Mark Visser’s Nine Lives: Interview with the Daredevil Adventure Athlete

Big wave surfing requires some serious guts…but how about catching a mountain high wave at midnight? In 2011, pro-surfer Mark Visser, 29, completed ‘Night Rider’, a nighttime surfing expedition in Hawaii. Billabout caught up with the daredevil to hear about this feat and his future extreme adventures.

So we hear you’re a Queenslander?
Yep, I grew up on the Sunshine Coast since I was 9 years old.

Were you a surf grommet growing up?
Sort of, I didn’t really start getting into surfing till I was 12, but then I was hooked; I was frothing, it was kind of everything. Then I competed in junior events and represented Australia in the school boy team with Pro Juniors. From 21 years old I didn’t work a normal job, and it was at 24 when I decided that I really liked surfing big waves. I competed in big wave events for about four years, and I was runner up for the Big Wave Awards like 3 times. I started to think “what else can I do?” and that’s how ‘Night Rider’ and ‘Jaws’ projects came about. I just wanted to push myself and see what I was really made of.

Was there a moment when you decided this was your path and nothing was going to stop you?

When I decided that I only wanted to surf big waves, I told sponsors that that’s what I was going to do, even if they weren’t going to pay me. I was lucky because I was approached by a group of guys that wanted to sort of manage me and put a large amount of funding behind what I do; they shared the same passion, and that’s where I am right now. These days, it’s more about going to places that you should never go to and for me, now it’s not all about surfing, it’s about the adventure and the journey.

Who do you look up to?
Pat Rafter has been a huge role model in what I’ve done. My manager Steven is his older brother. I also look up to people like Michael Jordan, and other athletes who have simply pushed themselves above and beyond in their sport.

What would you say to Michael Jordan if you met him?
Something stupid like, “G’day mate!”

What’s one piece of advice that Pat gave you that you won’t forget?
When I was younger I asked him, “What’s the key to being successful in your sport and to achieving great things?” He replied, “Hard work, hard work and more hard work.” At first I thought, “well that’s a shit answer,” but over time I realized that that’s exactly what you have to do, and that’s what make sense — it’s true that if you really want something, you just have to put it all-in to get it.

How did you prepare for ‘Night Rider’?
It took three years of full on training with everything failing over and over again. The doco is in selected theaters soon and then on the cable networks. The film shows pretty much everything that happened and all of the work that went into it.

Did you really train your eyes to see better at night?
I did some seriously bullshit stuff. I had to do a night paddle for four hours in the dark, just to feel it and to understand the shadows that exist within shadows. I did a 100-foot free dive at night, like down in a wreck and just swimming down a line in the dark; that was pretty freaky. I was blind folded and went through underwater caves with the ropes equipment, and I was taught how to get out of them by blowing a bubble, so I knew where the top of the water was.

What does it feel like being towed into a wave in the dark and letting go?
The first few times I was pretty much just shitting myself. I was trying to stay on my feet because I was getting tossed from the air on the way down. I had to stand in more of a neutral stance with my back to light up the wave, but since I was freaking out I was really hunched over like a survival stance, which meant they couldn’t really see the light coming down on the wave. Once I figured how to ride the wave well, I could sort of lean back and the light behind me would fully light up the wave behind us and form a full silhouette.

How many times did you ride that night? Did you come off at all?
About 12 times, and yes, I did come off right at the end. Helicopters were there for a safety to light up the area if something bad went down. They thought it would be cool to try to light up the last couple of waves, but they kept blinding me because I was adjusted to the dark. With the light turned on it, it actually affected me and that’s when I went down.

What goes through your head when you come off?
It was the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had. It was so trippy and because there are no lights, I couldn’t see where the top of the water was…I could see is the sky and the stars, but I couldn’t tell if I was still under or above.

Who’s your tow partner?
I work with my younger brother. He’s a really good surfer himself and he just turned out to be the most perfect fit.

What does your mom think about you two going out there and doing all this gnarly stuff?
She’s got no choice; [laughing] no, she’s actually very supportive of us doing what we love doing.

Will there be a time when you say enough is enough?
Yes, I think once I’ve done what I set out to do, I’ll try and help someone else do what they want accomplish.

What young surfers are you impressed by?
Chris Friend is a junior surfer from Queensland and he’s been doing really well. He seems like a pretty sweet kind of kid and he’s got his head in the right place.

Three favorite breaks in Australia?
West Isles like over in Calbine, so I’ll just say West oz in general…and the Sunshine Coast– Wiltoa and around Evans Head.

Any comparable breaks in the States?
Trestles in mainland California, Maverick’s, Oregon and Hawaii.

Favourite restaurants or cafes near those breaks?
Lei Lei’s in Hawaii is on a golf course and they have the best baby back ribs ever. The Bistro C in Noosa, Australia is an awesome cafe right on the beach. The Sugar Shack Café in Huntington Beach, California.

Do you remember your first time in the U.S.?
Yes, I remember flying into LA and looking over and thinking “That’s a shitload of concrete they’ve laid out down there.” I remember the first time I got on the 405, I was so freaked out that six lanes were all bloody monster trucks and huge SUVs just hammering it at pretty quick speeds.  I realised it was like “move at the pace or you’ll be left behind,” and it was actually a pretty good indication of how America is. But the people are awesome and they froth over the adventure stuff.

What’s been your experience traveling as an Aussie surfer?
The general consensus is that most Aussies are good surfers. If there is an aussie in the water, then there is a chance that he’s not half bad. I think about 90% of Australians grow up on the water or near the coastline. Australians are known to be very determined, and we’ll always get in there and give it a go.

Any advice to young surfers?
If you want something, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have it. Just do whatever you’ve got to do to make it happen; back yourself! You’re the one that’s in control of your life.

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