Some rise up as huge mountains and, as they roll, meet another slab section. … If you combine Jaws, Puerto Escondido, and the Waimea shorebreak and put them all on steroid, you get Nazaré.Garrett McNamara, Hound of the Sea
Big Wave Surfing
Surfing. The leisure sport of Hawaiian kings. Picture surfers floating peacefully offshore, riding gentle breakers to the beach. True. But the real action these days isn’t just surfing, it’s big-wave surfing, riding monster life-threatening waves. It’s the apex of extreme sports and surfers are risking their lives pushing the limits to ride the biggest wave possible. But is riding a 100 foot wave possible? Let’s check it out and while we’re at it review how we got here.
You’ve heard their names: Jaws, Killers, Waimea Bay, Cortes Bank, Mavericks, Nazaré. The epic waves at these surf breaks are the holy grail of big-wave surfing. They’re like the highest peaks of the Himalayas and just as dangerous. Over the last decades dozens have died from getting slammed on the bottom, drowned, or crushed by mountains of water for the slightest mistake. Everyone’s trying to set a new big wave record by pushing the physical limits of wave riding. It’s extremely dangerous, and the world is watching to see who will set the next record, currently at 80 feet. It’s a sport where you can make a career out of a single giant wave. Many have tried. But many more have failed.
So here’s a brief chronology of big-wave riding and the escalating size records of waves surfers have set. It should be noted that given the imprecise calculus of wave-size measurement, comparisons of wave size, at least until recently, are difficult to make and often remain inconclusive. Most feel the official estimates of current size records are conservative. And maybe we’ll never know the true size of these monsters. In the past they were measured in increments of fear.
Native Hawaiians pioneer surfing
Max size 8-10 feet. Although surfing was invented in several cultures (notably Peru, China, and across Polynesia), it reached its apex in Hawaii. Often reserved for Hawaiian royalty, surfing was also popular and broadly practiced (HOS, 2019). Hawaiians used four types of surfboards, the papio (3 ft. long), ʻolo (20 ft.), kikoʻo (12-18 ft.), and the alaia (9 ft.).
Of course, we don’t know the size of the waves Hawaiians rode but Sunset Beach, a renown big wave surf break on Oahu’s north shore they called Paumalu, had a large native Hawaiian population and likely many surfers. The large size and stability of the ‘olo suggests it was designed to surf big waves by Hawaiian royalty (EOS, 2019; HOS, 2019). However, given the maneuverability of this large, heavy (200 lbs.) board it was unlikely they rode waves larger than 10 feet.
The 9 foot long alaia was likely the model for the modern surfboard which eventually gave rise to more stability (with a fin) and enabled surfers to ride larger waves.
Hot Curl surfers find big waves at Makaha (1930s-40s)
12-15 feet. Having spent years surfing the gentle waves of Waikiki with newly designed surfboards, in 1937 John Kelly and Wally Froiseth discovered Makaha and realized its big wave potential. It would not be until 20 years later that the premier big wave spot would shift to Waimea Bay so for several decades Makaha was king.
It was at Makaha that Froiseth, along with other surfers, began to challenge big waves. Froiseth was the first modern pioneer of big wave surfing and influenced many future surfers, notably George Downing. Makaha can hold a huge swell, perhaps up to 30-40 feet before closing out. However, given their early-stage longboards, they likely surfed waves up to 15 feet. Although they also pioneered waves on the north shore (particularly Sunset Beach) at that time it was a largely unexplored wilderness for surfers and they remained focused on Makaha (HOS, 2019).
California surfers flock to Oahu (1950-60s)
20 feet. Makaha, Hawaii. Buzzy Trent, Fred Van Dyke, Greg Noll. Local Hawaiian surfer George Downing, mentored by Wally Foriseth, began to push the limits of big wave surfing at Makaha. He also designed surfboards that would influence future board design. As the hot curl surfers challenged the big waves at Makaha they drew attention from the burgeoning California surf scene which started a migration to Makaha and Sunset Beach, including future big-wave surfers Buzzy Trent, Fred Van Dyke, and notably Greg Noll. These “coastal Californians” created a wave of fearless surfers that pushed big wave surfing to higher levels.
