Big Wave Surfing

Big wave surfing is exactly what it sounds like; the occupation of a dedicated band of surfers who seek out the largest waves in the world, suspend all natural concerns about their own personal safety, and paddle out to surf them. This extreme sport is notoriously dangerous because of the potential consequences of wipe-outs. When waves, sometimes as high as 60 feet, crash down onto a surfer, they are pushed up to 50 feet beneath the surface of the ocean and are thrown around with no less ferocity than if they were in a washing machine. To avoid drowning, the surfer must recover quickly from the resulting disorientation and determine in which direction he or she must swim in order to reach the surface. It is vital to surface before another wave hits, to avoid being held under the water. If the surfer is knocked out by their board or a rock their only hope of survival rests upon someone noticing that they are in trouble and pulling them out of the water.

While these facts might discourage even ardent surfers, the inherent danger of big wave surfing is, for its enthusiasts, part of the thrill which makes the sport so addictive. As legendary surfer Mark Foo once famously remarked, a surfer who wants to ride the ultimate wave… (must be) willing to pay the ultimate price. Sadly, on 23rd December 1994, Foo paid that price when he drowned after wiping out at one of the most challenging surfing venues in the world; the notorious Maverick’s in Northern California.

Big wave

Certain venues across the world have become gathering places for the select few who are skillful enough, and brave enough, to take on the biggest waves in the world. Big wave surfers flock to areas of ocean where the biggest waves can be found, unperturbed by the knowledge that the area might be notorious for dangerous rip tides, cold water, or ferocious waves which break onto rocky reefs.

Surprisingly, perhaps, there have been relatively few fatalities during big surfing competitions, and the most famous names in surfing were not discouraged from continuing by the death of Mark Foo. There is still a dedicated band of men and women who devote their lives to surfing, and think nothing of packing up and flying to a big wave surfing venue when they hear rumours of a spectacular swell. Surfing competitions are often called with only 24 hours notice in order to test the physical and mental abilities of the world’s best surfers under the most trying conditions possible. Amongst the most notorious big surfing venues in the world are:

Maverick’s, Half Moon Bay, Northern California, U.S.A.

The potential of Maverick’s as a surfing location was first discovered by a man named Jeff Clark in the 1970s. For years, Maverick’s remained a well-kept secret, until other big wave surfers began to discover the area in the early 1990s. It was here, in December 1994, that Mark Foo was killed whilst surfing with Ken Bradshaw, Brock Little and Mike Parsons. An exclusive competition is held there each year for 24 specially invited contestants, who are given one day’s notice to appear. The winner receives a cash prize of $30 000.

Pipeline, Northern Oahu, Hawaii, U.S.A.

The Pipeline is so-called because of the tendency of waves along this area of coast to curl over to form tunnels. The spot is potentially lethal, as the waves break in very shallow water onto a rocky reef about 70 feet off the shore. The Pipeline is also notorious for the "aggro" which arises from how busy the water can become. The water is not occupied by casual surfers, but by those seeking the ultimate surfing challenge. For this reason, slights such as ‘dropping-in’, whether deliberate or non-deliberate, are not received well.

Todos Santos, Baja California, Mexico

Isla de Todos Santos is renowned for the huge waves which break at a spot known as "Killer’s", a few miles off its north-westerly tip. After storms, swells have been known to produce 60 foot high waves off the coast of the island. "Chicken’s Break," where waves swell to spectacular heights as the water hits a channel formed between two islands, is also a popular spot close to the island. Apart from the size of the waves themselves, the danger of surfing "Killer’s" and "Chicken’s Break" arises from the rip tides and rocks which surround Isla de Todos Santos.

Jaws, Maui, Hawaii, U.S.A.

When severe storms occur in the Pacific, the resulting swell sends giant waves crashing onto the north shore of Maui. The waves are so intense that the spot has become known to surfers across the world as ‘Jaws.’ Only a select few dare to surf there during a storm swell. The spot has become known as a popular tow-surfing venue. This is a surfing technique which involves a surfer being towed into a breaking wave by a helicopter or a boat. The technique allows surfers to catch very large waves which they would not have been able to catch by paddling alone.

Teahupo’o, Tahiti, French Polynesia

Teahupo’o is a world renowned surfing location because of the area’s reputation for high quality waves with near-perfect barrels. The Billabong Pro Tahiti Surf Competition, which is part of the ASP World Tour, is held at Teahupo’o every year.

Outer Banks, North Carolina, U.S.A.

Outer Banks is generally considered to be the best surfing location on the East Coast of America. The largest swells of the year generally take place during North Carolina’s hurricane season, between August and November. Hatteras Island and Coquina Beach are amongst the most popular spots. The water is chilly, to say the least, and you will definitely need a wet-suit. You should also be wary of the rip tides which are common along most of the coast.

The Wedge, Newport Beach, California, U.S.A.

A few times a year, a spot which has become known as "The Wedge" enjoys near-perfect surfing conditions. "The Wedge" is particularly dangerous because waves typically break in water no more than a few feet deep. An unfortunately timed wipe-out which propels the surfer under the full force of the wave can easily result in serious injury.

Kirra Point, Queensland, Australia

Kirra boasts a number of famous surfing spots. Tea Tree Bay is well-known for producing excellent barrels and Noosa Head and First Point are also popular spots. Whilst the biggest waves accompany storm swells, Kirra can be relied upon for decent waves throughout the year. Best of all, the water is pleasantly warm.

Cribbar, Newquay, UK

While the UK does not generally enjoy the large breaks found in many surfing spots across the world, Cribbar is definitely an exception. If you are willing to brave the cold waters, large swells have been known to produce waves with 30 foot faces on Newquay’s Fistral Beach.