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What is Big Wave Surfing?

   March 23rd, 2021   Posted In: Articles   Tags:

What is Big Wave Surfing?

When you ask the question “what is big wave surfing?” What comes to mind, obviously, is probably the literal meaning of it. Big wave surfing is surfing on big waves. But over the last 70-years, simply surfing on big waves has become so much more. The sport has had a defining evolution that, in my opinion, makes it the most extreme of all board sports, and arguably just as extreme as base-jumping or wingsuit flying or whatever other sport you consider highly dangerous.

The Actual Definition

Ask most people in the surfing community, what is big wave surfing? They will likely agree with the common understanding that for surfing to be considered ‘big wave’ surfing, the waves must be at least 20 feet high. Surfers that are charging waves beyond 20-feet are legitimate big wave surfers. The bigger the wave, the bigger the risk, and the bigger the thrill for both the surfer and us the spectators.

Tow-in or Paddling

Another thing to consider when answering the question of what is big wave surfing is how the development Wave Runners allowed surfers to be towed into waves that are typically moving too fast to paddle into or are in locations that are too hard to get to.  Having to paddle into a big wave is significantly harder than being towed into it at the proper speed.

Wave Runners are also critical when it comes to the safety of the surfers. Wave Runners are able to rescue surfers quickly right after they wipeout so they aren’t getting pounded over and over by huge walls of whitewash. The original big wave pioneers did not have this advantage. It allows surfers to push the limits of the sport by allowing them to surf in locations that they may not be able to get to without a motorized watercraft of some kind.

what is big wave surfing

The Search Was On

Once people started discovering that surfers could actually tame these massive beasts new big wave surf spots started popping up all over the world. The biggest waves in the world are being surfed in Nazare, Portugal. Some argue that the biggest waves to ever break happened in November 2020 during a historic swell that hit Nazare. Some of the sets were said to be more than 100-feet high. Nazare holds the world records for the biggest waves ever surfed for both men and women.

Aside from more than a dozen in Hawaii, some other notable big wave surf locations include Teahupoo in Tahiti, Mavericks in Northern California, Todos Santos in Mexico, and Shipstern Bluff in Australia. There are dozens of others around the world that, with the right swell, can easily produce waves that top 20-feet.

Big Wave Competitions

Nowadays, you can answer the question of what is big wave surfing by defining it as a series of unique contests that produce coveted awards year after year. These contests are unique because the contests have windows of dates when they can take place. Since no one can predict when and where gigantic swells will hit the professionals taking part in the competitions are essentially on standby for a period of about 2 months. Sometimes the contests don’t happen at all if the right swell refuses to make its way in. World Surf League posts information about the contests and who has taken part in them in the past.

Big Wave Surf Awards

World Surf League has also been hosting an annual event known as the Big Wave Surf Awards where the best of the best come together to show off their best rides. This is where some of the gnarliest footage of the biggest waves, barrels, and wipeouts is on display for everyone to judge. On top of pretty much the biggest bragging rights involved in the surfing and extreme sports communities, there is also $350,000 in prize money up for grabs for the winners of these categories:

  • “Biggest Paddle Wave”
  • “XXL Biggest Wave”
  • “Ride of the Year”
  • “Wipeout Award”
  • “Tube of the Year”
  • “Best Overall Performance”

What is big wave surfing is a hard thing to exactly answer but I think I have given you a good, brief rundown of the sport from start to finish. Now it’s your job to explore it more because it truly is one of the most epic spectacles you can ever witness. Seeing it on a screen is one thing, but seeing it in person is truly mind-blowing. I had one chance to see it at Ocean Beach in San Francisco in December of 2020. The waves were 25 to 30 feet tall and it was spectacular. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like seeing one 75 feet high but one day I will!

Wes Severson

Wes Severson

Wes Severson is a fitness enthusiast and bodyboarder from San Francisco, CA who is always at Ocean Beach hitting the waves. He is also an Emmy Award-winning broadcast news writer and producer and a recording artist who goes by the name Wes Magic.
Wes Severson

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