Greg Noll leads the charge at Waimea Bay (1957)
20-30 feet. Waimea Bay, Hawaii. Greg Noll and friends. Noll came to Hawaii in 1953 and devoted 16 years to conquering the scariest waves he could find, and in many way became surfing’s first big-wave celebrity. His sturdy body and no-holds-barred charging earned him the nickname “Da Bull.”
Prior to 1957 surfers were too afraid to surf the north shore’s premier big wave spot, Waimea Bay. And for good reason. Surfer Dickie Cross died there in 1943 after padding down the coast from Sunset beach on a giant swell. From the beach Waimea appeared too big, too fast, too steep and just generally too treacherous to ride. Add to that a gnarly shorebreak, raging rip current, sharky waters, and the presence of a church on the point and a Hawaiian heiau in the valley and it all added up to a scary, forbidden place.
The lore was that surfers had been watching it for years, building up the courage to go out. That is until Greg Noll and a squad of surfers (Mike Stange, Pat Curren, Al Nelson, Mike Diffenderfer, and Mickey Muñoz) paddled out in 1957. We don’t know exactly how big Waima was that day but estimates suggest it was relatively small for Waimea Bay, probably 20-25 feet but over time a new big-wave size record was set by these pioneers, particularly Eddie Aikua and Jose Angel.
Greg Noll charges
a giant wave (1969)
30 feet. Makaha, Hawaii. The epic swell of December 4, 1969 was perhaps the most storied day of any in big-wave surf history and maybe the largest swell ever seen (EOS, 2019). During that swell, with most of the north shore of Oahu closed out and flooded by giant waves, Greg Noll paddled out at Makaha with a few others and waited to surf what was at that time “the biggest wave ever ridden” and the last big wave of his career. It’s a record which remained for thirty years. A big part of the lore is that supposedly no photograph exists of the famous wave, which adds to its charm as a singular event (but see Owers, 2011). The painting below is a depiction of that wave.
Tow boarding changes the game: Laird Hamilton & Buzzy Kerbox (1992)
70 Feet. Jaws, Maui. In 1992 Kerbox convinced Hamilton to try tow boarding and big wave surfing has never been the same. Paddling into waves larger than 30 feet was always challenging and held many back from riding truly large swells. At that time, many felt some waves were too big, too fast, and too dangerous to ride. Tow boarding, which was invented and pioneered by Hamilton, Kerbox, Darrick Doerner, and David Kalama, revolutionized the sport. Towing early into a building swell at 40 mph gave the rider a tremendous advantage. Hamilton refined the sport using custom small boards with foot straps and tackled Jaws, a famous big-wave spot on Maui.
Noted surf journalist Sam George summed up Laird Hamilton’s courage to push the limits of big-wave surfing:
“If you measure Laird by any standard, he’s the greatest living surfer today. No one can touch him as far as performance, innovation, imagination, pure athleticism, and absolutely unquestionable courage. “Sam George, Laird Hamilton Tow in Jaws
The advent of tow-in surfing in the 1990s dramatically changed the world of big-wave surfing, opening up previously unridden breaks that were simply too big to paddle in. Using Jet Skis, water-skiing ropes and footstraps, tow-in surfers were able to sling-shot into waves that dwarfed previous records. Fairly quickly Laird set new size records at Pe’ahi on Maui, better known as Jaws. The monster waves at Jaws weren’t even ridden until Laird tried two boarding there. Soon many others big-wave surfers adopted the technique and began charging epic swells in Hawaii.
Ken Bradshaw challenges
Outer Logs (1998)
80-85 feet. Outer Logs, Oahu. In January 1998 a monster El Niño pounded the north shore of Oahu and flooded across the Kamehameha Highway as it did while Noll caught his epic wave during the storm of 1969. The waves were so big the Coast Guard closed the ocean to everyone: Condition Black. The swell maxed out every surf spot on the North Shore, including Waimea Bay, and was considered too big for surfing. But it pounded a reef many had been watching for years: Outside Log Cabins.
