Overcoming fear

Overcoming fear, it’s that exact moment where you must commit 100% to the wave. The point of no return. At that moment, if you aren’t absolutely certain that wave is yours for the taking, then you will do something to stop yourself from going.


For me, that moment of self-doubt is when I look over my shoulder to see if anyone else is paddling for it.


In that instance, one look of intention from another surfer is often enough for me to lift my chest, slow my paddle, and consequently miss the wave. My ego uses it as an excuse, but deep down I know I’m too scared to go. I use the other surfer is a reason to not pull the trigger and commit. The consequences of not going at that exact moment, the point of no return, can be and often are, brutal.


Overcoming fear in surfing big waves
Broken surfboards and crushed egos



Lessons from wiping out

This happened recently. After surfacing from a hectic wipeout, I saw my board bouncing in the white water 50 meters away. I took two more set waves on the head before being able to bodysurf out of the impact zone. My coach, who had been watching me the whole time, paddled in for the assist. He guided me while also coughing and sputtering, to the shore.


“Why didn’t you take off on that wave?” He asked.

“Because I wasn’t going to make it, I was too deep.” I defended myself.

So instead you got cleaned up on the set. You would have been safer if you had gone on it and wiped out. And by the way, that drop was totally makeable.”


He could see I was frustrated with myself.


So here is the lesson for today,” he was going to capitalise on a teachable moment, “You didn’t rearrange your entire life and travel halfway around the world to the North Shore of Oahu to NOT go on the wave.”


He was right and his words would ring in my ears from there on out, every time I attempted a take-off on a critical wave.


It is incredible what the human body is capable of when you decide that your power is unlimited.


Overcoming fear in surfing big waves
You have to commit.



Putting it all on the line

I grew up 1500 km from the nearest ocean. My comfort level in the ocean was about a big zero on a scale of 1 to 10. I moved to San Diego, California where I learned to surf at age 27. While other surfers frothed for the winter swells, I couldn’t wait for the off-season so I could surf some knee high waves without fearing for my life. When I decided to take some time off to surf in Mexico, it was because I was at a super unhappy and unhealthy place in my life. I knew it needed to change. Back then, everything in my life seemed to be failing and surfing was the only thing making me happy. So I decided to put all my eggs in the happy basket.  


I felt like I was paddling away from more sets than I was paddling for


My car broke down in Puerto Escondido where the waves are some of the heaviest in the world. Coincidence? Who knows, but I ended up staying there for a while. Every time I tried to surf I felt like I was paddling away from more sets than I was paddling for. It was incredibly frustrating. More failure. I had already failed so much:

I had to sell my yoga studio; I failed at business.

I had gained 30 pounds in the last year; I failed at looking perfect as a fitness professional.

I was divorced; I failed at love.


Heavy waves of Puerto Escondido, Mexico
The heavy waves of Puerto Escondido, Mexico


Becoming comfortable with fear

I had frequently taught my yoga students “Experience discomfort here on your mat so when it comes up in real life you will recognize it for what it is, overcomeable.” So true to my own advice, I went looking for experiences of fear without big consequences in order to change my fear threshold. I have always been a squeamish eater and since I was traveling in Mexico I did not need to look far for experiences of fear at the dinner table. Raw reptile eggs, living octopus, fish eyeballs, grasshoppers and cow testicles all became training grounds for mind-over matter.


Learning to hold my breath was the single most empowering tactic I took in facing my fear of wiping out. I took a breath course designed for big wave survival.  As I held my breath, my body would start to freak out. The more I told myself I liked this feeling the more I actually did. I told myself to move into the fear, to feel it, to make friends with it. I found out that it is incredible what the human body is capable of when you decide that your power is unlimited. The more I reached out and shook the hand of fear, the more confidence I gained.  


Surfing wipeouts
Lesson learned.



Adopt a willingness to fail attitude

All of this training to move toward discomfort was working. Finally, it came time to do the most uncomfortable thing yet; I needed to face my fear of failure. I had originally just planned to take some time off to travel and surf in Mexico and then return back to the job that had completely burnt me out. I felt stuck. I was paralyzed by the fear of financial failure. I didn’t have a plan but I saw how some local people lived on pennies a day and seemed to be far happier than I had ever been. I knew if I went back home I would go right back to the same toxic lifestyle. It was terrifying but I got rid of everything: my job, my apartment, my stuff. I adopted a willingness to fail attitude.



You only regret the waves you didn’t take

One day, I had been out surfing in a decent sized swell for about an hour and still hadn’t caught a set wave. Finally, the frustration of inaction outweighed my fear of failure. A set was lining up out the back. I could see I was in perfect position. The wave was mine if I wanted it. I repeated a mantra I had gotten used to saying, “Melanie has committed herself to the fact that she will get the next big wave.” I knew I could catch the wave but I was only 50% sure I would actually make the drop. I was, however 100% sure I would not hurt anyone else and if I failed I would be able to handle the consequences, knowing that failure is often a better teacher than success. I was also 100% sure that I would take the last paddle, I would keep my eyes in the direction I wanted to go and I would stand on my board and take both hands off the rails, no matter what. NO MATTER WHAT!


It was intense. A long time underwater, with so much pressure that water came through my ears and out the back of my throat despite wearing earplugs. When I came up there were several more waves to contend with before I was out of the danger zone. But if you had seen the look on my face as I made it to the channel you would have thought I had just gotten spat out of a barrel. I might as well have thrown a fist in the air and claimed it.  I felt immense pride in myself for going for it. As soon as I was safe I proceeded to get nauseous and cry, simply overwhelmed by so many emotions. I had gone big. I had failed. And I had surfaced from the darkness as a better human being.


Just last week I was out surfing in a medium swell. I was in perfect position for a really nice wave. The takeoff was going to be tricky but makeable. A friend hooted me in from the channel as I put my head down and began to dig deep. At the very last moment, I looked over the edge and changed my mind. The wave went unridden. People were unhappy with me for wasting a good wave but no one was more upset with me than myself. I’ve never regretted a wave I fell on, only those where my unwilling to fail prevented me from even trying in the first place.



By Melanie Laine Williams

Cover photo: Peter McMahon

About the Author


Howzit! I’m Melanie. If I go a day without surfing or yoga I feel like my world is falling apart. You can probably relate. I’m a former mathematician, turned business owner, turned surf addict. I love taking selfies (even though I’m way too old for that), calling out my ego in public and taking massive wipeouts (or at least I tell myself I love them).  Follow me on IG @yogasurfmel

I am a writer and wanna-be big wave surfer. Surfing is my muse. I write about it and how it’s teaching me to live better. I hold certification as a nutritionist, personal trainer, yoga instructor, and lifeguard instructor. My story “100 Days in Mexico” of how a solo road trip surfing my way through Mexico changed my life can be found here www.melanielainewilliams.com


  1. I am a 29 YO brazilian girl who fell in love with surfing last year. Since then I’m trying to move to SD to live by the ocean and to my beloved one. Thanks for the article, I identify with the frustration of giving up a good wave and you encouraged me to keep embracing my own fears!

  2. Great article Melanie… and keeping it real with the head cuts and broken board pictures. The price of learning some would say.

    You certainly charged into the bigger swells last month in Bali… you’re one gutsy lady.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here