Standing on the second floor balcony of the Volcom house on a January morning, Dave Wassel watches a lineup of surfers take turns paddling into consistent 6-10 foot glassy Pipeline and Backdoor bombs, detonating into mountains of whitewash.
The size of the winter season swell seems miniscule compared to the waves that Dave, a Kailua native, has ridden throughout this big wave career, a career founded on an element of fearlessness. From Oahu’s outer reefs to Waimea Bay and other big wave breaks around the globe, Dave has been seen in the barrel during the biggest, heaviest and scariest days. Also a North Shore lifeguard, Dave finds himself in potentially life threatening surf situations on a consistent basis.
“I’m never going to say that I’m not afraid,” Dave tells me, pausing as a surfer explodes out of a Pipeline barrel and the Volcom house roars. “It just happens that preparation is going to help you get through the worst possible situation. That fear is always there. But knowing that I’ve done the preparation for the worst possible situation, that’s what helps me 9 out of 10 times come over that hump of being too scared to go for a big wave.”
What follows is our full sit down with Dave, where we discussed his humble beginnings in the Kailua shorebreak, his heaviest big wave surf sessions, how he’s chartered his own path in surfing by big wave charging and working as a North Shore lifeguard and how he’s used fear to his advantage throughout his career.
Freesurf: Dave! Let’s save those death-defying, adrenaline-fueled big wave stories you have for later in the interview. Instead, let’s start with where it all started. What’s your first surfing memory?
Dave Wassel: My first surfing memory was 4 years old in the Kailua shorebreak. I caught a wave and was hooked. I didn’t know what to do with my hands so I started throwing them up in the air and shadowboxing. I’ve been chasing that high my entire life.
How did surfing evolve for you after that?
Surfing is very personal. I caught these waves and would say ‘Mom, you have to come down and see this’ and she would say great, but inside it’s this natural high that you can’t get enough of. Growing up in Kailua, I was right next to the water. My father, on the other hand, couldn’t swim. He says Hawaii is only an island if you go to the beach. My father almost drowned as a kid, so because of that, he made me wear a lifejacket until I was 15 years old any time I was near the water. My friends would take me on their boats and say ‘hey does that life jacket work’ and they would throw me off the boat. They would do circles around me and throw bait at me. At that point, in my head I said you know what I don’t need you as friends, I’m just going to swim into shore, and they’d be long swims. At that young age, I realized that I could take adverse conditions on my head and make it to the beach on my own accord. Nowadays, decades later, every time we go surfing we’re wearing these lifejackets. I don’t know what the world has in store for us, but it’s funny it comes full circle for me. So chasing that natural high took me from the Kailua shorebreak to the Marine base to North Shore to Pipeline to Sunset to the outer reefs. It’s all been a natural progression. It took me a good 20 years to get to the outer reefs; it’s not something I did over night. It was something I wanted in myself. Like I said, it wasn’t crowded out there. Everyone knows Pipeline is crowded, but if you just go a couple hundred yards outside it’s a lot less crowded. Go even further and there’s nobody. I was able to run away from the cameras and the scene and get personal satisfaction.
Throughout this evolution, who did you look up to?
Roger Erickson. For people who don’t know Roger, he was one of the first guys that put high performance big wave surfing on the map. He would lance boils on the biggest waves at Waimea with no fear…a place that on the biggest days strikes the fear of God in everyone else and he’s going I got this. To me, to see somebody ride those size waves with reckless abandon the same someone would ride a 4 foot wave… that was appealing to me. He looked like the Marlboro man, and I had his pictures all over my wall. It took me 2 decades to get enough courage to talk to him and ask him why he did things that he did on giant waves with archaic equipment. He told me ‘I just came back from Vietnam and I knew a bullet wasn’t going to kill me, so I knew a wave wasn’t going to either’. Because of him, I learned at a young age that it is all right to be an older surfer. You can still push the limits. It may not be at Kailua shorebreak or Ehukai, but if you start going to the outer reefs, there’s very few people and you can also get away from the crowd. When the big waves come around, the crowd thins out real fast. I owe a lot to guys like Roger Erickson for keeping that dream alive in my head.
What are some of the heaviest big wave sessions you’ve been a part of?
