Big Wave Surfers: Pioneers, Techniques and the Monster Waves They Ride

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In a review of Susan Casey’s “The Wave”, John Lancaster wrote in the Washington Post, The book “is about huge waves and the equally outsize personalities who spend and occasionally risk their lives trying to measure, understand, predict and sometimes even ride them on surfboards...Casey's descriptions of these monsters are as gripping in their own way as any mountaineering saga from the frozen peaks of Everest or B.C.. [Source: John Lancaster, Washington Post, October 10, 2010]

Joe Mozingo wrote in the Los Angeles Times: The hunt is on. Garrett McNamara hurtles 60 mph down an icy river in the Great Northwest, throttling a 255-horsepower Sea Doo watercraft loaded with surfboards. His 11-year-old son Titus clings to his back. McNamara punches it up to 65 mph to cross the mudflats of a coastal inlet. The engine screams. Eyes tear up in the cold. The water is just inches deep. McNamara, does not worry about hitting a rock or a submerged log. He is not a man given to thoughts of mortality. In the past, the spot would have been unridable on big days. Now, towing gets surfers down the face faster and foot straps keep the boards attached as the riders go airborne over bumps and holes on the surface. That flirting with catastrophe in extremely shallow water produces "a massive adrenaline rush," Paradisis said. The rush, mixed with the ethereal sensation surfers get inside these giant chambers of water, becomes an addiction. McNamara said being in a tube is like "time standing still," his mind never more clear and focused. [Source: Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2009]

Websites and Resources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); “Introduction to Physical Oceanography” by Robert Stewart , Texas A&M University, 2008 ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ; Cousteau Society ; Monterey Bay Aquarium


"Tow surfers," who ride the really big waves don’t catch them the old-fashioned way — by paddling — they are catapulted onto them, Lancaster writes, by partners riding personal watercraft. The technique allows surfers to catch waves that were previously considered too big to ride. [Source: John Lancaster, Washington Post, October 10, 2010]

Paul Theroux wrote in Smithsonian magazine: The biggest waves in the world are unforgiving, and do not always allow a surfer to paddle into them on a board. Even the best surfers can be rebuffed by these waves, pushed back to the shore, where they attempt to paddle out again, often not making it to the point on the break where they can catch a ride. In the early 1990s the Hawaii surfer Laird Hamilton devised a method for catching the biggest waves, by being towed past the buffeting of the surf zone, holding a rope attached to a motorized inflatable, and later a jet ski, which was able to position them on a wave. This innovation — loudly disdained by some surfers — made it possible to ride giants. [Source: Paul Theroux, Smithsonian magazine, July 2018]

According to Tow-in surfing is like regular surfing, but instead of the surfer having to paddle out to the waves, the surfer is literally towed by a jet ski. Your driver will take you out far enough to catch the big waves and let the line go once you are in the perfect position. This exponentially increases your chances of catching and riding a big wave compared to the traditional way.

Big Surfing Waves

Giant waves include Jaws, an aptly named offshore break near Peahi in Maui, Hawaii and Teahupoo (pronounced tay-ah-HOO-poo), a savage “Tahitian killer with the personality of a buzz saw."

At the Jaws storm waves average about six to seven and half meters (20 to 25) feet and sometimes top 10 meters (33 feet). Every few years a rogue wave rolls in that is 60 feet high. Mammoth waves are also found off the coast of northern Chile, a secret island off Australia and the Cortes Bank off of San Diego where one surfer rode a 66-foot wave. These waves generally occur where steep undersea mountains or islands rise up from great depths and waves approach in a direction that are carried up the slopes, getting bigger as they rise.

The 8-meter (25 feet) waves at Teahupoo (Teahupo’o), Tahiti’s are said to be modest in height but surfers call the thick lips the world’s “heaviest.” The Banzai Pipeline in Oahu, Hawaii has a reputation for having the world’s most dangerous surf wave. Surfers sometimes wipe out right onto a shallow reef. At least ten people are believed to have died there. [Source: Kayla Elam, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2014]

Casey wrote: "As Teahupoo reared up it drained the water from the reef, turning the impact zone — a lagoon that was mercilessly shallow to begin with — into a barely covered expanse of sharp coral, spiky sea urchins and volcanic rock," she writes. "This happened in seconds, in an area maybe three hundred feet long. I stared. I had never seen a wave behave like this one."

See Navare Below

In Pursuit of Slabs

Slab is the word used to describe waves the big wave that big wave surfers seek. Joe Mozingo wrote in the Los Angeles Times: It is “not so much a normal ocean wave as a sudden violent tear in the fabric of the ocean. Veteran surfers grimace at the sight of its disfigured shape. When it rolls out of the deep, it does not rise, but sucks up all the water in its path. The result is not a wall with a front and back, but a hole. The great volume of the North Pacific masses up behind the sub-sea ledge — and then slams shut. McNamara rode this slab once before, a month before. When the ledge came down, he was still in the hole. The wave pile drove him into the rock reef. He flew back home to Hawaii with 12 stiches near his right eye. The doctor had pulled a sea urchin spine from the wound. [Source: Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2009]

Such ogreish waves have opened a new frontier in a sport instilled like few others with the mystique of exploration and, increasingly, battle. The great hunt for the unknown beast is taking elite surfers to remote coasts around the world — Chile, Iceland, Tasmania, Scotland, Canada, Ireland, Alaska, even Antarctica — and closer to California — at rock islands off Baja California, isolated reefs from Point Conception to Eureka, and the Channel Islands.

