Posted on Jan 24, 2015

There is something I’ve encountered many times on the water while surfing or windsurfing, especially on big wave days and mostly during times when someone has nearly killed me. It’s those dangerous moments when you are immediately aware that the person bearing down on you is not seeing you even though you are right in front of them. All the yelling in the world stating, “ I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,” to warn them you are in their direct line for collision does not filter in at all, as though they are stone deaf. It’s clear that their state of tunnel vision is acute and I’m potentially doomed for serious injury.


Next is the full impact, grinding gear, closing your eyes as your heart catches in your throat and you dive down praying your head is not taken off. When you both surface, still alive you scream at the other person, “you nearly killed us both!” They look confused and seem to have no idea what you are talking about. They look at you like you are insane- – They give you a dirty look and later on at the beach they tell their friends that some crazy lady was yelling at them on the water.


The waves themselves are far less dangerous than the other humans. Every near death experience and/or direct hit I’ve ever had surfing or windsurfing has occurred when others are so focused on just the wave that they simply don’t see you.


It’s called Tunnel Vision:

a) “Tunnel vision does not mean that your visual field shrinks to a small area, as if you were looking out of a tunnel. You might think you are seeing everything normally, but because you are focussed completely on the lethal threat in front of you, you won’t notice other things that would normally catch your visual attention, such as someone moving up beside you.”

b) “Tunnel vision happens because of changes that happen in the body, brain, and mind when you perceive a serious threat to your continued existence. Those changes help you to focus on the threat, which increases your chances of living through the experience, but at the expense of other visual input that might be distracting or unimportant.”

c) Tunnel vision is also related to the excessive production of adrenaline.  One of the bodies mechanisms most clearly tied to anxiety is the fight or flight response.  Among other things, this bodily reaction pumps adrenaline into the blood stream which may temporarily cause tunnel vision.


Last month the ocean was huge with super light winds. It was too precarious with the light winds for Ho’okipa, so we sailed at Kanaha. I putted out through the waves when another sailor decided to ride a closing out section right in front of me. The first thing I noticed was the intense grimace on his face and his wide eyes. Second his bottom turn was jerky, out of control and coming right towards me. There is no place for me to go in this situation. The waves are big, over mast high and the winds are light. It’s up to the person on the wave to stay clear of me. Thirdly I noticed he was not really seeing me even though he was looking right at me. I knew then I was in trouble.


My brain calculated supersonically fast the potential dangers of this situation which is why, I yelled out to the sailor on the wave, “I’m here!” He flew off the back of the wave right in front of me, still not seeing me. FYI- Turning around right in front of another sailor, especially in light winds in between grinding waves is a terrible idea- and then falling in, is even more incredibly dangerous- For exactly this reason: The sailor got up just in time, still totally unaware that I’m three feet directly behind him. I started yelling so hard now to make my presence known, but it still fell on deaf ears. An over mast high wave jacked up right in front of us and this gentleman could have held on and feathered over the top of the wave, (and hopefully he would have done so, if he was aware of me and not in a panic self-preserving state). Instead he threw his equipment away and into the air which left me with the full impact of a mast high wave breaking on top of me with the added bonus of his windsurfing gear coming at me with the speed and power of a freight train.


I envisioned his gear smashing into my face as I dived down as deep as I could and wrapped my arms around my head. My friend Nori once told me a story where her friend’s face was literally ripped off by some else’s out of controlled board. When I popped up the guy was still completely clueless of my presence, let alone what had just happened. He looked offended when I yelled at him.


I swam after my gear only to find a hole the size of tea plate from the rail to the bottom of my custom board. It was totaled and it would never be the same again, if it were even possible to fix. I counted my lucky stars that the force of a sledge hammer hit my board and not me.


I sailed after this guy in ridiculous slow motion because of the incredibly light winds- I was upset about nearly being killed, that my board was destroyed and that this guy had just sailed away clueless. He truly believed that he was nowhere near me, that it must have been someone else. When I explained the situation to him, he said, “Do you expect me to have eyes on the back of my head?”-The answer to that is- yes! You want to be hyper aware and sensitive to everything that is happening around you when you are sailing big waves with other sailors. You want to look down the line, behind you and in front of you before you make any moves. Like crossing the road- You’ve got to make sure the coast is clear.


The last thing you want to have is tunnel vision while you are sailing or surfing in relatively gnarly conditions- It means you are over amping, in a state of panic or stress. You want to breath your body into a more relaxed fully present state like “Flow.”



  1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. hyper aware
  4. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  5. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  6. a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered because one is taking in all the information at a mind boggling speed.


Mistakes happen to everyone. We’ve all had tunnel vision moments. I’ve had friends swear at me when I’ve almost run them over by accident- And I deserved it- I once ran a guy over at Ho’okipa in the early days. It wasn’t entirely my fault as he had right of way but  he started changing course at the same time I was trying to swerve to avoid him. At crazy speeds we directly hit each other. I nearly severed his baby toe with the fins of my board. Without delay I swam after his gear and made sure it did not go on the rocks. I apologized profusely. I helped him get back to the beach. Then I drove him to the hospital and paid 800$ for stitches because he had no medical insurance.  It does not  matter who’s mistake it is- It’s important to check first if the other person is OK. Even if they have yelled at you – Usually fear and adrenaline are pumping through their bodies now too. Help them if you can. Make sure their gear is intact. Never just sail away.


This phenomena of  ‘tunnel vision’ has fascinated me before. I’ve seen it happen when I’ve been teaching people and the conditions are more challenging then the guest would like them to be. Stress can block out what I’m saying to help, even though I’m standing next to them on the beach and gently showing them the technique at hand. A high wind gust will hit us and whoosh- The panic can take over and self preserving behavior patterns can endanger them -and my calls for correction are not able to be heard. Before any teaching techniques can be absorbed the student needs to breath calm into their bodies and override the panic brain. That’s why we spend a lot of time slowly becoming friendly with the source of our fears, one level at a time in a safe manner until confidence and relaxed calm is achieved.


I think most people think panicking in the ocean means; starting to flail and use too much energy when you’ve been held down too long underwater- Hyperventilating and swimming in the wrong directions against the currents etc… Panic is when we lose our calm reasonable mind to make good decisions. It’s all that – But the body also puts chemical reactions into motion if you are over amping on adrenaline- It causes reduced hearing to the point of  no hearing and creates the phenomena of tunnel vision.