For all of human history, waves have been a byword for “danger.” They drown swimmers, sink ships, and swamp entire towns with an inexorability and indifference that mocks the frailty of man in the intermittent roar and murmur of moving water.
While many old maritime fears have died out in our modern age of monolithic cruise ships, detailed weather algorithms, and satellite navigation, the wave remains uniquely menacing to all but a very select few. Ironically, surfers have changed the way we look at waves, not through any technological advancement, but by dedicated themselves to a Pre-Columbian diversion in which they challenge the sea with little more accouterment than and a glorified buoy with fins on one side.
Big-wave surfing as we know it today is a relatively new pursuit tracing its origins to the “waterman” culture of Hawaii in the Postwar period. The last 20 years have seen nearly constant redefinitions of the size and ferocity of waves that it is possible for a person to ride and for the moment there seem to be few limits to what accomplished surfers will attempt. However, there remain a handful of surf spots in the world that, by dint of size, bathymetry, and/or pure power, have even the boldest of today’s watermen and women contemplating their own mortality as they wait between sets.
We got in touch with some of the most accomplished big-wave surfers in the world today, and asked each to tell us about their pick for most dangerous wave they have surfed. Here they are, in no particular order.
• Peahi, or Jaws, Maui, Hawaii, Mark Healey
Peahi, the Hawaiian word for “beckon” sits off the North Shore of Maui beneath imposing cliffs. It was first ridden by windsurfers and became a proving ground for the nascent tow-in surfing movement in the late 90s, led by surfers like Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama. More recently, it has been reclaimed as a paddle-in surfing spot based on the performances of surfers like Shane Dorian, Carlos Burle, and Mark Healey.
“Of all the big waves in the world, I think it has the most velocity,” Healey says. “ It just moves faster and hits harder. Rescue situations with the Jet Skis are very difficult,” he adds, “because the liquid avalanche ends in a 300-foot cliff.”
Everyman’s Tip: Head west down the Hana Highway until you get to Paia, a town with enough beach and reefbreaks to satisfy any level of surfer. Just remember to wake up early to beat the winds.
• Dungeons, South Africa, Grant “Twiggy” Baker
South Africa is known among surfers for the galling trinity of spectacular waves, cold water, and copious shark encounters. No spot sums this up quite like Dungeons, which sits dormant at the Mouth of Hout Bay in Cape Town. During the southern hemisphere winter, swells that have run the length of the southern Atlantic slam into numerous reefs scattered across the bay and send even the heartiest paddling for the horizon. South African native Grant Baker, who goes by “Twig” or “Twiggy” to all and sundry calls it “an awe inspiring wave for quite a few reasons.”
“Besides the sheer size and power of the wave that makes it so intimidating, it’s the location in Hout Bay, surrounded by huge cliffs that plunge to great depths around it and house some of the biggest sharks known to man that makes it downright terrifying!” Twig says. “When you combine this with the vast, football-size playing field out there it makes it very difficult to surf and means there will always be wide, ‘sneaker sets’ that catch you off guard and keep you skittish and on edge. The whole experience leaves you breathless from start to finish.”
Everyman’s Tip: Cape Town is one of the finest surfing cities in the world but a safe, summertime bet is the ever reliable Muizenberg, where the long stretch of sand accommodates all with minimal hassle. It gets crowded on the beach, so stake your plot early.
• AGITI, Spain, Asier Muniain
The north coast of Spain has long been the bane of fishermen. Its rocky headlands, combined with the often unpredictable weather in the Bay of Biscay create treacherous conditions that have littered the area with shipwrecks. These same features also create a wealth of rarely-breaking big-wave spots that only come to life under very specific conditions.
A man who understands this better than most is the Basque big-wave surfer Asier Muniain who has dedicated much of the last decade to scouring the coast for these spots. AGITI is a wave he found right on his doorstep near San Sebastián which has only been surfed twice, ever, for reasons that will soon become apparent. “It needs a really big swell to start breaking and when it does, it’s extremely close to the rocks,” Muniain says. “It breaks into a small bay that is only 200 meters wide and eventually crashes into giant boulders. If you fall, there’s no place for you to go and even the Jet Ski can’t pick you up.”
Everyman’s Tip: If you don’t have a jet ski and do have a healthy regard for your own well-being, Playa Zuriolla in San Sebastian is a hub of surfing in area. For less crowded waves, head to the long, empty beaches of Southern France, which sit just an hour’s drive across the boarder.
• Shipstern Bluff, Tasmania, Marti Paradisis
Once called “Devil’s Point” in honor of the apocalyptic headland that looms over the break, Shipstern Bluff sits in a secluded corner of southeast Tasmania where it absorbs storm systems created in the “furious 50s” (winds that whip up the ocean around the South Pole). The spot is famous for its complicated bathymetry which produces a wave that seems to mutate as it breaks. Whenever it is working in its full glory, local Tasmanian Marti Paradisis is one of Shipstern’s undisputed masters.
“The wave doesn’t break at Shipsterns,” he says. “The ocean actually folds and tries to destroy everything in its path. Surfing here requires a mindset as if you’re going into battle … it’s completely unpredictable.” That is never more true than when the infamous “stair steps” appear on the wave face and attempt to buck the surfer off. “As you drop into the wave, you start to see the ocean draw the water off the reef and the wave starts to bend in the shape of the sea floor–that’s what creates ‘the step,’ ” Paradisis explains. “Once you see the step forming you automatically decide which line to take. You want to hit the step early, when it’s at its smallest. But you also want to get deep in the barrel … when Shipsterns gets big, Its a challenge and a humbling experience.”