That day, Ken Bradshaw, a veteran big-wave rider, was towed into the biggest wave on record at the time. According to Bradshaw on Surfline the incoming wave was: “The biggest thing I had ever seen, it was like looking at a four- or five-story building, going through the ocean…” The height of Bradshaw’s wave has been debated, but most agree it was a solid 80-85 feet. Condition Black raised the bar for charging big waves and inspired surfers everywhere to invest in jet skis and watch for epic swells.
Laird’s Millennium Wave stuns the world
Though not a new size record I would be remiss in not mentioning the “Millennial Wave.” On August 17, 2000, Hamilton broke new boundaries when he surfed the thickest, heaviest wave ever ridden at Teahupo’o in Tahiti. His epic ride at Teahupo’o thick slab cemented his already solid role as surfing’s premiere big-wave surfer and rocketed him to an almost legendary status.
Laird’s wave changed the surfing world: it made a seemingly impossible wave possible and restructured how we thought about surfing. It was one of those moments that led to the big wave charging we see today. Tow boarding into such an unbelievably massive wave sparked momentum that pushed the sport to greater heights than ever before. Laird’s wave was featured in the game-changing film, Riding Giants, which was released in 2004 and chronicles the history of big wave surfing.
Man, that shit’s impossible. You don’t do that“Greg “Da Bull” Noll, on Riding Giants.
Pete Cabrinha charges Jaws (2004)
70 feet, Jaws (Peahi), Maui. Everything changed in 2002 when Billabong created the XXL big wave awards and assembled a professional judging committee with guidelines in measuring wave height. In addition to stimulating a horde of big-wave seekers ro enter the fray, the shift to actually estimating wave faces using standardized methods made it difficult to compare waves to the past records because there was no official scorekeeper (Guinness stepped up with Cabrina’s wave in 2004). Even so, Peter Cabrina pushed the limit during the “swell of the decade” at Jaws and won the Billabong XXL award with a 70 ft. monster
As Cabrina famously said:
From the first day of tow surfing at Jaws, one thing became crystal clear to everyone. By towing ourselves into these waves with a jet ski, we could catch, and hopefully ride, any sized wave that the ocean would send our way.Peter Cabrina
With seemingly no limits, and with the media and financial backers firmly committed to filming monster waves, the race was on to push the envelope and ride the largest waves on the planet.
Cortes Bank emerges as the ultimate challenge, Mike Parsons (2008)
77 feet. Cortes Bank, California. The mythical surf spot that is Cortes Bank, a rocky shoal located in the deep ocean 100 miles off southern California. In the 1990s a new spot was found and pioneered that could potentially hold the largest swell on Earth. It’s location and shape both contribute to its unique ability to converge and focus wave energy from the North Pacific. Importantly, the shape of the bank captures and focuses wave energy along the length of it’s gradual stair-stepping shoal, channeling the energy into the shallowest areas of the reef. Given the bathymetry, a 15-ft, 20-s period wave could easily grow to 4-5 times its height creating a 60-75 ft wave (Dixon, 2011). In a big swell, a perfectly shaped 100 ft wave could be generated; during a once-in-a-century El Niño-type swell, a 1,000 ft wave is possible. All the other big wave spots, such as Jaws, Maverick’s and Todos Santos, begin closing out at 50-100 ft heights into a huge, unrideable wave.
In January of 2008, Parsons rode a wave from a monster storm which generated giant swells and buoy readings of 80-100 ft. With a second major storm bearing down, four of the most experienced big-wave surfers in the world — Mike Parsons, Greg Long, Grant Baker, and Brad Gerlach — jumped in a boat with two Jet Skis and headed toward the Bank. Slingshotting in at high speeds with weighted boards and flotation vests, the team endured horrific wipeouts and risked being lost in the mountains of white water before Parsons caught his epic wave. The surf session was so spectacular it made the New York Times. Greg Long describes the extreme conditions:
I’ve made some heavy missions out to Cortes Bank. But this time, it was all on the line: The biggest storm. The biggest swell. The biggest buoy readings ever seen. And as far as the risk factor, it was off the chartsGreg Long, New York Times (Jan. 2008)
And surfers watch Cortes Bank for the swell of the century, another surf spot becomes the new challenge.