The quarry is hard to catch, a combination of wind and swell, interacting with the complex bathymetry of the sea floor that is never the same. Modern forecasting enables the athletes to pinpoint the target. Corporate sponsorship delivers them fully equipped to the destinations. Skis tow them onto giant waves moving too fast to catch by paddling. Life vests and helmets help them survive.

Famed waterman Laird Hamilton ushered in the era of the slab in August 2000 at Teahupoo, Tahiti, when he was towed into a wave with a 10-foot-thick lip of water pitching over him. The headline in Surfer magazine: "oh my god." Since then, magazines and Web sites have presented images that horrify and inspire regular surfers.

In Southern Tasmania, locals discovered a yawning, gurgling slab called Shipstern's Bluff. The wave face splits wide open with a sinkhole as it rolls over juts and crags on the sea floor. The lip lunges out as thick and horizontal as a bridge girder. The resulting tube is a cavern, with hard angles, big enough for a truck to drive through. "I couldn't believe something existed like this in Tasmania — just the sheer amount of water in the lip," said Marti Paradisis, 25, who has ridden it since 2004.

What Causes Big Surfing Waves

Large waves and good surfing waves are caused by a number of factors. The largest and best surfing waves are caused by large storms far at sea. The waves have a chance to build up and combine into large waves. They break when the waters gets shallow and the wind blows off the land and pushes them up some.

The huge waves in Hawaii are created by intense wintertime low-pressure systems that produce of succession of storms that generate huge ground wells that roll 1,500 miles across the north Pacific. One reason waves are so big in Hawaii is that the Hawaiian islands lack a continental shelf which slows the momentum of waves.

On the north shore of Oahu, a bed of limestone 135 meters off shore suddenly drops into a two-mile deep abyss. One surfer told National Geographic, "When jumbo swells surge in from the deep water at 30 miles per hour and encounter the coral shelf, the sudden rise in the ocean floor lifts each wave into a steep peak, then knocks the legs out from under it, causing the wave crest to pitch forward in a thundering curl of white water.”

What has to come together to produce such giant waves? J. Madeleine Nash wrote in Time: The first ingredient, says big wave guru Collins, is a powerful storm. Its winds blow across the surface of the ocean, creating little wavelets that grow into larger and larger waves. Eventually, a swarm of waves four or more feet high may sweep out from a storm in the far-western Pacific, say, and head toward the coast of North America. The trouble is, not all 4-ft. waves are created equal. One may turn into a wimpy 4-ft. breaker when it nears the shore, while another may shoot up to a height of 15 or more feet. [Source: J. Madeleine Nash, Time June 24, 2001]

What accounts for the difference is a number of factors. The depth of the disturbance in the ocean, for one. A wave that's 4 ft. high but projects its energy several hundred feet deep is going to pack more of a punch than a wave whose power is confined to the surface. Another critical variable is the shape of the ocean bottom. Surfing hot spots, or "breaks," are usually places where there is a sudden transition between deep water and shallow. Thus, as waves roll in, they are forced to leap up and over an underwater barrier. For example, "Killers"--the name of the break that Knox surfed at Todos Santos--channels big ocean swells across a deep canyon onto a submerged reef. Result: waves sweep in at heights of 10 to 20 ft., then rear up, like bucking broncos, to much greater heights. "A wave is a moving mountain," says Collins, "and what happens after you go off the edge is that the whole mountain tries to fall down on top of you."

Biggest Waves Ever Surfed

The 15 biggest waves ever surfed according to the official measurements made at the time of each stunt and recognized by the World Surf League, the governing body for professional surfers, founded in 1976..

1) 26.21 meters (86 feet) by Sebastian Steudtner from Germany on October 29, 2020 at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal. The 37-year-old German was officially recognized by the Guinness World Record as surfing the “Biggest Wave Ever Surfed” 18 months after he performed using somewhat rough calculations to estimate the wave’s height. [Source:Surfer Today]

2) 24.38 meters (80 feet) by Rodrigo Koxa from Brazil on November 8, 2017 at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal.

3) 23.77 meters (78 feet) by Garrett McNamara from Hawaii on November 1, 2011 at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal. McNamara held the record for the largest wave ever surfed, for six years. He claims he surfed a 100-footer (30.5 meters) also at Nazare, but the height wasn’t confirmed. After his record, he said: “What are you guys excited about?... I was just surfing with my heart and just enjoying the ride — but always focusing on the exit."

