Big Wave Surfing: Paddle In
No-fear big wave surfers dare to achieve the seemingly impossible: ride liquid giants rising higher than four-story buildings. The purest form of this adrenaline-pumping sport is traditional paddle surfing. Elite surfers like Kai Lenny use their bare hands to paddle out to legendary spots such as “Jaws,” the surf break at Pe’ahi on the North Shore of Maui, Hawaii, and the “Killers” break off Isla Todos Santos, Mexico.
“Big wave surfing is probably my favorite form of wave riding because it's the most intense,” says Lenny, who always wears his TAG Heuer Aquaracer watch when surfing. Being able to see the watch at all times is an important part of Lenny’s process, which is why, he says, he particularly appreciates the wetsuit-friendly bracelet on the new, streamlined generation of the Aquaracer. “I don’t want the watch to be underneath my wetsuit,” adds Lenny. “The Aquaracer’s stainless steel adjustable bracelet allows me to go from wearing it on my skin to wearing it on top of my wetsuit, which is about 3mm thicker.”
Big Wave Surfing: Tow-in
Known as the Mt. Everest of surfing, the gargantuan winter waves off the coast of Nazaré, Portugal can rise up to 100 feet—about the height of 9-story building. The supersized swells are produced by an undersea canyon that’s nearly three times deeper than the Grand Canyon and extends 140 miles out to sea from the nearshore at Praia do Norte Beach. Nazaré holds the Guinness World Record for largest wave to be surfed, an 80-foot-tall tower of water.
It's no wonder then that Nazaré is one of Lenny’s favorite spots to surf. “I like looking for waves that are around 50 to 60 feet or taller, so we travel to Portugal a lot,” he says. To avoid getting pummeled and seriously injured (or even killed) trying to paddle out to Nazaré’s monster wave break, Lenny hitches a ride on a Jet Ski piloted by a tow-in surfing expert. These highly-skilled pilots use a tow rope to pull surfers into position on breaking waves, then circle around quickly to scoop up anyone who wipes out.
Extreme paddlers take whitewater kayaking next level by fearlessly plummeting over formidable falls. The current world-record run is a death-defying, drop over Washington State’s Palouse Falls, which at 186 feet are only two feet shorter than Niagara’s tallest falls. To conquer the second-highest waterfalls ever kayaked, extreme paddlers head to Rio Alesesca in the jungles of eastern Mexico. Here on the river’s notoriously wild “Big Banana” stretch of whitewater, a thundering cascade roars out of small box canyon 128-feet up, dropping kayakers into a large pool below.
Before taking any plunge off a waterfall, kayakers spend hours onshore studying the water to plot out the safest line down. On the actual run, the most important paddle stroke is the last one up top—at the lip of the falls—since this sets the angle of the kayak. Once vertical, kayakers slowly lean forward, flat against the deck of their kayak, for the stomach-dropping rush to the bottom.
A mix of courage, preparation, luck, and crazy-good paddling skills is required to kayak the churning rapids and falls of Class V-plus, or expert-level, stretches of whitewater. With its pressure-resistant casing and water resistance up to 984 feet, the new Aquaracer is built to handle capsizing, hitting rocks, and the other hazards extreme kayakers commonly experience. Two favorite U.S. river playgrounds for paddlers pursuing an extreme adrenaline rush are Washington’s Little White Salmon, a tributary of the Columbia River, and the Potomac River Gorge in northern Virginia.
The three-mile run along the lower Little White Salmon is legendary for its roller coaster conditions: continuous whitewater; steep, fast rapids; and non-stop obstacle course of boulders, chutes, drops, and ledges. Potomac Gorge includes the Great Falls of the Potomac, often called the most magnificent natural landmark in the Washington, D.C. area. Great Falls challenges expert kayakers to navigate through a series of adrenaline-pumping cascading rapids, 20-foot waterfalls, and jagged rocks. The total drop measures 76 feet in less than a mile, making this the steepest fall line rapids in the East.
Where the ocean meets the coast, water swirls around rock formations and rushes through natural constrictions, producing dangerously-fun conditions for extreme sea kayaking. Maneuvering through this turbulent, fast, and unpredictable world of whirlpools, eddies, huge standing waves, and pounding surf requires expert paddling skills, split-second decision making, and a small, nimble kayak.
The raging surf off Kauai, Hawaii’s wild and rocky Na Pali Coast is a dream destination for extreme kayakers. In addition to being breathtakingly scenic, Na Pali’s 1,000-foot-tall cliff faces, jagged rocks, and sea caves help dial up the adventure level by creating tidal races. These naturally-occurring rapids are produced when a fast-moving rising or falling tide passes through a narrow passage or is pushed up by a shelf, reef, or other underwater obstruction. The intense wave action can send kayaks crashing into sharp rocks, making a helmet, gloves, and the virtually unbreakable Aquaracer essential gear.
