When Laird Hamilton pioneered tow-in surfing in the mid 1990s, it was a major light-bulb moment for big wave surfing. It opened the door to previously unridden breaks and allowed surfers with a thirst for pushing the limits to charge seriously hard.
Now, thanks to satellite imagery and advances in surf forecast technologies, surfers across the globe constantly find new undiscovered waves to ride. Some are in the middle of the ocean, in freezing waters, or are heaving barrels that defy gravity.
Whilst we don’t really get waves like that here in the UK, here’s the top 6 gnarliest waves in the world;
This monstrous, cold and shark infested beast lies a mile off shore and can reach up to 30ft. Renowned surfer Jeff Clark rode Mavericks alone for 20 years, because no-one had the balls to join him.
When other surfers finally joined the party, they discovered one of the thickest, fastest and steepest right handers in the world. Some paid the ultimate price, and for Hawaiian surfers Mark Foo and Sion Milosky it resulted in their deaths sending a reminder to the world that Mavericks isn’t for the faint hearted.
Laird Hamilton at Teahupoo – Photo: Hau maru
The beautiful backdrop of ‘Chopes’ is deceptive. This heavy slab of a wave drops below sea level, peaks and explodes over a razor sharp, shallow reef giving this intense left hander an even more dangerous edge.
It’s all about the barrel, the power and the sudden transition from super deep to ridiculously shallow water. Keala Kennelly became the first female surfer to tow in there and in 2011, collided with the reef and needed 50 stitches to her head and face. And that was in average sized waves….Chopes can reach up to 50ft!
Jeff Rowley takes a heavy one on the head at Jaws – Photo: Evolution Media
Pe’ahi (Jaws), Maui
Began as a windsurfing spot but after Laird and co discovered tow surfing, it meant surfers didn’t have to battle to paddle against the strong offshore winds.
With wave faces exceeding 60ft, Jaws produces house sized barrels and features regularly on the XXL awards for biggest wave and monster tubes. Surfers who take on its brutality experience hazards such as speeds bumps on the wave face, cross winds, and a washing machine of an impact zone littered with boulders that mutilates jet-skis, boards and unfortunate surfers.
Shipstern’s Bluff, Tasmania
Named after the iconic rocky headland that stands behind the wave, Shipstern’s Bluff is pretty evil. It breaks over a mass of granite, is incredibly powerful and pours in from deep water. Like Mavericks, the water is cold and there are sharks but on top of that, there’s the isolation factor. It’s miles from anywhere, including the local hospital.
Consistently breaking at around 20ft, the slightest cross chop of wind can end in disaster. But, Shipstern’s challenging feature is a staircasing effect due to the wave breaking on the craggy rock and mutating into several sublevel sections. It makes Shipsterns unique and ‘special’ to the ballsy few who dare to ride it!
Cortes Bank, California
Lying 96 miles out to sea from San Pedro, Cortes Bank was the stuff of seafaring legend until in the 90’s surfers decided to seek out the elusive beast. They discovered a barely submerged island with waves breaking in the 80 to 90ft range.
The wave really hit the surfing news in 2001 when Brad Gerlach towed Mike Parsons onto the biggest wave of the year, with half mile long waves breaking across a mile of reef. Parsons wave was estimated at 66ft and earned him an XXL award and a Guinness World Record. In 2008, he returned to Cortes bank and broke the original record with an estimated 77ft wave.
The Cribbar, Cornwall
Ok so it’s not technically one of the world’s heaviest but it’s the best we’ve got so we’re giving it an honorary mention for being a bit gnarly!
Known locally as the Widow Maker, the wave breaks off a reef in front of Tower Headland in Newquay. It needs the right conditions to work (a combination of storm swell, the right tide and light offshore winds) but when it does, it produces wave faces in excess of 30ft. It attracts the crowds who gather on the headland to watch the brave surfers cut their teeth on the UK’s only big wave surf spot.
Image credit: Shalom Jacobovitz