Other than letting the gas dip below a quarter-tank in my SUV, I avoid living dangerously.
When my daughters went parasailing at Myrtle Beach, I was left to sit in the boat and worry sick as the girls, mere specks in the sky, sailed 400 feet high until the captain reeled them in (on a cable that, to me, more closely resembled dental floss than steel).
And when my sister decided to go parachuting and invited me along, I quickly declined, standing by my assertion that unless an airplane is going down, I’m not jumping from it voluntarily.
So imagine my alarm earlier this month when I saw video footage of American big wave surfer Garrett McNamara careening down the front of a 100-foot wave in Nazare, Portugal.
A 100-foot wave! If I saw a wall of water 10 stories high heading straight toward me, my first thought would not be, “I need someone with a Jet Ski to tow me out there so I can ride that behemoth!”
To me, that’s a wave that swallows ships like the Andrea Gail in “The Perfect Storm,” and topples oil drilling platforms, and I’m fleeing in the opposite direction.
But there was McNamara, riding a moving mountain.
I don’t know why someone would want to ride a big wave, or climb a cliff without safety ropes, or bungee jump off the New River Gorge Bridge, or ride a roller coaster that hurtles down a track at 90 mph and doesn’t have a brake.
But Dr. Frank Farley, a professor at Temple University and an expert in human behavior, has a pretty good idea, so I called him.
Farley has pinpointed a personality type, the Type T (for thrill seeking), that is driven by temperament and genetics to take risks in pursuit of the unknown.
According to him, Type Ts thrive on the intensity and uncertainty associated with activities that most people consider to be too frightening.
“Type Ts often seek excitement and stimulation wherever they can create it or find it, and they’re often creative, high-energy, self-confident and believe they control their fate,” said Farley, who cites Albert Einstein, Evel Knievel, and the men who planned the American Revolutionary War as Type T positives (using their powers for good), and gangster John Dillinger as a Type T negative.
“They’re involved in activities where they have a lot of variables happening at once, and they can think on their feet. In some cases – if you’re climbing to the top of Mt. Everest or surfing a big wave – you find yourself in important life and death situations and you’re in charge of it.”
America is filled with Type Ts, probably more than any other country, Farley said.
“This nation tilts a little toward the big T; it’s one of the defining qualities of America,” he said. “It’s a democracy. It’s conducive to risk-taking. There’s plenty of elbow room to try things.”
My conversation with Farley confirmed that I am not a Type T personality. And it prompted me to call legendary big wave surfer Peter Mel, the 2011-12 Big Wave World Tour Champion and 2013 Mavericks Invitational champion, to find out why on earth he thinks big wave riding is fun.
Mel has ridden waves approaching 70 feet high – he used to get towed in but now paddles into them most of the time because it’s more challenging – so I’d say he definitely falls into the a Type T category.
“The neatest thing about surfing is that it takes you into the now. It puts me into this moment where I’m not really thinking, I’m just doing,” Mel told me. “You’re so confident, so hyper-focused on what’s happening when you’re out there that it’s not scary when you’re doing it. When you’re done, you get to reflect on it and that’s the best part for me: that buzz, that adrenaline feeling afterward. Watching video, you get to see what was going on.”
Mel said he doesn’t think of himself as a thrill-seeker, and then talked about heading to Cortes Bank, a perilous spot about 100 miles off the coast of San Diego, Calif., (about a 10-hour trek by boat into the middle of the ocean) that produces some of the biggest, fastest, most powerful and unpredictable waves in the world.
Cortes Bank proved to be especially dangerous in December, when Mel’s fellow big wave surfer and friend Greg Long nearly drowned after he wiped out there and was pinned down by a series of large waves. A rescuer pulled the unconscious Long onto a Jet Ski and took him to a boat, where he was revived and then airlifted by a Coast Guard helicopter to a San Diego hospital.
“It was one of the scariest sessions I’ve ever been through,” said Mel. “It’s a pretty unique place. You go 100 miles out to sea and there’s no land anywhere, which adds a whole other element of fear and danger to what we’re doing. Sometimes you’re put in a situation where you think, ‘Why am I out here?’ I’m getting older and sometimes I find myself thinking, ‘Do I really need to be out here anymore?’”
Something we both can agree on.
I admire Mel and the Type Ts among us, those intellectual and physical rule-breakers who push the limits and who, Farley says, are responsible for the world’s greatest creative achievements.
But I’m content to watch Mel tackle Mavericks on YouTube and to settle for the merry-go-round at Kennywood. There’s band music, it’s attached to the ground and it’s conveniently located near an ice cream stand. Now THAT’S a good ride.