4) 23.46 meters (77 feet) by Mike Parsons from the U.S. on January 5, 2008 at Cortes Bank, United States.

5) 73.5 feet (22.40 meters) by Maya Gabeira, a woman from Brazil, om February 11, 2020 at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal. She holds the record for the largest wave surfed by a woman. Gabeira told National Geographic waves at Nazare are mystical, unruly and give one a feeling of endless water. It’s hard to find a single wave’s peak, where it will break. “It just comes from everywhere,” she says. One bone-breaking, breath-stealing wave nearly killed her. Another wave landed gave her the world record for the largest wave ever surfed — and a third broke that record, setting a new one. “It was just so much water,” she recalls, “and would shift so much, even when you were in it — that it just felt like you were going down forever, like a mountain.” Gabeira was pulled unconscious from what surfers call a rinse cycle of deadly waves in 2013. Her brush with death made her more humble, “more human.” [Source: Eve Conant, National Geographic, March 22, 2022]

6) 22.25 meters (73 feet) by Francisco Porcella from Italy on October 24, 2016 at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal.

7) 21.64 meters (71 feet ) by Sebastian Steudtner from Germany on December 11, 2014 at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal; and by Yuri Soledade from Hawaii on February 25, 2016 at — Peahi/Jaws, Maui, Hawaii.

8) 21.48 meters (70.5 feet) by Justine Dupont from France on February 11, 2020 at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal.

9) 21.33 meters (70 feet) by Pete Cabrinha from Hawaii on January 15, 2016 at Peahi/Jaws; by Kai Lenny from Hawaii on February 11, 2020 at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal.

10) 20.72 meters (68 feet) by Carlos Burle from Brazil on November 21, 2001 at Mavericks, Northern California; Brad Gerlach from the U.S. on December 21, 2005 at Todos Santos, Mexico; and Maya Gabeira from Brazil on January 18, 2018 at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal.

11) 20.42 meters (67 feet) by Benjamin Sanchis from France on February 16, 2011 at Belharra, France.

12) 20.11 meters (66 feet) by Mike Parsons from the U.S. on January 19, 2001 at — Cortes Bank, United States; by Makua Rothman from Hawaii on November 26, 2002 at — Peahi/Jaws, Maui, Hawaii; and by Sebastian Steudtner from Germany on December 7, 2009 at — Peahi/Jaws, Maui, Hawaii.

13) 19.81 meters (65 feet) by Greg Long from the U.S. on July 30, 2006 at at Dungeons, South Africa.

14) 19.50 meters (64 feet) by Mike Parsons from the U.S. on January 7, 2002 at — Peahi/Jaws, Maui, Hawaii,

15) 19.20 meters (63 feet) by Aaron Gold from Hawaii on January 15, 2016 at Peahi/Jaws, Maui, Hawaii.

16) 18.59 meters (61 feet) by Grant Baker from South Africa on August 9, 2008 at — Tafelberg Reef, South Africa; and by Shawn Dollar from the U.S. on December 21, 2012 at Cortes Bank, United States.

According to Surfer Today: Through time, several surfers claimed to have ridden better and bigger waves than the ones validated by the professional surfing circuit.For instance, on July 28, 1998, Ken Bradshaw took off on a huge wave at Outside Log Cabins reef in Waimea Bay, Hawaii. The wave was estimated at 85 feet (25.9 meters), but the height was never officially recognized. In January 2013, Garrett McNamara could have improved the world record that had been set by himself on November 1, 2011, at Praia do Norte, Nazaré — 78 feet (23.8 meters). But the wave was never officially submitted as a potential world record-breaker.

On December 14, 2018, Tom Butler took off on a humungous wall of water at the infamous Portuguese surf break. Several independent sources stated that the British had ridden a 100-foot wave at Praia do Norte, but WSL disagreed. Also, on October 29, 2020,Portuguese big wave rider António Laureano caught a monstrous wave at Nazaré that was later analyzed by the University of Lisbon's Faculty of Human Kinetics (FMHUL). The researchers used "fine-tuned and scientifically relevant" software to measure ocean waves and reached a conclusion. Laureano had surfed a 101.4-foot wave (30.9 meters). Once again, WSL ignored the claim, and the stunt's height was not declared valid. The ultimate big wave surfing challenge — the 100-foot wave (30.4 meters) — is still officially up for grabs.

