Surfing the world’s biggest waves

January 28, 2019 • 2:00 pm

When I was in Hawaii I became fascinated with the surfing culture, and curious about why so many people devote their lives to it. I’d probably understand more if I ever tried it, but that’s not going to happen. Yet I can get an idea of its allure when I watch videos like the ones below, showing people surfing the really big waves. Clearly, it takes a lot of skill and experience to do that, and the thrill, enhanced by the considerable dangers, must be huge.

It is a fact the whole world knows that the world’s biggest surf-able waves are off the coast at Nazaré, Portugal, located where the red is here:

Wikipedia says this about Nazaré:

Nazaré is a popular surfing destination because of its very high breaking waves that form due to the presence of the underwater Nazaré Canyon. As the canyon creates constructive interference between the incoming swell waves, it makes their heights much larger on this stretch of coast.

Due to the height of the waves, numerous surfing records have been set at Nazaré. In November 2011, surfer Garrett McNamara, who resided in Hawaii at that time, surfed a then record-breaking giant wave: 23.8 m (78 ft) from trough to crest, at Praia do Norte, Nazaré. On November 8, 2017, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa broke the previous record by surfing a big wave of 24.4 m (80 ft); for this feat he won the Quiksilver XXL Biggest Wave prize and entered the Guinness World Record for the biggest wave ever surfed. Social media wrongly attributed a footage of German surfer Sebastian Steudtne surfing another big wave also in Nazaré to Koxa; both have made public statements in attempts to correct the original misinformation. In the meantime, Portuguese surfer Hugo Vau surfed a potentially 35 m (115 ft) high wave, known as “the big mama”, on 19 January 2018. This achievement yet to be validated.

The waves at this point can also be dangerous to those ashore. In August 2012, a freak wave killed a 5 year old British girl and her grandfather walking along Salgado Beach.

First, this is the wave surfed by Vau, though the YouTube says it took place on January 17, not 19. And, though you can’t see Vau (or at least I can’t), Inertia assures us that Vau is riding this 35-meter wave. If you can see him, let us know. I can’t imagine a human being on that thing.

And a compilation of surfers on lesser but still giant waves at Nazaré:


Here’s a segment from 60 Minutes showing the technicalities of surfing such waves, and introducing us to two Aussie surfers who displays their enthusiasm. This is really a fascinating report.

h/t: Nilou

35 thoughts on “Surfing the world’s biggest waves

  1. If you ever got in the water at Sunset or Pipeline you find out what under toe is about. You need to be up on a board just to stay away from it. scares the hell out of you. I was never much of a surfer but did like water skiing. sa

  2. For a bit less danger I see they still have parasailing at Waikiki. On line says $69 bucks a ride. I would much prefer the sail plane ride up at the north end of Oahu. Lots of fun and very safe.

  3. I really have to wonder about those who take up extreme sports like this sort of surfing, free-climbing El Capitan (there a video out of someone who recently did this solo. Scary as hell), base jumping, wearing those flying suits that let you fly thru canyons, etc.
    Do they have a regular job? Do they have life or health insurance?

    1. I would love to do some of this stuff. I grew up in a surfing city and while I was into multiple sports, I never did surfing and I regret it now. It was the ordinary sport of field hockey that f**ked up my body, and it was someone else’s fault. Maybe if I was doing an extreme sport but relying on myself I would’ve been better off.

      After we went in different directions my BFF from HS got into surfing. She became a bank manager in another surfing town and met a surfer. They’re still into it now (in their mid-50s).

      I know that at least some life insurance doesn’t pay out if you’re killed doing an extreme sport, but for most of us health insurance isn’t a problem as we live in countries with universal healthcare.

      A lot of those guys that fly through canyons are sponsored by companies like Red Bull and other X-games sponsors. They make millions and it must be worth it for the companies or they wouldn’t do it. Apparently these guys have a huge online following. People pay heaps to watch them on pay-per-view.

    2. I have free-climbed El Capitan. What Honnold did, in contrast, is _free solo_ El Capitan, and he was the first to do it. In fact, no one else is even close to trying.

      Wing-suiting is very dangerous and the fatality rate is quite high. And in contrast to rock climbing, the fatality rate in wing-suiting does not decrease with experience.

    3. Well, of the people I know who have stayed in cave diving, it was just an obvious extension of regular caving. Why stop exploring just because the cave roof has come down to the water line? And you just keep on pushing until you’re a kilometre inside a mountain (one dive, no air bells, hands & knees squeeze for the first 280m) pushing multi-kilo charges of PowerGel into the loose boulders of the roof using a 1.5m scaffold pole (a 2m scaffold pole wouldn’t make the corners). I’ve known the guys on that project for over 20 years, and they sort of build up to it. The first 280m of the cave (the “Entrance Series” – dramatic names are so 20th Century) took about 5 years of underwater digging to move the boulders out of the way and open a human size passage. Things accelerated after they found a turning point after 3 years. Then they got into a bit of a 3-d maze – which took some searching before they found the water was coming in through collapse, which they’ve been digging for the last decade and a half. But Caverns Measureless To Man await!
      Regular jobs – biology teacher (now retired), geologist, engineer, fireman, and several I’ve never asked. Life insurance and health insurance as normal because the death rates aren’t high enough to be noticed by the insurance companies.

