Big Wave Surfing: Tom Peter King On Conquering Dungeons
“For me, surfing is a feeling… everything I do in the water. If I’m feeling good, then I know I’m doing the right thing and it all comes together. If I feel like I shouldn‘t be in the water I just get out. For whatever reason. It’s simple as that. Cause maybe you‘re just gonna break a finger but maybe you‘re gonna die.”
South Africa has some of the most notorious surf spots in the world. Some of the most challenging breaks can be found here. From never-ending gentle walls on safe beach breaks, through monstrous hollow tubes over shallow reefs, to point breaks forming some of the biggest waves out there. While exploring the spectacular coast of Cape Town I have discovered not only a number of absolutely unique breaks, but also some truly inspiring people that were literally raised by the ocean. People who took their first and some of them also their last steps on the surfboard. This is a story of one of them.
I sat down with Thom Peter King, a 35-year-old South African based in the Cape. This blond, blue-eyed gent, with a kind smile on his face, is today a husband, father of one, and a passionate longboard and stand-up paddleboard surfer. It is hard to believe that only 12 years ago he surfed some of the most challenging big waves in the world, including Waimea and Jaws in Hawaii, or Cloud Break in Fiji. And I wanted to find out what makes him tick.
Only a thirty-minute drive west from downtown Cape Town, there is a small coastal town called Hout Bay. Hout Bay is a calm, peaceful place with a beautiful white sand beach with usually very little surf. Few times during the winter, however, this quiet city hosts some of the most experienced surfers seeking huge swells coming from the south Atlantic and breaking over a shallow reef only a couple kilometers from Hout Bay. This swell forms a massive surf just 300 meters from the coast, creating a heaven for big wave surfers, known as Dungeons.
How big do Dungeons get?
It gets huge. Really huge! I can’t really say how tall man. But when you’re in the water it looks massive.
I took part in the Red Bull Dungeons Big Wave competition. So the first year, myself and my friend, who lives in America now, we were surfing Sunset and that kind of stuff, we wanted to go out and when the Red Bull was on (they stayed here for like maybe a whole month or something) and we weren’t part of the contest at all so we just got left out. The next year I was invited as an alternate for the contest and then the next two days I surfed in the contest.
How did you do?
So they have like quarters, semis and finals. So the first year I think I just got knocked out in the first quarter, the first round, and next year I made it through one heat and that photo that you saw me dropping (in Gary’s surf school) that was like the last few minutes.. there was a sick wave coming.. I just took off and I wiped out and burst my eardrum. So I didn’t make it.. but at least I had that heat going. And then the next day, it was probably the biggest day that they ever surfed in Dungeons. I don’t know how big cause I wasn’t out there but I think some of the guys said that it was maybe 50-60 feet tall. It was big. Really big.
How did you get into surfing big waves?
There were three guys from Kommetjie, cause I grew up in Kommetjie and I surfed all the time, I surfed competitively on a shortboard and there were three older guys: Glinn, Nicko and Peter. Peter passed away in the water, actually of a heart attack. All three of them surfed all over and they kind of started tow surfing in South Africa. They had a little rope and a jetski and they were the first guys towing Sunset (medium size surf spot in Kommetjie). So I knew them myself from my friend Damian. One day we just kind of saw them in the water, it was a perfect day, there was no wind, it was like small Sunset, I’d say like 10-12 foot, just perfect. So we talked to them and they were like: “Hey, we are going out..“ and I think they were just taking a boat out there. “You guys want to come?“ And of course, we wanted. “Yea absolutely, let’s get towed out there.“ And they said: “No, no guys if you want to go you have to paddle before you tow. You gotta meet the guys who surf there a lot, get to know them and learn from them.
What was your motivation to go surfing big waves?
Probably just interest and being motivated by those older guys who were going out there and because I grew up by the ocean, my father and Garry (stepfather) both surfed and they always took me in the water with them. I started surfing when I was about 3 or 4 years old, I started on a bodyboard.
“You gotta understand and respect the ocean. Otherwise, it’s gonna teach you a lesson. And its also about the feeling. Some day I just paddle out and I don’t feel good, just got a funny feeling, like an instinct. I‘ve had that feeling since I was a child. You have one wave and you are just feeling nervous and on those days I say to myself: I’m down, I don’t come in. Rather watch today.”
What do you do when you wipe out? What exactly happens?
(Laughing) You gotta try to relax. That’s the biggest thing. You gotta be fit. You have to be mentally strong to surf big waves. You can’t just go out there and surf, at least from my perspective, cause you will be out there and the set is going to come, a 30-40 foot wave, and it’s gonna break in front of you, you gotta know that you can hold your breath and be ready for it so you stay calm and relaxed. Cause as soon as you start fighting you are using up energy and you panic. Each wipeout is different, sometimes you think: “Oh my gosh, this is going to be a bad one“ and you just go down and then pop up right away. Sometimes you think this is going to be okay and you get absolutely nailed. It always depends on how the wave hits the reef, there are so many factors in there. You have to try to be aware of how you fall, always be aware of where the surface is, sometimes you have to feel your leash or try to see where the light is. The board is your savior cause it will flow and will keep you up, but sometimes when you are riding an 8 or 9-foot board and then you have a 10 or 12-foot leash then you are like 20 foot under. Sometimes the board is straight up and the leash is tight. You can go really deep at that moment.
Can you estimate how long you can stay underwater when the wave breaks on you?
I don’t know. I have been lucky because I have surfed and I learned kind of the waves that I should take off and thus I never had a two-wave hold-up. Only one wave and I came up before the next wave. Some of the guys got stuck in there for two or three waves. For me, I think the longest hold up was from 40 seconds to 1 minute. But when you are there you think you are underwater for like 5 minutes (laughs). You have to be rational about whether you are fit or not and you gotta know if you can handle it. You have to be realistic about what is happening because otherwise, it can be extremely dangerous. The guys overseas today they do a lot of training and they teach each other. Even the guys here they do breath-holding courses now and they learn what your body is going through. You gotta be prepared. That is the biggest thing for me.
How did you train for Dungeons back then?
I was swimming, I was running, surfing a lot. The more you surf big waves, the more you get comfortable and you get used to the power of the ocean. As I said, I went out there a while ago and I haven’t been at Dungeons for ages, and I was just out there on the jetski and it just reminded of how powerful and scary the ocean can be. Beautiful and scary at the same time. It’s an amazing thing actually.
Do you miss it?
(Thinks) Not really. All those guys out there, both the young and the older guys are a good group of friends, so from that aspect yes, I miss the social side of it and the bonds that you form and also the challenge and the thrill. You know sometimes wiping out is more of a thrill than a good wave. Sometimes you wipe out on your first wave and you come out and you feel like you are ready to go now. So yeah, I miss it but also I don’t have time to train now. I‘ve got a kid and my life is going on a different path. After I burst my eardrum in a massive wipeout during the Red Bull competition, something shifted in me. The injury, there was something about it. I never competed after that. That was kind of an end and then I started to do other stuff and it slowly kind of drifted me away from big waves. But there are enough guys doing it now. Back then, there was me and Frank Solomon started and it was like three of us. Those were good times. Fun times. Scary times, but fun times.
How is paddling for such a massive wave? Can you compare it with regular surfing?
You gotta be in the right position. Like surfing small waves if you are in the wrong positions you are going to get sucked over. Same on the big waves there is a perfect place to be where it just let you in easy. You gotta understand Dungeon‘s wave, now the wave and where it is going to let you in. If you are two meters off, you are going to be paddling there and possibly going over falls or getting into big airdrop. It is the same anywhere you surf, you take what you know from your surfing, your whole life and you kind of learn to spot and you take that knowledge and use it in the big waves.
When you come to the point where you pop-up and there is that deep drop in front of you, what do you do?
Centre of gravity. You have a bit of a wider stance and you stand as strong as possible, that’s the thing. Cause there is a lot of bumps from the wind. And then it depends, sometimes you can turn right away when you are looking what’s happening with the wave and you see: ‘ok this one I can drop and do a nice big bottom turn.’ You just gotta read the wave as it comes to you and figure out what it’s doing. Some of the waves even roll into barrels, especially on the inside.
Did you observe or study the wave before you went there for the first time?
Not really (laughing). I was young and I was feeling good you know so it was just like: “We want to be out there, let’s go.”My friends who went there with me surfed it before so I asked them where we should surf and what to do and they gave me guidance. But we never went to the mountain at Dungeons, I have never walked there and watched the wave to understand the break, where it’s breaking and so on. So you can do that and it’s probably a good idea. Cause when you’re out there you don’t know where you are. You gotta understand and respect the ocean. Otherwise, it’s gonna teach you a lesson. And it’s also about the feeling. Some day I just paddle out and I don’t feel good, just got a funny feeling, like an instinct. I‘ve had it since I was a child. You have one wave and you are just feeling nervous and on those days I would just be like, I’m down, I don’t come in.. rather watch.
What board did you use?
I surfed on 9.4ft and 9.2ft, those were my big wave guns. I still have my 9.2 actually. Last time I used this board was 13 years ago. I will definitely keep it.
When you paddle for a wave and you get the point where you decide whether to pop-up and go or to pull out, how do you make that decision?
In big waves, there is a point where you can’t really pull out even if you want to cause there is so much water that even if you tried to pull out you would get sucked in a fall. So at some point, it’s better to go for it even if the wave isn’t perfect or you aren’t in the perfect place. For me it’s a feeling man, it’s from surfing a lot. Sometimes you can just see the wave all of the sudden standing up and looking like its gonna break on you or it just gonna be too steep. You can be paddling and think you’re fine and suddenly the wave just stands up and you’re looking down from practically a vertical wall. So sometimes you are able to pull out, sometimes not. Every wave is different and unique.
