Nic Vaughan, 23, remembers the exact moment when big-wave surfing captured his imagination. The South Bay native was around 10 years old, and he was on his way down south with his family for a surf session at San Onofre. A massive south swell was building, he recalls, and Nic envisioned house-size sets rolling in like clockwork. He thought it would be gigantic, and he doesn’t remember feeling any fear—only anticipation. San Onofre isn’t exactly a big-wave spot, though, and when he arrived, the surf was head-high at best. But that feeling—the need to tap into the raw power of roaring, gigantic surf—never left him.
As he grew older and when he attended Palos Verdes High School, he found that surfing larger waves had become a top priority. When a big swell would hit the South Bay, he remembers, his high school friends would want to hit the sheltered spots—the breaks that could refine tumultuous ocean energy into flawlessly shaped waves.
“But I would say, ‘I want to go to the pinnacle.’ Where is it going to be the biggest? I want to see all the energy. I never got scared—just more so excited and full of adrenaline and drawn to the power of Mother Nature,” he says.
Nic kept chasing big waves throughout high school and college. He attended San Diego State University, where he majored in business with a focus in finance. He competed on the USD Surf Team, and—never forgetting his love of big surf—he would on occasion venture down into Mexico to hunt for some challenging surf.
One year a family friend introduced him to a spot known as Todos Santos: two small, uninhabited islands that lie offshore from Ensenada, Baja. A big-wave break that offers triple-overhead rides with the right swell, Todos became Nic’s classroom—a spot where he began to learn the ins and outs of big-wave surfing.
On one occasion, he remembers, he chartered a boat with a friend and traveled to Todos in the pitch-black hours before dawn to experience 40+-foot conditions for the first time.
“That was my first time dealing with the legitimate thing,” he says, adding that he caught his first 40-foot wave that time. “It was the real deal, and it hooked me. And after that time I tried to go down to Todos as much as I could.”
One might assume, not exactly incorrectly, that Nic harbored a desire from an early age to be a professional big-wave surfer. But that wasn’t exactly the case. Nic is entirely practical, and throughout his high school and college years he balanced several different business and finance-related internships.
“Surfing was always a passion on the side,” he says. “I never thought I could make money at it or even make a legitimate career out of it.”
He also says that, at 13 years old, he borrowed a how-to booklet on trading stocks that his mother picked up from a seminar, and he became fixated on the stock market. “I liked that I could make money by simply using my brain. Throughout high school and college I traded stocks—I was drawn to numbers that way,” he says.
Eventually, after graduating college in 2013, his love of numbers segued into a job offer with Morgan Stanley. Before starting his new career, Nic’s future employer gave him a month or two to enjoy his last bit of freedom. Nic went down to Puerto Escondido in Mexico (aka The Mexican Pipeline) for a last-hurrah surf session.
The surf ended up being heavy, and some of the biggest names in big-wave surfing—such as Greg Long—were out in the lineup. He says that he was only 10 feet away from Greg when he rode a titanic wave—one that would earn the San Clemente surfer the Billabong XXL Ride of the Year Award last year.
Being so close to these big-wave legends and actually being able to hang with them lit a fire. “I’m right here with the top guys,” he says. “They even told me, ‘We’re surprised with your ability and how you handle yourself.’”
He began to have doubts about his career choice. He viewed his financial knowledge as an inherent skill set; he figured he could delve into finance whenever he wanted. But big-wave riding? There was a limited window of opportunity.
“While I’m young I have to go after this passion,” he says. So after coming back from Mexico, he told his family that he was going to become a professional big-wave surfer.
His parents were supportive. Then he called the Morgan Stanley office and said that he was going to have to decline their offer.
After pulling together some savings that he earned from stock trading, he jumped into the big-wave game and began training hard daily. From Hawaii to Northern California, Nic claimed big waves whenever the opportunities arose.
He connected with other big-wave surfers, such as Greg Long and Grant “Twiggy” Baker, and sought their advice and guidance. He earned sponsors, such as Rusty Surfboards, that helped with travel and equipment expenses. Nic even managed to score waves at Maui’s Peahi (also known as “Jaws”), which he calls the “Mount Everest of big-wave surfing.”
Last November Nic experienced a setback. He was at Jaws, and the waves were bordering around 50 feet, he says. The waves were choppy, raw and unpredictable. He caught one wave successfully, but on the next one he faltered. There was a bump in the wave, and it knocked him off-balance. “I lost my momentum and cartwheeled down in the worst possible spot on a 55-foot wave,” he says.
He was “ragdolled” underwater, and after he came to the surface he took three to four more 50-foot waves on the head. Nic managed to escape the impact zone, and he made it back out to the lineup—but wiped out once again.
“It blew the air out of my lungs,” he says. “I get to the channel, and I’m coughing blood.” Defeated and crushed, he headed back to shore. Twiggy, he adds, paddled over to him and said that, frankly, it doesn’t get any worse than that.
“That’s the brotherhood of surfing right there,” he says, adding that the other surfers were there to support him and help him back to shore. But the doubts flooded in. He began to question whether or not big-wave surfing was for him.
A month and a half passed, and as winter swells started to assault California, Nic prepped to head up north to Mavericks. He says he was still terrified, still filled with doubt, and the 60-foot conditions at the Northern California spot didn’t make him feel any better.
But after Jaws, Nic had focused on his training and fitness. He’d worked on calming himself—centering on specific calm moments during chaotic surf sessions to help focus on the task at hand.
He was still unsettled by Jaws, but he focused on simply catching a wave that day. Luckily, he says, he was in the right place at the right time. A monster rolled in, and he paddled and caught it.
“There was a ledge halfway down the face, identical to the Jaws wave. And the board slapped, but I made it and didn’t fall,” he says. “It was a huge triumph.” The wave he paddled into that day earned him a 2015 Paddle Nomination from the World Surf League, and he considers that particular wave to be the highlight of his big-wave career so far.
Though he’s still new to the big-wave world, Nic has started making a name for himself. He’s earned several World Surf League Big Wave Award nominations, he was named the “Breakout Surfer of the Year” at the Hermosa Beach Surf Festival, and he also earned a spot as a competitor on the Big Wave World Tour.
Nic looks eagerly ahead toward winter. “We’re heading into a huge year for the sport of big-wave surfing because of this El Niño,” he says. “I’ve been training really hard; we’re on the eve of something that could be amazing.” Nic is completely devoted to big-wave surfing now. His days revolve around training and checking the forecasts— waiting for that right opportunity.
He says that at times, being ready to leave at the drop of a hat can be stressful. But big waves are his passion, and he’s more confident than ever about his new career choice. The stress, of course, is trying—but he says that the excitement is addictive.
“I wake up every day and watch these [forecast] models, and I get kicked into overdrive. I visualize the waves. We’re always wanting to find the next biggest and best wave—it’s exciting that it isn’t predictable.”