What is Watermanship?

One Ocean International student Nathan Burns takes us on a meditative journey into the elements of watermanship and – almost by mistake – discovers that he is already on the waterperson’s path.

In the fading afternoon light, I’m standing at the edge of a headland car park, straining to see the beach far below. It’s a cold, imposing winter’s day; nothing but drizzle, seaspray as thick as soup, and a long list of reasons not to get in the water. Almost everyone has headed in, exhausted after a cold day chasing heavy southerly swells. The kind of swell that resonates a mixture of fear, self-preservation, and childlike excitement deep into your bones.

On the peripheries of my vision, I spot a small, hunched figure on the beach. He’s suited up and standing next to a flouro-colored waveski, performing a routine that could most closely be described as drunken Tai-Chi. Using his paddle as support, the old man sways from side-to-side, front-to-back, contorting his stiff body beyond reasonable means. I can almost hear the cracking of his joints from where I stand.

Interested, I edge closer, teetering on the koppers-log fence as generations have done before me. In the time it has taken for me to reach my perch, the old man has launched his boat, strapped himself in, and negotiated a booming, treacherous shore break. Astounded, I almost rub my eyes in disbelief. Surely this cannot be the same man I saw groaning and crackling on the shore

As if magically transformed by the touch of water, the old man – once jerky and stunted in his movement – now glides across the foam with delicate ease. Hunching forward like a small, compact ball, the posture that made him look so painfully awkward on land now serves a brilliant purpose: perfect weight distribution. With every exquisite, imperceptible paddle stroke, his ski cuts through the water, leaving only the faintest disturbance in his wake.

In a blink, the old man has skirted the channel, dodged a small set, and positioned himself thirty meters past the take-off zone. He’s sitting in no man’s land – well past the break and almost invisible against the darkening sky. Hunkered against the cold wind, he waits. Somehow, I know that he knows a special set is coming.

Prophetically, it does. A huge, hulking train of waves that obscure the horizon. The first rolls through and I momentarily lose sight of him as he glissades off the wave’s mammoth rump. The second breaks to his left, causing the old man to react with consummate ease, deftly touching the water with his paddle and shifting ever-so-slightly on the ocean’s surface.
He is ready now, positioned perfectly for the huge surge from underneath. With a tiny flick of his paddle, the old man launches into a behemoth and is dwarfed by an immense wall of water. I gasp as he plummets down the face of the wave: one second, two seconds, three seconds…the drop seems to stop time. Just when I think his straight-line descent is about to see him gobbled by a tower of whitewater, he thrusts his hips out to one side, extends his entire upper body parallel to the water, and carves the most beautiful bottom-turn I have ever seen. An impressive plumage of spray accentuates his line as the tail of the wave ski carves a majestic S-shape across the huge shoulder. With consummate ease, he punches off into the channel and resumes his hunchback pose, gently paddling back into the zone.

I watch this man for almost an hour until the light fades and he is enveloped by darkness. In that time he catches no less than ten monster waves, conquering each with faultless finesse. Twice he is swallowed by huge clean-up sets, taking a string of successive monsters on the head. Not once does he falter, show signs of stress, or even change his paddle stroke. He simply rights his boat, resumes his posture, and faces the might of the ocean head-on.

Driving home that night, I am truly touched by what I have seen. I feel like I have been privy to a sacred union between a man and the ocean.
It was the first time that I had ever witnessed what I now know to be a true waterperson.

Waterman. Waterwoman. Waterperson. Have you ever stopped to think about what those terms truly mean? In this age of ever-present videographers and cameras at every bottom-turn, these are terms that we hear more often than ever. They conjure images of square-jawed, rugged Poseidon-like figures, balanced deftly on thin watercraft and barrelling headlong into humongous seas. We marvel at their exploits and dream of their mastery. Perhaps Surfline’s A-Z provides the most comical, yet almost-true, description:

“Boasting total mastery of all oceanic endeavors, the revered waterman can fish, dive, surf, windsurf, kayak, bodysurf, interpret complex weather data, save the odd drowning man, etc. Generally built like a tank and typically soft-spoken (choosing to let his actions do the talking), loner watermen fear neither tempest nor shark and rarely head for higher ground. If need be, he can survive entirely on self-harvested ocean bounty, spearing his food from the nearby reefs he’ll surf over when the swell is up. He’s an intense figure, idolized in the local community for his silent bravery and meteorological prowess. For example, while looking up at the sky, he says, “Approaching cold front. West-north-winds coming. The kelp patties will be jumping around 12:16 on the outgoing tide, so we’ll fish until the wind switches offshore sometime around 4:19 or so.”

All jokes aside, the term “waterperson” (as we have come to understand it with reference to the ocean), is rooted deep in the history of the Pacific, South Pacific, Polynesian and Micronesian Islands and denotes “a person fully in-tune with the ocean. Enjoying all aspects of it and what it has to offer”. Mere utterance of the word brings names such as Duke Kahanamoku, Hanli Prinsloo, Laird Hamilton and Dave Rastovich to mind. Indeed, it is the highest honour that can be bestowed upon someone who lives-and-breathes an ocean life.

But what of us mere mortals? For those of not born with gills, abnormally large lungs, and a sixth-sense for swell hunting? Those of us who know the real struggle of spending a lifetime in the ocean yet still, well, relatively suck at many aquatic endeavors? What can possibly be the pathway for us? Can the skills of a true waterperson be broken down into bite-sized, workable chunks?

