Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan:
The thing to be feared most, I believed, was a two-wave hold-down. That was a drubbing so prolonged that you didn’t reach the surface before the next wave landed on you. It had never happened to me. People survived it, but never happily. I had heard of guys who quit surfing after a two-wave hold-down. When someone drowned in big waves, it was rarely possible to know exactly why, but I believed it often started with a two-wave hold-down. The biggest single reason I was so frightened by the third wave in that monster set that broke my leash was because the wave had two-wave hold-down written all over it. It was a rare slabby specimen for Ocean Beach, like the worst kind of inside-bar dredger—except two or three times the size. I didn’t understand where on the bars it was breaking or why—I still don’t understand it—but with its ultra-thickness I knew as I swam under it that there would not be much water left in front of it, meaning that it was very likely that if I got sucked over, I would have at least once encounter, possibly catastrophic, with the bottom, as well as an extremely long, possibly fatally long, hold-down. I didn’t know about the interval of the swell, but had gathered from the first waves we saw that it was exceptionally long. A two-wave hold-down in extremely long-interval waves would be, for obvious reasons, very long indeed.
Forty or fifty seconds underwater might not sound too bad. Most big-wave surfers can hold their breath for several minutes. But that’s on land, or in a pool. Ten second while getting rag-dolled by a big wave is an eternity. By thirty second, almost anyone is approaching blackout. In the worst wipeouts of my experience, I had no way of knowing afterward precisely—or even imprecisely—how long I had been held down. I tried to concentrate on relaxing, on taking the beating, not fighting it, not burning oxygen, trying to conserve energy for the swim to the surface once the flogging ended. I sometimes had to climb my own leash to the surface, my board being more buoyant than I was. My worst hold-downs were always the ones that I thought had come to an end—one more kick to the surface—before they actually had. The unexpected extra kick, or two, or three, still without reaching the surface, made the desperation for air, the spasm in the throat, feel suddenly like a sob, or a stifled scream. Fighting the reflex that wanted to suck water into the lungs was nasty, frantic.