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"Waves are not measured in feet and inches, they are measured in increments of fear" Buzzy Trent
As a group we surfers love to talk story about big waves... the biggest waves we've ever witnessed, the biggest wave we've ever ridden or the debate about which is the planets gnarliest surf spot. Big waves hold a fascination for all surfers, it's no wonder because these waves and the people who ride them embody beauty, fear, bravery, exploration and myth. They represent the pinnacle of the surfing way of life.
With the regular discovery of new big wave locations across the globe, the definition of what is a big wave has changed. In old school terms it was Waimea as the ultimate wave, with wave height and face being the measure and real waves were only those waves that could be paddled into. The new school has brought tow surfing using jet skis or personal water craft into the equation so that virtually any wave, no matter how mean or insane, can be towed into and surfed. So the definition of big waves has expanded to include the terms meanest, most insane, thickest, deadliest, horrifying and heavy..... check out the waves below and you'll know what we mean!
The local guys have known about "Prowlers" for a few years now but waited for the perfect swell conditions to announce it to the world in dramatic fashion late in 2010. The wave was discovered by Northcore™ surfer Richie Fitzgerald and NZ photographer Aaron Pierce (who named the wave). The exact location of Prowlers is a secret but its roughly 2km offshore from the Cliffs of Moher on Irelands West coast. The wave breaks over an undersea reef/sea mount and can handle waves in the 50ft + face range. Combine the size, with the remoteness, the fridgid air and water temperatures in winter and this is a heavy wave by any standards. You can watch a video of Prowlers here.
This is a mysto surf spot named Egypt by Mr Hamilton, Mr Kalama and the boys because its size resembles the pyramids, is located a few miles offshore of Maui's Northshore in Hawaii. Very little has been written about this spot and theres only a limited amount of pictures and video of the place, but from what I've read the wave can easily get as big as and bigger than its close neighbour Peahi AKA "Jaws". Word is that a couple of years ago a 100ft + wave was ridden at Egypt, but lack of proof only adds to its mystery.
Aileens or, in Gaelic, Aill Na Searrach (translated means "Leap of the Foals") is situated below the dramatic Cliffs of Moher in County Clare South-Western Ireland. Aileens is exposed to the vast fetch of the Atlantic ocean and is battered year round but especially in winter by massive swells sometimes rolling in from deep lows thousands of kilometres away. The wave breaks on a rock reef jacking up to produce 30ft+ waves to rival in size any of worlds more famous big wave locations. The spot can't be accessed from the huge cliffs only by boat or PWC from 2 miles away. Its big, it's cold and its Irish.
Puerto Escondido or to be more exact the spot at Zicatela beach, is nicknamed Mexican Pipeline and it lives up to the name. From the beginning of May, the rainy season, the swells dramatically increase in size and massive waves charge over the shallow sand bars forming hollow, heavy, barrelling monsters. The crowds can be fierce, the rips worse and mistakes are punished.
Some say its scarier than Maverick's, heavier than Waimea Bay and among the most dangerous waves in the world. Wave faces can reach heights of 70 feet, with a tube that stretches as long as a football pitch across a boneyard of black rock. In 2007 this spot sadly claimed the life of a local surfer-it is a serious wave.
Ghost Tree is located near Monterey Bay, California, just off the 18th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links. In the four years since it was first towed into, it has become one of the planet's most discussed surf spots and from this picture you can see why.
Nelscott Reef is located at Lincoln City, Oregon USA. This is a location that's impossible to paddle out to and the wave itself is too big and too fast to paddle into as discovered by John Forse who first tried to paddle into it in 1995 after riding out to the reef on his jet ski. The reef was tackled again in 2003 by a tow in crew who nailed it. Nelscott has since become recognised as one of the world's premier tow in waves. Nelscott reef will easily hold 30ft+ waves.
Considered by many to be the ultimate big wave tow in arena. Located on the island of Maui's Northern most tip, Peahi is a wave generated only a few times a year by open ocean swells formed in Alaska Aleutian islands and the Arctic which march across thousands of miles of uninterrupted ocean hitting the Maui reef at almost 30 miles per hour, a half a mile offshore at Peahi from deep water jacking up to produce some truly monster waves in the 40-70 foot range. The local crew who include Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama, Buzzy Kerbox and Darrick Doerner are respected as some of the best big wave men in the world. When asked what riding Jaws is like Dave Kalama stated "It's sort of like jumping off a cliff...."
Mavericks only really hit the consciousness of the surfing world in 1992 following an article in Surfer magazine where they called it "the voodoo wave". Before then between 1975 and 1989 it was incredibly surfed solely by one man Jeff Clark, who's fear threshold must be way beyond us mere mortals. Such was Clarks dedication to the wave that he and Mavericks are now forever linked. Mavericks is a truly mean but beautiful wave, set at the northern tip of Half Moon Bay, Northern California 40 mins south of San Francisco. Mavericks is a cold heavy water wave, breaking over a punishing rock bottom with shifting currents and is visited by great white sharks.... Not a place for the faint hearted! Mavericks reputation as a dangerous wave grew in December 1994 when Mark Foo (a Hawaiian big wave rider) sadly lost his life here on a comparatively small 15-18ft day following an overnight flight from Oahu with Ken Bradshaw.
