big wave surfing
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Big Wave

Big wave surfing is both exciting and dangerous. Here’s all you need to know about it, including its history, prominent names, and the best places where you can find the biggest waves in the world.

Sure, riding tubes, making roundhouse cutbacks, and busting airs are all fun, but none of it is really equal to the thrills of big wave surfing. When we're talking about big waves here, we’re not referring to the double overhead you might ride even on your local break at the right time of the year. Rather, we're talking about giant waves that are at least 20 feet (almost six and a half meters) and can go up to 70-80 feet (20-25 meters).

Not only do they rise high, but also they move quite fast (50 mi. or 80 km per hour). For someone watching the wave from the shore, the surfer looks like a tiny dot leaving a trail of thin foam behind. Those that are wiped out in the process? Well, they're like wayward fish at best.

The thrills, though? They're mostly worth all the search, the risk, and the hassle. We cannot teach you how to ride a big wave through a blog post nor can we perfectly convey how it feels, but we can at least give you a bit of history and tell you where you can find those giants, be it for the thrills or just for the joy of watching.

A Short History of Big Surf

The fact that surfing originated in Hawaii is more or less common knowledge now. In the beginning of the 20th century, surfing was already a well-established tradition in the country, with whole families partaking in the activity. 

Towards the middle of the century, though, surfing had somewhat gained worldwide popularity as well. As a result, there were innovations in surfboard technology that provided surfers with more freedom and flexibility. The Hawaiians who were by then probably bored of riding the same waves every day also realized that they could indeed ride bigger waves with these new surfboards. Luckily, the North Shore of Oahu was home to some of the biggest waves in the world.

The big waves of Hawaii drew the attention of other surfers from around the world as well. Soon, they started to flock in, and the jewel of the North Shore, Waimea Bay, became a magnet for big wave surfers. Of course, in the first days, they caught these huge, fast, and powerful waves using traditional methods: paddling and lying in wait.

At the turn of the millennia, surfers started to become more innovative. They invented new methods for catching waves like tow surfing, where the big wave surfer doesn't paddle to the wave—they're towed. Also, they started to employ jet skis to eliminate the effort of paddling. Nowadays, a jet ski is an undeniable element of the big surf spectacle.

Moreover, once you feel the thrill of having possibly ridden the biggest wave ever recorded, it's impossible to stay content with it. It makes you want more, even bigger waves. That's what happened lately: the emergence of big wave hunters like Laird Hamilton and their pursuits in the ocean. Now, let's learn more about the greatest big wave surfers.

The Most Prominent Big Wave Surfers Ever

Certain names left their mark on the big wave genre, like Laird Hamilton, whom we had briefly mentioned. Luckily for us, Susan Casey followed Hamilton in his exploits and wrote a wonderful book called The Wave. The book accounts for Hamilton's obsessions, thrills, and joys in great detail while also providing a novel look at big waves from a scientific angle.

However, Hamilton is hardly the only prominent name in the game. That being said, the "Millennium Wave" he surfed in Tahiti in 2000 was hailed as a turning point for big wave surfing as it took the sport to a literal new height. However, there was also Mark Foo before him, for example, who was in love with Waimea Bay and broke a couple of surfboards while trying to score 70-foot waves. He died surfing Mavericks, California, in 1994; the wave that took him was only 15 feet high.

These huge and fast waves aren't merciful, and the coral reef formations you might fall on when you're wiped out don't really help. So, Foo isn't the only one who died in such conditions. Great surfers like Donnie Solomon, Moto Watanabe, and Malik Joyeux also lost their lives to extreme surfing.

Yet, this particular sport isn't devoid of any rewards, either. Garrett McNamara, for example, rode a monstrous wave estimated to be 78 feet in Nazaré, Portugal, in 2011, and now has his name shining in the Guinness World Records for the biggest wave ever surfed.

Some other big wave surfers you need to check out are Jay Moriarty, Shane Dorian, Maya Gabeira, Ross Clarke-Jones, Greg Long, and Ian Walsh.

Where the Big Waves Are: 5 Surfing Destinations for Lovers of the Extreme

Praia de Norte, Nazaré, Portugal

Garrett McNamara isn't the only name to enter the Guinness Book of World Records in Nazaré, Portugal. Maya Gabeira found herself in its infamous pages for the biggest wave ever ridden by a female surfer after riding a 73,5 feet wave. If nothing, that's a great testament to the big swells Nazaré consistently receives between October and February.

The reason for those huge swells is the frighteningly deep ocean floor of the Nazaré canyon. The canyon is 5,000 meters deep, and it runs for 230 kilometers, making it the biggest underwater ravine in Europe. As a result, there's a lot of water to be drawn from the bottom for swells moving towards the Nazaré coastline. That's why it's such a hub for big wave surfing.

Of course, waves that can go over 70 feet are not everyone's cup of tea. So, the little town attracts only the craziest of the surfing world. Still, if you don't have anything better to do, you can pack your essentials to set up a camp on a nice hill, admire waves as they come rolling like Howl's Moving Castle, and tremble with fear in the face of the beauty of our world.

If you're aspiring to be a big wave surfer, on the other hand, make sure that you pack a couple of extra boards. The waves of Nazaré don't only break records; they break surfboards as well.

