What Is Considered Big Wave Surfing? (Plus the 100ft wave)

Big wave surfing is an extreme sport that pushes the boundaries of human courage and physical capability. As an individual who has experienced the power of big waves, I’m here to dive into the thrilling world of this unique discipline. 

Big wave surfing refers to waves at least 20 feet high. It’s high-risk and requires considerable skill. Surfers either paddle into or are towed into these massive waves, often reaching speeds up to 80km/h. Some famous locations for this include Jaws and Mavericks.

For the WSL Professional Big Wave Surf Competitions, the WSL team will look for a minimum wave height of 25 feet on the face of the wave before announcing that the big wave surf event will go ahead. [source]

In this article, I will explain how big wave surfing is defined, what constitutes a ‘big wave’, and how such waves are measured. Additionally, we’ll discuss the essential equipment surfers need to successfully and safely ride these aquatic giants.

What Is Considered Big Wave Surfing?

As the name suggests, big wave surfing involves riding waves significantly larger than average. Official standards, like those set by the World Surf League (WSL), require a minimum wave height of 20 feet, with professional competitions demanding a minimum of 25 feet. However, the definition extends beyond mere measurements. It’s also about the surfer’s ability to handle the immense water force, maintain balance, and manoeuvre with agility and precision. 

Big wave surfing is not for the novice or faint-hearted; it demands significant experience, skill, and unyielding courage. Challenges like the unpredictable nature of the wave and the potential for wipeouts add to the adrenaline-pumping thrill that defines this extreme sport.

What Is Classified As A Big Wave?

In big wave surfing, any wave that reaches a minimum height of 20 feet from the trough to the crest is considered a ‘big wave’. However, in professional competitions such as those held by the World Surf League (WSL), the preferred minimum is even higher at 25 feet. 

The monstrous waves surfed at legendary spots like Mavericks in California or Jaws in Hawaii often exceed these dimensions, reaching towering heights of 60 feet or more. 

Recently, the town of Nazare in Portugal has become the mother of big wave spots, with Sebastian Steudtner surfing an 86-foot wave in October 2020. 

Regarding surfing competitions, it’s not just size that matters – these waves’ power, speed, and unpredictability are equally crucial in their classification. These factors combined make for the thrilling and dangerous challenge of big-wave surfing.

How Do You Measure A Big Wave?

Wave measurement in big wave surfing is a topic of debate and fascination. Traditionally, the ‘Hawaiian Scale, ‘ which measures the back of the wave and often results in smaller measurements, is used. However, it’s common for big wave surfing to rely on the ‘Face Scale’, which measures from the trough to the crest, capturing the entire face of the wave. 

Photographic analysis is often used with these methods, enabling experts to compare the surfer’s height with the wave. This provides a relative scale for measurement. 

For example, in the following image, if we know the surfer’s height, we can approximate the wave’s height. Let’s assume this surfer is nearly 6 feet; however, as he is crouching on his board, let’s assume that his shown height in the image is 5 feet tall. 

Multiplying his height from the trough of the wave (the bottom of the wave) to the crest of the wave (the top of the wave), we can approximate the overall height of the wave.

Of course, this method of measuring a wave is up for debate, but this is the method most commonly used by big wave surfers at the time of writing. 

Regardless of the method used, it’s clear that wave measurement is an essential aspect of big-wave surfing, as it helps define the standards of the sport and underscores the incredible feats surfers achieve.

Are 3, 4 Or 5-Foot Waves Big?

While 3, 4, or 5-foot waves may seem substantial to the average beachgoer or beginner surfer, they are not typically classified as ‘big’ waves in the world of surfing. 

In general surfing terms, these are considered small to medium-sized waves, ideal for intermediate surfers or those looking to improve their skills and confidence in the water

It is only when waves reach a height of 20 feet or more that they begin to enter the realm of ‘big wave’ surfing. These colossal waves offer a completely different surfing experience, demanding a high level of skill, courage, and specialized equipment.

Can Beginners Surf 3-Foot Waves?

Yes, beginners can surf 3-foot waves. This height is considered a suitable starting point for novices in the sport. Surfing on 3-foot waves allows beginners to build their confidence, balance, and wave-catching skills without dealing with the potential dangers and complexities of larger waves. 

However, it’s important to note that all beginners should first undertake lessons from qualified instructors to understand the basics of surfing, safety protocols, and how to identify potential hazards in the ocean. 

While 3-foot waves are less intimidating, they still require a level of skill and respect for the ocean’s power. A wipeout on a 3-foot wave still packs a punch and can be unsettling for the beginner surfer. 

What Size Board Do You Need For Big Wave Surfing?