When the wave has already broken and you find yourself in front of it you just throw the board away and have to try to dive as deep as possible. You won’t get under it. Plus with all the turbulence under the water, the wave is going to go over you and spin you several times. Sometimes you get lucky, it doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes if the wave breaks right on you, you get caught in a pocket of air and you can make it through the wall and pop out on the other side. But otherwise you will get stuck under even for up to a minute and your leash and your board may break. You can get held down and get to the surface just right before another wave and that can be really scary.
When surfing big waves, an important thing is to be confident about your ability to hold your breath for long enough. Did you do any training in that sense?
Not really. Back then there weren’t any breath holding courses. When I was stopping surfing big waves people started to do all sort of breath-holding exercises as a kind of sport. Then people have developed it and started to teach surfers as training for big wave surfing. A lot of guys do that now. I have never done one. I mean I would like to, the results are really impressive. Those people go there with being able to hold their breath for about one minute and at the end of the two days course they can get up to four minutes.
When you wipe out and you are being dragged by the wave, what is running through your head?
Sometimes panic. Pure panic that I’m gonna drown. And sometimes just like telling myself ‘just stay calm and it’s gonna be okay’. For me it was important to feel fit. When I felt fit I was able to be more mentally confident. That way you can be more rational and think about what is happening. If I wasn’t feeling physically fit then I’d be mentally down which is very dangerous. For me, surfing is a feeling… everything I do in the water. If I’m feeling good then I know I’m doing the right thing and it all comes together. If I feel like I shouldn‘t be in the water I just get out. It’s simple as that. For whatever reason. Maybe I’m gonna break my finger or maybe I’m gonna die.
Can you describe your feelings when you were surfing Dungeons? How is it?
Adrenalin, fear, excitement. It’s a whole bunch of different emotions from when you paddle for the wave to the point you come out of the hollow tube and you look back and realize what just happened. Sometimes I felt, not anxiety but I was like ‘okay, what’s the wave gonna do? Is it gonna hit me or not?’ And then once I made it to my feet it was like ‘yes, I’m going!’ And then the wave might wall-up and then you’re like ‘is it gonna close out?’ And then you make it and you’re just so stoked. It’s just a whole range of emotions.
Is there anything that substitutes those feelings? Do you miss it?
You know what, I do miss it, but not in the sense I gotta do it again. It’s more like if the right time came in my life again, maybe when I’m grown up and my son is grown up, I’m not working as much and life is not as crazy and I had more time for that then it that would be the right time to start again. But now I do so much other stuff that I’m happy about. I foil, I longboard, I stand-up paddleboard, I cycle, and I have my family. I have so much going on that I’m happy about that I’m not like: “Oh, I have to get out there again.”Sometimes the guys would message me: “Hey, are you free? Do you want to come?” And it’s a perfect day and I can’t go but I wish I could be out there just to watch them.
“I haven’t been at Dungeons for ages, and I was just out there on the jetski and it just reminded me of how powerful and scary the ocean can be. Beautiful and scary at the same time. It’s an amazing thing actually.”
How does it work with the safety jetskis? Is there always a friend with you to look after you?
Yeah, most of the time there is always someone to do the safety there. Just because of how the waves in Dungeons are set up. It’s not a perfect break. Some of the other big wave places like Waimea, there is an area where you take off, Mavericks there is also quite a fine take-off zone, but Dungeons is a long reef and because there is also a reef on the outside it sometimes breaks out there or basically anywhere far out like hundred meters outside and you find yourself caught up in front of that breaking mass of water. There is a take-off spot and kind of a line-up at Dungeons but sometimes it gets wild. When the wave breaks a hundred meters in front of you there is usually not enough time for the jetski to get you anyway, so you just wait, take a deep breath and pray. That’s it (laughing). You don’t want to see your friends getting hurt or drowning. A lot of the older guys they run the safety now. It’s not a service provided by anyone, it’s basically just people who get together and hang out with each other and they do the safety for everybody in the water.
What was the best wave you ever surfed? First, that comes to your mind…
Yeah, Fiji, Cloud Break. 2016. We had stand-up paddleboard champs there. It was a decent size and I got so barreled. That’s definitely one of the best waves of my life.
I bet you have many cool stories from Dungeons. Is there a special one you’d point out?
In Dungeons, there is a strong current. After the wave breaks, the water sucks along the cliff and it doesn’t take you out, it takes you away on the deep ocean. One time, after my buddy Doogle wiped out on a huge wave, I went to get him on a jet ski, cause I was doing safety for him. So I got him on the ski, but we didn’t make it out of there before the next, even bigger wave came. We got caught in the wave, Doogle jumped off the jetski and myself I flipped with the jetski. I got swallowed by the wave, lost the ski, couldn’t see Doogle anywhere around.
What did you do?
We got really lucky cause the ski ended up right by Doogle and he managed to get on. But he spent a long time looking for myself cause the current took me far on the ocean and the chop [small waves on the surface created by wind] was quite high, it’s definitely not a smooth trip. After like 30 minutes he finally found me and we were off for the day (laughs).