Words Mimi LaMontagne

A while back on a lovely Saturday afternoon, while we were chasing wind chop and relishing in summer BBQs, Andrew Cotton was being thrashed around underwater as 50-foot Nazarian sea monsters rolled overhead. He was stuck inside for three waves after his initial wipeout. It hurts just to type that, and if you’re anything like the wimps behind the SL desks, it made you cringe just reading that.

So how does one come back from a whopping of this magnitude? How do you mentally prepare yourself to continue surfing big waves? How do you survive, physically?

We called Cotty to see what happened in the black abyss underneath Nazare…

Man, you had a big day…

Oh man, yeah. I spent most of the morning driving the ski, pulling a couple of guys into waves, got a couple myself, then got smashed up and came in haha.

Yeah – heavy! What happened?

It was bad, but I’m pretty good at falling off. I’m used to it. I fell on the wave and was under for so long that when I popped up, I came up behind the ski, and they didn’t see me. Then there were a few seconds and the next wave broke on top of my head. It was that one that really lit me up. It blew me to bits. In the end I got about three or four waves on the head.

Geez. What happened on the actual wave? How’d you fall off?

Well it was a bit fat and I stayed tucked in and came off the bottom, and I thought I might get a good barrel, but the section just crumbled and it knocked the edge of my board. Some of these waves, they crumble, but they get bigger at the same time – they just roll forever. But that wipeout wasn’t that bad, it was just that I was down for a long time. The waves that came after that were the horrible ones.

This might sound a bit weird, but what’s it like to wipe out in that kind of surf? The huge, rolling, devil waves?

God, it can be intense. Heavy waves, like Ireland, hit hard, but you come up quickly – intense and short. But Nazare is intense and long. You get hit, go down, come up, go down, turn around… that’s the intimidating bit.

I try to keep my limbs and my body all tucked, and you get smashed, but then you relax. You just try to relax and think that you know you’re going to come up and you know you’re going to be alright.

It’s weird. It’s almost enjoyable, at the same time as being as horrible as it is. I think that you have to enjoy it otherwise you won’t do it. If you don’t enjoy it, just a little bit, then you wouldn’t go out again. So I think I kinda like it.

Therapeutic, one might say?

Yeah. You’re underwater and all you can do is wait. You’re forced to go with it. It’s one of those weird sort of pleasure and pain fetishes – I quite like getting drowned, smashed, knowing that I’ll come up if I just relax.

Relaxing in a situation like that seems easier said than done. How do you do it?

Do you know what? I don’t really have a plan; I just try to fall into it. Relaxation is the main thing, because the second you start freaking out you lose all your oxygen. I mean, you can’t fight it or stop it – no matter what you do or swim or kick or scream it’s gunna happen.

But it did take me a while to get to the point where I could slip into a relaxed mindset. Every person’s worst nightmare is getting caught inside – taking sets on the head. On my first trip to Hawaii I’d never even had something like an eight-footer on the heat, and that was my main thing – make sure I don’t cop it. I was so scared that I didn’t want to surf Waimea or Sunset, because I didn’t want to take a wave on the head, but then it happened and afterwards I thought, that wasn’t that bad. It’s the fear of the unknown.

I think it’s good to have big wipeout experiences because it gives you more confidence. You realise you can handle it. You take one of the head and you come up and you’re fine, and then you know that you can take an even bigger one, and then bigger and bigger and bigger.

So it doesn’t rattle you?

Um, no. I mean I respect the ocean and I respect the waves and I respect how powerful it is. Of course there is fear, because if you weren’t fearful you’d end up dead or drowned, but at the same time it’s more a respect – the fear is just control.

For those moments, you’re already there and that’s that. I’ve worked really hard to get myself in positions like these, surfing these huge waves, and I take every opportunity and want to do my best. It’s just a part of it.

What about having kids, and a wife? 

My wife is pretty mellow, and no matter what she’s always supportive. Of course she probably gets worried, but she trusts my instincts and my judgement and knows that I’m not reckless. The kids? They don’t know what’s going on. But I want to go home and see my kids and my wife as much as they want me to come home safe.

So, mentally it’s about relaxation, but physically… how do prepare?

I took a really, really good free diving course, and I can now hold my breath for about four-and-a-bit minutes now. The first day of training I thought we would be in the pool or something, but instead we sat in the classroom all day, breathing. Every single one of us doubled our record that day.

The guy who taught it showed us that it’s all about efficiency. If you’re not breathing efficiently, you could be the best athlete in the world but you’ll only work to half your potential. It calms your nerves, your heart rate, everything…

And that leads into preparation in the sea, when you’re out there – if you sit out in the lineup breathing efficiently and with your diaphragm open, taking in as much, as steadily, as you can, you’re prepared to be held down. If you’re stuck underwater, you’ll have loads of oxygen stored up your blood already. If you pass out you’re not gunna die. You’ll get washed to the beach before you run out of oxygen.

For blokes it’s making sure your chest is puffed out, your belly is flat and you’re using the entirety of your lungs. You breathe in for three seconds, out for 10 seconds. Your whole body is prepared before you even fall. You’re in the zone.

Now that you’re safe and back in England, do you have your sights set on any swells to chase?

I really want to get to Hawaii and try to surf Jaws, but we’ll see what happens. Ireland has a swell right now but I can’t go because I’ve got the kids while my wife is working, but there’ll always be more…

Well, we’re glad you made it out unscathed Cotty. Keep up the good work/radical charging.