Riding the Sober Wave
10 Over Surf Shop co-owner Chris Thomson chats with big-wave Newquay surfer and head of Surf Sanctuary, Dom Moore, about how his journey to quitting alcohol has impacted his life in and out of the water.
So, it's been 1000 days since you stopped drinking…tell us about that.
Starting from the beginning, I was 20 years old in Newquay and enjoying the nightlife which was vibrant in those days! Going out and celebrating absolutely everything with a few drinks was a part of life. But it was a lot. I got bored of it pretty early on but I just kept doing it because it’s what everyone else was doing.
For a really long time I wanted to stop but I didn’t find a way to. The cravings were tough…and I’d also have thoughts like ‘what do I do if I'm not going to go out and drink? What do I do if I’m cooking dinner and not having a glass of red wine?’. These things had crept into my life and for a long time that stopped me from knocking it on the head.
Photo: Geoff Tydeman
Then two years and nine months ago, it was just another New Year's Eve. I was drinking like most people would have been that night. But the next day when I woke up I thought ‘I'm just going to stop right now’. I went on an indoor cycling machine that we'd got for Christmas and had a really good workout, which kicked me forward to start something called ‘The Alcohol Experiment’, a free 30 day challenge where each day the host gives you a video and teaches you a little bit more about alcohol. You’re encouraged to just go through it and see how you feel, then at the end of the month she says you can go back to drinking if you like. So I started it and before I knew it I was five days in, then ten days, then two weeks and I thought ‘actually, this is pretty easy’. At that point I remember thinking that when we get to the end of the month I’m definitely not going to drink again. That was the point when I became totally sober.
So to sum it up, my reason to stop was because the party went on a bit too long and I wasn't enjoying it anymore. Going out drinking and how I’d feel the next day was getting in the way of the things that I really wanted to do instead.
So what did you notice about yourself in that first month sober?
A lot! Alcohol affects some of the neurotransmitters in your brain so when you stop you often feel jittery. You don’t have to drink a lot for this to happen either – even the amount within the government guidelines will do it. The first five days off are difficult for this reason but beyond that, the alcohol is all out of your system and the jitteriness stops. Then it becomes easier and much more peaceful.
Your baseline fitness improves because there’s more oxygen in your blood and your heart’s not having to work as hard.
And one of the biggest wins is that your sleep improves hugely, so you wake up in the morning feeling fantastic…or normal, at least! Once your sleep improves, every single part of your life is going to start to improve because you can cope with everything much better.
Then after a month, something happens that I think is very exciting. Drinking causes the frontal lobe, which is the seat of reasoning, empathy and high cognitive process in your brain, to not function properly. Compromising this part of your brain means your ability to restrain or moderate your behaviour is curtailed and, of course, that creates a negative loop with the alcohol. But after four weeks sober this part of the brain rebuilds itself. Your short term memory improves, you can more easily moderate your behaviour and things become a lot less effort.
I experienced all of these wins and they were things I wanted in my life.
With surfing especially, it’s hard to improve or even hold a baseline when you’re drinking. But as soon as you stop you get fitter and stronger, your reactions get better, the brain fog goes and your attention span improves so you can learn and focus too.
Yeah, that sounds like a pretty smooth passage to 1000 days. Have you had friends that have tried to take a similar path and not been so successful? And why do you think that is?
Yeah, I have. I think the main reason that people haven’t managed it is because it takes a bit of work.
So even if you’re just having a few drinks throughout the week, you’ve got to really think hard about why you want to stop. It could be that you want to be there for your family, you want to be fitter, you want to contribute to work or the community more, or maybe you’re just tired of feeling tired and subpar.
What worked for me was writing down every single reason that I drank and then examining them to see if they were true. I had loads…it relaxes me, it makes me sleep better, it makes me funnier, it gives me good ideas, it’s how I see my friends, it tastes good. When I went through every one of them, I realised that they're all lies. Once I identified that there is no real benefit it became effortless. Now I’ve got to this level, it would actually take a lot of effort to have a drink.
Photo: Geoff Tydeman
Right, so now you’ve studied it and you actually understand it, it’s got to the point where you'd have to be physically forced to drink it?
Yeah, absolutely right! It would be sort of like getting hungry and buying ten packs of marshmallows and eating them all. I can do it…but there's no reason to do it. No matter how hungry I am, there's always a much better alternative.
And this isn’t about willpower. You might be using that a little bit for the first month when you're in the experiment phase to see what it feels like – but it runs out. So long term, using willpower implies ‘I must not do it’, which usually means there's still something good that you believe that alcohol is doing for you. And you need to find out what it is.
