Big wave surfing is a surfing discipline involving waves of at least 20 feet. Big wave surfing events are often the highlight of the surfing calendar, with records regularly set and broken as the world’s best riders go in search of the biggest waves.
But when was big wave surfing born, where did it come from, and who were the earliest pioneers of this sport?
What is the History of Big Wave Surfing?
Big wave surfing history dates back to the 1950s and to several Hawaiian surfers who tackled huge waves at Makaha, Hawaii.
Several years later, in 1953, three of these surfers, George Downing, Wally Froiseth, and Buzzy Trend were pictured surfing big waves on the front of a Californian newspaper.
It captured the imaginations of Californian surfers and inspired a generation of surfers to go bigger and better.
Surfers from California flocked to the shores of Hawaii to tackle these monster waves and they were soon joined by surfers from South America, South Africa, and Australia, helping to cement Hawaii’s status as the surfing capital of the world.
For many years, Makaha remained the number 1 big wave surfing spot in Hawaii. It was the ultimate destination for the world’s most ambitious and fearless surfers. Eventually, Waimea Bay on the North Shore became the place to be.
In the 1990s, big wave surfing had spread to surfing communities across the United States and there were many more big wave hotspots, including Pe’ahi (AKA Jaws) and Pipeline on the North Shore.
This is when Laird Hamilton enters the picture.
The waves at Jaws were considered impossible to paddle into, but Hamilton (along with Darrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox) found a solution. They used a motorboat to tow themselves into the waves, allowing them to meet Jaws head-on and ride its huge waves for the first time.
It was another key moment in the history of big wave surfing, and one that helped to make this discipline what it is today.
Within a few decades, Mavericks (California), Mullaghmore (Ireland), Nazaré (Portugal), and several other big wave surf spots had found popularity in the global surfing community and there were a number of events and tournaments.
When Did Big Wave Surfing Start?
In addition to the Hawaiian surfers mentioned above, Greg Noll is also credited with helping to make big wave surfing as popular as it is today.
The Californian lifeguard moved to Hawaii in 1953 and spent some time surfing the waves at Makaha. At the time, he was surfing the biggest waves ever ridden, and he returned to the beach day after day to challenge himself further.
In later years, Greg Noll moved to Waimea Bay and many people followed in his footsteps, making Waimea Bay the new Makaha.
Other pioneering big wave surfers include Fred Van Dyke, Mike Stang, Harry Church, Buzzy Trend, Ricky Grigg, Mickey Munoz, Eddie Aikau, Del Cannon, Bing Copland, and Pat Curren.
Incidentally, Pat Curren is the father of Tom Curren, a surfer whose impact and influence was even greater than his father’s.
Who Was the First Big Wave Surfer?
It depends on who you ask, but one of the following big wave surfers likely got there first: George Downing, Wally Froiseth, Greg Noll, Woody Brown, and Buzzy Trent.
Of course, you have to include Laird Hamilton on that list, as well. His story may have begun several decades later, but he is one of the fathers of tow-in surfing and the first to ride the huge wave at Jaws.
Who Are the Most Famous Big Wave Surfers?
In addition to the big wave surfers mentioned above, the history of this sport will also include Guinness World Record Holders like Garrett McNamara, who surfed a wave of 78 feet in 2011, and Rodrigo Koxa, who went two feet higher in 2017. Maya Gabeira, Carlos Burle, Mike Parsons, Justine Dupont, and Kai Lenny also deserve a mention as they have all surfed waves in excess of 65 feet.
Key Dates in the History of Big Wave Surfing
The discipline of big wave surfing is still evolving, with new records being set and new tournaments being created every few years. Here are some of the most important events that have happened until now:
- 1953: Several big wave surfers featured on the front of a Californian newspaper while Greg Noll, a Californian Lifeguard, moved to the Hawaiian Islands.
- 1984: “The Eddie” was created. Initially named Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau, this tournament is only staged when the waves are high. It began at Sunset Beach and moved to Waimea Bay.
- 1992: Laird Hamilton and several others introduced tow surfing while riding the monstrous wave at Jaws.
- 1999: The first Titans of Mavericks was held. It was a premier big wave surfing contest until 2016. The best 24 big wave surfers from around the world were invited to compete every year. The first three competitions were won by Darryl Virostko.
- 2005: The World Surf League created the Big Wave Awards, held in Huntington Beach, California, every year. The awards include the XXL Biggest Wave, Biggest Paddle Wave, Tube of the Year, Best Overall Performance, Ride of the Year, Women’s Performance, and Wipeout Award.
- 2010: Marcio Freire and Danilo Couto became the first to surf Jaws with paddle in surfing.
- 2011: While surfing at Nazaré, Portugal, Garrett McNamara caught a 78-foot wave. It was the biggest wave surfed at the time, and even now, some 11 years later, it remains the second-highest wave ever surfed.
- 2013: Garrett McNamara is said to have broken his own world record after surfing a 100-foot wave off the coast of Nazaré. However, the size was only estimated and was not officially recognized by Guinness World Records.
- 2014: The Big Wave World Tour was sanctioned by the World Surf League.
- 2017: The current Guinness World Record for the largest wave ever ridden (80 feet) was set by Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa. He was awarded the Quiksilver XXL Biggest Wave award by the World Surf League.