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The 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.

 

Andrew Cotton – the Quest for the Biggest Waves

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 not been ratified by Guinness World Records to this day.

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.

 

Benjamin Sanchis – Biggest Wave Ever Attempted

On December 11, 2014, French big-wave surfer Benjamin Sanchis attempted the craziest ride ever – a 108-foot (33-meter) wave at Nazaré, Portugal. This would have certainly beat the Guinness World Record for the biggest wave ever surfed. But where is the confirmation? As it turns out, Guinness does not even have it on record and the World Surf League (WSL) has yet to confirm the height.

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.

 

Shawn Dollar – the Biggest Wave Ever Paddled Into

On December 21, 2012, leading big-wave surfer Shawn Dollar paddled into a 61-foot (18.6-meter) monstrous wave 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.

 

Carlos Burle – One of the Biggest Waves Ever Ridden at Nazaré

big-wave-surfing-nazare-portugal

On October 28, 2013, Brazilian big-wave surfer Carlos Burle might have ridden one of the largest waves 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).

However, his ride never received confirmation from Guinness World Records. It might not be counted as a successful ride at all, since he was eventually caught by the whitewater.

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 surfed 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!

 

Maya Gabeira – Biggest Wave Surfed by a Woman

On February 11, 2020, Brazilian Maya Gabeira surfed a 73.5-foot (22.4-meter) wave at Nazaré. Not only was it the largest wave ever surfed by a woman, but also the biggest wave anyone had surfed that season. Naturally, she received the XXL Biggest Wave Award from WSL that year. That’s right, in the 2019/2020 big wave season, a woman beat all men.

This was not her first attempt to break the record at Nazaré. In 2013, she nearly drowned in an attempt to ride a massive wave and was simply swallowed by the behemoth. She was rescued by her tow partner, Brazilian Carlos Burle.

After her brush with death, she made a triumphant return to Nazaré. In January, 2018, she rode a 68-foot (20.8-meter) wave. At that time, her incredible feat landed her the Guinness World Record for the biggest wave ever surfed by a woman. In 2020, she broke her own record. 

» READ MORE: The Badass Women of Big Wave Surfing

 

Mike Parsons – Former Guinness World Record Holder

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) beastly wave and bagged the Guinness World Record for the biggest wave ever surfed. Three years later, in 2011, his record was broken by Garrett McNamara by a mere foot.

 

Garrett McNamara – King of the Surf

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

Thus, Garrett McNamara became the Guinness World Record holder for the biggest wave ever surfed up until 2017, when his record was broken by Rodrigo Koxa.

Thanks to its underwater canyon, Praia do Norte produces powerful, heavy, and treacherous waves that are 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. He managed to surf a wave he believes to have been around 100 feet (30 meters), but there is no confirmation of his feat.

 

Rodrigo Koxa – Guinness World Record Holder for the Biggest Wave Ever Surfed

On November 8, 2017, Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa successfully surfed an 80-foot (24.4-meter) wave at Nazaré. In April 2018, he received the Quiksilver XXL Biggest Wave Award from the World Surf League (WSL), which goes to the surfer who catches the biggest wave of the year.

In 2014, Koxa nearly died while attempting to surf a huge liquid beast at Nazaré. It took him months to recover psychologically. But in 2017, aged 38, he officially broke the record, making his dream come true. And that’s not the end of it, the Brazilian says that he wants to try big wave surfing all his life.

Rodrigo Koxa currently holds the World Record for the largest wave ever surfed by beating Garrett McNamara’s previous record by two feet.

 

António Laureano – Possibly the Next World Record Holder

On October 29, 2020, Portuguese surfer António Laureano rode an estimated 101.4-foot (30.9-meter) wave at Nazaré. He was towed in by his father, Ramon Laureano.

The big wave surfing prodigy started surfing at four with his dad and was hooked immediately. He was aged 18 at the time of riding the massive wave that might get him into the record books.

The measurement still awaits confirmation from the World Surf League (WSL). But António and his father did not wait for confirmation and asked the University of Lisbon's Faculty of Human Kinetics (FMHUL) to measure the wave. They had previously measured Garrett McNamara’s record-breaking wave back in 2011. In April 2021, the team reached the jaw-dropping figure of 101.4 feet (30.9 meters).

If Guinness World Records confirms the height of the wave, António Laureano might very well have broken Rodrigo Koxa’s record and could become the new record holder for the biggest wave ever surfed.

 

Final words

Paddling into a heavy wave is much more complicated than being towed in. In the 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 100-foot wave has already been ridden. So what’s next?

 


Are you in search of the perfect wave? No matter your level, you too can ride world-class waves. Check out our epic wave surfing camps in the best destinations on the planet.

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