One Ocean International Founder and Head Trainer, Joe Knight.

“Those questions are exactly the reasons I started my business,” says One Ocean International Founder, Joe Knight. “I met so many people that really, really loved being in the water and wanted to explore new environments and disciplines, but were just lacking a systematic way to approach it. I guess what they were essentially looking for was a kind of “playbook” for being in the ocean – core skills that they could draw upon in every setting. Skills that were transferable.”

These encounters led Knight down a continually winding and ever-intriguing path that eventuated in the concept of “watermanship” as a framework for training. Whilst none of the elements were “invented” by him per se, collating them all into a structured package is something he’s pretty proud of.

“I had the idea floating around in my head for ages before I decided to define all the elements,” Knight says, “I’d even started to use the term “watermanship” and was teaching all the concepts, but I can’t tell you how many people would still come to me and say: ‘So what exactly is watermanship?’ or ‘How is it different from freediving…?’”.
“Eventually, I thought the best way to define the concept would be to codify the individual elements. All the key bits that I recognized in true waterpeople and thought were important in all aquatic environments. And then train like a demon to see if they work!”.

And so the One Ocean International Watermanship curriculum was born, revolving around six key pillars – bite-sized chunks that students could work on individually.

“On the surface, they seem pretty simple, even obvious,” says Knight, “I guess that’s a good cross-metaphor though, isn’t it? The deeper you go into watermanship – just like the ocean – the more you uncover”. The Six Pillars of Watermanship begin with Structure – something others might refer to as mindset or mental preparedness. The idea of structure is founded on an underlying question: How strong is your mind? “Things like panic, irrational fear, and negative thoughts lead to disaster, so effective waterpeople need to understand, learn, adapt and overcome these boundaries,” says Knight.

Next comes our relationship and understanding of oxygen, how our body uses it, and what happens when we don’t get any. As a training point, this is known as Haemodynamics and it involves a huge amount of biological understanding, something Knight weaves into his courses.
“One of the things I love most about teaching Watermanship is that I can impart as much knowledge as I like, but when it comes to things like hemodynamics, much of the learning is done by students interacting with and really pushing their own bodies. It’s pretty to epic to watch it happen in real-time!”

Specificity is the next pillar, best described by the phrase ‘train in the stimulus’.

“It’s really simple,” says Knight, “A waterman’s playground is the ocean, rivers, lakes…whatever that he/she desires to be in as much as possible. So training in these playgrounds exposes the body to the stresses that will inevitably be encountered, allowing you to hopefully become more proficient in those environments.⁠”

Flexibility and Strength are the next two key components- each symbiotic, yet separate from the other. The flexibility component is not only focused on injury prevention but (almost more importantly) the flexibility of your muscles to help conserve oxygen and maintain a relaxed state whilst under stress.⁠ It is the ability, as they say in Zen studies, to ‘be like the reed in the river’, both physically and mentally.

Strength, on the other hand, is a very specific element when it comes to watermanship. “The power needed to paddle through a barrage of sets, or the ability to swim through aerated water is vastly different from lifting heavy things in the gym,” says Knight. “I believe strength training for watermanship is functional fitness in its purest form. For example: maybe you need to rescue an unconscious patient in big surf. How much more functional can you get than that!?”.

The sixth and final pillar in watermanship training is Depth Awareness, which includes understanding the principles of positive, neutral, and negative buoyancy and how to control airspaces in your body. ⁠According to Knight, “Depth Awareness allows you to use the combination of physics and biology to your advantage. It’s a kind of ‘biohack’ that can – funnily enough – only be achieved through countless hours of training in the correct environment!”.⁠

In the days that followed my conversations with Joe Knight, I spend a great deal of time considering the old man on the waveski I had watched all those years ago. In my head, I could tick off all the elements of watermanship training as I replayed the images in my mind: strength, mental preparedness, awareness, haemodynamics…check, check, check.
However, the more I pondered the situation, the more something tugged at my insides. I felt like – as comprehensive as the six pillars are – there was an element of watermanship that was still missing. Something intangible that I just couldn’t put my finger on. Something that cannot be quantified, even if it can be identified.

And so I took to the ocean, steeling my mind to ponder the problem whilst bobbing and lolling amongst the waves.

Eventually, a small kernel of understanding began to grow inside me. During a fairly challenging CO2 tolerance training session (I’ve been practicing Knight’s techniques for almost a year now, with great results), a thought momentarily flashed through my mind: LOVE.

It seemed silly and frivolous at the time and, initially, I put it down to CO2 narcosis. However, as I began to unpack the idea this element became even more clear: love – as in dedication, devotion, unwavering commitment, complete subjugation to the process – that was the element that could never be documented.

Love is the intangible Seventh Pillar, and how can it not be? How could you even begin on the path to true watermanship without, first-and-foremost, being completely infatuated with the ocean and everything within it? How can you overcome fear without even greater motivation? How can you push through the pain of strength training and flexibility sessions and terrorizing CO2 tables without a desire borne from dedication? How can you become ‘one’ with the aquatic environment, without fully submitting to everything it entails?

I left the water that day buoyed beyond words. After a lifetime of play in the ocean and many years of dedicated training, I finally felt like I was walking the path of the waterperson.

In my mind, I had the Seventh Pillar locked away…now all I had to do was work on the other six!

Learn more about the Pillars of Watermanship in these short webinar courses from One Ocean International


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