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Dispatches : Athletes

5 Stand-Up Paddleboarding Tips

GET SITUATED: First, always keep your eyes on the horizon. Most people look at their feet when they stand-up, but that can throw you off balance. And this may seem totally obvious, but a lot of people hold their paddle facing the wrong way. Always make sure the scoop is facing away from you.

AVOID OVERPADDLING: Don’t stroke past your feet. When your elbow comes to your hip, bring the blade up out of the water. If your paddle passes your feet, you’re actually slowing yourself down.

THINK ABOUT TEMPO: I’m on the high-cadence train. The faster I paddle, the higher the turnover, and the faster I go. For me, I have to rely on my fitness and do a faster cadence, but if you’re super strong, like Dave Kalama, you can get away with a slower, stronger stroke. 

START FAST: For races, I usually go hard at the start and then settle into a comfortable rhythm. Don’t start slow, thinking you’re going to conserve energy for later, ­because at that point you won’t be able to play catch-up. If other racers are ahead of you, even if it’s just three board lengths, it takes so much effort to reel them in.

NERD OUT: I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to paddling—I love using a GPS watch, like the Garmin Forerunner 910XT ($450). It not only tells me how far and fast I’m going, but it’s heart-rate-enabled, and I can create custom workouts.

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Everest Climbers in Flight

It’s typically Western climbers who grab the spotlight when performing stunts on Mount Everest (see: Ogwyn, Joby). So it may be no surprise that when, in 2011, two native Nepalis stood near Everest’s summit, preparing to tandem paraglide from the top, just the start of an audacious 400-mile adventure—and hardly anyone paid attention. Except, that is, for writer Dave Costello, whose new book, Flying Off Everest: A Journey from the Summit to the Sea, recounts the incredible journey of Sano Babu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa. We recently caught up with Costello to hear more about their story.

OUTSIDE: Lakpa recounts his vision of flying over Everest. What did it mean?
COSTELLO: The simple answer is that it shows that Lakpa had dreamt about this—this literally was a dream of his to fly above Everest. Of course you can read into that more: [Lakpa and Babu] wanting to go higher than the mountain, sort of be above this thing that they’re working on, but the idea of conquering the mountain was not in their minds.

Standing on the summit, what do you think Babu and Lapka feared the most?
These guys have more willpower and control of their minds than I certainly do. They told me, and repeatedly told me, that they were not actually afraid because they could not afford to be.

Babu imagined himself taking off from a hillside near his home on a nice sunny day. They were so committed to doing it, yaknow, they were running out of oxygen, they didn’t have another safe way down—not that flying off the top of the mountain is a safe way down—but that was certainly the most expedient. Their explanation to me was that it was simply a matter of commitment and not over-thinking it in an effort of self-preservation.

Did they really care about winning the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award?
What measures success out of doing something like this? Well, I know they’re not reading National Geographic; they’re not picking up The New Yorker. So the value of press, of just getting your name out there, doesn’t have the same appeal in Nepal. It’s not as important as getting something tangible. They got more out the plaques that their friends made for them saying congratulations than they did from the idea of the award. There’s no plaque, there’s no prize money. They didn’t receive anything tangible from National Geographic. So to them, that is nothing. They got nothing.

To what extent did life go on for Babu and Lakpa?
It’s been slow progress, but Babu got invited to compete in the RedBull X-Alps event, which he did. He didn’t finish, but he was the first Nepali to compete in that. He was also invited to Wings of Kilimanjaro, this organized fundraiser where a bunch of paragliders from around the world were going to go there, climb it, and paraglide off the summit. But they had wicked crazy wind, like 100 mph winds, and everyone else bailed. Babu took off from the summit with his porter who had never flown before and managed to survive.

Lakpa has continued guiding. He was on his way to Everest base camp when the avalanche happened, but he is okay and so is everyone else involved in the story. But ya, he’s still guiding on Everest and other peaks in the Himalaya and growing kiwis on his family’s farm in Khumbu.

Is their expedition over?
Neither of them will ever stop exploring. It’s in their nature. Quitting doesn’t really seem to be something they’re capable of.

