Words by Justin Cote, Ryan Brower and Jon Perino.
Surfing is an inherently dangerous sport. The ocean is unpredictable, and can turn at the drop of a dime, giving little (or no) warning before unleashing its power and force.
However, when you throw monster-sized waves into the equation, you’ve just set the bar at an all-time high for carnage.
Big-wave surfing is no joke. It’s a sport that only elite-level surfers should take part in, and something that (even for the best surfers on the planet) can turn life-threatening at any moment. And although there are gargantuan waves that break all over the globe on any given day, below is a list of seven of the most famous big-wave surf spots in the world.
Imagine being young Jeff Clark, walking home from school everyday along the cliffs in Half Moon Bay in Northern California, and staring at this phantom right-hand break off one of the cliffs a few hundred yards outs out. The wind is howling, the air is freezing, the water temp is creeping into the 40s, and there are school-bus-sized great white sharks lurking just below the water’s surface.
Back in 1994 Mavericks claimed the life of legendary Hawaiian big-wave surfer Mark Foo. The thick lips pitching off the boil are notoriously brutal, which can hold you down and bash you into boulders the size of houses, and even has had its fair share of great white attacks. It gets hollow, it gets ledgy, and when people talk about freight trains in the water, this is what they mean.
The North Shore of Oahu is littered with world-class breaks, and just down the Kamehameha Highway from Pipeline lays the cove that houses the granddaddy of them all: Waimea Bay. While often overlooked nowadays due to the boom in tow-surfers that favor outer reefs, Waimea is still the measuring stick for big-wave spots worldwide.
Packing a life-threatening punch, Waimea has set the standard for big-wave surfing for nearly forty years. With the combination of neck-breaking shorebreak and wave faces that can reach up to 60 feet, Waimea has seen its share of tragedy and claimed the life of Dickie Cross in 1943 and aspiring California pro surfer Donnie Solomon in 1999. Legendary Kauai waterman Titus Kinimaka also had his femur snapped in half after a particularly nasty wipeout back in 1989. Said Hawaiian pro surfer/esteemed shaper Dennis Pang of Waimea wipeouts: “At Pipeline, it’s white when you’re underwater, and at Sunset it’s gray. Waimea is black.”
Located on the north shore of Maui, Pe'ahi (commonly referred to as "Jaws") is one of the most viciously perfect big waves in the world. As the venue for the Big Wave World Tour’s Pe’ahi Challenge, this wave plays host to the crew of the very best men and women big-wave surfers each year.
What makes this wave so noteworthy is just how perfect and can become. For a big-wave spot, Jaws is about as pristine as it gets when the conditions are just right. (But it’s still one of the largest and heaviest waves known to man.)
Local surfers like Kai Lenny and Paige Alms have upped the ante when it comes to performances in recent years. And on any given day, you’ll find the lineup jam-packed with tow-in surfers and skis, alongside the traditional paddle-in crowd.
Cortes Bank is truly a unique wave. Located roughly 100 miles off the coast of Southern California, this spot is quite literally a small island just below the surface of the open ocean. And it's considered the outermost feature in the Channel Island chain. Think of it as a series of underwater mountains that rise dramatically and create the suitable situation for waves to break in the middle of the open sea.
When swells from the west draw out of deep toward the west coast, they detonate right on top of the small submerged island of the Cortes Bank, creating one of the largest and most treacherous big-wave surf spots on Earth. (Big-wave surfer Greg Long almost died there in 2012).
Back in 2013, professional surfer Maya Gabeira almost died surfing there, and many other noteworthy surfers have had close calls, including big-wave veteran Ross Clarke-Jones who got frighteningly close to getting washed over the rocks on the inside.
One of the coolest parts about this spot is the vantage point for onlookers.
Every year, when the massive swells fill in, you can find the overlooking lighthouse walls lined with spectators and cameras, and a handful of very brave men and women in the water, vying for their shot to dazzle the crowd (and hopefully walk away unscathed).
Located off the coast of Pebble Beach in Northern California, Ghost Trees is colder and more shark-infested (great whites to boot) than most breaks in the world. Add in the huge boulders that line the shore and bottom and you've got yourself California's heaviest wave.
Typically a tow-in wave, this deadly right-hander took the life of renowned California waterman Peter Davi in 2007. While it takes a swell of mammoth proportions to break, when it does, Ghost Trees draws the most out of the North Pacific energy and wave faces can reach upwards of 80 feet with twenty-foot wide boils burping and gurgling up the face of the wave. Ghost Trees is only tackled by the most accomplished of big wave surfers.
Regarded as one of the most challenging surf breaks in the world, Teahupoo is located on the southwest tip of Tahiti – the main island of the French Polynesian archipelago. The top-heavy left breaks a half-mile out to sea and mere feet over a living, razor-sharp coral reef.
What makes Teahupoo unique is the top-heavy nature of the wave – during a big swell, it looks like the ocean is folding over itself rather than a normal wave. Teahupoo, or Kumbaya as it has been called in the past, has claimed the life one surfer, Tahitian Briece Taerea, who attempted to duck-dive a monster 12-footer only to be sucked back over the falls and onto the reef below. Dubbed “The Heaviest Wave In The World,” Teahupoo lives up to its moniker every time a large southwest swell slams in to Tahiti.
Another scary fact: Translated into English, Teahupoo means something along the lines of "to sever the head," which harks back to the area’s tribal battles that occurred hundreds of years ago.
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