Pioneers of Big Wave Surfing

The history of riding big waves dates back to the 1950s when Greg Noll broke the so-called "Waimea Bay Taboo". In the 1960s rode a 10.7-meter (35-foot wave) at Makaha, Oahu, which some regard as the first big wave ride. Noll was probably not the first to challenge big waves, but he is considered by pioneer of sport or stunt. Since then, the quest to push the limits of wave riding has led to consecutive and additional "increments of fear," as Buzzy Trent once put it. In the 1990s, the sport of tow-surfing was pioneered by Laird Hamilton. [Source: Surfer Today]

Ken Bradshaw caught one of the largest wave ever surfed in 1998. That year he caught a huge wave at Outside Log Cabins reef in Waimea Bay, Hawaii. The wave — called — was estimated at 85 feet (25.9 meters), but the height was never officially recognized. According to Vanity Fair, he was riding on pure, single-minded passion. But that same quality — plus a deep antipathy to hype — has put him at odds with the increasingly crowded, commercialized world of big-wave surfing. On Oahu’s famed North Shore, he still fights and reflects on his unlikely friendship with the publicity-loving Mark Foo, who was killed on a wave he “stole” from Bradshaw.[Source: William Langewiesche, Vanity Fair, January 27, 2011]

Garrett McNamara, the first to ride the big waves at Navare, is credited with bringing big wave surfing to the peak of its recognition. Paul Theroux wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Garrett became a tow-in enthusiast and sought the waves at Cortes Bank and the monster break at Teahupo’o in Tahiti and the equally formidable wave at Jaws in Maui. He was growing older, too, and strengthening, becoming braver. This is interesting: an older surfer is sometimes at an advantage on a big wave. “It doesn’t require the agility and gymnastics of small-wave surfing,” says the writer and former pro surfer Jamie Brisick, a friend of mine. “It more favors experience and ocean knowledge, hence you get an older, wiser bunch of athletes who are generally a lot more fun to talk to.” [Source: Paul Theroux, Smithsonian magazine, July 2018]

According to the Los Angeles Times: McNamara has surfed some of the biggest, heaviest, ugliest waves on Earth — notably the debris-strewn tsunamis generated by crashing glaciers in Alaska. He has broken his back and three ribs, popped both his knees, scraped much of the skin off his thigh, suffered countless sprains and deep-tissue cuts, and shattered his foot several times. [Source: Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2009]

Development of Tow Surfing

Big Wave Surfing became possible with the invention of tow-surfing. William Langewiesche, wrote in Vanity Fair: It happened in the early 1990s, when a few Hawaiians, including the poster boy of big-wave riding, Laird Hamilton, began strapping their feet onto boards and using Jet Skis to tow one another into high-speed intercepts of fast-moving waves off Oahu and Maui. Doing this required enormous strength, and the ability to endure almost unimaginable punishment when things went wrong, but once the surfers released the towrope and dropped over the edge of the rising faces, they were rewarded with rides that were longer and faster than anyone had experienced before. [Source: William Langewiesche, Vanity Fair, January 27, 2011]

More fundamentally, because intercept speeds were available up to 60 miles an hour, there was suddenly no limit to the size of the waves that could be ridden. Purists objected to the idea of power-assisted starts, and they deplored the noise and pollution caused by Jet Skis, but the sport of tow-in surfing was born. Bradshaw embraced it from the start, and with a sense of awe at the possibilities it afforded. To me he said, “I remember sitting around with Laird and a couple of other guys saying, ‘So how big is big?’ and ‘How do we ride it?’ and ‘Do you realize it hasn’t even been big yet?’ We looked at each other and almost got a spooky feeling. It was, like, Wow, we’re really going to have to face it when it comes.”

That was in the spring of 1995. As it turned out, they had less than three years to wait. Bradshaw had acquired a Jet Ski and enlisted another big-wave surfer, Dan Moore, to be his tow-in partner. They trained hard, perfected their intercept and recovery techniques, and surfed some 60-foot faces that they would never have caught by paddling in. During the same period they designed and built a series of specialized tow-in boards for their own use, progressively making them shorter and more responsive as their confidence grew. The boards were thin, flat, high-speed hulls of dense fiberglass construction, weighted with steel ballast to smooth their rides. They were also extremely strong. Bradshaw and Moore believed they had to prepare for conditions bigger even than they had hoped for.

Equipment for Surfing the World’s Biggest Waves

Eve Conant wrote in National Geographic: One cannot tackle the biggest waves alone. Surfers are motored toward these moving mountains by a tow-in partner on a Jet Ski. That Jet Ski often is backed up by a second one in case things really go wrong. Before getting towed in by Jet Ski, surfers must put on special gear to survive the cold, falls, and getting pinned under waves. [Source: Eve Conant, National Geographic, March 22, 2022]

Perhaps the most important pieces of equipment are an inflatable vest and impact wetsuit Flexible even up to 5 millimeters thick, the wetsuit helps maintain body heat in chilly winter waters that are typically in the 50s F (10s C). The vest limits time spent underwater after wipeouts and adds extra buoyancy when needed. Padding absorbs some of the impact of waves that can weigh several tons; it can help keep an unconscious body afloat.

Big wave surfers can reach speeds of 72 kilometers per hour (45 miles an hour), similar to those of Olympic downhill skiers. Tow-in surfboard are shorter, narrower, and thinner than conventional surfboards. They have foot straps so the surfers are sort of locked in like skiers. Generally two to three meters (6.6 to 10 feet) in length, they are maneuverable yet heavy for stability. Gun boards also are used in big waves, but can’t be towed and don’t turn fast enough for the super waves like those at Nazaré.

