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The Best Big Waves in North America

Big waves capture the attention of the surfing public, and indeed the public generally, like few other sporting pursuits on the planet. The combination of conditions and geographical features which combine to create big waves occur around the world, but North America – in which we’ll include Hawaii – is one location in which we find a number of the most recognisable big waves. With that in mind, let’s dive in the deep end and take a look at some of the best big waves in North America.

Mavericks

Where is it?

Mavericks is located in northern California, just a few kilometres south of San Francisco. It’s located at the northern end of Half Moon Bay, a name which belies the wave which sits just out to sea. 

The wave

Mavericks is formed by a long, sloping ramp that leads towards the beach, with two deep troughs on either side funnelling powerful Pacific swells into waves which can peak at over 60 feet without too many problems. It doesn’t always get that big of course, but it’s fairly common for the wave to reach over 25 feet following a storm in the Pacific. Theoretically there is a left-hander at Mavericks, but it’s not often ridden and the right is the primary wave for which this spot is known. 

Why is it scary?

If 60 feet of water towering above those brave – or crazy – enough to surf this isn’t sufficiently scary, the fact that the wave is located smack bang in the middle of what’s known as the Red Triangle probably is. The Red Triangle is the name of a region in northern California in which there is a large population of marine life, including some fairly hefty great white sharks. Given Mavericks obviously breaks in deep water when it’s big, that certainly must be something that preys on the mind of the surfers here, though realistically it’s still the wave itself which poses the greatest threat. Mavericks has taken the life of a couple of surfers in the years since it’s been surfed, including that of well-known Hawaiian Mark Foo. 

Jaws

Where is it?

A few thousand kilometres across the Pacific from Mavericks lies Jaws, a big wave spot with a suitably ominous name. The wave itself sits in Hawaii in a place called Pe’ahi, which is on the northern side of Maui. 

The wave

The wave was named in the 1970s by a bunch of surfers who noted that the sudden and significant changes in conditions there were comparable to the randomness of a shark attack. It doesn’t take all that much of a change in swell for this place to go from a relatively manageable name to a terrifying one, something which only adds to the mystique and fear which surrounds it. When it gets big, Jaws well and truly lives up to its name. The right-hander is steep, fast, loud, and can get up to anywhere from 30 feet to 80 feet tall. Incidentally, Jaws is also often recognised as the birthplace of tow-in surfing after Laird Hamilton and a few others tried it out there in the 90s. 

Why is it scary?

Jaws is most scary largely because of the factors mentioned above. Barrelling waves which are 80 feet tall are typically not a very appealing prospect for most of us, and can evidently cause some serious damage. The fickle nature of the spot adds even further to the fear factor. With conditions able to change so drastically and the wave capable of growing so rapidly, the reef which sits beneath the surface can quite quickly become a very daunting prospect. There are, of course, also a few big sharks in Hawaii, most notably tigers, and any time someone is surfing in deep water – as is the case when it’s big at Jaws – that must be on their mind. There certainly isn’t the same level of concern around them as there is at Mavericks though, and once again it’s the wave most likely to cause damage.

Puerto Escondido 

Where is it?

To Mexico now, and a laidback little town on the southern Pacific coast. Puerto Escondido is a town of 45,000 inhabitants in the state of Oaxaca, and lies not too far from the border to Guatemala. Tourists flock to this town for its beautiful beaches and vibrant nightlife, but visible from the streets of this coastal village is one of the most dangerous waves in the world. 

The wave

Puerto Escondido – and more specifically Playa Zicatela, the most renowned spot in the area – doesn’t have the potential to get quite as big as places like Mavericks and Jaws, but it more than compensates for that with its power. And it’s not as though it’s small, either – this spot can still easily generate waves well in excess of 40 feet, far too big for nearly everybody in the world to even consider paddling out in. A ridge about 15 kilometres or so offshore is surrounded by deep canyons on either side, and it’s this which helps the waves here so far exceed surrounding areas for both size and power. 

When it gets big, the wave here looks far too perfect for a wave of its size. It breaks both ways, and gets super hollow, and it’s for that reason that it’s commonly known as the Mexican Pipeline. 

Why is it scary?

There is no shortage of surfboards which have been smashed to smithereens at Puerto Escondido, with the incredible power of the wave able to pummel them to pieces without a second thought. Unfortunately, while we are a little bit more durable than surfboards, that invariably means that a number of lives have been lost here as well. Earlier in 2021 a Spanish 22-year-old was killed there, while just a couple of years prior a Brazilian bodyboarder also lost his life at Puerto Escondido. Any wave that can get to 40 feet or more is inevitably a scary one, but the extra punch that this one packs makes it among the most frightening in the world. 

North America has a host of great waves of all shapes and sizes, and a number of those sit comfortably in the conversation of the biggest waves in the world. Jaws and Mavericks are renowned the world over for their size, while Puerto Escondido is equally recognisable for its incredible power. Not for the faint of heart, these are some of the scariest waves on the planet, and for most of us, are best enjoyed from the safety of the shore.