It’s a philosophy that has since taken the 29-year-old around the world, carving a niche for himself amongst some of the most challenging waves on the planet. His latest film, Over the Edge, traces this journey, from the freezing waters of Cape Town to the pinnacle of big wave surfing at Pe‘ahi, or Jaws, in Hawaii. The motivating force driving him from one challenge to the next, Bromley says, is fear. Or, more accurately, the rush he gets from overcoming it.
“Everyone feels fear. It’s healthy to be afraid,” he says. “But it’s how you deal with it that counts. No matter what you’re facing, fear can be used as a tool to accomplish your goals. When you lean into the fear and move through it, that’s when the magic happens.”
Bromley is quick to point out, however, that grabbing your biggest board and blindly flinging yourself at the most dangerous wave you can find is just as likely to get you drowned.
“Preparation is essential, and one of the biggest parts of preparing is obviously physical training. Spending time in the pool, spending time in the ocean, spending time in the gym. What I really like to do is to try mimic the big wave environment in the swimming pool. I try to mimic the adrenaline you feel and combine that with being in an intense situation.”
To do this, he first gets his heart rate up by doing a few sprints. Then he swims underwater for the duration of a long ‘hold down’ – when a wave won’t let you up after a wipeout – underwater.
“While I’m underwater I visualize myself being pushed down deep by a wave. I simulate the pressure on my ears. I take myself through all the uncomfortable feelings of a bad wipeout – the urge to breathe, my heart racing like it’s trying to burst out of my chest. I take myself through this scenario over and over and over again, to mimic a worst-case scenario.”
Bromley is the first to admit that a controlled environment will never replace the brutality of a real-life wipeout at a place like Jaws, widely considered the Valhalla of modern big wave surfing. But the ability to cope with these situations and realize that you can survive them builds the foundation for the most valuable asset you can have as a big-wave surfer: confidence.
“The more physically prepared you are, the more confident you are,” says Matt, who also laughs at the cliché of big wave surfers being reckless cowboys. Instead, he adopts a highly analytical approach to chasing big waves, both in and out of the water.
“When I see a really big swell building on the weather charts, I try to break down and analyze every single element of the swell. Are the waves going to be increasing or decreasing on the day? What are the dangers at the spot I’ve got my sights on? Is my equipment ready? I try to visualize the exact conditions that there are likely to be on the day and prepare accordingly.”
By eliminating as many variables as possible, it allows you to take control of the situation, says Matt. Or, at least, as much control as you can have in amongst seas with 50-foot waves. The last preparation he does is to place himself in the moment – again, and again, and again.
“When I first see a really big swell on the charts, my stomach just churns and I almost feel sick. But then I try to visualize myself out there. I visualize the wind blowing up the face of the wave. I see myself paddling into it and looking over the edge. I try to conjure up all the feelings of fear and my instinct telling me not to go. But then I imagine myself pushing through that and pushing over the edge and dropping into the wave of my life, over and over again. When I do that, it changes all the doubt and the fear, and the anxiety. It changes that into a sense of purpose,” he says. “So often, our best moments are just on the other side of that fear.