According to The traditional surfboard is known as a longboard. These oversized boards were made to allow the surfer to lay down and paddle their way out to the big waves. Longer boards are now more commonly used for paddle boarding than riding large waves. The tow-in surfboard is a much smaller and lighter board. This design gives the surfer more control over the board’s movements, allowing for sharper, quicker turns.

Theroux wrote: At 25 pounds, of which 10 pounds is a slab of lead, and also formed of carbon fiber and polyester, the board is heavy, its forward third flexible, with a narrow PVC spine for shock absorption, and two parallel foot straps. Gorden Wagener, a Mercedes-Benz car designer and surfboard designer told Theroux: “Big-wave tow-in boards are the complete opposite to normal surfboards. They are narrow and heavy instead of wide and light. The shape is very similar to shapes we use in cars and of course we have computer tools to design basically everything. [Source: Paul Theroux, Smithsonian magazine, July 2018]

Riding the Monster

On a now famous day in January 1998, after the cancellation of the Waimea contest, William Langewiesche wrote in Vanity Fair:, “Bradshaw and Moore drove up the coast to a grassy beachfront lot in a neighborhood called Velzyland, where they kept the Jet Ski. The lot is a prime location for launches, because it overlooks a channel that dives straight away from the beach and is so deep that it allows access to the open ocean even in 30-foot swells, when every other possibility has been overwhelmed. But the situation now was different. By the time they launched their boat through the surf at the beach, at 10:30 in the morning, the swells had risen to 35 or 40 feet, and the channel was succumbing to the pressure about a half-mile out. How big is big? Large waves collapsed over deep water between huge waves breaking across the shallows on both sides. Bradshaw sat in front, doing the driving. Moore sat behind him, hanging on to the board. After repeated attempts, they made it through the maelstrom into the open ocean outside. [Source: William Langewiesche, Vanity Fair, January 27, 2011]

It was a beautiful place to be. When Bradshaw and Moore got to Outside Log Cabins they found powerful swells rising into giant, velvety, perfectly formed breakers. The water was warm. The wind was light. The swells were traveling in sets as always. The biggest of them were easily 35 feet high and producing solid 70-foot faces that cascaded from their peaks or pitched forward into tubes, and peeled majestically from left to right, as seen from behind, before smoothly tapering off onto broad shoulders.

Moore assumed the driving, and Bradshaw rolled into the water and strapped onto his board for the first rides. They took off among the inbound swells outside the break, with Bradshaw water-skiing at the end of a 40-foot rope waiting for the right wave. They had worked out hand signals. Two fingers up from Bradshaw meant “Not this one, the next one — maybe.” One finger up meant “This one!” Moore’s role was to handle the intercept well, driving toward the shore while allowing the swell to approach from behind, and accelerating to match its speed even as it slowed and began to rear up over the reef. At the same time, he would place Bradshaw in the perfect position for the release, known to surfers as “deep,” meaning close to the peak, where the break would begin, the high-energy core of the wave. For his first wave Bradshaw caught a 30-footer, and surfed the 60-foot face. It was smooth and fast and a good ride for a starter. Moore circled close around him to give him the rope, and towed him back outside. A third tow-in team arrived and stood aside to watch for a while.

The playing field was large. The biggest sets were coming in about 15 minutes apart. Bradshaw and Moore saw one developing in the distance, and they headed straight out to meet it, skimming fast across the water, with the wind in their ears. These were big swells all right, in the 35-foot range, and, better yet, each one had a bigger one behind. Bradshaw kept signaling, “Next one!” and jacking up the sizes. He passed up the first three. Then came the fourth, an absolute monster of 45 feet, maybe more. People may have seen larger swells before, but no one had ever tried to ride the sort of wave face it was about to become. Ninety feet? One hundred feet? Who could know? Bradshaw wasn’t thinking about making history. He was shouting into the wind and signaling, “This one, this one!” Moore turned the Jet Ski around and headed toward the shore, chased by the monster approaching fast from behind. Bradshaw signaled, “Faster, faster!” The boat was running wide open and doing about 40 miles an hour, but it was just too slow. They were going to lose the intercept. The swell was going to pass under them and leave them behind. Bradshaw kept shouting, “Come on!,” for all the good it could do.