A common reason is it helps you spend time with friends, but you can see them for a surf, a coffee or just go round their house and drink an alcohol free beer or nothing at all. They don’t care.
Yeah, it's crazy how it’s so ingrained in our society, even from such a young age. It’s there for every occasion, a good day at work, a bad day at work, someone's wedding, a funeral. It's everywhere, isn't it?
It is absolutely everywhere. You see your parents do it. It’s in films and advertising and has strong social associations, which was a big driver for me.
Do you think if we discovered alcohol for the first time now, it would be around? Or do you think it would be banned?
I definitely think that it wouldn’t be industrialised, pushed and made as available as it is. The World Health Organisation have said that the safe limit of alcohol is absolutely zero.
That's quite recent as well, isn't it?
Yeah. But when you search for alcohol and tendon repair, alcohol and heart function, alcohol and bone density or anything like that in Google Scholar, pick up the first five papers and read the conclusions and all of them will say that it has a negative effect. You can't find one positive benefit of it.
More and more people are either sober-curious or have gone fully sober in the last few years, so could you see drinking going the way that smoking cigarettes has?
Yeah, I think it might. Like, I have eight and ten year old stepdaughters and we've got a little baby on the way and I don't think that they'll be doing the sort of stuff we did. I don't think it'll be fashionable, for one thing. And also the burden on the NHS is too much. Alcohol is involved in so many of the top ten conditions that put pressure on the NHS, like type two diabetes, sedentary lifestyles, liver problems, mental health issues, blood pressure, heart attacks, earlier onset of Alzheimer's, not to mention the A&E being full of drunks on a Friday night. So it's probably going to get to a point where the tax that they get from it is less than it costs to maintain the whole thing.
I know they're tightening up on the advertising all the time, so maybe when you'll go into the supermarket there'll be no branding at some point. Right now when you go into Sainsbury's there's more space devoted to alcohol than there is fresh foods.
Do you think it’s about education? Because personally I’ve become much more aware from my own journey in the past couple of years but prior to that I wouldn't have even thought about it. Do you think so many people are going into supermarkets and buying alcohol regularly just because they've not taken the time to think about it?
I certainly do. I mean, I always thought that alcohol was good for the heart. I read that in a magazine, probably in 1998, and thought ‘yeah, that'll do’. So I do think it's a lack of awareness as to how toxic it is.
The other thing is that people can't visualise what it's like on the other side when you no longer drink. They'll try it for two or three or maybe four nights but if they don't make the fifth day, they’ll never really know what it's like.
There’s a good chance that a lot of people have never been outside of a cycle of five days then?
Correct. And even if you have been outside of it maybe for a couple of weeks, a couple of months or whatever, you're still really looking forward to the next time you can drink again. So you're just reminding yourself constantly that you're depriving yourself and you're missing out. I think that people need to understand that once you deal with this uncomfortable feeling of missing out and realise that you can still see your friends and enjoy your evening, the cravings lessen. The more you do it the easier it becomes. And actually 7pm until 11pm is the best time anyway, where everyone’s chatting and having fun. No-one remembers past 11pm and you can get home, have a great sleep and go for a surf in the morning!
Definitely. Have you ever had any tough situations with friends saying ‘ah, just have one’? How do you handle that?
Well, I expected that more people would say ‘you’re boring’, ‘you're a lightweight’ and all that. But no-one did. One time someone said ‘oh come on, what's all this about?’ when they didn't realise I was serious about it. And now it's just completely accepted.
If that does happen though, you don't really need to say anything or take it personally. I think you just need to understand where they're coming from and once you do, it becomes easier to deal with. Often it’s just that they want to legitimise their own drinking.
So, let’s talk about surfing with a clean mind. You're obviously busy with the surf school as well as Surf Sanctuary. How have you found that not drinking has helped your surfing over the last few years?
It's helped my surfing and my business so much. So the first year I stopped drinking was 2021 when Cornwall was absolutely heaving after the lockdowns. The surf school was probably three times as busy as a normal year and I couldn’t have held all of that together if there were beers on the table every night. The team at the school don't really drink much either so it became really quite nice. It meant that we could keep pushing it, maximise it when it was super busy, do a really good job for the clients and never be late for anything.
And then for my personal surfing…well, I'm now offsetting the advance towards 50 but I’m getting in the water a lot more than I would have done! We've just had a really good run of surf, so I've been in for the last nine days now. I've had time to do it because I'm able to get out in the morning nice and quick and recover well afterwards. I’ve got much more mental clarity too. Advice sinks in better and I’ve been learning more, staying really focused.
And who knows, if I'd have kept drinking for the last three years I might be 15 or 20 pounds heavier than I am now…and what difference would that make? We haven’t really touched on that yet but it’s a huge one, not consuming those empty calories.
