Ken Bradshaw

Besting The Behemoths

For the world's premier big-wave surfer, staying on top is all in the training.

When The Beach Boys sang, "Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world," they were, of course, speaking metaphorically. Big-wave surfer Ken Bradshaw takes the notion literally.  He's sat on hundreds of waves with faces that measure upward of 50 feet, and last year he reached new heights when he tucked into an 85-foot curl and rode it to its finish.  That's the biggest wave anyone has ever surfed on the North Shore of Oahu...anyone, at least, who has ever lived to tell about it.  Not bad for a 46-year-old from Houston.

Bradshaw had his first taste of what would become a lifelong obsession on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. "It's a great place to learn to surf because the waves are small and forgiving," he says.

At the tender age of 17, Bradshaw took off for California in search of bigger waves ("I ran away, if you want to know the truth"), then a few years later sought out the behemoths of Hawaii, where he's been happily living and surfing ever since.

During the 1980s Bradshaw branded a name for himself on the competitive surfing circuit, but it was his out-of-competition rides on massive winter swells that made him famous.  And even now, in an age when kids who navigate treacherous slopes on snowboards are a dime a dozen and grandmothers compete in grueling multi sport events, outmaneuvering a crashing wall of water is still considered among the most fantastic of feats. To Bradshaw, it's all in a days work.

"People who surf big waves on a regular basis don't consider it a death defying act.  We don't keep the danger in our minds at all," he contends. "I've had 25 years of experience to achieve this level so, to me, it's fun."

He doesn't deny, though, that big-wave surfing is extreme, and, in fact, Bradshaw can be seen (along with rock and ice climbers, skiers, snowboarders and windsurfers) in the IMAX film Extreme, due out this summer. Because the sport has few spectators…big waves generally break one to two miles off shore, beyond viewing distance…Extreme will be many people's introduction to big-wave surfing. And thanks to the helicopter-ferried cameramen, the view will be spectacular.

Bradshaw, who has his own board shaping business, is glad to have the exposure but hopes it doesn't result in a rash of novice thrill seekers heading out to famous big-wave breaks like Mavericks in Northern California and Outside Log Cabins, the spot in Hawaii where he nailed the 85-footer.  By Bradshaw's estimate, there are only 15 to 20 accomplished big-wave surfers, and all of them are well seasoned.  Big-wave surfing may be inherently dangerous, but it's even riskier if you're not experienced or physically and mentally conditioned enough to take the punishment. And nobody knows it better than Bradshaw. He may be involved in a dangerous sport, but he doesn't pursue it with reckless abandon.

"I'm totally into procedures and rules," he says.  "We run a tight ship in my group."

Bradshaw works with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources' Boating Division to help set guidelines and recommendations for tow-in surfing.  For the last few years, much of big-wave surfing has become synonymous with tow-in surfing. Surfers partner up, then ride out to the waves on a personal watercraft (such as a Jet Ski) and take turns towing each other into the waves as they're starting to break.  Purists may scoff, but monster waves are fast, and the tow-in allows a surfer to get in position quicker than if he were depending on his paddling alone.

Even with the tow-in, catching big ones demands muscle and endurance.

"It also requires determination and good judgment," says Bradshaw. "And that takes continuous involvement in the sport."

Bradshaw also has an auxiliary routine, which involves simple calisthenics designed to increase upper-body strength (needed to paddle as well as push up from the board) and lower-body stamina (required to stay up and maneuver the board beneath his feet).  During the summer, when big waves aren't breaking, Bradshaw free dives to build the kind of aerobic endurance he'll need in the event of a wipeout.

"We dive in and out of lava tubes and tunnels, staying under as long as 90 seconds," he says.

You don't have to be a surfer to take a page from Bradshaw's training book.  The calisthenics he does…the push ups, abdominal crunches, and squats…can help you stay fit for any sport.  Having increased lungpower is also a plus for any water lover, and if you're not comfortable free diving, you can do your aerobic conditioning in the pool.  All told, Bradshaw's regime is simple, yet effective. Do the calisthenics at least three times a week and the pool exercises whenever you're in for a swim.

By: Aqua July '99

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