Then suddenly they were inside Outside Log Cabins, and the monster was rising directly beneath them, drawing water up its face and steepening into an enormous wave. Bradshaw was thinking, This has got to be the biggest thing I’ve ever seen. This is definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever seen. My God, this thing is really big. He stopped worrying about missing the ride and started concentrating on technique. In surfing, any move toward the break is known as a fade. If a wave peels to the right and you slice to the left, toward the core of falling water, that is a fade. The word is deceptive because a fade makes things more intense, not less. The more you fade, the deeper you go. The deeper you go, the more wave energy you encounter. The deepest you can go is inside a barrel, or tube, but you can’t always get there. If you go too deep, you will wipe out and get crushed, demolished, and slayed. On the other hand, if you don’t go deep enough, you will have wasted the wave. To some minds the waste seems the greater shame. Carving the line between wipeout and waste — managing to go deep without dying — is the real art of big-wave surfing. Normally on a tow, with the wave gathering beneath him during the last seconds before the release, Bradshaw would have faded toward the peak, swinging in this case to the left of the Jet Ski ahead and placing himself as deeply as possible into the energy of the wave, while also giving Moore the margins to peal off to the right and escape to the shoulder. But not now, not this time. Instead of thinking, Go deeper!, he thought, Just don’t fade! He signaled Moore to widen to the right, and Moore started a turn toward the safety of the shoulder. Bradshaw released the rope. Moore felt the drag come off and looked back. Bradshaw waved to him like, “See you later.”

He had the intercept he needed. The wave continued to rise beneath him, drawing water from ahead and below, steepening, and advancing toward the coast as he accelerated down its face. The ride was smooth for lack of chop. The board fluttered because of its speed. He heard the wind, and then the thunder as the wave began to break to his left. He crouched low on the board, with his arms out for balance and his feet locked into the straps. He thought, O.K., don’t look left! Don’t fade! Don’t even think left! Then the slope turned vertical beneath him and he went weightless as he began to drop straight down the face.

Later he told me it was like skiing down an avalanche chute in the mountains. He said, “You know that feeling you get when you’re going over a cornice and it’s just straight down after that?” He counted the seconds. He went, “One. Two. Three. Four!” Already it was a long drop, and the wave kept rising higher. “Five! Six! Seven! Eight!” He went, “Holy shit!,” and kept dropping. He went, “Don’t fade! Don’t even imagine it!” He got toward the base of the face, still well above the bottom, and rounded out of the drop as the surface curvature allowed. Bradshaw had never seen such wave expanses before — huge fields of sloping water to the right. He was aware of the mass gathering above and behind him. He went, “I gotta get out of here, now!” He dug his right rail in, banking the board hard against its will, and held it with all of his strength into a carving right turn. The turn was slow because the board was fast. Bradshaw kept at it, however, and went slicing up the wave face almost to the crest. He was briefly elated. Technically he had “made” the wave, but he wasn’t done with it yet. From the crest he turned again and went angling back down the face. He intended to perform a full cutback toward the break, but no sooner had he started than a roar erupted behind him as the wave formed a giant barrel. The barrel spat spray at him from its throat. There was no way into that barrel from his position, and it blocked any turn back toward the core of the wave. The ride was almost over for Bradshaw. It had lasted 30 seconds, or hardly more. He exited straight ahead and over the wave’s shoulder. He was angry with himself. He thought that he should have been in that barrel, and that he would have been if he had not shied away from the peak at the start of the ride. He did not care about having made history — and did not consider it until others began to insist on it that night. He did not even think that this had been a great run. He thought, Shit, I should have faded.

There were other eyewitnesses to the ride — some nearby in the water, and a few more on the shore. They agreed that the wave had been very large, though their estimates of its face height varied, ranging between 85 and 105 feet. Only one piece of visual evidence exists — an optically compressed low-resolution video, shot from shore, in which Bradshaw’s wave is at times obscured by other waves in the foreground, and Bradshaw appears about three pixels high. The number finally settled on was something less than 90 feet. It was almost arbitrary, as Bradshaw knew, and for him it was a poor measure of the ride. The largest wave ever surfed? O.K., fine. He regretted that the wave happened early and turned out to be by far the biggest of the day. He and Moore stayed on the water for six hours and were joined by other tow-in teams as they sliced repeatedly down 70-foot faces. It was the best surfing ever. But not once was there a wave like the one he had ridden in the morning — another monster that would have given him a second chance to fade, take risks, and correct the mistakes he had made.

Mavericks: Home of a Famous Monster Competition

Mavericks is a surfing spot in northern California outside Pillar Point Harbor, just north of the town of Half Moon Bay at the village of Princeton-by-the-Sea. After a strong winter storm in the northern Pacific Ocean, waves can routinely crest at over eight meters (25 feet) and sometimes reach heights of 18 meters (60 feet) with winds of 46 to 75 mph (40 to 65 knots). Some waves are so strong they that break can be recorded on seismometers. From 1999 to 2016, an invitation-only contest called the Titans of Mavericks featuring the world's best big wave surfers was held there during most winter surfing seasons, whenever the winter wave conditions were good enough. When the forecast looked good, surfers had just 48 hours to make it to the competition. In 2015, the competition didn’t happen because the huge swells never showed up.

