Big Wave Surfing – Your Ultimate Guide

by Jul 13, 20210 comments

Big Wave Surfing is undoubtedly one of the most breathtaking to see in person. There is something about the speck of the surfer in the middle of a monster wave that evokes awe to anyone who witnesses. That is why some of the masters of the discipline are regarded legends not only by their fellow surfers but also the fans of the sport alike. But what is big wave surfing exactly and what makes it such an enduring sport despite its relative infancy?

A Brief History Of Big Wave Surfing

Big Wave Surfing began in the very birthplace of surfing itself, Hawaii. Back in the day, the Hawaiians have always enjoyed the smaller waves of modern-day Waikiki and Honolulu. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century when surfing’s popularity soared and improvements in surfboard technology came about that people paid attention to the northern side of Oahu. 

Naturally, many surfers from around the world caught on and followed suit. Surfers from Brazil, the USA, and Australia were among the very first to challenge the monster waves. However, the subdiscipline was still largely unknown to the rest of the world due to its inherent difficulties. Bigger waves are generally harder to paddle to and are greatly taxing to the upper body.

This changed at the arrival of tow-in surfing. Introduced in the 90s by surfing legend Laird Hamilton among others as a way to easily approach bigger waves. They attached foot straps to the board securing themselves and are then towed via a jet ski⁠—or even a helicopter⁠—towards the wave. This revolutionised the subgenre and further pushed big wave surfing’s popularity to the mainstream surfing community.

In as recently as 2010, a new revolution in the start has started to emerge. The community saw the arrival of surfboards specifically designed for big wave surfing. They are made to be quick even when paddling while still retaining manoeuverability. This innovation is taking the sport back to its roots.

The People Of Big Wave Surfing

Big Wave surfing would not be what it is today without the tremendous work of the pioneers of the sport. 

Laird Hamilton

This legendary surfer is the pioneer of tow-in surfing in the early 90s. Together with his companions Darrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox, Laird developed a method to approach bigger waves without tiring the surfer. Inspired by wakeboarding, another sport Laird was active in, they developed a method to approach waves by towing the surfer out into the sea via a watercraft. This major innovation made the sport a whole lot easier and a lot less physically taxing.

Darrick Doerner

Aside from being a legendary surfer in his own right, Darrick is also a seasoned lifeguard. During the development of the tow-in system, his years of experience as a lifeguard came quite handy. As a surfer, he was one of the well known big wave surfers in the 70s. Darrick is also an accomplished Hollywood stuntman. His notable works include the opening scene of the classic James Bond film Die Another Day as well as the final surfing scene of Point Break.

Greg Noll

Greg Noll is considered one of the biggest names in the big wave surfing scene. Hailing from California, this surfing legend moved to Hawaii in 1953 along with other surfers. Before his move, he was already an accomplished surfer as well as a seasoned lifeguard. In Hawaii, he made a name for himself when he and a few others went to Oahu’s North Shore to try and conquer its huge waves. His notably powerful surfing style earned him the nickname “Da Bull”. Noll was also an accomplished shaper and had significant success with his surfboard manufacturing business.

Eddie Aikau

Next on our list is also a seasoned lifeguard/surfer. Eddie Aikau is one of the most notable surfers in Hawaii. He made a name for himself back in 1967 when he surfed at Waimea Bay. Other great surfers were present during this fateful day including Greg Noll yet he outsurfed them all. He was quickly featured in Life Magazine as pictures of him surfing with the best were featured. He was also known as one of the most daring surfers as we would surf waves others wouldn’t. He was also a lifeguard at heart and would fearlessly jump into the water to save surfers and other alike.

Grant “Twiggy” Baker

This surfer from South Africa is currently leading in the world of big wave surfing. With a 2-time Body Glove Mavericks winner and a slew of other awards, Grant is currently at the top of the world rankings. One of his career-defining moments is at the 2018 World Surf League Big Wave Tour where he was crowned the victor. This is his second win after winning the same competition in 2016.

Why Big Wave Surfing Is So Dangerous

Bigger waves also mean bigger risks. This is something that has always been part of why the sport attracts some of the world’s most adventurous spirits. The dangers are why the sport was the only recent addition to the bigger surfing scene. 

Monster waves have with them enormous energy that can easily push a diver underwater up to a depth of 50 feet. Furthermore, the strong currents underwater can easily thrash a surfer around disorienting them. The force is so strong they can even drag them to the seafloor. Hitting the reef can also lead to some serious injury or even death. 

What compounds this is that big waves don’t come alone. Surfers only have a small window to get back up the surface before the next wave comes. In this time, the surfer needs to be able to reorient themselves as well as break the surface or risk drowning. Surviving being held down by multiple waves is extremely difficult even for seasoned surfers. 

Big wave surfing can also take a huge toll on the body in the long run. Concussions and other brain injuries are also something to look out for. A hit to the head⁠—either hitting the board in a wipeout or any hard surface⁠—-can cause serious damage if left untreated. Repeated concussions result in CTE or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a condition mostly associated with full-contact sports. 

Fortunately, there have been great strides in making the sport as safe as possible by mitigating the risks of fatal and serious injuries. During competitions, jet skis are always on standby with trained personnel to easily pick up surfers during a wipeout. Floatation devices were also made available. These devices are designed to be unobtrusive as possible but still provide the needed buoyancy.

The Equipment Used In Big Wave Surfing

Equipment is as vital as a surfer’s skill, especially in big wave surfing. Once out in the open waters, you only have yourself and the equipment with you to rely on. Here are a few of the most crucial gear to have as a big wave surfer.

Surfboard

During its infancy, big wave surfers at the time used regular surfboards available at the time. Nowadays, surfboards⁠—affectionately called guns⁠—specifically made for the sport have been developed. Guns are longer and narrower than traditional shortboards. They hover between 6 feet to as long as 12 feet in length. They are thicker and heavier than their shorter counterpart making them sturdy and fast. The narrow frame makes for easy manoeuverability which is a necessity. The thickness added to the board’s rigidity while also keeping the surfer high above the water.

Leashes and Foot Straps

These two are designed to secure the surfer to the board. Though leashes have seen quite the pushback in recent years. Some argue that most often than not, it does more harm than good. It can catch on corals or rocks and may prevent a surfer from surfacing. This is why many have turned to foot straps. These are similar to the ones used in kite surfing. They serve as a way to brace the surfer’s foot onto the board without being tied down. This makes it easy for the surfer to dismount from the board if necessary.

Flotation Device

Flotation is a recent addition to the big wave surfing scene. The inflatable surf vest was developed and pioneered by surfing veteran Shane Dorian. The vests work by using CO2 tanks within the vests. With a pull of the tab, the vest fills with CO2 which immediately increases buoyancy. This helps the surfer rise to the surface as quickly as possible.

Wetsuits

Big Wave Season varies from place to place but it mostly happens during winter in the northern hemisphere. The water can get really cold and frostbite and hypothermia is a major risk. Fortunately, wetsuits and drysuits specifically designed for surfing are widely available. They are made specifically to allow the needed mobility for surfing while still retaining their insulating properties. Some even add a bit of buoyancy which helps the surfer reach the surface quicker when submerged.

Who Is Big Wave Surfing For?

Because of the sheer amount of risk involved, it is understandable that big wave surfing isn’t for everyone. This is not something a beginner or even an intermediate surfer should attempt at doing. It takes an incredible amount of training and preparation to even begin attempting.

One of the main factors to consider is the surfer’s skill level. Big waves are tricky and extremely dangerous even for seasoned surfers. A budding big-wave surfer must be able to confidently and skillfully surf smaller waves before taking a shot at the big leagues. It also takes quite a bit of experience to know what to do in case of unforeseen events like a wipeout.

Endurance is yet another thing that a surfer must have in abundance. Standing on the board and staying on it is a whole-body workout in and of itself. Paddling out to sea is another energy-hogging part of surfing. Tow-in surfers can get around this with the help of powered watercraft but if the surfer is planning to go full traditional, be ready for some intense paddling.

