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The 6 Daredevils Who Charged the Biggest Waves Ever Surfed

by Octavia Drughi

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There is surfing and there is… big wave surfing, a completely different ball game. It takes guts, years of training and experience, a healthy dose of curiosity and taking calculated risks. Even then, anything can go wrong when faced with huge bodies of water that might come tumbling down on you at any given moment.

Before the 1990s, waves higher than 20 feet (6 m) were considered too big to be surfed. Now, the 100-foot (30.5-meter) mark is the new craze, the Holy Grail of surfing everyone wants to get their hands on. The leaders of the big wave surfing crew go the whole nine yards, dedicating their entire lives to that one precious moment with the potential of writing history.

The average two-story house is between 20 and 25 feet (6-8 m). And yeah, the following mammoths are three to four times bigger than that.  So let’s take a look at the heaviest, gnarliest, most insane waves ever surfed.


6. Andrew Cotton – the Quest for the Biggest Waves


Andrew Cotton at Nazare, Portugal - Photo credit RedBull

In January 2014, UK big-wave surfer Andrew Cotton was towed by Garrett McNamara into an estimated 80-foot (24.3 meters) wave at Nazaré, Portugal. "It was massive that morning and I knew there was potential to catch potentially record-breaking waves," Cotton told Sky News. He held his position for approximately 10 seconds before the wave swallowed him, without causing any major injuries. Cotton’s performance might write surfing history, but unfortunately, his feat has yet to be ratified by Guinness World Records.


In the meantime, Cotton travels the globe searching for epic waves like the one he caught at Nazaré that could put him in the history books. His main obsession is to beat the unofficial record of the 100-foot (30.5-meter) wave, and not just any old way but in uncharted waters.


5. Mike Parsons – Former Guinness World Record Holder


Mike Parsons at Cortes Bank - Photo by Aaron Chang

In 2001, Mike Parsons was towed into Cortes Bank, an open-ocean break some 100 miles (160 km) off the coast of California. Here, he charged a 66-foot (20.1-meter) wave. For his stunt, he received the Billabong XXL Big Wave Award, which came with a $66,000 prize. This is the highest reward ever scored in the history of professional surfing.



Some years later, on January 5, 2008, Mike Parsons broke his own record at the same Cortes Bank. He was towed into a 77-foot (23.4-meter) beast and bagged the Guinness World Record for the biggest wave ever surfed. Three years later, his record was broken by Garrett McNamara by one mere foot.


4. Benjamin Sanchis – the Biggest Wave Ever Attempted


Photo credit Benjamin Sanchis

On December 11, 2014, French big-wave surfer Benjamin Sanchis attempted the craziest ride ever – a 108-foot (33-meter) wave at Nazaré, Portugal. His feat certainly beats Garrett McNamara’s Guinness World Record for the biggest wave ever surfed, a success recorded at the same location. But where is the confirmation? As it turns out, Guinness does not even have it on record.



There is a problem with Sanchis’ wave – he did not finish riding it. According to the Billabong XXL Biggest Wave Award rules, the surfer must ride the ‘meaningful portion of the wave’ in order for it to be considered a successful ride. Benjamin Sanchis fell on the wave. Nevertheless, it remains the biggest wave ever surfed in the eyes of many and there’s still hope that it could eventually be recognized as the biggest wave ever attempted.


3. Carlos Burle – Biggest Wave Ever Ridden at Nazaré, Portugal


Carlos Burle at Nazare - Photo credit Luis Firmo / RedBull Contest Pool

On October 28, 2013, Brazilian big-wave surfer Carlos Burle might have ridden the largest wave ever. In the autumn of 2013, one of the most violent storms to hit Europe in recent times caused the famous surf spot at Nazaré, Portugal to reach epic proportions. The swell produced the biggest waves ever witnessed at Praia do Norte, and a handful of daredevils charged into the water. One of them believes he broke the world record for the biggest wave ever ridden, estimated at 100 feet (30.5 meters). His ride still awaits confirmation from Guinness World Records.



Carlos Burle caught the wave after saving his friend and tow partner, big-wave surfer Maya Gabeira, who attempted to ride the biggest wave ever surfed by a woman, an estimated 80-foot (24-meter) monster. She nearly drowned and ended up in the hospital.

This is not the first behemoth Carlos has ridden. Back in 2001, he challenged a 68-foot (20.7-meter) wave at Mavericks, for which he received the Billabong XXL Big Wave Award, $50,000 and a new Nissan SUV. Not too shabby for a day in the water!


2. Shawn Dollar – the Biggest Wave Ever Paddled Into


Shawn Dollar at Cortes Bank - Photo credit grindtv.com

On December 21, 2012, leading big-wave surfer Shawn Dollar paddled into a 61-foot (18.6-meter) monster at Cortes Bank, off the coast of California. Guinness World Records confirmed that it is the biggest wave ever surfed via the traditional paddle-in method.



The waves at Cortes Bank are heavy and fast. Therefore, most surfers prefer to be towed-in, as the classic paddling method is considered too daunting and with fewer chances for success. For his ride, Shawn Dollar received the 2012/2013 Billabong XXL Big Wave Award. “Are we really paddling into waves bigger than what we used to tow?” Dollar asked after his triumph.


1. Garrett McNamara – King of the Surf


Garrett McNamara at Nazare, Portugal - Photo credit garrettmcnamara.com

On November 11, 2011, US surfer Garrett McNamara was towed by Andrew Cotton into a massive wave at Nazaré, Portugal. The 78-foot (23,8-meter) wave entered history as the largest wave ever surfed, as acknowledged by Guinness World Records.

Thanks to its underwater canyon, Praia do Norte produces powerful, heavy and treacherous waves, considered the world’s biggest. So far, it seems to be the only spot on the planet capable of producing a rideable 100-foot wave. On January 28, 2013, McNamara returned to Nazaré in an attempt to break his own record by riding a 100-foot (30-meter) behemoth. All that remains is for Guinness to confirm his feat.



Paddling into a heavy wave is much more complicated than being towed-in. In case of the latter, the surfer gains momentum to catch the wave while being pulled by a jet ski. Of course, there are certain waves, like the famous Nazaré, which cannot be surfed otherwise. Paddle-in surfing may be the rage again, but we must admit that tow-in surfing allows surfers to attempt the biggest, craziest waves the ocean sends our way. Meanwhile, the search for the perfect 100-foot wave continues.


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