Check the two-minute mark on this video to get an idea of exactly what he’s talking about:
Everyman’s tip: Unlike much of the rest of Australia, Tasmania is not exactly the land of endless summer. Expect some clouds and chilly water. On the up side, the crowds are rarely an issue and locals are often very friendly. Park and Clifton beaches near Hobart are go-to spots.
• Cape Fear, Sydney, Australia, Mark Mathews
Cape Fear, also called “Ours,” sits 20 miles south of Sydney in the turbulent waters of Cape Solander–named, like many of the bays, capes, and headlands along Australia’s East Coast, by Captain Cook, for a member of one of his expeditions. Ironically, in a country full of huge surf that often breaks far offshore on “bomboras” (literally, “big water” in one of the aboriginal dialects) Cape Fear is the smallest wave on our list and probably breaks the closest to shore. But according to long-time Cape Fear surfer Mark Mathews, size can be deceiving. “Cape fear is pound for pound the heaviest wave in the world,” he says. “Its close proximity to a barnacle-riddled cliff face and the waves’ fierce power make it either a recipe for disaster or the most exciting, adrenaline-filled wave of your life. Even though it is only surfable up to ten feet, at the same size there is no where in the world I have surfed as heavy.”
“Forever Ours” courtesy of Tim Bonython.
Everyman’s Tip: Visiting surfers should check the Northern Beaches of Sydney before delving into the Southern suburbs. Manley beach is longer than the slightly more famous Bondi, so it’s often a better bet, but crowds are always an issue around the city. Those with a bit more time can drive a few hours North of South of the city for basically empty lineups.
• Cortes Bank, Pacific Ocean, Greg Long
From vicious shorebreak, we head into the middle of the Pacific Ocean, some 100-miles off the coast of Southern California to a surf spot that seems to come right out of an old seafarers tale. Cortes Bank is believed by many to hold the biggest surfable waves in the world, if you manage to be there at the right time – no easy task considering you can’t exactly check it from shore. Greg Long, perhaps the most decorated and respected of today’s big-wave surfers to come from California, almost drowned at the spot last winter. He calls it “the wave that haunts me the most.”
“The line-up spans a mile in width, rogue clean-up sets are commonplace, shipwrecks with re-bar sticking up like railroad spikes lay submerged only meters below the surface, and sharks frequent the line-up,” Long says. “With no land mass in sight, the largest swells in the North Pacific Ocean rise up from over a thousand feet of water and converge on the Southwest corner of the bank, creating mountainous waves, moving faster and stronger than anything I have ever experienced anywhere else in the world.“
Long’s now-famous wipeout occurred on the biggest wave he had ever surfed at Cortes. “Wiping out on a large set, I was pushed into a deep vortex of turbulent ocean energy that held me there for three consecutive waves. Seconds short of surfacing to get a breath of air, before the fourth wave rolled overhead, I blacked out. Had it not been for my water safety team’s, diligent and heroic effort, I would have died that day.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Everyman’s Tip: The only time you will be remotely near Cortes Bank is if you are lost at sea, in which case, surfing will be the last thing on your mind.
• Praia do Norte, Portugal, Garrett McNamara
This behemoth, which breaks off the coast of the small fishing village, Nazaré, in central Portugal, was pioneered only a few years ago by the peripatetic Hawaiia, Garrett McNamara, with the help of the Portuguese tourism board. An underwater canyon funnels swells into the beach in such a way that they are amplified and pushed into lofty peaks of water. “There is something very mysterious and magical about Praia do Norte,” says McNamara. “The wave never breaks in the same place twice and each wave is totally different.” Never one to resist a simile, McNamara compares it, humorously, to a box of chocolates. “Some of them are amazing and the best in the world, and some you never want to taste again!” Last winter, McNamara caught one of the best in the world at Praia do Norte. Although the peanut gallery is still debating its size, there is no doubt that it was a keeper: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DIsjgZoLO0
Everyman’s Tip: Portugal is one of the unexploited surfing gems of Europe. The beaches in and around the fishing town of Peniche have gained an excellent reputation for powerful and consistent waves in recent years, but better to do a bit of exploring and find a little nook to call your own.
• Mavericks, California, Grant Washburn
Of all the waves on this list, Mavericks is perhaps the closest to being a household name. Located just off the coast of the sleepy dormitory community of Half Moon Bay, in Northern California, it has hosted some of the most dramatic moments of the modern era in big-wave surfing. Grant Washburn is one of the Maverick’s long-time devotees. He muses that “spectacular experiences provided by the wave cultivate an obsessive devotion (to it) but also exact a heavy toll.” — a fact attested to by the number of deaths and near drownings at the spot.
Aside from the usual litany of life threatening circumstances, Maverick’s has was Washburn calls a “hidden threat”
“Just beneath the massive peak, a deep hole in the bottom of the ocean inhales seawater, surging violently with each passing swell,” he explains. “It’s known as ‘The Cauldron,’ and it’s responsible for regular two wave hold-downs, and the deaths of Mark Foo and Sion Milosky. When it is firing on all cylinders,” by which he means, when the swell is thirty-foot and above, “Maverick’s provides one of the most feared challenges in sport.”
Everyman’s Tip: Surfing in Northern California is a much colder, but far less crowded experience than in the southern part of the state. The various state beaches that lie just south of Halfmoon bay on Highway One offer uncrowded waves for a variety of skill levels. They are also pit stops along California’s shark alley, so perhaps bring a friend.