Pe'ahi (Jaws), Maui, Hawaii

Pe'ahi is known among surfers as Jaws, and yes, your guess is right: it's named after the famous movie. Here, instead of sharks, Jaws signify the monstrously scary and breathtakingly beautiful waves the Maui shores get. The wave heights can vary between 30 and 80 feet, but no matter their height, the place is always hailed as the most dangerous surfing spot on the Pacific Ocean.

Unsurprisingly, it's also the surf spot where most of the big surf innovations were first conceived. Tow surfing was made popular there, and the first jet ski in surfing was used by Laird Hamilton in the 1990s. You can interpret this piece of information as you like, but our interpretation is as follows: the Pe'ahi waves are so beautiful and tempting that the surfers wanted to change their ways to be able to ride them.

And yes, despite the startling connotations of its name, Jaws is quite the spectacle, especially between November and March. During that period, sudden storms and rain hauls might turn what seems like a peaceful piano sonata into crazy sludge metal riffs, producing mountainous right-handers and tubes bigger than the London subway with the aid of southeasterly winds.

For those who want to visit a place just to bear witness and not take part in the thrills, there are enough cliffs on the Pe'ahi coastline, too. You'll just need to do a bit of hiking and climbing. Just like in the movie, nothing's really straightforward with Jaws, the waves, either.

Belharra, France

Europe is not exactly the first continent that comes to mind for surfing; it's not even the second or third, as the Americas, Australia, Southern Africa, and Southeast Asia are more prominent due to their geographical advantages. Obviously, they are more exposed to huge swells traveling almost half the world. However, that trend tends to change when it comes to big wave surfing.

The shores of Portugal, Spain, or France might not get decently surfable waves, but they surely welcome some of the biggest waves in the world. The Northern Basque coast of France gets a huge swell from the North Atlantic, whose power is sometimes supplemented by powerful storms and famous hurricanes (like Hurricane Epsilon), causing jaw-dropping scenes for us bystanders and an opportunity to wake up early for big wave lovers. They occasionally swallow some ships, too, but what are you gonna do about it, really?

Unfortunately, the waves don't plunge into exhilarating tubes like they do in Pe'ahi, but they can still go up to 80 feet, which is enough for a year's worth of thrill for extreme surfers. Also, these are some of the fastest waves in the world. So, you can say that the adrenaline rush of speed compensates for the lack of tubes.

Teahupoo, Tahiti

You're not really in it for the ship-eating mythological beasts, are you? You don't just want to accelerate down a huge wall of water when its lip is trying to catch you. You want to experience huge barrels and see more majesty. Then, let us present to you the magnificent barrels of Teahupoo.

Does any of that mean that Teahupoo is easier or more surfer-friendly than Belharra? No, on the contrary, even less so. Despite its renowned stature in the surfing world, there isn't even a single hotel in its radius. The surfers who want to ride the dangerous waves closing upon Teahupoo’s shores are left to their own devices.

However, big wave surfing doesn't get any more thrilling than it is in Teahupoo either. The majestic waves of the infamous break roll at a great pace, curl unto themselves, create barrels, and break over shallow coral reefs that add to the thrill of the ride.

It's also the spot where Laird Hamilton scored the famous "Millenium Wave." However, be warned—the records show that at least six surfers lost their lives in Teahupoo either due to the huge waves themselves or the coral reefs below them. So, it's hellishly dangerous. However, the beauty of neither the waves nor the nature that surrounds them is yet contested.

Shipstern Bluff, Tasman National Park, Australia

Shipstern Bluff was and still is a relatively unknown big wave because it's on the shores of the Tasman National Park. To reach the waves, you either need to have a 30 km jet ski ride, a boat trip, or a two-hour hike through the National Park, which some would deem dangerous and others strenuous. Yet, it's a unique beast, to say the least, and the trouble is worth it even if you just want to see it.

You thought that the coral reefs of Teahupoo added a great deal to the thrill? Wait till you hear the pocketful of surprises of the Tasman Sea: seals, orcas, and white sharks swimming over and through sharp reefs.

Also, low-pressure systems originating from the South Pole lead huge swells to the Tasman shores. Before breaking, these amazing waves curve unto themselves, creating huge tubes to mouth-watering effect for big wave surfers. That's not all, either. The reefs cause the formation of other waves within waves, which are called "steps" by surfers and local bodyboarders.

Despite all the danger and ardor, though, Shipstern Bluff provides a surfing experience like no other. Us? We're just going to stick to watching and not risk our lives. Please, don't mind us.

Wrapping Up...

There's something hair-raising about just watching all these brave surfers trying to tackle the biggest waves on the planet. As if the already breathtaking qualities of the waves themselves weren't enough, these people go on and put on riveting performances at the risk of their lives. It's frightening, but when we say it, there's also a note of envy in it.

Experiencing the sheer destructive power of nature so closely, having near-death experiences on a daily basis, and returning to the shore either victorious or at least with all your faculties intact surely put things in a different perspective. However, we still need to warn you that it's as dangerous as any branch of sports gets. So, be careful if you're aspiring to be a big wave surfer.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching