Everything you need to know about big wave surfing

Big wave surfing is capable of capturing the imagination like few other sports in the world. To most people, the prospect of heading out to sea and trying to ride a wave many times your size is a thoroughly unpleasant one, bordering on flat out insane. But despite this, there is a dedicated community of big wave surfers from all around the world – a group of people who are probably wired that little bit differently to regular folk like you and I. So why do they do it? What do they get out of it? And most importantly, how do they survive falls which, on face value, look like they should result in near certain death? In this article, we’ve got the answers to all those questions and more. 

What’s it like surfing a giant wave?

For your run of the mill surfer, once waves start getting towards double overhead – if that – things can begin getting a little stressful. Big wave surfers work their way down the faces of waves many, many times bigger than that, so we can only assume that there must be a fairly hefty element of fear involved even for the most hardened big wave surfers, unless the wiring in that part of the brain has been completely undone. 

But while that fear is probably something of a motivating factor for many big wave surfers, if that was all there was, it’s safe to say that there would be a lot less people partaking in this pastime. Listen to any one of these people talk, and there’s one thing that most, if not all, of them have in common – they’re thrill seekers. Adrenaline junkies. Whatever you want to call it, they are people who crave the sensation that the whole experience brings them. The few seconds on the wave is no doubt the peak of that sensation, but presumably the anticipation in the lead-up and the feeling of reward afterwards also play a role.

It’s also not as though these surfers head straight to 100-foot Nazaré. A handful probably always wanted to do something to satiate their thirst for excitement, but for most of them there was probably some sort of slippery slope involved. Like every young surfer, they probably learned to surf at their local break. One day, maybe an older friend took them to a slightly bigger break – they fell a couple of times, finally made the wave, and loved it. Then they went out on an even bigger day, and so on and so forth until suddenly they’re bumping their way down the face of a wave the size of an eight-storey building and cackling uncontrollably while they do it.

Why do big wave surfers ride longer surfboards?

You probably know that, at least within the realm of waves which most people surf, typically as the waves get bigger the boards get smaller. Paddling out on your 28-litre shortboard when the waves are knee-high isn’t likely to result in a very fun session, nor is taking your longboard out when it’s six-foot and barrelling. It follows that big wave surfers should have the smallest boards of all – in fact, using the same logic, when the waves are ten-times overhead they should probably be surfing something about as long as their tibia. Alas, they don’t, and in fact, historically it’s quite the opposite. Big wave surfers have long ridden what’s called a gun, which is essentially a board with the shape of a shortboard but the length of a longboard. So why do they do this?

For starters, longer boards paddle faster, which makes it easier to paddle into waves which are moving seemingly at the speed of light – on a smaller board, a big unbroken wave would often simply pass underneath you and continue on its merry way. These guns also have a larger section of the rail in the water, providing added stability, something which is very welcome on huge waves. These boards could get really long, anywhere up to 12-foot, though in recent years, the advent of tow-in surfing has enabled big wave surfers to surf on substantially smaller boards.

Tow-in surfing, as the name suggests, involves surfers being towed into a wave typically by a jet ski, removing the need to paddle and subsequently the need for a board which will allow them to paddle into a wave. The stability of a longer board is still valuable, but rather than boards in excess of ten-foot, some surfers are now able to get towed into far lighter boards closer to seven-foot even on waves of 30-foot or more, which gives them far greater manoeuvrability. You might think that simply surviving a wave that size is enough, but the incredible skill of some of these guys means they are now able to commit to high-level manouevres on waves most people would be afraid to even look at. 

How do big wave surfers survive the fall?

It’s an unfortunate reality of big wave surfing that on occasions, there are going to be people getting badly hurt, or worse. When you actually watch people surfing giant waves, however, it often seems incredible how often they simply pop back up after what looks like a potentially very bad wipe out. So how do they survive these falls?

For starters, these guys and girls have an incredible capacity to hold their breath. If you’ve ever been for a tumble on a wave, you’ll know that for every 30 seconds you might be able to hold your breath in a swimming pool, you only get a fraction of that when you’re being dragged around underwater. After a fall on a big wave, surfers are invariably going to spend a fair bit of time under the surface before they can come back up, so it’s pivotal to have an ability to stay calm, hold their breath for an extended period and only waste energy trying to get back to the surface when it’s possible to do so.

Once they do pop up, you might have noticed that many surfers, when the waves are big enough, have a jet ski swoop in to pick them up. Driving these jet skis within a hair of monstrous waves is a skill in and of itself, and plays a massive role in ensuring surfers recovering from a big wipe out are swept to safety, and don’t have to face the prospect of being cleaned up by wave after wave.

Finally, recent years have seen the development of inflatable life vests, which have also become a massively important safety measure. These are typically manually activated, and help surfers to get back to the surface after a long hold-down following a big wave wipe out.  

Who are the best big wave surfers of all time?

Big wave surfers don’t typically get the same mainstream recognition as surfers on the Championship Tour, but there are plenty of names widely respected in the industry. Hawai’ian Eddie Aikau is lauded around the world for his both his lifesaving and his surfing on some of the biggest waves ever surfed throughout the 1970s. A little later, Laird Hamilton was for a long time the pre-eminent big wave surfer in the world, peaking around the turn of the century when he was riding monsters at places like Teahupo’o and Jaws and, according to many, inventing tow-in surfing.

Shane Dorian was the man who essentially took Hamilton’s place as the world’s dominant big wave surfer. He moved to big wave surfing in 2003 after spending 11 years on the World Championship Tour, and his incredible ability in some of the world’s most terrifying conditions make it easy to see why. More recently, guys like Billy Kemper and Kai Lenny have completely revolutionised big wave surfing, not just riding these waves but performing manouevres on them which, just a few short years ago, would have seemed unfathomable.

So there you have it – all you need to know about the who, why and how of big wave surfing. For most people the idea of doing it is completely insane, but for the select few who pursue it, big wave surfing is a lifestyle – and one that is mighty entertaining to sit back and watch. Next up we’re going to take a look at some of the most notorious big waves in the world. From Nazaré to Jaws, from Mavericks to Shipstern’s Bluff, these waves are big, heavy, and for nearly everyone in the world, far more enjoyable from the safety of the beach.