There’s no honor in no attempt, but great honor in a failed attempt. — Big Wave Surfing axiom
Surfing has a long history, but the sport of big wave surfing (where waves are at least 20 feet/6.2 meters high) is specialized surfing discipline pioneered in Hawaii by a few daring men who went after waves thought to be impossible to surf in the mid-20th century.
It’s an extremely dangerous sport as surfers are slammed 20-50 feet (6m-15m) below the surface in a big wave wipeout, causing enough pressure to rupture an eardrum, and have about 20 seconds or less to regain equilibrium and get to the surface before the next wave hits a deadly blow. A situation made even more treacherous with powerful wave action and strong currents that can violently push a surfer against the ocean floor or into a reef.
Big wave surfing as well as the boards and equipment have evolved over the years. The surf leash (a cord that tethers a surfer’s ankle to the board) began to appear in the 1970’s. Then, tow-in surfing started about 20 years later (a jet-ski pulls the surfer onto waves considered too big and fast to catch paddling) and gained popularity with surfers as well as spectators as it made surfing XXL monster waves possible, using shorter boards with foot straps and life jackets. In the last ten years, however, there’s been a big wave movement rejecting the tow-in and returning to the challenge of paddling in. And, because wearing a life vest while paddling a surf board really doesn’t work, inflatable wetsuits and vests have been developed for big wave surfers. New tech surf photography has also made a big impact, giving us epic images and videos that provide a bird’s eye view and create the feeling of being right there in the line up.
At 18 years old, Australian, Russell Bierke, won the 2016 Cape Fear Challenge (a deadly wave break in Sydney, Australia), and everyone took notice with his style and commitment to paddle-in, rather than tow. A year later, he was in the hospital after a near drowning during the 2017 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach in Victoria, Australia. Russell tells his story in the short video Bezerke, and the photography with close-up views of Russel riding the big waves is just amazing.
Big wave surfers travel the world in search of the biggest, best breaks with a hit list directory of big wave spots discovered, named and ranked. And, there are celebrated big wave competitions around the globe. The oldest, most prestigious is the Eddie (named in honor of Eddie Aikau, a lifeguard and champion big wave surfer). Held each year December – February at Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, Eddie is called only when waves consistently reach heights of at least 20′ and require paddling in, no tow-in. Unfortunately, the 2017 Eddie was cancelled after losing its sponsor. There were also big problems at Mavericks recently. It’s an iconic one-day competition held each year (November – March) half a mile off Half Moon Bay in Northern California, where waves can reach 60′, but the 2016/2017 event was cancelled after organizers were sued by its sponsor and filed for bankruptcy. Then, weather failed Mavericks in 2018 with new event owner, World Surf League, forcing another cancellation. There are big wave contests every year at Peʻahi on the north shore of Maui (aka ‘Jaws”), with fast-moving waves at 60’+ during the months December – March that attract the world’s best tow-in and paddle-in big wave surfers. And, then there’s Nazaré.
Big wave surfing at Praia do Norte (North Beach) Nazaré, Portugal is known for extreme, high breaking waves created by winter storms and an underwater canyon. See it for yourself.
Rodrigo Koxa (Guaruja, São Paulo, Brazil) towed-in on a wave with an 80 foot (24 meter) face at Nazaré on November 8, 2017, capturing the Guinness World Record for Largest Wave Surfed (Unlimited) and the Quicksilver XXL Biggest Wave award. (Video by Carlos Muriongo) Watch Rodrigo’s ride — it’s incredible.
Big Wave Surfing, Aloha Surf Guide
Where to Watch the Biggest Waves Break, by Alastair Bland, Smithsonian Magazine (December 6, 2012)
Swallowed by Jaws, by Lucas Gilman (photography & reporting) ESPN Magazine (January 26, 2016), great photos show the scene at Maui’s North Shore surf break Peahi lava reef (known as ‘Jaws’)
Seeking Safety in Big-Wave Surfing, by Adam Elder, The New Yorker (December 15, 2014)
Big Wave Tour Event Schedule, World Surf League (2017 events: Mavericks Challenge (cancelled), Puerto Escondido Challenge, Pe’ahi Challenge, Nazaré Challenge)
No Eddie big wave contest this winter, family says, Honolulu Star Advertiser (November 29, 2017)
Mavericks…. is Cancelled Amid Financial Woes, by John Clarke, The New York Times (February 3, 2017)
Surfing in Nazaré (surfinginportugal.com)
Meet the Big Wave Female Surfers Making History, by Martha Chen, Hawai’i Magazine (April 10, 2018)
Brian Bielmann Surf Photography (1970-2016), Brian’s photos are a glimpse of surf photography history
Feature photo of surfing a big wave at Nazaré, Portugal is courtesy of Rob Bye/Unsplash CC0
Watch more great surfing and personal stories on the “Cranking Surf” video channel, a collection of On2In2™ favorite short videos FREE To WATCH, On-Demand
Here’s a view of the Ocean you’ve never seen before — and totally awesome Upsurge
We’d love to hear from you! If you’d like to comment on this article, join the conversation, or share your inspiration, and you have not yet registered as an On2In2™ playmaker, please sign up via the ‘Engage page’. Don’t worry, it’s pretty quick and easy (unless you’re a robot).
Zola Zeester says
Big wave surfing is an extreme sport, and videos reveal only some of dangers involved. In a 12-19-2019 BBC Sport article by Henry Ditchfield, big wave surfer, Mercedes Maidana, tells the story of how she became obsessed with chasing big waves, ignoring the risks, and then lost everything. https://www.bbc.com/sport/50562296