In this second article in our new section, The Guide, Joe Knight talks about what it takes to be a waterman, and how he developed his love—and respect—for the ocean.
Watermen and freediving instructors standing on the edge of Dean’s Blue Hole, Bahamas
A big part of being a waterman involves identifying potentially dangerous situations so that a potential emergency situation can be prevented. This could be as simple as being able to spot a rip, identifying hidden water movement, reading the swell direction and interval, or recognizing the behavior of marine life. Being a waterman is not just about being fit and holding your breath for five minutes. It’s about being an astute observer, a humble person, and leading by example.
I have always lived near the sea. It makes me who I am, and I feel the energy of the ocean coursing through my blood. Growing up in a small fishing town in Victoria, Australia, the ocean became my playground at a young age. Whether surfing, freediving, sailing or exploring, I found that you can learn so much from the ocean just by observing it. And through experience, I have seen how it can humble you, sometimes when you least expect it. In my case, it was after a few near drowning incidences—some surfing, some freediving—that have led me to train, study, learn, and now teach others how to be ready for moments when they will be tested by the ocean.
In a continual quest to learn, improve, and stretch my comfort levels, I often seek inspiration from my friends, who have been through challenging times. So I thought it would be interesting to share a fellow waterman’s story.
Big wave surfer Skeeta Derham gliding down the face of a colossal wave
Skeeta Derham: Surfing’s Quiet Achiever
Skeeta is one of those humble watermen who often keeps his stories of adventure to himself. He would much rather listen to someone else’s “epic ocean tales,” hearing the excitement in their voice as they regale others. But every once in a while he lets one slip, and as a big wave surfer, you can only imagine the beasts that he battles with.
It was a huge day at a break called “Cow Bombie" off the south coast of Western Australia, the biggest surf Skeeta had been in up to that point. He was feeling fit and confident from months of hard training. Having waited patiently for his turn, he was chomping at the bit to get into a wave. When it was his go, a set came rolling in—it was an ugly wide set, but Skeetas’ jet ski driver decided to go for it.
With knees bent to absorb the chop, he lined up in preparation for the wave of his life; he was in his element. But suddenly, Skeeta and his driver realized they were in too deep. They sped up but it was no good; Skeeta had committed himself. As he dropped down the broad side of the colossal wave, he was chop hopping over the wake of the jet ski, which was trying to evade the tyrannical set. With incredible momentum and breaking chop, Skeeta just stood there and watched the mountain detonate on him. But in true Skeeta style, at the last moment before impact, he laughed and gave that wave “the bird”!
Skeeta Derham gives “the bird” to the wave that is about to swallow him
What he remembers after that is a blur, a blotchy memory caused by hypoxia and CO2 narcosis. He said he has fever felt pressure like it. His body was literally ripped and twisted in an intense, giant washing machine. As he was telling me the story, his face turned blank and his eyes glossed over as he recounted being beaten underwater. Visions of family, friends, and life flashed before him. He thinks he got a gulp of air at one stage from a giant air pocket, but admits he was in a pretty altered state of consciousness to be sure. Swimming towards the surface with little strength left in his limbs due to the blood shift he had experienced, he surfaced seeing blotches of black and white spots, feeling dizzy and disorientated, and found himself holding onto the sled on the back of a jet ski, not really knowing how he got there.
Learning from this experience, Skeeta altered the way he approaches and prepares for the ocean. With a more holistic preparedness, heightened patience and calmness, and with astute observertion, Skeeta carries with him the lessons he learned from facing off with some of the oceans’ finest pieces of work. You can see more of Skeeta’s waves and many other amazing images of waves of consequence on waterman photographer Russell Ord’s website.
Stress training during a waterman's course
Becoming a Waterman
For some, it’s all about pushing the limits and surfing the biggest waves, windsurfing the most challenging conditions, or paddling the longest open ocean distances…. It’s for this elite population of athletes that I developed the Advanced Watermanship Course for the organization I founded, One Ocean International, to offer the best training to get athletes to achieve their goals.
During the program, students fine-tune existing watermanship skills, push beyond perceived levels of endurance, work as a team, analyze and learn from past situations; then combine these elements whilst scientifically exploring the reactions the human body goes through in stressful situations like big wave hold-downs, and breaking this down step-by-step gives the students a deep insight into the actual processes that are taking place environmentally, physically and mentally. These are just a few of the key elements that make this course so unique.
To make sure that students are getting the best quality training, each Advanced Course involves expert tuition from a guest waterman specialising in fields like freediving, professional life saving, big wave surfing, windsurfing, and open ocean paddling. Training covers areas such as: Breath Hold, Specialised Training Techniques, White Water Swimming, Sea Survival, First Aid and Rescue, Planning and Preparedness, and Panic/Fear management.
Static breath-hold training
Feeling the salty breeze on your face and listening to the sound of the birds flying above you; hearing the roar of the wind in the sails as your yacht screams along at 15 knots; sensing your chest collapse under the pressure of six atmospheres as you freedive into the blue; experiencing weightlessness as you take a drop on a huge mountain of ocean swell—all watermen are chasing a sensation that keeps them going back for more.
Fighting the cold seeping into their bones, pushing away the fear of drowning or being eaten, ignoring the hunger pains for just one more wave—it’s what makes us feel alive, keeps us grinning, and it’s a feeling that cannot be described. It has to be felt….
Author and One Ocean International founder Joe Knight
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