The heaviest session I’ve ever seen was when Sion Milosky won what was the biggest wave ever attempted, sometime around 2008. I was in the lineup with Sion and Shane Dorian, and a wave came in so big that it defied the laws of physics. It had a boat wake on it, too. I didn’t go, Dorian didn’t go and Sion turned and went. He made it over the first boat wake, not the second, which is why it wasn’t scored as a complete ride, but that was the heaviest thing I’ve seen. I looked at Dorian and he said ‘wow that’s how it’s going to be nowadays.’ Another session is the first time I paddled at Pe’ahi in 2012. The only reason I caught a wave was because I wanted to get out of the lineup. I was so uncomfortable. Fear can be a good thing. It can keep you alive or make you want to get out of there.
Talk to us about fear. You’ve made a career based on what seems to be either a lack of fear or overcoming fear, charging massive and deadly waves.
I’m never going to say that I’m not afraid. It just happens that preparation is going to help you get through the worst possible situation. I’ve come over one wave and been so scared I didn’t even look at the next one. That fear is always there. But knowing that I’ve done the preparation for the worst possible situation, that’s what helps me 9 out of 10 times come over that hump of being too scared to go for a big wave. It’s all about finding your comfort zone. Bad situations will arise, but you need to find your comfort zone and be able to perform. Fear can definitely be in your benefit, because your mind is the strongest tool you have. If you panic, that’s because of fear. It will drown you. Fear can be the mind killer but it can also save you from putting yourself in the worst possible situation.
Let’s shift gears and talk about how you’ve pioneered your own career in surfing, working with Volcom as well as a North Shore lifeguard.
My relationship with Volcom started in 1991 when the company started. I met them randomly at a Pyramid Rock Pro Am contest and they said ‘David if you win this contest, we’ll get you sponsored’. They asked me what my plan was over the next 5 years and I said that I planned on catching surf 2 feet bigger every year. I’ve stuck to that scale. When I became 30, I said I’m going to make a transition, knowing I’d lose my sponsorship, and that I better do something to get paid on the beach so I became a lifeguard. Volcom asked me if I was still going to surf, and I said ‘yeah, I have lunch breaks, and I can surf before during and after work’. They said ok, here’s a multi-year contract and that as long as I stayed doing what I was doing, they would back it. At 38, I got married, had a kid and the funny thing was that the birth of my child was the most successful year for me as far as my accolades. Somebody said I rode the biggest wave that year, it happened to be at Pe’ahi. I also got a Todd Chesser Award and an Eddie Aikau award. I think looking at surfing not just for fun but also for something I needed to support a family, a paycheck here and there, it actually worked out pretty good.
Along with that, you also commentate for the WSL. How did that begin and grow to what it is today?
I started commentating through Volcom. In 2011, Volcom offered me the position of commenting for the Volcom Fiji Pro. It just so happened that year the swell got so big and so exciting and not only was I there to commentate it. I got to surf it as well. I’m not here to impress everybody with what comes out of my mouth. I guess some people liked it, so it turned into a bit of a career and I get to ride a few waves, so double bonus.
Because big wave surfing takes such a toll on the body, do you have any thoughts as to how long you’ll continue charging big waves?
People always ask how long can you do this and how long is your body going to withstand this abuse. Now, I understand there is an end to this and I’m glad to say it is near for Dave Wassel. I recently looked my collection of boards – 9’6 to 11’2 – and I thought to myself what is wrong with me? It’s not normal. I know what my body has been through, and I know what it’s capable of. What I want to do with this information I have is pass it on. I’m looking to hand that off. It’s not my duty, but I feel like I have some knowledge in waves of consequence that I can hand off to people. Just minor do’s and don’ts to keep yourself breathing.
We know you want to get in the water, so let’s end with this: what’s your advice to those looking to fearlessly pave their own way in the surf industry?
Let’s start off with saying Dave Wassel is a lifeguard and not a life coach. I’m not here to tell people how to live their lives. But, it’s not about a 6 month plan. How about a 3 year plan? Look beyond tomorrow. Whether it’s in sports, commentating, or just being a lifeguarding, I don’t know your path – you do – but make sure it’s not something you’re hastily to jump into. Set yourself a goal and try and achieve it.