When it comes to big wave surfing, the size of the surfboard is significantly important. The right board can improve manoeuvrability, stability, and speed while riding these gigantic waves. Big wave surfers typically use “guns” or “rhino chasers”, which are long and narrow surfboards ranging from 7 to 12 feet in length. These boards are designed to handle high speeds and provide control on steep wave faces. They also assist surfers in paddling quickly into the wave’s critical sections. 

On the other hand, advancements in technology have introduced tow-in surfing, where surfers are towed into massive waves by a Jet Ski. This method allows surfers to use shorter, lighter boards, offering enhanced manoeuvrability once on the wave. However, it’s crucial to note that while these boards offer better control and manoeuvrability, they do not provide the same paddling power as their longer counterparts. 

In conclusion, the choice of board size depends on your individual surfing style, the nature of the waves, and their size. However, whether you opt for a long or short board, harnessing the immense power of big waves requires a blend of skill, courage, and the right equipment.

What Safety Gear Do You Need For Big Wave Surfing?

Safety is paramount in big-wave surfing due to the inherent risks and extreme conditions. The key pieces of safety equipment for big wave surfing include:

  1. Personal Flotation Device (PFD): A PFD or impact vest is crucial as it provides buoyancy, helping surfers to float on the water’s surface and preventing them from being pulled under by strong currents. They are designed to be lightweight and flexible, not restricting movement while surfing. 
  2. Leash: A big wave leash is a stronger and thicker version of a regular surfboard leash, designed to withstand the force of big waves. It attaches the surfboard to the surfer, preventing the board from being lost in the wave.
  3. Helmet: Although not universally used, a helmet can serve as valuable protection against head injuries from surfboard impacts or hitting the sea floor.
  4. Jet Ski Assistance: While not a piece of personal gear, having a jet ski in the water is a common safety measure in big-wave surfing. It allows for quick rescue if a surfer is in danger or needs to be pulled out of a risky situation.
  5. Rescue Sled: Attached to the jet ski, this device enables efficient, rapid rescue from dangerous situations.
  6. Inflatable Surf Vest: This vest can be manually inflated when a surfer is underwater, aiding quick ascent to the surface.
  7. Personal Locator Beacon: A PLB can be activated in case of an emergency, sending out a signal to search and rescue services.
  8. First Aid Kit: A comprehensive first aid kit is essential for treating any injuries sustained during surfing.

All of these safety measures combined can drastically reduce the risk associated with big-wave surfing. However, the best safety precaution is having the right training and preparation before tackling big waves.

Why Are Surfers Towed Into Big Waves?

Towing-in is a technique often employed in big wave surfing when the waves reach a size and intensity where paddling into them becomes nearly impossible. This method involves a jet ski towing the surfer into the wave, providing the necessary speed to match the moving wave and allowing the surfer to get onto the wave face. 

This technique revolutionized big wave surfing, opening doors to unprecedented wave sizes that were previously deemed un-surfable. The added speed and manoeuvrability offered by tow-in surfing allow surfers to manage and ride incredibly large, fast-moving waves, which would be almost impossible to catch by traditional paddle surfing. However, tow-in surfing is not without its criticisms, with purists arguing that it removes some of the skill and bravery associated with the sport. Regardless, it’s an accepted part of big wave surfing, enabling surfers to push boundaries and ride the largest waves on the planet.

What Are The Risks Of Big Wave Surfing?

Big wave surfing is an exhilarating sport that brings with it a significant level of risk. One of the main dangers is the sheer force of the wave itself. These towering walls of water can weigh tons, and when they crash down, surfers can find themselves pinned underwater, sometimes for extended periods. This can lead to a major risk of drowning, particularly if a surfer is knocked unconscious or becomes disoriented under the water. 

Another risk is the impact from the surfboard or collision with other surfers. In the chaos of a big wave wipeout, surfers can be hit by their own or others’ boards, leading to potential injuries. 

Surfers also risk being swept onto rocks or reefs by powerful water currents, which can cause serious physical harm. 

The high-speed nature of big wave surfing can result in severe injuries from falls, including broken bones and head injuries. 

Surfers also face the risk of hypothermia in colder waters, which can quickly lead to disorientation and exhaustion. 

Furthermore, big wave surfing can be mentally stressful, with the fear and anxiety associated with the sport sometimes leading to panic attacks in the water.

Despite these risks, big-wave surfers worldwide are drawn to the thrill and challenge of conquering these immense waves. However, it’s critical that they have the necessary skills, fitness levels, and safety equipment to mitigate these risks as much as possible.

Where Are The Best Big Wave Spots In The World?

