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A Sit and Yarn with…. Jonny (aka ‘Big Naz’)
In this Sit and Yarn, we have an uplifting cuppa and chat with Jonny, a 46-year-old military veteran who shares his story and utter inspiration of flipping his world upside down in favour of big wave surfing.

A word of warning, this Yarn has been edited and butchered in half because the boys just go off on one for hours about their surf adventures and stories of being nailed by big waves! But fear not, this is going to be at least one of two (maybe three or four) ‘Sit and Yarns with…. Jonny’. We want to listen more to his story, follow his incredible journey, track his training and absorb his
inspiration along the way. We are certain you adventure loving Rooted Ocean folk will also want to be updated on all things ‘Big Naz’ and follow and support Jonny every step of his way to Nazare.

So, we never realised you wanted to go and tackle these big waves, until you came in the other day with a couple of big wave guns saying you wanted to get a couple of board bags made by us!  You’ve kept that a secret [laughs].

So, what’s making you want to go and seek out massive waves?

I don’t think, strangely, it’s about the massive waves. As a military veteran, I’ve got complex PTSD which I will have for the rest of my life. With that, when I left the military, I went into a really dark place. I joined one of the bad motorcycle clubs, fell into substance abuse, violence, I had no idea who I was as I’d left such a tight family in the military, and then I was cast out into nowhere. I knew no one, was completely lost, had no friends and fell into this motorcycle club. It was the tight brotherhood I was seeking until I spent time in there and I realised what they were really all about.  Luckily my other half said we needed to move away from Sussex where we were living at that time after a couple of failed suicide attempts. We found Bude. I’d come here on holiday as a kid and had
fallen in love with the place. I looked up what welfare services there were for veterans and Bude Surf Veterans was the first thing that popped up so within two weeks we had moved here and I went for a surf… This was about three weeks before lockdown. It makes me feel so lucky I got here when I

I hadn’t felt that good in years!!

Did I catch any waves? I’m not convinced I did [laughs]! I just got nailed for an hour, but it was so
great to be welcomed by amazing human beings, which I think is what Bude’s all about right? So
many people are willing to give!

So that’s how surfing all started for you, right?

Yeah, one of the surf vets, Kev, was doing his Level 1 Surf Coach and needed me as his crash test dummy! So he got me down from 9’6” long board to an 8 foot fish. Cyril took me down to Bossiney and totally fell in love with that place.

…But what about Nazare? How did that all start for you?

Well last year some of the surf vets went to have a look at Nazare for the weekend…we needed to investigate this freak of nature right on our doorstep!

You know when you’re standing by a surf break and something inside of you wakes up. I was looking at these tiny little dot people trying to get onto a 30 or 40-foot wave. I was trying to suss it all out, analysing everything about it, where you would paddle out, how the wave breaks etc.  I got back and I couldn’t take this itch away!! I mean, I know I have no right whatsoever to turn around after 2 and a half years surfing and say I want to surf Nazare. I realise this is a project. A health kick. I feel fitter, substance free, healthier and more focussed now and that’s after 6 months of having this goal. For me that’s what this is all about really. I recognise that progress is incremental. Yes, I’m aiming to get on that wave, but I know there’s a long way to go.  This is why the vets have started to call me ‘Big Naz’! I don’t deserve the name yet!

Wow what a goal! Amazing!

So, what did you do in the military?

I started as an electrical engineer, but I needed to do further training so for some bazaar reason I thought it would be a great idea to join the infantry. So, I joined the Scottish Battalion and spent five and a half years as an infantry soldier. I was in the military for a total of about ten and half years, which is long enough! I genuinely thought it would be a life-long career thing, but my head got a little bit twisted and I didn’t quite make it that long.

Listening to your stories about the motorcycle club and wanting to surf Nazare, people would assume this is about seeking adrenaline, but it’s absolutely not about adrenaline for you is it… 

No, it’s not. If you’re the kind of the person that’s seeking out adrenaline then you’re going to go bigger and bigger every time, until one day you will have gone too big. And what’s more, if your adrenalin is jacked, your breath-holding in the water goes to zero! If you’re adrenalized, you might get a 20-second breath-hold from a 3.5-minute potential hold down, and that’s you gone! Being hit by a 30-foot wave is like being hit in a 60 mile an hour car crash… and then you have to hold your breath under extreme stress. Adrenaline is not going to help you!

I think that’s why I like this challenge. It’s a challenge where you’ve really got to work hard for it!

When you used to come in to Bude as a kid, did you get in the water at all then or is this completely a
new thing for you?

Funny enough, talking about things coming in full circle, I hired my first ever board, a Free Bird pop out mini mal from Nige [from Bude Surf Vets], 30 odd years ago! I remember walking down to Millook with it and some guy shouting to me “Where are you going with that!?! Do you even surf!?”
[laughs]. He told me I would die if I went in there!

When I left school, I followed a water sports route with coaching windsurfing and sailing… I did a bit of surfing when I could. I was really lucky, I got sponsored to windsurf and went out to Hawaii to compete. The conditions were a real eye opener compared with the south coast of the UK. You know, sometimes the waves were 50-foot over there. It’s so heavy! You can hear waves like Jaws from 3 miles away!

It sounds like your whole life there’s been a pull in this direction. Like it keeps showing its face to
you…A pull towards surfing big waves, would you agree?

I totally agree! It’s great because it reminds you of some really good childhood memories and brings back some happy times. But more than anything, the best thing about this journey is realising how much support and belief you have from other people. You realise that anything could be possible.

That part is so important to me because I’ve doubted myself so much. Real Imposter Syndrome.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with Andrew ‘Cotty’ Cotton, our best big wave surfer in the UK and then afterwards you pinch yourself and ask yourself “what the hell am I doing!?”. But it feels amazing to be supported by lots of different folk from the big wave surfing world.  Am I right in thinking that with your military background, your will to succeed and your determination is super strong and you’re using that in other ways now to your advantage?

If you want to jump, you want to jump for the sun, right? What’s the worst-case scenario… You hit a tree!

So, a bit of advice for someone who wants to get into big wave surfing, where do you start with all this?

Well, I’d say there’s 4 or 5 categories that you have to work on and be competent at.

You obviously need to be a good surfer. But more importantly you need to be a good all-round waterman. You know, your swimming needs to be spot on because you’re going to lose that board.  You have to be amazing at breath-holding and so your fitness needs to be high in addition to your conditioning to actually be able to take the hits. You also need to have the right psychology. The psychology of putting yourself in harms way and accepting you will have no control if something goes wrong.

There was the first death in Nazare January last year. The guy’s pop vest didn’t work and so he was found half a mile down the beach. You know, this kind of thing isn’t to be taken lightly, but if you do want to start the journey, I’d say the best thing to nail to begin with is your conditioning and fitness.  Surfing will come, and of course you need to be able to surf well, but to surf big waves there’s more important factors than that. If you can catch a wave really well, pop up really securely, after that its just gravity right!? [laughs].

I started Cross Fit but realised with my injuries in my pelvis, hips and back from going over 2 IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] in Afghanistan, I need to more specific training. I realised I have to work on mobility in addition to strength.  I’m doing breath-hold training in Bude Sea Pool. If you want to push yourself in your training, you have to train with someone with you. They need to spot you.

I’m also going to do some coasteering, really push myself, get uncomfortable and get up close and personal with rocks in big swells.

I’d say another barrier for a lot of people to big wave surfing is that it costs a fair bit of money. If you really want to push onto big stuff, it costs, and this makes it inaccessible to a lot of people. Unless you are a lunatic, or an exceptional waterman who can handle paddling 30 foot on your own, you
need a jet ski, a tow board, a number of big wave guns.

Weird question, but how deep you reckon you go when you come off the wave?

Obviously, your impact suit takes the edge of the blows and gives you bit of float. But you can go down 60 or 70 feet underwater. You know these waves are 30-100 odd foot on a 30 second period.  They are going to go down, sometimes for 3-minute hold downs. Guys have burst their eardrums from the depths they go under sometimes. It really gives context to the sheer size, I think.

What was the best advice that Cotty gave you?

The best advice was, “do it, why not?!!”

The way I look at it is that if a guy in his mid-40s, who is essentially quite broken and nowhere near a decent enough surfer can actually sit here and say “I want to take this on, I think this is achievable”, then anything is achievable for anyone! I’m talking about me here, not Cotty by the way! [laughs].

So, if anyone’s sitting at home thinking that they don’t really want to go for a walk or anything like that because their body’s a bit broken or something, get off the sofa. Just go and do it! And there’s so many people who will step up and do it with you, especially in Bude, if you just reach out.

It’s such a beautiful town, and such a beautiful project to be involved in. It has absolutely changed my life, it’s turned it around and only for the better…

And I’m so unbelievably grateful for that.

Stay tuned for the next Jonny entry of ‘A Sit and Yarn with….’, coming very soon! 

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