Nazaré emerges as the largest wave on the planet: Garrett McNamara (2011)
78 feet. Nazaré, Portugal. Enter Nazaré, possibly one of the largest surf breaks on the planet and the location of the current big-wave records. It’s a rocky point with a offshore submarine canyon that runs for nearly 100 miles. As waves approach the shore they move fast in the deep canyon and like a funnel are focused onto a shallow sandy bottom where they double up to create monster waves, many estimated at over 100 feet.
McNamara riding his record-breaking wave in 2011.
Prior to Nazaré, Garrett McNamara (or “GMAC”) spent years training and suffering injuries with tow-in partners Rodrigo Resende and Keali’i Mamala at Jaws, Mavericks, and Teahupo’o; he even sought a tsunami from calving glaciers in Alaska. In 2011 he traveled to Nazaré and pioneered the unknown and seemingly unrideable break with tow-ins, custom weighted boards, flotation vests, and an emergency air supply. In his autobiography, Hound of the Sea, he describes the epic wave that stunned the world:
The drop down the face is long. it feels endless. I rocket on down. The face is choppy, the wind is fierce. I can hear, as well as feel, the roar of moving water beneath me. … I breathe deep, stay present.Garrett McNamara, in Hound of the Sea.
McNamara’s pioneering efforts attracted other big wave surfers to the massive and dangerous break and it soon became the go-to spot for new big wave records.
Rodrigo Coxa sets the current record at Nazaré (2017)
80 feet. Nazaré, Portugal. On November 8, 2017, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Coxa set a new record three years after a near-fatal wipeout that forced him to stay away from the monster break for months. As reported in Smithsonian magazine: “Plagued by nightmares of being dashed on the rocks below Nazaré’s lighthouse, Koxa says he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He lost his sponsor. He had wanted to be a “big rider” since reading about the greats in surfing magazines as a boy, but Nazaré’s big waves had seemingly defeated him.”
It was only after surfing his mountainous wave that he realized he broke McNamara’s record by two feet according to Guinness and the World Surf League (WSL). But he set the new record at great personal cost and many others surfers have risked debilitating injuries, and their lives, chasing a potentially impossible dream . After several surfers expressed doubts about returning to WSL’s 2018 big wave event at Nazaré, the WSL had this to to say about the dangers of Nazaré
… wiping out at Nazaré can be life or death. Waves there can reach heights of up to 70 feet on the face, at which point they weigh 1,000 tons. It’s a place where breath-hold training, aerobic stamina and safety systems are essential for survival. But all of that also adds up to something else: a place where some of surfing’s most incredible achievements can unfold.WSL, 2018
As to the question of whether a surfer could push the limits and eventually ride a 100 foot wave, the jury is still out. Although several surfers may have ridden one that big, including Tom Butler and McNamara, so far these have not been listed as world records. Maybe it will be Nazaré or Cortes Bank, or even some undiscovered surf break. Maybe it will be a woman such as Maya Gabeira who rode a 68 foot wave at Nazaré, five years after a disastrous wipeout.
The truth is, a 100 foot wave may simply be too fast and too big for someone to actually ride it. Of course, surfers have been down that road before: that’s what they said about Waimea Bay for years before Noll pioneered it in 1957. The truth is there is no limit to the courage of surfers, whether they can survive a wave that size or not. We will see.
- Ancient Hawaiian surfboard building, Club of Waves
- Guiness World Book of Records
- World Surf League Big Wave Awards
- (EOS) The Encyclopedia of Surfing and (HOS) The History of Surfing by Matt Warshaw
- Surf Research, http://www.surfresearch.com.au, Accessed 8/19/19
- Tow Surfer, accessed Aug. 23, 2019.
- Surfing on Mars
- Cortes Bank: the Largest Wave on the Planet
- What Lies Beneath: the Waves, Reef and Marine Life of Maverick’s