A few weeks ago we had a big northwest groundswell come in on the North Shore (of Oahu) and the buoys were showing 17-foot with an 18 second interval. I paddled out to Log Cabins alone in the morning and (big-wave surfer) Kohl Christensen was the only other guy out. The waves were 45- to 50-foot on the face. I ended up taking a 30-foot wave on the head and breaking my leash and my board, but the swell was so good I still surfed two more times that day (laughs).
Big-wave equipment is totally different than regular surf gear. Boards break a lot easier, leashes break more and there are a lot more things that can go wrong. I use a lot thicker leash and multiple leash cords. You want to have a backup for every piece of gear… the bigger it is out there, the more things tend to break.
I use the same boards for standup big-wave surfing as I do for prone because they have so much volume that I'm able to stand on them. My quiver for big waves ranges between 9'0" to 10'4". It's different for everyone, but really it's about having equipment that you're comfortable on.
I run quads on all of my guns for the added speed and drive. Out there I'm not doing the crazy pivotal turns that thrusters are good for, so quads are better for stability and setting a line in big surf.
Patagonia makes a great padded suit that's available to the public. I have one and I love that thing. For really big surf, I'll wear a CO2 inflation vest because they help me conserve energy and have longer sessions. Getting worked by a giant wave takes a lot out of you and that floatation makes it much easier.
Training is everything and it's all you want to rely on. When we go out and surf this stuff, we know we're going to come back home because we're confident in our skill set. I find standup paddle race training and OC-1 paddling to be super good for big wave surfing because paddling like that constantly fluctuates your heart rate. The best workouts for me incorporate a heart rate exercise and a breath hold training, but I like to work in yoga to stay flexible too. Your body can get pretty twisted up in a bad wipeout.
A lot of times when you wipe out on the first wave of a giant set, there's not enough time before the next wave for a ski to rescue you. You can end up taking a lot of waves on the head and you need to be ready for a pounding.
The most important thing is to have a partner that you trust, someone who's equally as ready as you. You don't always need a ski, but you need someone looking after you. Same with scuba diving, when you're doing something with that kind of risk you want someone else watching out for your safety.