These days I can do a full day's work and I can still go for a surf afterwards, sometimes going to the gym in the evening as well. You just can't do that if you've had four beers the night before.
That's awesome. And tell me your story about surfing the Cribbar. What inspired you to start tackling that wave?
Well a really long time ago I got a 9’1” gun made by Will Eastham but I wasn’t clued up back then… I paddled out a few times but didn’t really get it. On a trip to Hawaii I learned a lot more about boards and waves like this and how they psychologically train as well. Then a few months after I got home we got a late swell in April and I jumped on it. I was lucky. I got a really good one and it felt amazing and from then on I just wanted to do it again! It’s a good example of the power of new neural networks setting up in your brain… it’s such an intensely good feeling, there’s no way you want to forget it.
After a few years I got a 9’6” and snapped it on a big swell. And now I’ve got a 10’, 86 litre board that Nigel Simmons made.
I love how surfing this way feels like such a novelty. It’s quite exotic to be able to paddle out to a reef break like this.
Is there anything you do to mentally prepare? Do you have any rituals or pep talks?
Interestingly I used to always surf it and then go out and have a load of beers that night, high fiving myself. So that was one of my first real tests when I stopped.
Rituals..I always surf on a dropping tide, always on a southeast wind direction. And even before I stopped drinking, I still would take the few days leading up to it really quietly, really carefully, making sure I was hydrated and getting everything ready to go to avoid it feeling stressful. Preparation is everything.
You need someone to go out there with you and take it seriously as well. It’s good to have the attitude of ‘We’re just going to take a look. If we don't like it, we can just paddle away with our tails between our legs, it's no problem.’ I always say give yourself an out so you don't feel like you have to take a wave and that takes the pressure off.
Do you have any really memorable wipeouts?
I've had a massive wipeout there but it was ok.
It was on one of the big days in January 2021. I think it was a four and a half metre swell. Tommy Butler got a really good, really big right and I remember what looked like a 20 footer came through and I paddled up to it. I was just going to go over this one and then got up right up to the lip, and I thought ‘no, I don't need to try too hard with this’. I just sort of lazily rolled the board...but it sucked me back and like a WWF wrestler picked me up and reversed me out into the flat, which was a hell of a drop. But because I went down with a lip, it drove me so deep and fortunately I was out of the turbulence. When I came back up I saw a board in two pieces and thought ‘that's unlucky, someone snapped their board’ before I realised it was mine.
Getting back onto the beach was the worst bit, with the currents and big bowls charging through, nothing surfable, so I was just clinging onto the tail of my board. Luckily I had a little impact vest on because I remember a lip hit me and it felt like an elephant had jumped on my back. Absolutely annihilated me. I remember feeling really glad to be back on the sand, eventually.
None of it put me off though.
Do you do much around breathwork?
I've always had the opinion that if you had gills you'd have nothing to fear out there. You could set up the biggest wave you wanted and if you didn't like it, you could just swim right down to the seafloor and everything would be okay. So I got a proper lesson with Ian Donald from Freedive UK. I think it was the best one-on-one training I've ever had. In just an hour session he showed me so much about the different stages that your body goes through and it really proved to me that I've got enough if I just relax.
And again, I guess you can do that better when you’ve not been drinking the night before.
Exactly. I still want to be surfing when I’m 60 or older and the simplest way to make sure that happens is by having a clean body. Sobriety brings better sleep and nutrition, improved fitness and energy, the ability to keep learning and even more money to buy boards, to be honest. Drinking is so expensive! Like, nine quid for a glass of wine.
And on top of that you're going to be better for your family, for your kids, for your mates…and you're just going to have a nicer time.
That's awesome. When’s your baby due?
In four weeks’ time! That would never have been on the cards if I was still drinking. My partner Kirstin doesn’t drink either.
I’m also working on finishing a degree in Natural Sciences, and training as a Personal Trainer so I can do that alongside the surf school.
I'm not a doctor and I certainly am not a rehab guy…but if you're a social, recreational, casual drinker like I was, I want people to know that once you break through the clouds everything unlocks, so I'll be looking to integrate that into my personal training as well.
That's a great idea. Any final words of wisdom?
Books have been a big help! I’d say to read or listen to as many as you can but the best ones for me have been Alcohol Explained (1 and 2) by William Porter. He's an ex-Paratrooper and he's a lawyer, so his reasoning ability is really good. Some other great ones are Alcohol Lied To Me by Craig Beck and The Naked Mind by Annie Grace. She's the one who has The Alcohol Experiment too, which you can still access online, completely free.
Amazing, thanks so much Dom.
Thanks, Chris. I’m stoked to have a chat.