Surfing the world’s biggest waves
How big is big in terms of a surfable wave do you think? 10 metres? 15? How about 30 metres of unforgiving, bone crushing swell?
Because that’s the height of the largest wave ever surfed, which was conquered by American, Garrett McNamara, off the coast of Portugal in 2011. Impressed?
Surfers from all over the world are still fiendishly searching for new ways to smash records previously considered unbreakable with the help of forecast technology and satellite imagery. So if you’re up for a challenge, here’s a list of the gnarliest to test your mettle on.
Note, this crazy list is for professional surfers only! These big waves are for spectating purposes only for most of us mere mortals!
Teahupo’o in Tahiti (also known as Chopes) is widely considered to be the heaviest wave on the planet, with a notorious left-hand break. Breaking hundreds of metres out to sea, it then heads for a razor-sharp coral reef, where it stretches and contorts into a crazy, hyper-vertical cavern up to seven metres high. From body boarding to tow and paddle surfing, Teahupo’o is the measuring stick of giant barrels and with its name translating as ‘to sever the head’, this is one notorious meat-grinder.
The US of A has its fair share of biggies worth smashing, including the Ghost Tree break in Northern California. Located off the coast of Pebble Beach, this spot has the additional bonuses of hidden boulders, frigid temperatures and more than a few men in grey suits hovering about. Typically a tow-in wave requiring a swell of mammoth proportions, when it does arrive, waves can reach up to 24 metres high and 6 metres wide.
For sheer, savage beauty, few waves compare to the splendour of the Mavericks in Northern California, a super-charged right-hander (with a short, hollow left) that can top out at around nine metres. But the size of these waves are only half their challenge – they are also steep, thick and fast – breaking over a kilometre out to sea, in some of the world’s most turbulent water. When surfers talk about liquid freight trains, this is what they’re referring to.
Cortes Bank in California is like a lot of big wave locations – it doesn’t break often, but when it does, it’s a monster. Dodgy tales relayed by fisherman of massively perfect swell churning about in the Pacific was the stuff of legends until surfers discovered a gold mine a hundred k’s off the coast. Monstrous and mystical, this underwater mountain range has set the scene for a slew of Guinness World Records and Billabong XXL awards.
The choice of big wave chargers for years, the Dungeons in Cape Town not only offers one of the most harrowing right-handers in the world, it’s also known for its gigantic underwater boulders, frigid water and hold-downs that will have even the most seasoned of thrill seekers wondering what they’ve got themselves into. Accessible only by boat, it’s worth holding on tight on the way out, as it’s also an area notorious for great whites, which snack on fishy morsels at nearby Seal Island.
Hawaii’s also not a spot for the faint hearted, with the Pipeline on the north shore of Oahu revered as one of the heaviest and most deadly waves in the world. Tragically, it has taken more lives than any other, with its powerful, hollow lefts and rights that break just off the beach and over a jagged, coral reef. Ironically, the most dangerous days at this spot aren’t when the swell is the biggest, but rather when it’s picking up quickly and doubling over its own shallow inside section.
Further down the Kamehameha Highway lies what is, for some, the granddaddy of them all – Waimea Bay. Often overlooked nowadays due to the increase in tow-surfers favouring the outer reefs, this spot still cuts it and can pack a life-threatening punch. With a combination of neck-breaking shore breaks and wave faces that can reach up to 18 metres, pro-surfer Dennis Pang’s epic description says it all, “At Pipeline, it’s white when you’re underwater and at Sunset it’s grey. Waimea is black.”
And let’s not forget about good old Oz and a spot off the Esperance coast in WA about seven hours east of Perth. Accessible only by boat, Cyclops is still a fairly new wave in terms of its appearance on the world surfing’s radar, however it’s been revered for having the heaviest, thickest lips in the world. When giant swells roll in, the depth change is extreme and all of their power is exploded onto the coral below, causing it to take on a terrifyingly unrecognisable shape as it literally engulfs itself.
In the surfing world there are great surf spots and then there are insane surf spots. Pipeline, as described earlier, is definitively otherworldly with its ten-metre drop over a cavernous volcanic reef. However, here the beach is close, the water’s warm and there’s probably the odd lifeguard or paramedic that can lend a hand if you get into trouble. Granted, it’s well beyond what most surfers can handle, however the accessibility and location still make it a possibility.
Shipstern’s Bluff, which is located off the southern end of Tassie, is definitely not like that. Access to ‘Shippies’ is via a two-hour hike around Tassie National Park or a stomach churning boat ride from the local harbour. A right breaking mutant wave that explodes in front of a boulder-piled headland, this monster pours in from the deeper water and unleashes a holy power as it surges back and forth over a vast slab of granite.
And while the wave size is relatively consistent, its rideability depends on the wind. A slight cross-choppiness can result in certain and violent disaster, but even when it’s perfect, the wave’s pull on the craggy rock below mutates into several sub-level sections that form more than one perplexing trough. This is a wave with infinitely shifting and often unreadable possibilities.
A few added bonuses that will have you joining the likes of our own legendary Mick Fanning (who tackled its ferocity last year). The water is below freezing, there are heaps of man-eating sharks lurking about and it’s awfully isolated if any ‘mishaps’ occur.
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