Have you reached the point of no return and bailed?
Oh, heck ya. I’ve wound up bailing on more climbs and walking more stiff rapids than I’ve probably ascended or ran. I have backed down an awful lot, and I’m okay with that because my goal when I go out is to come back home. There was Mt. Sanford here in Alaska. First time trying to climb it. After 20 days of climbing wound up turning around about 100 feet from the summit because of deteriorating weather conditions. Just had to turn around. It was the right thing to do.

You know yourself the best, and [Babu and Lakpa] know themselves better than I do, certainly. They know what they’re capable of and what they’re not, even though the obvious answer when proposing this trip was, well that’s crazy—you can’t do that. But know yourself, and have faith, reasonable faith in your abilities and you’ll accomplish what you want to, and they did it.

Would you jump off the summit of Everest?
Absolutely not.

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Judging the World's Biggest Waves

On April 29, I received an invitation to the monolithic California headquarters of Billabong where I’d sit alongside a panel of journalists, filmmakers, photographers and big wave surfers to judge the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards.

What began as a far simpler single award called the K2 Big Wave Challenge back in 1998 has morphed into surfing’s night at the Oscars, providing big wave hellmen and women a widescreen recognition of the crazy risks they took the preceding year. Officiating our effort would be the former Surfing magazine editor who dreamed up the first K2 Big Wave Challenge—Billabong’s blonde bombshell Bill Sharp. 

What followed was probably the most difficult and carefully deliberated XXL judgment any of us had ever been a part of. 

First, some background. The XXL awards include “Wipeout of the Year” ($5,000), “Billabong Women’s Performance” ($5,000), “Ride of the Year,” which is the most lucrative prize at $50,000.

A surfing “Academy,” made up of a few hundred journalists, industry insiders, and surf legends, chooses these winners by online ballot. And while the surfers generally consider the academy's “Ride of the Year” the apex award, the media gives more attention to the XXL’s two final awards—XXL Biggest Paddle and XXL Biggest Wave. Why? Guinness recognizes the verdicts of these two in its Book of World Records. And this year, it seemed that a world record was on the line that could overthrow Garrett McNamara’s ride from 2011

As always, Sharp displayed a series of blown-up photos of mind-blowing rides, along with video and computer stills so we could examine waves, surfers, and camera angles down to the last pixel. 

{%{"quote":"This year, it seemed that a world record was on the line that would overthrow Garret McNamara’s ride from 2011."}%}

Judging the XXL’s biggest waves has always been equal parts science and art—and it’s always been controversial. “Biggest” is actually two categories: The “Biggest Paddle Award” ($20,000) goes to the surfer who strong-arms into the biggest “paddle” wave while “XXL Biggest Wave” ($10,000) can include paddling, but is typically focused on less challenging—but still perilous—jet-ski assisted tow-in waves. (Only once has a paddle entry won both categories—Shawn Dollar’s 2012 Cortes Bank behemoth.)  

The most important element in judging any wave is discerning the bottom or trough—the point at which a wave begins curving upward from the horizontal. From there, it’s a relatively simple matter of knowing the height of a surfer, then multiplying his height from the wave’s crest to its trough.

In first taking up the “Biggest Paddle” category, the consensus was that no one eclipsed Shawn Dollar’s 61-footer at Cortes Bank for the Guinness world record. After another hour, hunched over screens and posters, we unanimously ruled in favor of Hawaii’s fearless charger Mark Healey at Maui’s Jaws. In his crouch, Healey’s hail-mary backside widowmaker is ten times overhead, or 52 feet.

We then turned our attention to the "Biggest Wave" award. The most breathtaking photos in Sharp's arsenal showed Andrew “Cotty” Cotton, an affable 34-year-old British plumber, lifeguard, and father of two who charged down a Portuguese rogue spawned from the bowels of hell. Maybe it was the biggest thing ever ridden—even eclipsing Garrett McNamara’s 78-footer two years back. (McNamara actually towed Cotton into this wave.) But closer examination led to the longest jury deliberation in XXL history.

The difficulty of judgment boils down to this: At Mavericks, Jaws, or Teahupoo, where deep-running ocean swells abruptly jack up onto a ledging shelf and throw out gargantuan barrels, the trough is fairly easy to discern. That’s not the case at Nazaré, Portugal or with the sloping, giant wave that breaks off Belharra, France. And those were the waves we were looking at this year.

