biggest wave surfed
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The OMBE Crew Recalls the Biggest Wave Surfed

Big wave surfing is one of the greatest and most dangerous thrills in the surfing world. Learn all about the recorded biggest waves ever surfed.‍

The OMBE Crew Recalls the Biggest Wave Surfed

surfer riding big wave

We cannot wholeheartedly claim that big wave surfing is actually related to surfing as we know it. It’s a whole another sport unto itself. Heck, maybe it’s not even a sport. Maybe, it’s just a pure thrill, a way for the bravest of us to show off how they rode one of the most fierce and fearsome forces of nature and lived to tell.

We aren’t talking about your beach break on high tide here either; we’re talking about mythical monsters that can swallow ships, turn submarines into airplanes, and make whales look like cute little animals that can fit into your aquarium. So, whether it’s a sport or a way to conquer nature (and death), it’s exciting, and it takes a lot of courage, physical strength, experience, and mental fortitude.

Therefore, people were simply in awe when Greg Noll rode a 35-foot wave in Oahu, Hawaii, in the 1950s when surfboards were barely advanced enough to accommodate the hardships of big wave riding, let alone tackle mythical monsters. Yet, it was quite akin to breaking a taboo, and when a taboo is broken, the floodgates open.

On October 29, 2020, a wave allegedly more than 100 feet high was ridden by Portuguese surfer António Laureano. No matter how far we’ve come in terms of surfboard technology and knowledge, that’s one hell of an impressive record, and it gives us an opportunity to tell you all about the biggest waves ever surfed on the face of Earth.

A Brief History of Big Wave Surfing

Of course, not every wave ridden goes on record, and not every measurement can be confirmed by the World Surf League with pinpoint accuracy. Sometimes, certain records are broken in the world that cannot go into the book of Guinness World Records. Moreover, the biggest wave ever surfed is a record that can potentially be broken over and over again. So, the big wave surfing category is quite a vague and shifty one.

Nonetheless, we can at least give you a vague historical account of how and when it started, and what the recorded and confirmed milestones of the discipline are. For example, we can tell you that it started in Hawaii as the best big waves have always been there, and it picked up pace in the 1960s with the advance in surfboard technologies. Before then, people only had traditional longboards, which were not at all ideal for big surf; the shortboard’s rise to prominence helped aspiring big wave surfers achieve their dreams.

Still, it was nearly impossible to paddle out to those big waves because, 1. they were too far away from the ocean, and 2. the incoming force of the wave was too powerful to hold your paddle or duck dive. So, at the turn of the millennia, surfers realized that if somebody could tow them to the wave with, for example, a jet ski, they’d be surfing even bigger waves. 

That’s how tow-in surfing was conceived, and that’s how the world record for the largest wave ever surfed started to rapidly change hands.

Thanks to tow-in surfing, Laird Hamilton, a legendary big wave surfer whose exploits are well-documented in a wonderful book written by Susan Casey, was able to ride the famous “Millenium Wave” in Tahiti right at the start of the new millennium.

Since then, there have been many big waves ridden by thrill-seekers on the greatest of surf spots, including Jaws Beach, inevitably Nazaré, and even Mavericks, Northern Cal. Now, let’s get into more detail about those.

The Biggest Waves Ever Surfed

As we said, sometimes, when a surfer rides a monstrous wave, it can go unrecorded due to technical difficulties or simply because no one was there to witness it. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, yes, but there’s nothing we can do about it. So, when you come and tell us that you’ve ridden a 120-foot wave but you cannot prove it, forgive us our skepticism.

The thought experiment known as "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" aside, nowadays, the World Surf League works in collaboration with the Guinness offices when it comes to award world record certificates for big wave riding. That’s why there are lots of claims pending confirmation, including the one by António Laureano, which was briefly mentioned in our intro.

Below, though, you’ll find a list of the ones that were recorded, confirmed, and occasionally awarded.

2001: Carlos Burle Rides a 68 Feet Wave on Mavericks

Brazilian big wave surfer Carlos Burle is now a retired surfer, but he’s still one of the most prominent names in the discipline. He was born and raised in the State of Pernambuco, Brazil, where the biggest waves in the country are, so it’s no wonder he kept on challenging himself until he claimed a world record for the largest wave surfed.

Although it was only a free surfing session, the news of his achievement spread quickly, and he got the Billabong XXL Biggest Wave Award. On other fronts, however, his free-spiritedness didn’t help because recording and confirming his rides wasn’t easy.

In 2013, when the previous record was set by Garrett McNamara with 78 feet, Carlos Burle claimed that he’s ridden a wave that could be bigger than even 100 feet. However, that particular day was quite hectic, with one of Burle’s best friends and Maya Gabeira, another legendary big wave surfer, having a near-death experience. Unfortunately, his claim is still unconfirmed by authorities.

Yet, he can take pride in knowing that he at least broke his own record and enjoy his success in peaceful retirement, which he spends with yoga, meditation, and reiki.

