If you had a product you believed in so firmly, so avidly, what lengths would you go through to put it to the test? Would you put your body on the line in the name of validation? Would you hop on the back of a ski and throw yourself into the impact zone at Jaws?
If you're Mark Visser, it was the only way to fully test techniques that he's developed to help survive the most brutal of beatdowns.
For years, Mark's been developing The Ocean Warrior course, an online learning process that's not just about giving you some of the tools to wrangle Jaws or Teahupoo, though it's been tested and co-developed with Shane Dorian, but it's more a course that can fit the bill for anyone getting in the water. Maybe you subconsciously haven't been hucking over a ledge at your local? Or maybe when waves jack up a touch, it gets a little bit sketchy in your own mind.
And Mark's candid in his approach, self-claiming he used to be a massive pussy, until he stripped out his ego and decided to do something about that fear in big waves. His course is the result. We touched base with Mark to talk fear in the water, harnessing that energy and why everyone should take The Ocean Warrior course. Dive in.
So what's the background of this course?
For the past six years, I've only been working with the highest tier of military groups. Couldn't really talk about it but did this in between chasing big swells.
And is that why you developed this course, to be more comfortable in big waves?
There's no way to sugar coat this...I was a massive pussy. I was born in country Victoria in the farmlands, miles away from any beach. When I was young I nearly drowned after I dropped a peach into a sheep's trough [laughs] and dove in after it and I was then pulled by my hair before I died. I laugh, but it was a close call.
There's no way to sugar coat this...I was a massive pussy
So this is where it all came from, right? That fear from something that happened so long ago?
Yeah, I didn't realise it back then of course. But that experience made me terrified of the water. I didn't even learn to swim properly until I was 10-years-old. When I started getting in the water every time I went out past my waist I always wanted to go back in – there was this entrenched fear.
Then how did that translate to surfing? Where does wave riding fit into this?
Well, I got good at surfing, to the point where I was sponsored at age 14 by a local surf shop. I kept kind of doing those fake paddles, you know, in bigger stuff. Making up excuses. Then as I grew up, I started questioning why I was doing this and then why I had a desire to chase bigger waves. I did the QS for three years, you know and needed something else.
How did you find the QS?
[laughs] I was pretty average at it... Remember paying attention to my results and when I was surfing the Pipe QS or whatever, I had my best results in bigger surf. Teahupoo trials. And that just didn't make sense because I'm from a coast where it's small and shit and I was afraid in bigger waves.
Deep down, I must have been trying to prove to that little kid that I wasn't afraid anymore. That led me to go, right, ok, I'm better in bigger waves and honed in on that. Then chased every swell that came in anywhere, ever, for years. Had success in big wave surfing really quick. I was runner up in the Big Wave Awards.
But what was your mentality out there?
Well, when I was out there, I was terrified still. I would come home and think, that experience was full on. Then mock up the scenario and try and work back what happened in a stable environment like a swimming pool. I became obsessed with holding my breath – could hold it for six minutes – this was years ago.
I thought at that point, I'd be fine at Jaws or wherever because I could hold my breath. And the reality was, I was not. Even though I'd surfed all the big wave spots, I still didn't feel like I was legit, you know? Because I didn't feel like I could handle a proper beat down.
So that was your drive to develop The Ocean Warrior course?
Yeah, the drive was being hellbent on being able to say to myself, I'm not afraid here, I'm ok. Ended up surfing Jaws at night just to prove that this could work. But I needed a benchmark to accept myself. And that sounds totally crazy right? More crazy than the feat itself because that theory is bullshit.
But I needed a benchmark to accept myself. And that sounds totally crazy right? More crazy than the feat itself because that theory is bullshit
I started to constantly develop techniques that'll prepare me for worst case scenarios. What if you're held down in the dark? What if you're held down and stuck in a cave? All these kind of things...I went over the top to prepare for things that will probably not ever happen. How can you prepare for being held down, getting the air knocked out of you and then having to swim.
By the end of five years, I had an arsenal of....maybe the most fucked up training techniques [laughs] but also allowed me to understand the science of what was going on. So then I broke it down in a reasonable way so that people can learn these techniques. You don't have to get a whooping at Chopes or go through what I have for this to stick.
For years, I would train the top tier military in these techniques. And from there, I was no longer afraid to tell people that I was afraid. And that I was a pussy. Then when I got over myself, I thought, maybe I can help other people. There's going to be lots of people who have that fear, why not say the truth, that you are afraid, rather than saying you eat rocks for breakfast and sleep on a bed of nails – and once you strip back that ego, then we can really focus on developing techniques. Oh, I had that fear of not being cool by telling people I was afraid.
Ok, so that's the basis for the course then, you've all these techniques and scenarios, hundreds of them – how did you test this?
I thought, right-o. I need to prove this. I thought, I'm not going to be a trainer telling people to run and I can't run. So...I went to Jaws a couple of times and I got one of my friends on a ski, Victor Lopez, to drop me on the inside of Jaws.
I started paddling myself inside on a 10' gun and then bailing and getting worked, cop a few on the head.
Well, I needed to test what was going on, you know? Then I thought, hang on, I've got my board and I know there's techniques I can do with my board that's cheating. So I asked Victor to drop me off without a board.
I was wearing an inflatable vest but wanted to see if I didn't need it. I applied all the things I've learned and tested so I didn't pull it. Victor's like, 'you wanna get off here...here?', and I'm going, 'yeah, yeah, yeah, right here.' And I took a few sets on the head and he'd come back on the ski and ask if I was done, and I was like, nah. It was solid Jaws.
This doesn't just apply to big wave surfers, it applies to everyone. Maybe someone's afraid of going swimming
But what I learned was when I was going under water and stuck to those simple movements, it was actually manageable. For the first time ever, I was on the bottom, getting worked and had a smile on my face. That's the feeling I want everyone to have. Those who can't surf a three foot wave....this doesn't just apply to big wave surfers, it applies to everyone. Maybe someone's afraid of going swimming...
So this course is for every level of water user then?
Yeah, for those who are beginners, or might not feel comfortable in 3-4ft waves and then the big wave guys and girls too. Maybe you're going on a trip and find you don't have the confidence to sit on the peak? This will give you the skills to sit in the right place and know you're ok when something goes wrong. Because that's not something surfers usually think about, it's kind of intrinsic. People say, you go surf, you get flogged, you deal with it. But the world is so advanced now, why not be advanced with this?
This course in particular is the most hands down for surfing course out there. Sure you can free dive and train like I did, I did 15-years of training with the world's best free divers, from what we did, it worked in their world but not ours. It was beneficial but didn't translate to surfing.
Let's just back track a little, so you've validated the course works on you by getting smashed at Jaws – how do you replicate it and teach someone else?
My next thing after Jaws was I had to teach one of the best big wave surfers in the world. So I said to Shane Dorian I've got this course I've been working on. I think it's good but I want you to see for yourself. I said if you think it sucks, tell me it sucks.
What did he say?
We ran him through it and Dorian said it was hands down the most realistic course he's done, ever. Then I knew. He said he wanted to help me develop the course further again, so we tweaked a few bits and Shane became a part of the course and a co-creator.
Next, we wanted to give people the skills and what's happening with their body when you're getting rumbled. So we bought on some free divers to build that element into it. Then we wanted to focus on safety – so we thought, right who are the best safety team in the world and that would be the Hawaiian lifeguards, Brian Keaulana. Their system is heavy. Brian did the safety course for us. The main thing here is, I did my safety course then six months later I'd forget some things. So the best thing about this course is it's all online. So you can have a quick reference.
We included a comprehension quiz at the end of each stage to help people retain the information. We've a beginner course, that I'd suggest people start with. Then you can move on to the advanced course.
It sounds like this isn't about surfing ability but eliminating the possibility of doubt?
Yeah for sure, if it's something that can make you confident, even if you don't realise it, then you're probably going to swing for waves. And how can that be a bad thing? The more people that know the skills on how to save themselves and read the signs of when someone else is danger, how much safer would a lineup be?
One person has the ability to save someone. I was guilty of it. I always thought, I don't have the time to do that. Even for kids, this could change their lives. It's all online. Global appeal. The course is a user experience, at your own leisure. You get a nine week course for the beginner and a nine week the advanced. There's a few FAQs on the site that you can get into but there's a bunch of different elements to it. Once you've done one part, you can do the next as you go.
As for what Shane Dorian makes The Ocean Warrior course: "This course is super realistic for surfing any type of waves and surviving real situations. Super stoked with this course and excited for next winter."
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