The surfer’s mentality is yet another strong factor. The sport takes a lot of discipline, determination, and perseverance to be able to perform at a top-level. It demands total commitment from the surfer, which is difficult if they are not in it for the right reasons. Big Wave surfing is not a sport one picks up overnight mastering it over a few days. It takes years of practice to be competent at it.

What You Should Know Before You Go

Here are a few things to consider before you head out:

Research

As they say “knowing is half the battle”. Always make it a point to get to know a potential spot even before heading out. Know when the best months to catch monster waves, the water temperature, and the weather conditions. For this, you can check out online forums and social media groups for more details. You can also ask experienced big wave surfers for any recommendations.

Do some location scouting

One way to get a feel of the surf is to just head out and experience it for yourself. Together with a partner, head out into the water with your snorkelling gear. Check out how turbulent the water becomes and how frequent the waves form. This gives you a rough idea of what to expect when you do head out on your surfboard.

Good prep work

Right before you head out, always make sure that you are properly equipped for the task. Check your board for any signs of damage especially cracks. The boards experience tremendous amounts of force while surfing. Cracks may cause the board to fail. Also, do a safety check of your floatation device as well as the board leash or foot straps. 

Know your board

Understanding how your board greatly affects your performance. Get a feel for your board by practising on it even if there are no giant waves to catch. Take it out for a spin get a feel of its speed, maneuverability, and performance in the water. 

Do Yoga

Yoga is a good way to improve your body in preparation for surfing the big waves. Yoga helps practitioners become limber and flexibility which improves the surfer’s mobility. Yoga also helps improve balance and coordination. All these combined help in handling the board and keeping on it at all times.

Practice

Finally, nothing beats good old practice to keep you always ready for any eventualities out in the surf. Practice holding your breath underwater safely before heading out. This lets your body get used to the sensation reducing the chance of panicking. Panic increases your heart rate and oxygen consumption which can lead to accidents when not properly managed. 

Always go with a buddy

Under no circumstances should you go big wave surfing⁠—or any kind of surfing for that matter⁠—alone. No matter how confident a surfer is with their skill, it is always important to always err on the side of caution. Having someone with you when something unexpected happens is something you’d be thankful for after the fact.

When Is The Best Time To Go Big Wave Surfing?

Big Wave season varies greatly from location to location. Here are a few popular big wave spots and the best time to head on over.

North Shore, Oahu

First up is the birthplace of the sport itself, Oahu’s infamous North Shore. Regarded as the Mecca of Big Wave Surfing, Oahu’s big wave season is during the winter. During this time, you can expect to see waves of up to 20 feet. No wonder this is a top spot for enthusiasts around the world. Pipeline and Waimea Bay are two of the most notable spots in North Shore.

Teahupo’o, Tahiti

Another big name in the Big Wave surfing scene. Found in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, Tahiti is centre stage for the biggest waves on the planet. Although great waves can be had all year round, the best time for big wave surfers is between May and August. The water stays at a toasty 26 degrees centigrade all year round.

Nazare, Portugal

Found way up north of the Equator is another haven for XXL wave surfing. Though not as consistent in producing monster waves, when it does it’s one heck of an experience. In fact, it holds the record as the tallest wave to be ever surfed. Like North Shore, winter is also when Nazare sees most of the big wave action.

The Right, Western Australia

South of the Equator is yet another exhilarating big wave spot. Not only does this strictly tow-in spot have one of the toughest waves, but it’s also shark-infested. Way to raise the risk level to eleven! Cyclone season, between November and April, is the best times to catch these monster waves.

The Future of Big Wave Surfing

The future of big wave surfing is looking bright as ever. The sport has now come a long way from the obscure niche of its infancy. With the help of the pioneers of the sport, big wave surfing has been steadily gaining a foothold mainstream. Competitions are also a major driving force in increasing interest.

Surprisingly, climate change is also playing a huge role in the future of big wave surfing. It is expected that surfers will only see bigger and bigger waves in the coming years. This is a welcome albeit bleak development in the sport to enthusiasts. Oahu will see even more interest in the coming years as the fledgeling sport slowly gains more fans and enthusiasts alike each year.

WADI Adventure Park in the UAE (above) uses the drop tank method to create the waves.

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