2004: Pete Cabrinha Rides a 70 Feet Wave on Pe’ahi, Hawaii

Pe’ahi, located in Maui on the North Shore, Hawaii, is known among surfers as Jaws, and, you guessed it right, that’s because of how dangerous it is. Therefore, it’s also the spot where big wave surfing took a lot of big strides forward as, for instance, the technique of tow-in surfing was developed there in the 1990s.

So, it would be fair to assume that a surfer who was there in 2004 would know what he was up against. Well, that wasn’t the case for American surfer Pete Cabrinha. He rode a 70 feet wave and was only able to understand he actually achieved something amazing once he watched himself on video.

In the end, it was a miraculous performance that saw him on the pages of the Guinness World Records, and he was able to collect $70,000 from big wave awards. Inheriting big sums from distant aunts and uncles aside, that’s quite a number gained without even knowing.

2008: Mike Parsons Rides a 77 Feet Wave on Cortes Bank

Pete Cabrinha was able to hold onto his Guinness World Record for only four years. On January 5, 2008, another American who had his fair share of dawdling on the amazing waves of North Shore, Hawaii, Mike Parsons surfed under the spotlight. Still, despite his best efforts to tame Jaws, his biggest achievement came when he was in Southern California.

During his time on Cortes Bank, strong storms had greatly enhanced the swell, and the buoy readings showed that the waves were mostly between a range of 80 to 100 feet. He claims that the ones he rode were within that range as well. However, the only one that really matters, i.e., the one that went on record, was only 77 feet.

2011: Garrett McNamara Conquers Nazaré by Surfing on 78 Feet

Nazaré, the infamous fishing town with its lovely lighthouse located on the edge of a cliff and surf-passionate municipal government, might as well be the most revered, most visited, and most talked about big wave spot on the planet. So, it’s a bit curious that its waves were conquered so late. Yet, as the saying goes, better late than ever.

And surely that’s what Garrett McNamara, who once swore that he’d “never try to surf a wave bigger than ten feet,” felt when he successfully rode a 78-foot wave. Although it was like any other wave when he was riding it, the aftermath of his success was quite wild with worldwide media coverage and a name that had shined in world record books for six years until Rodrigo Koxa made Nazaré the sensation once more.

2017: Rodrigo Koxa Reaches 80 Feet on Praia Do Norte, Nazaré

One thing to know and heed about big wave surfing is that it’s addictive. Once you see that you’re able to ride bigger and bigger, nothing is actually big enough for you. You’re like Captain Ahab, who grimaces at every other whale for the big white that haunts him in his dreams. The only difference is that you have a board instead of a harpoon, and you’re not an allegory, so to speak.

That’s what Rodrigo Koxa experienced. On his quest for the biggest wave ever, he almost died, kept having nightmares, and had numerous psychological problems along the way. Thankfully, though, on November 8, 2017, at Nazaré, he was able to break the world record with an 80-foot wave. We hope that, now that he’s achieved his dream, he only has peaceful dreams going forward.

2018-2020: Maya Gabeira Breaks Two Guinness World Records in the Span of Two Years

Brazilian big wave surfer Maya Gabeira is quite a legendary athlete among women, and that title couldn’t be more deserved. Although she had a near-death experience in 2013 at Nazaré and was saved by her fellow surfer Carlos Burle when unconscious in the middle of the water, she never lost her determination: “I still love the sport so much even after so many hard times and serious injuries and trauma.”

In 2018, her tenacity and efforts were rewarded when she broke the Guinness World Record called “largest wave surfed - unlimited (female)” by riding a 68 feet wave at, again, Nazaré. It was surely a great moment both for her and the surfing world, but the celebration of that success didn’t take long because the record was going to be broken in two years by none other than Maya herself.

In 2020, again at Nazaré, she managed to overcome a 73,5-foot beast and further reinforced her status as a surfing legend for many years to come.

2020: António Laureano Claims to Have Ridden a Wave Bigger Than 100 Feet

Numerous 100+ feet waves have allegedly been ridden all around the world. For example, we mentioned Carlos Burle’s experience above on the day when Maya Gabeira almost died in 2013. That claim is still not confirmed, and after nine years, nothing is suggesting that it’ll be anytime soon.

In addition to that, Benjamin Sanchis is said to have ridden a 108-foot wave during a non-competitive session in 2014, and Garett McNamara might have broken his 2011 record in 2013 with a 100-foot wave. 

However, the latest entry to the unconfirmed category is by Portuguese surfer António Laureano who was only 18 years old when he rode Nazaré in 2020 with a 101,4-footer.

Considering that it’s the latest, it’s the most likely one to get acknowledged by the authorities. So, we thought reserving this place for him wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Wrapping Up…

When you see the big strides taken after the turn of the millennia, you inevitably start thinking that, in big wave surfing, only the sky's the limit. And surely, there are enough material reasons to believe that.

Surf technology is now quite advanced, so there are enough surfboard types that can handle the extreme energy of big waves. Surfers are getting more and more athletic and, more importantly, braver and braver. Also, the waves are getting bigger and bigger due to unpredictable consequences of the climate crisis, such as sudden storms and erratic motion of the ocean.

So, we’re pretty sure that there are going to be even more stories to tell in the near future, and rest assured, the OMBE crew is going to be here to cover them.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching