Croyde, New Year’s Day 2015.
I’m walking through the village when I see a familiar face outside Redwood surf shop. It’s the face of a surfer whose story I have been following with huge interest – a North Devon local who once had a dream to ride some of the biggest waves in the world. A guy whose face appeared in the media for his world record breaking wave attempt, and on the big screen at the Billabong XXL big wave awards in 2014.
It’s someone that I’m surprised I haven’t seen in person sooner, especially with the amount of time we have spent in his neck of the woods during the past two years.
It’s British big wave legend Andrew Cotton.
I want to speak to him and find out what motivates him to charge giant waves. But he’s deep in conversation, enjoying a coffee, and I’m just a kook who gets scared in waves over 2ft. I hesitate, hang back and then chicken out. I kick myself for the rest of the day, and the next day, and the next.
So when UK surf brand Saltrock invited me to a BBQ to meet and interview Cotty (as he’s known amongst the surfing fraternity) to celebrate him becoming their brand ambassador, I jumped at the chance. There’s no way I’m missing this amazing opportunity!
Unusually geography works in my favour and I don’t have a mega drive ahead of me. The venue for the event, Forest Tea Room in Tongwnlais, is set in beautiful, peaceful woodland and from the moment I arrive, I feel totally relaxed. The sun is beating down, finally marking the start of a long awaited summer, and the surf inspired tunes, seashells, surfboards and 1960’s VW split screen camper add to the laid back beach vibes.
Meeting a legend
I arrive early and straight away, I’m introduced to Cotty and his wife Katie. There were so many questions that I wanted to ask this humble, family oriented and all round nice guy who is passionate about surfing the biggest waves. I have been struggling with motivation recently so I particularly want to find out from Andrew what drives him in the hope he has some words of wisdom for me. After all, this is a guy who was told by his careers office that ‘surfer’ was not a viable profession.
20 years later he has proved them wrong by staying true to himself, following his passion and never giving up. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: How did you get into surfing?
A: “My parents bought me a surfboard when I was around 7 or 8 and instantly I loved it. I was pretty good at swimming and was always in the sea. We lived closer to town so I would hassle my parents to take me surfing at every opportunity.”
Q: How did you make the transition to big wave surfing?
A:”It was always my dream to be a pro surfer. The classic way to do that is through contest surfing which I tried but I wasn’t very good at it! In my teens and twenties I won some local competitions but nothing at national level. Then I started travelling. During the UK winter when a lot of people were heading to out of season Indo, where the waves are smaller, I went to Hawaii where the waves are bigger and it evolved from there.”
Q: How do you stay motivated and focussed on achieving your goals?
A: “You have to believe in yourself. One of the hardest things in today’s world is having a plan for a viable career option and getting nothing but “you can’t do that.” Katie has never been one to knock a dream – she has always believed in me and told me there was no reason why I couldn’t do it.
“I am lucky as I have always worked in the surf industry. I would rather earn less money doing that than earning more money doing something I hate.”
Q: How do you physically and mentally prepare for charging giant waves?
A: “Mentally you’ve got to really want it. I know some really good surfers who are technically better than me but then you put them on a big wave and they don’t really want it. You can’t hesitate in those situations – it’s your biggest enemy and will get yourself injured, and put yourself and others at serious risk. There’s a big difference between just fancying it and thinking you want it, to wholeheartedly wanting something – you can identify those people straight away. You have to want the biggest wave out there.”
“Physically, as well as surfing as much as possible, I train 4 or 5 times a week. It’s not like training for an event like a marathon as you never know when the next giant swell is going to be. It’s about maintaining a constant level of fitness and doing a mixture of yoga, cardio and breath holding training.”
Q: What emotions do you go through in the 24 hours leading up to a big wave day?
A: “The biggest stress is working out where you are going but once that’s set, I’m usually pretty calm. I used to get really nervous but as I have surfed bigger waves more often, I have become more at ease and settled into it. I still get a bit nervous as I want to perform and get the best or the biggest wave and if it’s not me getting the waves, I want to put whoever I’m towing onto the biggest wave.”
Q: What goes through your mind when you let go of that tow rope*?
A: “I want to surf a 50ft wave like it was a 2ft wave. I want to be deep, go to the bottom and surf critically. Especially with tow surfing as you are riding a shortboard – there’s no reason why you can’t surf it like a small wave and that’s where the skill lies. Really good surfers do that like Garrett McNamara – he surfs 80ft waves like a 3ft wave – top to bottom and into the pocket.”
(*Big wave surfers use jet ski’s to get ‘towed’ onto giant waves.)
Q: Do you still get as stoked riding 2ft waves as you do when surfing 50ft waves?
A: “Absolutely! Yesterday I surfed at Croyde and got a couple of good ones and was really stoked. I still get days though where I struggle but still get stoked. It’s always great to be in the water and I feel very fortunate to be able to do what I do.”
Q: In the documentary ‘Behind the Lines’ you described Mullaghmore in Ireland as the best wave in the world. If you could tackle any big wave in the world, which one would it be and why?
A: “The Right in Australia and Shipsterns in Tasmania as they are really gnarly right handers! All the good waves in Ireland are lefts and that’s my backhand so it’s harder to get a tube. Fingers crossed I will get the opportunity to take on those rights this year!”
Q: What advice would you give to me to help me stay focussed and motivated?
A: “Set yourself goals and take small steps – nothing will happen over night. It could take 1 year, 5 or 10 years and the second that you get frustrated you will feel like giving up.
“If you work hard and put the effort in it will feel far more rewarding so when you eventually do that cutback at Saunton it will feel amazing! Similarly if you move to the south west and you have that beach access that you crave it will feel great.”
Q: What’s next for you?
A: “To surf as much as possible. This year I will be doing more stuff with Saltrock and taking part in a freedive course in the Bahamas with Red Bull which is something I never dreamed of doing. I’m also looking forward to spending some quality time with my family and getting my kids out into the sea.”
Watch Andrew Cotton’s quest to find the biggest waves in ‘Behind the Lines’ charting the giant swell of 2013 which put him onto one of the biggest waves ever ridden.
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