Todos is a truly monster wave located 12 miles offshore of Ensenada in Baja Mexico. It breaks near a deep water canyon of the Northwest tip Todos Santos island. There are a few breaks here but "Killers" is the daddy. Brad Gerlach won the recent Billabong XXL prize for riding a 68ft bomb in 2005, so there's no doubting its credentials as a true big wave venue.
When we think of big waves, the UK doesn't readily spring to mind but there a some spots out there that can produce some truly big waves. The Cribbar is one of them located just off the north headland at Newquay Cornwall's, Fistral Beach, breaking over a rock reef. It won't break unless there's at least a 6-8ft swell and it can hold waves in the 25ft+ range. The wave only ever seriously breaks a few times a year, when there are now local takers, towing in. The wave is undoubtedly big but it loses some power as it heads shore wards due to the continental shelf off the Cornish coast, so it will never really compete with some of the other insane waves listed here.
This is mainland Australia's heaviest wave.... It's an insane secret spot accessed through Esperance in Western Australia. It's only rarely been surfed by tow in guys and tends to favour bodyboards as it breaks onto shallow rocks. When visiting the wave with the Billabong Odyssey team, Ken Bradshaw, north shore veteran, refused to tackle the wave..... I think that says it all!
Even if you don't surf you've probably heard of this wave. It's barrelling, spitting tubes typify most peoples mental image of what a surfing wave is, only it's just an elite few that can surf it well on a big day. Pipeline is located on Oahu's North shore and in the not too distant past was considered an unrideable wave. Pipeline is a series of three lefthand lava reefs which each break on a west swell depending on the swell size, with the third reef breaking on the biggest days when double overhead plus is the norm. Pipeline is super heavy for a number of reasons, it breaks over shallow water onto a lava reef which is full of holes that a board or body can be smashed into, it's extremely fast with a critical take off, its crowded and if the wave doesn't get you the locals will!
Waimea is the original big wave, which still remains a mythical location and is one of the world's premier testing grounds for those who still prefer to paddle into big waves. Waimea is located at surfing's mecca and spiritual home on Oahu's North Shore in Hawaii. Waimea was a taboo wave to the early North shore pioneers but this was broken on November 07th 1957 when Greg Noll said "f*ck it" to his surf buddies, Stange, Curren, Van Dyke and Munoz. The event was filmed and the surf world never looked back. Waimea is a right point break which breaks over reef and rocks into the 25-30ft range at which point it closes out the bay!
This wave gets so big it can be seen on nearby boats radar and if a 100ft wave is ever to be ridden many believe it will be here. Cortes bank is a 17 mile stretch of underwater mountain range, only 3 ft from the surface in some spots, which is located 100 miles off the coast of San Diego. The wave was first visited by surfers in 2001 when the Billabong Odyssey team ventured there during the making of the Odyssey film. It's here at Cortes that Mike Parsons caught the epic wave featured in the beginning sequence of the movie, which won him a $66,000 cheque as the biggest wave caught that year, which was $1000 for every foot!
It could easily be argued that Teahupoo is the heaviest wave in the world, it's certainly the thickest. Located off the SW corner of Tahiti, this wave is generated by open ocean swells hitting the coral atoll reef with Hawaiian type power. The lefthand wave hits the reef and throws forward an immense lip with seemingly the whole ocean behind it, sometimes creating immense tubes which would have no difficulty in accommodating a truck! It then peels off towards the channel and virtually dry reef: nice. It's claimed that a local Tahitian surfed "Chopes" in 1985, followed by Mike Stewart and other fearless bodyboarders later in the eighties. It wasn't until the early 90's that pro-surfers hit the wave which was then added to the WCT tour in 1999 when it really reached the world's attention. This is a wave that has taken lives and brought Laird Hamilton close to tears after an all time ride.... It has to be a contender for the worlds gnarliest surf spot.
This wave is mental! Just check out the shot to the left. Shipsterns is a fast, deep water, extremely powerful right hand reef, breaking over super size boulders in freezing waters. The wave itself only hit the worldwide surfing media in 2001 and has created a real impression. Waves are generated by W, NW and SW swells pushing from deep Antarctic waters and can reach the 25ft+ range. Access to Shipsterns is a 1.5hr walk from the car park through uninhabited bush so it's not a place to get hurt!
Dungeons is South Africa's big wave spot, combining an offshore rock reef with cold water, white sharks and massive swells it's definitely up there with the world's biggest gnarliest waves. The spot is accessed from Hout Bay south of Cape Town, from there it's a case of either chartering a boat for the 20min trip out to the peak or tackling a long paddle.
Punta De Lobos
Chile is the home of one of South Americas biggest waves. Punta De Lobos is located south of Santiago near a town called Pichilemu. It's a fairly consistent left point break wave located in stunning surroundings. The wave itself holds huge long walls with up to 500m rides, over a sand/rock bottom. There are heavy rips, cold water, lots of urchins and the wave can get huge, so it's for madmen only when its big!
Europe is not readily associated with big waves but this mythical monster is up there in size with any of them. Belharra is situated 2km offshore from Saint Jean De Luz in the heart of the French basque region. The wave only breaks on rare occasions marching in along a deep ocean trench and unloading open ocean power with waves reaching epic proportions. A couple of local tow in guys surfed Belharra in 2003 at 60ft, though even to this day no one really knows what size it will hold.
If you found our 'Big Waves' guide useful then be sure to visit some more of our Surfing Information pages. If you can't get enough of big waves then why not check out the Riding Giants, Driven or Billabong Odyssey Surf DVDs in our surf shop?.
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