There are giants out there on the sea. They rise toward land and make war on our shores with the full rage and ferocity of the ocean. Steve Dickinson uncovers the global big wave locations and the hardcore tribe of men and women brave enough to chase them.

Spectators watch a big wave competition from the famous Nazaré lighthouse

For a wave to be seen in the category of ‘BIG’, it should be at least 20 ft high. A wave that size can create speeds of up to 80 km, and the inevitable wipeouts when things don’t go to plan can have enormous consequences. Many lives have been taken in this sport, but big wave surfing has not only surged in popularity it is now a major international competition for both men and women.

The combination of weather patterns, coastal terrain and wind conditions keep this group of surfers pinned to forecasts all year round. They will travel the world to pick up that epic swell in places like California, Tahiti, Fiji, Portugal and Hawaii to mention a few. In recent years Portugal has become the epicentre of big wave surfing. Distinguished by its now-iconic lighthouse, Nazaré is home to a frightening wave, Praia do Norte, which can push the 100 ft mark. Back in November 2011, Hawaiian big wave legend Garret McNamara rode a record-breaking wave of 78 ft for 24 seconds. Rodrigo Koxa surpassed Garret’s ride by two feet in November 2017, setting a new Guinness world record for the biggest wave ever surfed, at 80 ft. The Nazaré Canyon is an undersea ravine just off the coast, which is said to be the largest in Europe at a depth of over 5 km and 230 km long. The power of the ocean is channelled to the land like a funnel; the waves then dump themselves onto Nazaré’s shores. No words can describe the power and size, so images tell the best story.

Justine Dupont – the first woman to paddle in and surf at Belharra, France

In a similar region in the cold waters where France meets Spain, you’ll find the monstrous waves of Belharra. Unlike many waves that tube or barrel, like Teahupoo and Jaws, Belharra is just a menacing 50-80 ft avalanche of water in the middle of nowhere. It’s dark and foreboding with huge consequences if you fall. Playa Zicatela in Mexico, better known as Puerto Escondido, is popular for the above-average surfer to catch a few 4-6 ft waves and be able to boast that they surfed what is known as ‘the Mexican Pipe’. Yet each season brings massive swells to the exposed coast that explode as big as 40 ft. Although not as big as some other locations, due to the shallow depth and power at which the wave impacts there are not a lot who can say they’ve tamed XXL Puerto. It is also renowned for some of the worst wipeouts in the world.

Locally in the South Pacific, we have Cloudbreak in Fiji; with its blue water and sunny skies it can be a tempting mistress. However, it too packs a nasty punch in the form of wipeouts over knifelike living coral. In recent years it has been the scene of some fantastic contests and is a real swell magnet. Tahiti’s Teahupoo, aptly named ‘the End of the Road’, has been the location for some of the most incredible big waves in the world. Due to the configuration of the coral reef, Teahupoo creates a massive slab of water that breaks, barrels and creates a pit like no other. It is as if the whole sea has simply dropped down a giant step. New Zealand is not renowned for huge waves, but from time to time they arrive in places like Foveaux Strait’s Rarotoka island and a few secret offshore reefs in the Far North. Possibly the most well-known is the South Island’s Papatowai, affectionately known as Papas.

Ramon Navarro surfing Cloudbreak, Fiji

The development of big wave surfing had a big push when surfers saw that you could get towed into these giants waves rather than just paddle. Plus, the fact that the jet-ski could also come and save you if things did not go well. This created a period of innovation, with specialist boards, sledges, and buoyancy vests that seemed to make it slightly safer. While the tow-in group continued to grow, a wild bunch of ‘purists’ would steadfastly only paddle-in.

This paddling aspect of big wave surfing has in the last few years gained real popularity and has also now acquired its own competition. For the non-surfer the wipeouts look horrific, and at times they are, but the main risks are ‘hold-downs’. Two and three-wave hold-downs are common, where you get caught underwater and bear the brunt of colossal breaking waves overhead. Big waves can push surfers 20 to 50 ft below the surface, which creates pressure on the lungs and ears, not to mention being rag-dolled at the same time. Also, you have the risk of hitting the bottom, and this has caused the death of several famous big wave surfers.

Carlos Nogales rides the meaty wave at Teahupoo, Tahiti

Preparation for this situation has now become quite technical with courses where you can learn both to cope with the impact and how to hold your breath for longer. Common training methods include running underwater while holding a big rock and yoga to calm the panic of being held down and keep super fit.

Lastly, and it goes without saying, don’t try this at home. These surfers have dedicated their lives to riding big waves, and it’s a slow process of training, skill, passion, and a certain amount of madness. Best viewed from afar with awe!

Article by: Steve Dickinson