The world has several renowned locations that offer big-wave surfers the opportunity to ride colossal waves. Here are a few notables:

  1. Mavericks, California, USA: Known for its cold water and massive waves, Mavericks is a famous big wave spot located in Northern California. It has waves that can reach over 60 feet during the peak season.
  2. Teahupo’o, Tahiti: Teahupo’o is renowned for its heavy and hollow waves that break over a shallow coral reef. The waves here are not just tall but incredibly powerful, making it one of the most challenging surf spots.
  3. Nazare, Portugal: Nazaré is home to the largest surfed wave on record – a massive 86 feet. The deep underwater canyon just off the coast results in extraordinarily large and powerful waves.
  4. Pe’ahi (Jaws), Hawaii, USA: Located on the north shore of Maui, Jaws is known for its massive waves that can reach up to 70 feet. The spot got its nickname due to the wave’s ferocity and speed, similar to a shark’s bite.
  5. Shipstern Bluff, Tasmania, Australia: This remote location is known for its uniquely shaped, massive waves, and the cold water adds an extra layer of challenge.
  6. Todos Santos, Mexico: Known for its consistently big wave break, this spot can produce waves over 60 feet under the right conditions.
  7. Dungeons, South Africa: Known for its cold water and great white sharks, Dungeons offers waves that can reach up to 60 feet.

These spots are revered in the big wave surfing community and are a testament to the sheer power of nature. However, they are not for the faint-hearted or the inexperienced. These waves demand respect, skill, and the right equipment.

Why Are Nazaré Waves So Big?

The exceptional size of the waves at Nazaré, Portugal, can be attributed to a unique underwater geomorphological phenomenon known as the Nazaré Canyon. This submarine canyon is one of the largest in Europe, reaching depths of over 5,000 meters and extending approximately 230 kilometres into the Atlantic Ocean. The canyon acts as a natural amplifier for wave energy. 

As swells move towards the shore, they interact with the canyon’s walls, funnelling and focusing the wave energy towards the coastline. This results in the formation of incredibly high, powerful waves. 

The unique alignment of the canyon and its proximity to the shore further augment these waves, making Nazaré a mecca for big-wave surfers seeking to ride the giants of the ocean.

For me, one of the most amazing things about Nazaré is that it is a beach break. This means that the waves break on a sandy beach. As a result, the water can seem choppy and “messy”. Unlike other big wave surf destinations where there is a very clearly defined channel where surfers and boats can safely sit and watch the action, due to the geography of Nazaré, this does not exist, making Nazaré an exceptionally difficult place to surf. Nazaré big wave surfing is only for the best of the best. 

How Fast Do Surfers Go at Nazaré?

The speed at which surfers ride the waves at Nazaré varies depending on the size and power of the wave, as well as the surfer’s skill level and approach. On average, surfers at Nazaré can reach speeds between 30 to 80 miles per hour (48-128 km/h). 

When riding on the face of a massive wave, the surfer’s speed can pick up significantly due to the immense force of the wave. It’s important to note that the high speeds add to the risk and thrill of big wave surfing at Nazaré. 

The speed, combined with the sheer size of the waves, requires surfers to have extreme skill, precision, and situational awareness to maintain control and avoid wipeouts.

Do 100ft Waves Exist?

Yes, 100ft waves do exist, but they are extremely rare and largely dependent on specific oceanic conditions. These monstrous waves are more commonly found in open ocean areas, driven by strong winds and storms. One such place is the North Atlantic, where winter storms generate powerful swells. The Agulhas Current off the east coast of South Africa is also known for its potential to produce giant waves. However, finding 100ft waves that are surfable is another story. 

These record-breaking feats are considered the pinnacle of big wave surfing, showcasing surfers’ courage and skill in facing the immense power and unpredictability of the ocean.

In 2021, António Laureano claimed to have surfed a 101.4ft wave at Nazaré. However, this record has yet to be officially confirmed. This was achieved in April 2021, and to my knowledge, it still has not been confirmed. [source]

António Laureano is a local of Nazaré, and if ever a 100ft wave was to be surfed there, my money would be on him. 

Final Thoughts

Big wave surfing is the apex of courage, skill, and respect for the raw power of nature. As we’ve seen, spots like Mavericks, Teahupo’o, Nazaré, and others beckon the brave and the skilled to ride their towering, awe-inspiring waves. 

The unique geographical formations like the Nazaré Canyon contribute to these colossal waves, making them even more formidable. While 100ft waves do exist, they are rare, and the act of riding them is reserved for only the most daring and experienced surfers. 

As we await the official confirmation of António Laureano’s 101.4ft wave at Nazaré, we are reminded of the ocean’s limitless potential and the surfer’s relentless pursuit of pushing boundaries. 

Indeed, big wave surfing represents both a physical challenge and a profound spiritual journey, a dance with the might of the ocean that only a few dare to embark upon.

Emma Moore

Hi, I am Emma, and I am obsessed with all watersports, from swimming to surfing and everything in between. I spend my free time in the water or preparing for my next water travel adventure.

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