There’s an art and science to deep diving on a single breath. Some world-class freedivers can hold their breath for seven minutes or more, but lung capacity alone isn’t enough to descend more than 300 feet into a watery abyss and make it back up alive. Calming the mind, body, and breath allows freedivers to achieve the meditative state needed to channel their inner mermaid or merman without blacking out. Those who master the sport can silently swim among colossal sperm whales in the Indian Ocean off the island nation of Mauritius and explore other equally amazing undersea worlds.
Each year, the Super Bowl of freediving, Vertical Blue, draws the world’s best to 663-foot Dean’s Blue Hole on Long Island, Bahamas. The event’s current world-record freedive of 400 feet was a free immersion plunge, meaning divers pull themselves along a weighted rope without fins. At such depths, precisely tracking elapsed time underwater is essential. Freedivers can use the Aquaracer’s unidirectional bezel—which is easy to grip and turn and has legible, luminous markings—to accurately track the total time spent from the start of their descent to the start of their ascent.
Water-filled limestone cenotes, or sinkholes, serve as gateways to the underwater cave systems beneath Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Considered sacred to the ancient Maya, who believed that the rain god Chaak lived in the cenotes, the submerged passageways are the domain of extreme cave divers. These elite scuba dives possess the technical, or Tec, diving skills and specialized training required to go deeper (more than 130 feet down), remain underwater longer, and explore potentially hazardous cave systems.
While light rays can filter down 100 feet or more into cenotes, extreme cave divers often navigate underwater in total or near-total darkness. Even when it’s tough to see a few inches beyond their masks, divers can still check the time thanks to the Aquaracer’s luminous hour hand and hour markers, and minutes hand and bezel markers. All are coated with Super-LumiNova, a non-radioactive material designed to absorb light and remit it in darkness. In the dark, the hour hand and hour markers glow green and the minutes hand and bezel marker glow blue, making tracking time one less thing to worry about in extremely challenging cave diving conditions.
The icebergs of Greenland take extreme scuba diving and freediving to new depths. Some icebergs here are chunks of freshwater ice that have broken off a glacier or the Greenland Ice Sheet. Others are floating ice sheets made of frozen sea water from the Arctic. While icebergs in Greenland can reach up to 300 feet high, most of that ice—85 to 90 percent—is only visible below the surface. That makes diving the only way to fully experience the vibrant underworld beneath the ice.
The frigid northern waters and threat of collapsing ice make iceberg diving an extreme watersport. In Greenland, only certified divers who have recent experience diving in a dry suit—which create a seal around the wrists and neck to keep water out—are permitted to dive beneath the ice. Those who do are treated to front-row views of bizarre cold-water sea creatures, such as odd-looking sea cucumbers, transparent Arctic jellyfish, and the lumpy, ball-shaped lumpsucker fish whose underside “sucker” sticks to rocks.
In a fast-and-furious few seconds, high-flying cliff divers flip, twist, and slice feet first into the water—all while hurtling through the air at speeds of 50 mph or more. Similar to flying a plane, a successful takeoff (divers push out as far as possible to clear the rocks) and landing (pencil-straight to avoid serious injury upon impact) are critical, particularly when hurling oneself off the cliff equivalent of an eight-story building. Even perfectly executed entries into the water send shockwaves through the body, and the slightest mistake could shatter a foot, ankle, or back.
Elite cliff diving competitions feature off-the-cliff events, platform dives, or both from heights of 88.5 feet. Off the coast of Sao Miguel, the largest island of Portugal’s Azores archipelago, cliff divers stand directly on top of a rocky islet tower before freefalling down to the surface of the North Atlantic. While jumping into swimming holes from much lower cliffs is a popular recreational sport, too, any jump from a height is inherently dangerous. Follow posted signs and use common sense before taking the plunge into any river, lake, or other natural pool.
Platform Cliff Diving
On Inis Mor, the largest of Ireland’s three Aran Islands, there’s no room for error when diving off a platform into Poll na bPeist, a naturally occurring limestone pool known to extreme cliff divers as the “Serpent’s Lair” or “Wormhole.” Brisk ocean water flows in and out of the rectangular pool in a continuous cycle. The fluctuating water levels means that divers need to precisely time their dives to avoid landing in shallow water. Before stepping out onto the platform, which juts out from a cliff 88.5 feet above the Wormhole, divers could use a chronograph (stopwatch) function on a watch to time the ebb and flow, helping estimate the optimal moment to launch from the platform.
One of the world’s most dazzling platform cliff diving events, Infinite Drop, is typically staged annually in Agios Nikolaos, a postcard-perfect coastal town on Crete, the largest island in Greece. World-class high divers somersault and spin from a 65-foot-high diving platform erected on the rocky cliffs above Lake Voulismeni. The event includes solo and synchronized team diving competitions, and a chance for kids to learn high-diving basics from a kid-friendly, eight-foot-high board.