The monster wave break at the Mavericks is caused by an unusually shaped underwater rock formation. Several famous surfers have been killed or badly injured here. Tia Ghose wrote in Live Science: Winter storms thousands of miles away over the Pacific Ocean near Alaska provide the energy. There, a low-pressure front from the north collides with a high-pressure front from the south. The resulting pressure differential generates strong, fast winds that blow over a vast area of ocean for long periods of time. This wind energy then transfers to the ocean, where it creates big swells. The tides also play a role in Mavericks' monster waves. During the transition from high to low tide, wave energy roiling the ocean reaches the seafloor. This energy has nowhere to go but up, increasing the wave's height, according to Bay Nature, a San Francisco-area magazine. [Source: Tia Ghose, Live Science, February 13, 2016]

But the real magic comes from Half Moon Bay's bizarre geometry. After all, the beaches nearby don't get the same massive waves. The crests at Pillar Point, by contrast, can get so big that they register on seismographs miles away. In 2007, researchers from California State University at Monterey Bay and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used sound waves to create contour maps of the ocean floor near the competition. These maps show a ramp that rises sharply, but drops off steeply on either side, creating what the surfers call a launching pad.When waves come from the right direction, the big ones touch the ocean floor and slow down, then curve into a "v" that focuses the wave's energy. With its energy focused, the wave quickly jumps in height, and the Big Kahuna is born, KQED's Quest reported.

XXL Big Wave Awards

Big wave riding as a recognized sport began with The XXL Awards. Benjamin Marcus, author of the book "Extreme Surf," said: "The XXL Awards began as one award for the biggest wave that a surfer paddle into. The idea was to eliminate rumor and rough guesses, isolate the photos and moving images of the largest waves ridden that year, and let a panel of judges calibrate the photos, compare, contrast, and decide once and for all how big is big." [Source: Surfer Today]

The founder of the XX Awards was Bill Sharp, a former editor of Surfing Magazine and Newport's The Wedge giant wave specialist. The XXL Awards event was launched in the 1997-1998 winter season — an El Niño year, when waves are typically bigger. It was sponsored by K2, a winter sports company as a way for them to expand into the surf industry. The company offered $50,000 reward for the person who could ride the biggest wave. "Critics portrayed the much-hyped event as demeaning and potentially dangerous, saying the cash prize might cloud a rider's judgment," Matt Warshaw, author of "The Encyclopedia of Surfing", said. "Sharp and K2 ignored such remarks and hit the marketing jackpot, as the big wave challenge was covered by the Los Angeles Times, CNN, Time, and Sports Illustrated."

In the late 1990s, tow-in surfing was not considered valid technique, so all the 60-foot plus waves ridden on the North Shore in January 1998 were not recognized in the competition. The world's first official record was set on February 17, 1998, at the Reef Big Wave Team World Championship held in Todos Santos, Mexico for a wave estimated to be 15.84 meters (52 feet) high from trough to crest ridden by American power surfer Taylor Knox. "Knox sat outside waiting for one of those inconsistent bombs that had been catching everyone inside all day long," Marcus recalls. "Knox had timing on his side, and he dropped into a massive, rearing vertical wall of water and held it together for a ride that would be featured simultaneously on the covers of the major surfing magazines." After the the XXL Awards became a bigger and bigger deal and additional categories, including "Biggest Tube Ride," "Worst Wipeout," and "Best Overall Performance" were added

Sean Collins and the Promotion of Big Wave Surfing

J. Madeleine Nash wrote in Time: The first monster wave ate him up. Taylor Knox, a 26-year-old pro surfer, disappeared into the churning foam off Mexico's Todos Santos islands like a rag doll tossed into a washing machine. Then he got another chance. He spotted a second wave, even bigger than the first, and paddled straight for it. As he reached the crest, Knox smoothly swiveled, stood up on his board and started sliding down a slick expanse of water as steep as a cliff. Somehow he stayed in control, even though he flew 6 or 7 ft. through the air so that, for a split second, he was free-falling. Exclaimed Knox, who's from Carlsbad, Calif.: "It was like the best roller-coaster ride you could ever imagine." [Source: J. Madeleine Nash, Time June 24, 2001]

Todos Santos is famous for big waves, which generally range between 25 and 35 ft. tall. This year, however, because of the storms ushered in by El Nino, the waves at Todos Santos have been epic. The official word isn't in yet, but the wave Knox rode may well have been more than 50 ft. high. If that's the case, Knox should win the K2 Big Wave Challenge, which at the end of this month will award a $50,000 prize to the surfer who caught the biggest wave of the season. And if he wins, he can thank Sean Collins, the sport's foremost practitioner of the science of surfcasting. Because of Collins and other surfseers, California's big-wave riders aren't wasting time chasing pikers anymore. They're hitching rides on waves the size of small apartment buildings.

More than anyone else, perhaps, Collins has helped fuel the growing popularity of the extreme trend in surfing known as big-wave charging. What has made it possible for dudes like Knox to take their death-defying rides is not some quantum leap in equipment design or surfing technique, but the improved ability of surfcasters to pinpoint exactly when and where a Godzilla-size swell is likely to sweep in from the sea. While there are others in the business, says Bill Sharp, director of the K2 Challenge, "Collins is the guru. He was the first to add it all up."

