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Big Wave Surfing

Updated on September 12, 2020

Surfing History

Hawaiian Origins:

The arrival of missionaries in the late 1780s clashed with Hawaiian native customs and traditions. Surfing had long been a spiritual connection that Hawaiians celebrated with the sun, the trees and the sea. The Aloha Spirit Hawaiians held so sacred permeated their customs as well as their surfing traditions. This form of "worship", enjoyed frequently by the carefree and often naked natives, was banned by the occupying missionaries. The native trees that were so integral to Hawaiian's spiritual relationship with the sun and the sea, were hewn down, and many of the natives were compelled to work on fruit and sugar plantations. It seemed that the "surfing spirit" of Hawaii had been all but conquered.

Young Ka'iulani
Young Ka'iulani | Source

Royal Re-birth:

In 1875 the spirit was re-born with the birth of Princess Ka'iulani. As a youth, she revived the free outdoor spirit of the Hawaiian nation; and her daring swimming and surfing exploits captured the imaginations of Hawaiians and the world. Ka'iulani's cousins David Kawanaankoa and Jonah Kalanianaole carried surfing to Great Britain, and the world would soon embrace the "spirit". Though some native customs had returned to their rightful place in Hawaiian life, the fall of the Monarchy spelled the end of Ka'iulani's fairy tale assent to the throne of her native paradise. She became ill and died at the young age of 23. But surfing had "caught-on". Once only beloved as part of a spiritual return to tradition in Hawaii, surfing was poised to spread globally. And it spread like wildfire.

The Hawaiian Aloha Spirit

Aloha is the most spoken Hawaiian word. It means hello and goodbye. It means welcome, love and compassion.

The "Aloha Spirit" is best described this way:

All the "goodwill" that one person can wish for another person is given in greeting one another. We will be kind and modest, agreeable and gracious, humble and modest, generous and patient and tolerant.

The Evolution of the Sport

Young Hawaiian surfers were hired to promote tourism, and made a living teaching surfing and lifeguarding. Two such surfers, George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku, used California Redwood planks for surfing rather than the heavier native woods. John Kelly began to shape surf boards to uniquely suit the waves he sought to ride, including the big waves of Makaha Point. As involvement in the sport spread around the globe, the practice of surfing the big waves began to follow its own course.

The growing "surfing culture", though perpetually rotating around a "beach boy" lifestyle, has gravitated toward competition. The competition has divided the surf following into the "soul-surfer" side, and the endorsement/big money/world title side. In a 2009 interview, professional Kelly Slater compared the pro surfer's life to that of a rock star... "Sex, Drugs, and Rock-n-Roll". In that same interview, though he can't say for sure that he actually believes in God, he describes a wave in Fiji following his father's passing as "a gift from God".

Slater would later describe the difference between his surfing experience, and that of big wave surfer Laird Hamilton this way: "I'm more kind of small-wave performance...he's pretty much like man-handling the ocean."

Surfers on big waves:

Buzzy Trent: "Waves are not measured in feet and inches, but in increments of fear."

Laird Hamilton: "My father was a surfer, first an artist, and then was sucked into competing"..."I saw the disappointments that [judging] caused him"..."I gravitated to big [waves] because that's pretty definable."

Sarah Gerheardt: "I have to overcome that safety mechanism inside that keeps me from doing something that could kill me."

Jeff Clark: "I feel the ocean with every fiber in my body."


Makaha, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. The birthplace of Big Wave Surfing. Pioneers of the sport were George Downing, Wally Froiseth, Buzzy Trent, John Kelly and others, who in the 1940s and 1950s made there way to Makaha in search of the Big Wave. The line of fearless wave riders that followed them came to conquer the most formidable opponent the sport presented.

Bigger waves required bigger boards, and George Downing developed the vessel best suited for the task. Having moved during WWII as a teenager to live with his aunt in Hawaii, Downing made regular trips to Makaha and Waimea with his aunt's husband, surfer Wally Froiseth.

Downing studied the big waves and the science behind them, determined to develop equipment and techniques to conquer them. His big-surf board designs of 1951 were used by all serious surfers of his time; and he developed one of the first changeable fin systems.

Downing's surfing techniques, equipment development and wave research led to success and notoriety, which drew more and more California surfers to the big waves of Hawaii.

Surfing Giant Waves
Surfing Giant Waves | Source

Big Waves Around the World

Besides Hawaii, big waves are surfed in Australia, Tahiti, Fiji and Mexico. Surfers follow the waves to England, France, Ireland and Portugal. Chile, South Africa, Peru and Puerto Rico provide the desired waves, as do Oregon and California. Norway and Iceland have seen big wave surfing in freezing winds and icy waters.

Since 1990 California's Half Moon Bay has played host to the "Mavericks Invitational". The huge wave sets previously given notice only by local surfer Jeff Clark, were revealed to the sporting world by the press and a dozen curious California surfers. A forty-five minute paddle in frigid water launched the boarders into what journalists called a "gnarly, rocky, violent and hateful" big wave experience.

Mavericks presents the hazards of sharks, rocks, and extremely cold water; all in exchange for the experience of riding a huge wave.

Why Do This?

Surfer Laird Hamilton and a team of enthusiastic innovators has brought once unreachable waves into the realm of possibility. Shorter, more maneuverable boards are now usable on big waves thanks to the introduction of tow-in surfing. First maneuverable boats, and now jet skies have opened up the "unridden realm".

As technology advances, and big waves become more accessible, the observer asks himself, "why do they do this?" The answer always comes back... "Because I love it." Big wave surfers have been called "willing martyrs", and "virgins actually seeking out dragons".

Laird Hamilton said, "I like danger and jumping off of high stuff... I like the feeling I get. My father said, big wave riders are born not made. Maybe I was born without that chromosome that tells me I should be afraid."

Big wave rider Andrew Cotton said of a recent experience at Nazare` Portugal, "I’ve never ridden a wave like that. I was hurtling down it so fast. It makes you wonder how far we can push it, how high can we go." The father of two young children, Cotton has drawn criticism for his "daredevil" lifestyle; but has the full support of his wife... "He is so passionate about this, it would be wrong to stop him. It's his vocation. He's been surfing since before I met him, and this is what he feels he needs to do. He's following and living his dream."

Big Wave, Portugal

Opinions and Experiences, Please...

If you have surfed big waves, or know someone who has, please share your experiences or opinions with us. My experience is limited to visual observation. While the excitement is substantial for viewers such as myself, the first hand recap by a big wave surfer would be most valuable and greatly appreciated.

© 2014 Mr. Smith


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