  4. Vau is way over on the left low wave side, while the admittedly scary high wave seems much higher centrally (perhaps due to the canyon). Does that count re records?

  5. I’m a goatboater, as the surfers affectionately call kayakers who surf. Biggest thing I ever surfed was around 20 feet high and that was frightening.

  6. You can see the surfer as soon as the video starts, dead centre of the screen. Then the camera pans right, and he disappears off the left of the screen at about 8 seconds in. The sequence is repeated, so you can see him again at about 23 seconds in for a bit longer – disappears off the left at about 38 seconds. Where he is at 15 seconds, and 55 seconds, when all hell breaks loose, I have no idea.

  7. I’ve also had a long fascination and admiration for surfing and surfers even though I’ve never tried it myself. Those folks are truly skilled.

    There’s an excellent documentary about big wave surfing called Riding Giants (2004). It covers the history of certain renowned locales and famous surfers (Greg Noll, Laird Hamilton, etc.). Worth a watch.

    Anyone remember that great surfing cult movie North Shore from the 80s? Go ahead, go shred!

  8. I lived in Hawaii when I was 19-20 years old. I spent every spare moment in the water learning how to surf. The attraction for me was being one with nature and the force of the wave connecting me to it. The biggest wave I ever surfed was 16 feet, and all I wanted to do was get away from it as soon as possible.

  9. Nazare may be the biggest, but my impression (from watching videos) is that the waves are wedge shaped and break from the top, that is, only part of the height of the wave actually breaks. This is in contrast to, say, Teahupoo or Shipsterns where the wave face is the full height.

    (Okay, so it’s still enormous).

    Here’s Teahupoo – those waves are breaking on the reef. How anyone survives going ‘over the falls’ is beyond me.

    And here’s Shipsterns, which must be the most insanely unrideable wave ever when ‘mini-me’ makes an appearance and the whole face disintegrates into vertical chaos:

    All these really big waves are awe-inspiring.

    And something I’ve noticed – all the really big waves are on westward-facing coasts (or north-west or south-west). None from the east. I assume this is due to the earth’s rotation (Coriolis effect, prevailing winds yadda yadda…)


  10. There seem to be a myriad of different types of boards. The second most common seem to be bodyboards, those short squarish boards that kids often use (though the guy at the end of that Shipsterns video I linked is no kid). They don’t have enough buoyancy to stand on so are ridden lying down. (I got one a few years ago, though I hasten to admit my idea of a wild ride is a three-foot wave).

    What intrigues me most is skimboards, things about the size of a skateboard and with the buoyancy of a waterski. Usually launched by skating them across the surface and jumping on.
    Unlikely as it seems, it is possible with the right kind of shore break to launch from the beach, as the gentleman in the video below shows at 1:15


  11. You can enjoy surfing without doing anything like depicted in those videos. The vast majority of surfers do so. Next time you’re at a beach, rent a board and take a brief lesson, then get out on some two or three foot waves.

    Let me tell you, riding a two foot wave feels great, and it’s great exercise.

  12. I agree with a couple of the others above Jerry, you really should give surfing a try given how much you like it. With the right kind of board and the right wave very small waves can be surfed and it doesn’t take a high level of fitness to do it. That is actually the range most surfers are in. As much as you walk I’m sure it would be no problem at all for you. And skill-wise, it isn’t particularly difficult to learn basic surfing. I’d say it compares with learning how to snow ski. Most people can learn the basics well enough in a one morning training session to be able to have some fun for the rest of the day.

    I went to high school in a beach town and did a bit of surfing. Loved it. Short, fast boards were the thing back then. I was better than average but I’ve never surfed anything even remotely like these giant waves. Biggest I’ve surfed were some 12′-15′ conditions. That’s big enough to cause some serious pain. One incident in particular I got pinned to the bottom by a collapsing wave for what seemed an unusually long time. I was thinking it might be the end for me when the pressure finally eased and I shot to the surface. I had bloody gouges from my chin down to my crotch. Took the rest of that day off but was back in the water a couple of days later.

    1. Judging from thousands of years of artworks from all over the world, crawling around in caves ridiculous distances from daylight has been a “spiritual palaver” for a few tens of thousands of years, with absolutely no practical outcome.
      A hint : don’t try that line in “t’Brass Cat” or the “‘ill Inn” on a Saturday night. It won’t get you very far.

  13. After I initially commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new
    comments are added- checkbox and now every time a comment
    is added I receive four emails with the same comment. Is there a means you are able to remove me from that service?
    Thanks a lot!

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