How Sea Hearts Deal with Fear: Melanie Laine Williams
Tell us a little bit about where you live and where you surf? What’s your homebreak like?
I learned to Surf in San Diego. Although I haven't been there in a couple years I still consider Sunset Cliffs my homebreak.
When did you learn to surf? How long did it take you to transition to riding a shortboard?
I started surfing at age 27, six years ago. I learned SoCal classic longboard style: Cross stepping and nose riding. I struggled with the grace required for this type of surfing. My style has always been more powerful. In High School I played sports that allowed me to use my power and didn't require as much finesse, this suits my body type. I tried for a couple years to force my body to surf with the classic style but it was hard. I started to transition to a shortboard about a year and a half ago. It is still very much a work in progress. Once again, harmony with the wave and flow trump brute strength so I'm learning a lot about letting go and releasing control not just in the waves, but also in life. Big wave surfing seems to the "the third way" and turns out to be a very good fit for my natural talents. Big wave surfers use bigger boards and fitness and strength (mental and physical) are the most important aspects.
Right now I'm pushing myself to work on style and flow in medium size waves. I have the strength to surf big, I have the mindset to surf big, but I really need to improve my technique.
Tell us about some of the biggest surf you’ve ever been in? Where was it and how big was it?
I've surfed a few famous big wave spots and they all kinda have their own flavor of big. Waimea is just BIG. Sunset beach is one of the scariest big wave spots I've surfed because it is shifty. The best surfers have a natural feel for it but as I was learning I took several beatings. One day I broke my friend's really expensive 10'0" big wave gun when the waves were 8-10 feet Hawaiian. That was an expensive learning experience...but hey, an education always costs something!
Puerto Escondido is definitely the most powerful big wave I've surfed. I tore my MCL one day when I got clipped inside a closeout barrel and the leash yanked so hard on my leg that it tore the ligament in my knee. It was probably 7-8 feet Hawaiian that day, but the power of that place is unbelievable.
How do you decide whether the surf is too big or dangerous for you? What is your limit?
The most important thing is to really observe my body. My body will tell me if it is freaked out and I'm just forcing it out of ego, or if it has a kinda of warrior calm and is ready to go to battle. But I also have some practical things I do too. Since I generally ride very big boards in big waves (over 9 feet) My rule is that I have to want the biggest waves of the day. If not, then I'm going to be sitting inside looking for smaller sets and end up getting cleaned up by the big ones on a board I can't duck dive, and that means disaster. Also, if there is a channel, I often tell myself that I have to paddle out and observe from the channel. After an hour if I still don't want to try then I can go in. Some places like beach breaks you can't do this, If you make it out you are going to need to catch a wave to get in so you better be sure you really want to go before you attempt it.
Do you have any special tactics or practices you use to deal with fear while you surf? (i.e. meditation, visualization, physical training)
I try to do things that scare me any time I have the chance. I've jumped off of cliffs, held my breath until I passed out (on dry land!), snacked on fish eyeballs and grasshoppers - all just to feel the fear and move toward it. I try to make friends with fear. Before I go out on a big day I crank up loud music and dance around. I find it helps to take myself less seriously. After all, I've logged the hours training, so when it comes time to surf bigger waves the most important thing is to get out of my own way and let my body do its thing.
Tell us about your scariest experience in the ocean? Where were you? What happened?
The scariest experiences were when I was first learning. I remember getting cleaned up on a set once and not being able to make it out of the impact zone on my longboard. I was screaming and waving my friend for help. He gently reminded me I could bellyboard into calmer waters.
The more experience I gain the bigger the risks become but the less scared I am because my comfort zone has expanded. I had an experience once where the current pulled me half a mile out to sea before I even noticed it. It was physically one of the hardest things I ever had to do to get myself back to shore. I wanted to cry but I knew that being emotional in that moment would inhibit my breathing and my stamina. I told myself I could feel whatever emotion I wanted when my feet hit the beach. I remained completely calm for the duration, but sure enough, when I made it back to dry land I dramatically ripped my leash off, flung my board away, and collapsed into a sobbing heap.
What did you do to overcome that specific experience? How did overcome the memory?
For me, painful memories are nothing more than an opportunity to grow. I have failed so much in life; I failed at marriage twice by the time I was 30, I failed at owning my own business, I fail all the time in the water. And believe me, all of those have had very painful consequence, at first, but eventually, the pain is an invitation for growth. I'm grateful for every wipeout.
What are your current goals (surfing-related or otherwise?)
Currently, I'm working on flow. I want to be able to surf really well on medium sized waves. I want to be able to effortlessly maintain speed and harmony with each section the wave gives me. I want to make graceful turns and pick perfect lines to get barrels. Obviously the end goal to surf bigger and bigger. But first I need to get better!
What is the greatest lesson (or meaning) surfing has taught you?
That is an easy one. In surfing, you can't be in control. I can train and I can rehearse but when it comes down to it, the wave is in control, not me. I've been trying to control all the variables in my life since I was a kid, especially my body. I've always thought I need to be thinner, even when I was very thin. I tried so hard to control my body, restricting what I ate and forcing myself to exercise too much. Surfing has taught me that nature (the ocean, the body) knows best. When I try to force maneuvers, try to force myself to perform when conditions aren't right, try to dominate the waves or dominate my body, it doesn't work. Surfing is teaching me to let go.
How can we find you?
Follow me on Instagram @yogasurfmel
My entire journey from divorce, eating disorder, failed business to how a 100 day solo surf trip changed my life is the subject of 100,000 words of writing I just completed and will be released this fall. You can sign up to read it, one episode at a time, at https://mailchi.mp/30a823a23499/coming-soon