Nazaré and Belharra both have a gradual bottom transition that allows waves to reach enormous heights and for surfers to hit tremendous speeds—think of a super-G skier bombing a run.  But they’re not as steep, and in Nazaré’s case, most images are taken from a much higher vantage point, and are thus that much harder to judge.

In this case, every judge agreed that Cotty’s Nazaré wave was enormous. But was it world record? Some images shot from high on the bluffs indicated that he was only halfway down the face of a wave more than 80 feet high. But other frames shot at lower angles revealed that the apparent height of the wave is partly a function of its tremendous slope, which might indeed be a hundred or more feet long. But as judge and Mavericks veteran Taylor Paul points out in Surfing magazine, slope is not height.

Had Cotty gone left—where his wave wedges up into an apocalyptic maw—he would have been in world-record territory. But in a wise move that surely saved his life, Cotty went right, making a mach-ten turn at the wave’s bottom. As Mavericks lifeguard and photographer Frank Quirarte points out, that’s why it’s called a bottom turn, and it’s where we judge the wave’s trough. After painstaking measurements, we finally rendered a 60-foot verdict. “When he gets to the bottom and leans into his turn, that’s the wave,” says filmmaker and former Surfer magazine editor Sam George. “But the photos make it look like there’s 30 feet beneath that.”

Attention then turned to a wave that everyone initially reckoned was smaller than Cotty’s: a Belharra giant ridden by 37-year-old French photographer and amateur big wave surfer Gautier Garanx. Measurement after tedious measurement revealed that Garanx’s wave was slightly bigger than Cotton’s—62 feet by unanimous verdict.

Two feet of difference? Is this justice? Isn’t our ruling somewhat subjective? Yes on all counts. But even with computer-aided technology, finding the trough always comes down to human judgment and an inexact science. But we’re armed with some of the best photographic evidence—and the most experienced jurors—in the business. 

Some have long argued that assigning height to big waves is a fool’s errand and that as Buzzy Trent once famously said, “Big waves aren’t measured in feet, but in increments of fear.” There’s logic in that sentiment, but at the same time, the surfers themselves submit these ephemeral Everests for record consideration. And human beings, by their very nature, are fascinated with the highest, fastest, strongest, biggest, and tallest. That’s what makes the Guinness Book of World Records one of the best selling books of all time—beneath the Bible and Koran. 

And before anyone cries that the jury is biased against Europe, or specifically Portugal, remember: the XXL panel gave Garrett McNamara a still-standing world record at Nazaré.

Three nights later, Anaheim’s Grove Theater plays host to a packed house of the scantily clad, the highly devoted, the terribly inebriated and the painfully hip. For his 52-footer at Jaws, 34-year-old Mark Healey is hilarious and humble, “I ended up feeling really good about myself until I came in over the rocks and got my ass handed to me and made a complete fool of myself,” he says. “You never leave Jaws with your ego intact.”

When it’s time for Ride of the Year, 31-year-old Greg Long is rewarded $50,000 for navigating a giant backhand barrel at Puerto Escondido, Mexico. It’s one of the most technically challenging big waves ever ridden and marks a remarkable comeback for Long after a full-blown case of PTSD in the wake of his near drowning at Cortes Bank two Decembers ago.

“It’s been a pretty radical year in my life,” he says, before publicly thanking his Cortes rescuer and fellow big wave charger D.K. Walsh. “There are so many people out there I’ve met through this love of big wave surfing…you take away the awards , you take away the money, the sponsors and all the rest. I’m still the richest and luckiest person in the world.”

When it comes time for the "XXL Biggest Wave" award, Gautier Garanx is stunned. Holding a $10,000 check over his head he says, “Sorry for my very bad English. I’m not used to this kind of ceremony.” He then adds to huge applause, “I’d like to thank my first sponsor, my wife Sandy,” before strutting off the stage with the XXL’s micro-skirted check-handlers and a grin. 

In Garanx’s win though, it’s impossible not to feel for the unspeakably brave Andrew Cotton, who would have been the United Kingdom's first XXL winner. Especially when he writes a classy entry on his Facebook page. “Obviously gutted I didn’t take home a win, but honoured to make the top five.”

Don’t worry, Cotty, your time will come. 

Check out all the Billabong XXL winners on the official website

Chris Dixon is the author of "Ghost Wave." 

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