It takes a certain kind of person to want to tear down an 80-foot wave in crashing waters, but Andrew Cotton has been a British big wave luminary for decades now. Big waves need a serious timepiece and Andrew’s choice is the Breitling Superocean automatic 42mm. Rated to 300m water resistance and equipped with the reliable Breitling 17 automatic movement, it’s a handsome, practical option for anyone spending most of their time on a surfboard. We caught up with him to discuss his impressive surfing career.
“There’s nerves, there’s excitement, the anticipation and wondering whether you actually want to do it… I like those feelings. I like the discomfort, the slight worry, I like to challenge those feelings. I’ve had them with surfing from the very beginning and they’re what I chase.” Despite serious injuries, wipeouts to make a world class highlight reel and (one would assume) age creeping up on him, the 43-year-old North Devon local is as competitive these days as he’s ever been. Some might say more-so.
So how did it all happen? As with all these things, it’s a passion that started at a young age, if nothing else because Cotton couldn’t quite get on board with the other sports available to him. “I’m 43 now and I’ve been surfing since seven or eight. We moved from the south coast near Plymouth to North Devon and my dad took me surfing for a weekend just to get me out the house. I did a lot of swimming clubs – I have quite bad asthma so it was doctor- ordered – but I found it boring. I was terrible at team sports. Surfing just left me to my own devices, with no real rules. I never had any lessons, I just got dropped down the beach, headed out for hours and got out when I got cold!”
Over the years Cotton trained hard, incredibly so, and built up the level of fitness of a serious athlete, whether on the waves or in the gym. Like any sport however, physical fitness is only one part of the puzzle. F1 drivers visualise the track beforehand, footballers think through their plays and Red Bull Air Race pilots, I assume, see their lives flash before their eyes. As with those others, surfing’s all about being mentally ready.
“The preparation starts in your head,” explains Cotton. “You go through all the scenarios in your head beforehand and through your training you’re always preparing for the worst. That way, when the day comes and there is a big swell, you’ve already done that hard work, you’re already ready. Then it’s just game time – you’re ultra-focused, nothing else is going through your mind except for visualising the waves you want to get and the lines you want to draw on them. “You don’t just find yourself in the final, it takes years of work so that when the day comes, you’re ready.”
No matter how mentally prepped you are though, no matter how clearly you visualise the waves, it’s not always going to plan and with big waves come big wipeouts. Cotton himself is an award-winning wipeout artist, winning the World Surf League’s Wipeout of the Year Award in 2018 for a spin that broke his back. Not that it changed his perspective at all.
“Well, there’s nothing you can do. You just need to let go and learn to enjoy the situations. You’re dealing with Mother Nature, there’s no referee to blow the whistle and stop the waves. It just carries on.” For most of us I’m sure that’s a terrifying thought, the inability to help yourself, to get out of the way of the danger you just threw yourself into. For safety reasons, that’s pretty much the worst thing you can do and not at all how Cotton experiences a wipeout.
“It’s almost reassuring, honestly. Your mind is your worst enemy, so if you can stop thinking or take yourself to a different place where you can enjoy those situations, it’s amazing what the human body can survive. I surf with some of the best guys in the world, the best rescue teams, so I know I’m in good hands. But when you’re going through that spin cycle underwater, it’s all about turning the brain off, relaxing and going with it. You can’t fight the ocean, so don’t try. You’ll only waste oxygen.”
Post-award winning wipeout, Cotton was laid up for nine months and has repeatedly suffered serious injuries requiring rehab and time away from the water. For any sane person, that’s enough to put them off tackling the next big wave, if not avoiding your board entirely.
But as Cotton says: “that’s not an option for me. That’s not because it’s turned into a job, but it’s my passion, it’s my happiness. To not want to go back in the sea is just unthinkable; I’d be miserable without it. That’s what takes you to the gym in the morning or carries you through rehab. It’s something you’ve dedicated your life to, it’s for love. When that stops, it’s time to call it quits, but I’m a long way from that happening.”
At the age of 43, you might assume that Cotton’s closer to retirement than ‘a long way’ from it. Your body starts to slow down, you get less fit and keeping up with the kids gets harder and harder. Sure, you’re more experienced but something as physically demanding as surfing isn’t going to let you keep up for long. Right?
“Aw man, in my 20s I’d have said that! I never thought that you can still get fitter, get stronger, and improve past about 25. I honestly feel I’m surfing better now than I ever have done, I’m fitter and more focused, I understand way more about what I want than I ever have done. It’s a mindset for sure. If you tell yourself you’re done, then you are. Recently, I was neck-and-neck with this Brazilian lad, Lucas Chumbo [at the WSL Nazare tow challenge], who’s been doing stuff you’d never dream of doing. He beat me in the end, but I placed third. I’m 43, but still as competitive as any of the younger guys.” And he’s not the only one that keeps telling himself he’s not done yet, with the recent record to prove it.
“Some of my surfing heroes are in their 50s now and they’re still doing it! I’ve been surfing a lot with Garret McNamarra who’s 54. He’s had some bad injuries over the years and this year is the best I’ve ever seen him moving. We can’t surf as long as the younger kids of course, but we both still have our moments of standing toe-to-toe with anyone. It’s not necessarily about your time on the water, it’s how you use it. Hell, Kelly Slater’s 51 now, still on the World Tour, and last year won the Pipeline Masters. Some of these kids in their 20s have another 30 years to catch up!”
One of the questions Cotton – and any big wave surfer – gets asked is a simple one: what’s the biggest wave you’ve surfed? It would be remiss of us not to ask, too. “I don’t really know, honestly. I’ve never had waves officially measured, but I feel like I’ve surfed waves at the 80-90-foot mark. Everyone’s aiming for the 100-foot wave, but it needs to be 120 just to make sure you have it! If one of those came and I was in the zone, I’d go for it.”
That’s a building-sized torrent of water crashing down towards the shoreline with a miniscule person suspended in its momentum on a thin, wooden board. What’s that like? “You’re reaching speeds of about 75km/h. It’s very, very, very fast and when you fall, you’re not penetrating the water, you’re smashing into concrete. It feels fast too. The waves can be bumpy so you feel like you’re flying down a mountain with moguls on it.”
Not that anyone reading this would particularly want to experience that themselves (you can if you want to, we won’t judge; just keep safe) but where is the best place to give it a go? The UK’s not best known for its big waves, so it means a trip over to the Emerald Isle. “Mullaghmore on the west coast of Ireland. I’ve had some of my craziest waves there, but it’s also one of the first big wave coasts I surfed when I was about 25. It’s cold, uncrowded and it gets absolutely massive. It’s an amazing place.”
With all that in mind, it makes sense why and how Cotton keeps going. Rushing down a bumpy mountain, accepting everything that comes, it’s all in service of an anticipatory rush the like of which few people have experienced outside of a skydive. Or, apparently, a more unexpected outlet: “This is going to sound strange, but public speaking. I was petrified and never wanted to do a keynote talk or any sort of speech, but once I did one I realised it was a buzz. Now if I give a good talk, I feel that same mix of anticipation and adrenaline. Seeing people engaged is like carving the perfect line. If I ever do stop surfing, that’ll be where I go next.”
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