Collins, who completed only two years of college, knows as much about meteorology and oceanography as most scientists. But he started out as a surfer who kept on wondering why great waves were so hard to find. In the early '80s, while he and his buddies were roaming the sparsely populated beaches of the Baja Peninsula, Collins began spinning out his first crude forecasts, downloading satellite weather maps in the middle of the desert with the help of an antenna strung from a cactus, a short-wave radio and a portable fax machine. In 1985 he helped set up Surfline, a Huntington Beach, Calif., firm that distributes daily wave forecasts at a charge of $1.50 to those who call its 900-976-SURF hot line. So accurate are Collins' forecasts that two years ago, bodyboarding champ Mike Stewart used them to surf waves spawned by a single storm across a distance of 7,000 miles, from Tahiti to Alaska.

Knox and some two dozen other top surfers showed up at Todos Santos because Collins had predicted a spectacular swell at that particular time at that particular place. They brought with them their longest surfboards, because the longer the board, the faster it cuts through water. A 50-ft. wave, after all, travels at speeds in excess of 20 meters.p.h., and anyone who's too slow at the approach risks being smashed. Every so often, in fact, a big-wave surfer dies. This year Jet Ski rescue teams provided backup, and there have been no fatalities.

Measuring Big Waves

To determine wave height, experts analyze videos and photographs for reference points such as surfer’s height, his or her position over the board, and wave crest and trough. Even surfers can’t really tell a wave’s exact size. “You know if it’s big, but you don’t know how big,” Portuguese big wave rider António Laureano told National Geographic. Maya Gabeira said she knew her 22.4-meter (73.5-foot) wave was “the most radical” she’d ever surfed — because of the sound of it exploding behind her. [Source: Eve Conant, National Geographic, March 22, 2022]

The XXL Awards put an end to the informal and ambiguous system of weights and measures used by surfers until then to assess the size of waves. According to Surfer Today: In 1998, judges introduced a formula that featured a body scale combined with feet and inches. "If a wave was ten times overhead, and the surfer was six feet, then the wave was 60 feet from trough to top — as measured from the front," adds Benjamin Marcus. There were still issues that needed to be addressed."Waves photograph as differently as fashion models — some waves are tall, some have longer bottoms, some are lippy. And the angle is everything." [Source: Surfer Today]

The road to a more objective analysis would prove to be very long. In 2020, World Surf League (WSL) introduced a methodology for wave height measurement. The idea is to set a standard formula for measuring big wave rides across the world's most extreme surf breaks. The professional circuit teamed with researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of Southern California to produce a document that allows judges to compare and estimate wave heights. The document involves analysis of several variables such as tides, sunlight conditions, video, and photographic imagery, athlete's height, jet ski dimensions, etc. In the end, the goal is to be able to provide the most accurate approximation of the nominal wave height. The conclusions are then sent to the Guinness World Records whenever a potential new record is broken.

Calving Glacier Surfing

Joe Mozingo wrote in the Los Angeles Times: McNamara stumbled” into “Alaska in 2007 when he attempted to surf the waves created by a calving glacier in the Copper River. A filmmaker named Ryan Casey pitched to him the idea of making a glacier-surfing movie. McNamara jumped at it. [Source: Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2009]

“In August, he and his tow partner, Kealii Mamala, headed out into the silty current as the 300-foot glacier wall shrugged off ice chunks the size of apartment buildings. The river flowed south about 10 knots, carrying driftwood and ice. As they buzzed around, a 100-foot-wide tower of ice broke loose. To their horror, it did not collapse straight down, but fell over like a bookshelf. It hit the river and exploded with the crack-and-boom of thunder. Slabs of ice as big as vans cannonaded the river for hundreds of yards. The huge displacement of water pushed out a wave like a ripple in a bath tub. Mamala raced to tow McNamara into it. The wave kept rolling without breaking. McNamara dropped the rope, did a few turns, lost his momentum and sank to a stop. "It was the most flourishing, tingling endorphin rush I ever had," he said.

When he came to shore, the electricity in his nerves gave way to a deeper angst. The glacier was too unpredictable. One of the chunks could kill him instantly. "You don't know what's going to fall, how it's going to fall," he said. "You don't know if it's going to fall on you." He told Casey he wanted to leave. He called his wife and broke into tears. But this was not just a surf trip. Sponsors and investors were involved. They had to try again. "I was no longer in this for the rush," McNamara said. "I was in for the production." Over the next five days, they raced up and down the river, catching sizable breaking waves while trying to avoid the detonation zone. McNamara says he would never do it again. "It was too selfish," he said. "I could have died so easily. My children would not have a father."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, NOAA

Text Sources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); “Introduction to Physical Oceanography” by Robert Stewart , Texas A&M University, 2008 ; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated March 2023

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