudno when I was very young, like five for six,” says Solomon, recalling the beginnings of what would turn into a successful competitive lifesaving career. “You learn a lot from spending so much time in the water at a beach as unpredictable and fickle as Llandudno. There are always heaps of rips [riptides] and lots of swell,” he says. “It can get pretty nasty.” As a young teen he competed in national lifesaving contests up and down the coast, exposing him to different sea conditions. “Durban, Port Elizabeth, East London – that got me comfortable with the sea to a point where, when the waves were big at ‘Llands’ – I’m talking about bigger waves here, like over six foot or whatever, not ‘big waves’ as suchI just felt completely at home.”
Some of the older crew who still hang out at the Llandudno clubhouse recall how, when the surf was big and closing out the bay, they would dare Solomon to swim out to the back and bodysurf. “It was worth the ice cream money every time,” laughs Solomon, adding, “I never did it to impress anyone. No one forced me into it. I just felt kind of comfortable.”
PUSH YOUR BOUNDARIES
It’s this “kind of comfortable” that may just hold the key for the man who hangs back when the opportunity to push his limits whether through bungee jumping or by starting his own business – presents itself. “Set yourself a challenge that’s safe and slightly outside your comfort zone,” says Finnemore. If you fail, simply dial back the challenge and try again. “It is important to be comfortable with failure. Confidence grows when you embark on a challenge and overcome it. When you succeed you’ll realise you had the courage all the time. The realisation always comes afterwards.”
When you have successfully conquered a small challenge, Finnemore suggests moving on to something more testing. Find a bigger wave. “Your brain has learnt the capacity to manage the anxiety you felt in a different way to how it did before. It’s kind of stepped it up a bit,” he says.
Obtaining your goals may be the main reason you want to overcome your fears, but here’s another important motivator: fear may be making you ill. “I think the mammal was created to endure short bursts of adrenaline,” says Finnemore. “In high-threat situations you have an increase in sympathetic arousal an elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, that kind of thing. To experience that all the time, to feel fear all the time, could lead to poor sleep, gastrointestinal issues, chronic fatigue, hypertension and worse. If you can do anything to overcome such fear, your health will obviously improve.”
THE LESSON IN FAILURE
Solomon progressed from lifesaving and a bit of surfing, to surfing, and was in the water everyday, no matter the conditions. On the bigger days at the infamous ‘Gat’ section of Llandudno, people began noticing that he was the only stand-up surfer out with the fearless bodyboarders. “I guess people started hearing about this blonde kid pulling into closeouts,” he laughs. “Again, I wasn’t trying to prove anything. All my mates were bodyboarders and if they were going out, I was going out with them!”
A few years later that blonde kid made his debut at Dungeons. “It was the second or third year of the Red Bull Big Wave Africa [the invitation-only contest held at Dungeons between 1999 and 2008] and all the heavy international guys were here. The swell was big, but not consistent enough to run the contest,” he says. Solomon had watched the contest the year before and had been inspired to get a proper big-wave gun – a sleek, strong board nearly three metres long needed to outrun big waves – and to prepare for waves over 20 feet (six metres) high. He thought he was ready.
“When I got to Hout Bay harbour I asked some guys for a lift out on their boat. They said, ‘No, it’s dangerous. You can’t go out there’.” This left Solomon spewing with frustration until his father suggested he just paddle out. “My mind was fighting itself. I was thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’, and having those real Hollywood fantasies of riding the biggest wave ever at the same time.” Solomon hiked up and around the Sentinel, jumped off the rocks and paddled the kilometre past Seal Island and through Shark Alley out to the break. “When I got out to the back the same guys in the boat were like, ‘Bra, what are you doing out here? We told you not to come’.” Just then the biggest set of waves yet seen that day came rolling in. Solomon was totally out of position. “The whole horizon turned black,” he says. “I. Absolutely. Freaked. You know when you’re a kid and you’re swimming in a pool in the dark and your mind starts playing tricks, like there’s an anaconda that’s going to eat you or something, and you race to the side and can’t get out of the water fast enough? It was like that, except I had nowhere to go.”
Solomon took all six waves on the head and was washed all the way into the channel. He managed to get to the boat of friend who was doing water safety for Red Bull. “I just sat on the boat for a while and kind of gathered my thoughts and I remember thinking, ‘That was bad, but not that bad.’ I came out okay.
I wasn’t dead.”
Solomon’s brain had stepped it up.
MAKING FEAR WORK FOR YOU
Ten years since that first Dungeons paddleout, Solomon has surfed some of the world’s most challenging waves in Hawaii, California, Chile, Peru and Indonesia. In 2011 he came seventh in the fledgling Big Wave World Tour. Does that mean he no longer fears those big waves? Not quite. You don’t have to be totally fearless to perform well. “In fact, a little bit of fear can help performance,” says Finnemore. Solomon still feels the fear. He just doesn’t let it get the better of him. “I still wake up at night wondering, ‘What if…?’,” he says of that two-wave hold-down. “I’ve become a lot more calculating because of it. I don’t want to land in that position again. It keeps me focused.” Solomon wasn’t born with the courage to ride waves that would leave most men trembling in their boardshorts. He developed it slowly, building confidence wave by wave. Pushing the limits of his abilities until he realised that his abilities were growing through being challenged. He’s faced up to his fears and thrived because of it. “People are scared to follow their dreams,” he says. “That’s what they’re really scared of. They’re stuck in their comfort zones living boring lives. Just go do it, bra.”
THREE THINGS THAT SCARE FRANK SOLOMON:
Solomon recently did a presentation at one of the Fascinating Expedition & Adventure Talks (FEAT) events and reckons going up on stage was one of the scariest things he has ever done.
Solomon is an avid (and very skilled) skateboarder, but reckons dropping in on big half-pipes is for lunatics.
Being a professional big-wave surfer is not a profitable business at the moment. Solomon often asks himself whether he’s made the right choice.
By Jazz Kuschke