Andrew Cotton surfing Cortes Bank

Blog - Fierce waves and wild ambitions - a deep dive into big wave surfing

Fierce waves and wild ambitions - a deep dive into big wave surfing

24 minute(s) de lecture

There are surfers who dedicate their lives to riding giant waves of incomprehensible sizes. The monster waves that they travel across the globe to surf, would be a nightmare to surfers who feel like they’re pushing the boundaries on an overhead day.

Team dryrobe® includes some of the world’s most fiercely committed big wave riders, and we thought it was worth taking a deeper dive into this extreme sport that these incredible athletes devote their lives to. Raised in places where big wave surfing seemed like a pipedream, they’re now riding some of the most intense waves in the world. All because they want to.

With big wave season in full flow, we were excited to talk big waves with WSL Big Wave rider and competitor Andrew ‘Cotty’ Cotton, the 2021 Women's Ride Of The Year winner at the WSL Big Wave Awards Izzi Gomez and dedicated big wave charger and explorer Taz Knight.

We answer all the burning questions for those who are keen to know more about this radical sport, including unique insights from our big wave surfers and paying special attention to the ultimate big wave playground, Nazaré.

Andrew Cotton surfing in Nazare in 2021 (Photo courtesy of Sergio Castro)

Photo courtesy of Sergio Castro

What is considered ‘big wave surfing

In the surf world, big wave surfing is riding waves over approximately 20 feet (6.2 metres) high.

Surfers either paddle into a wave as you would with surfing in general or are towed by a personal watercraft (like a jet ski), depending on the wave’s size and location.

When is Big Wave season?

November to March is generally Big Wave season as this is most likely the time for powerful and big swells.

The 5-month window during the Big Wave season provides the opportunity for comps to select the ‘most favourable forecast to activate the event’ in that time frame.

Cotty sums up what it is like to be waiting for the go ahead during big wave season:

‘The Northern Hemisphere Big Wave season is like a game of chess, trying to make the best moves, planning ahead and being in the best spots at the right time for the biggest swells. Obviously, some years you win and feel like you’re making good moves and others can feel like you’re out of sync and slightly behind the curve.’

Andrew Cotton holding a surfboard and wearing a dryrobe

Big wave surf locations

No big wave location is the same, each one has its own unique wave and specific set of conditions, making each spot fierce in its own right. Some big wave locations are in warm water paradises, such as Waimea Bay in Hawaii and some in the biting cold, less suspecting locations such as Ireland.

Surfer Taz Knight is no stranger to big wave missions. The film Savage Waters documents his hunt for epic waves steered by his adventure-driven Dad, alongside his family and big wave legend Cotty. Now living in Ireland for its epic waves, he explains what it’s like to search for monster wave locations.

‘Hunting for big wave spots is a pretty scary game. You don’t have the same makers as you would with small-wave hunting. You’re better off looking at the marine charts; offshore shoals or deep water headlands.

The scariest part is you never know what the wipeouts are going to be like until you go for it. Any big boulders to hit? Any deep holes to get sucked into? Is the current gunna smash you up against the cliff or are ya gunna drift nicely into the channel? If you don’t have the right safety in place it’s a pretty risky pursuit.’

Some big wave locations across the world include:

    • Peahi (aka Jaws), Hawaii
    • Waimea, Hawaii
    • Mavericks, California
    • Cortes Bank, California
    • Mullaghmore, Ireland
    • Teahupoo, Tahiti
    • Pico Alto, Peru
    • Dungeons, South Africa
    • Shipstern Bluff, Tasmania, Australia
    • Belharra, France
    • Todos Santos/Killers, Mexico

 

Nazaré

One big wave location that stands out due to its sheer record-breaking size is Nazaré. It’s no coincidence that Nazaré is regarded as the ‘holy grail’ of Big Wave Surfing, where waves can reach a height of more than 100 feet. In the Red Bull’s blog on the 10 biggest waves ever surfed, the majority of these record-breaking waves are at this iconic location.

Surfers charge down Nazaré’s monstrous waves at roughly 50 miles an hour. The force is ‘comparable to a semi-truck collision’. Its fatal factor is understandably enough to put off most professional surfers from even attempting to ride it as the consequences can be dire.

In the winter, the water is cold, something that Cotty believes adds to the challenge.

‘It is amazing going to the dream locations, but there’s something about the cold. It keeps the crowds down a little bit, you have to work that little bit harder, and you have to be more prepared. And when you do get those good days or the dream sessions, sometimes they mean a little bit more.

There’s a certain type of person that puts the time into those cold environments… You’ve got to go that extra mile to put that time in and devote that energy.’

Read more about Andrew Cotton’s career surfing Nazaré hereCotty surfing a big wavePhoto courtesy of Hugo Silva, Red Bull

Paddle-in vs tow-in surfing

When waves are fast moving and around 30 ft plus mark, and dependent on location, they can get pretty tricky to catch when paddling by hand. To push the boundaries of big wave surfing, the breakthrough of tow-in surf evolved. Tow-in surfing is when a surfer is towed into a wave before it breaks by a personal watercraft, such as a jet ski.

Pro big wave riders tend to participate in both tow and paddle surfing, but they are seen as very different disciplines.

Earlier this year, Cotty had been training in Hawaii waiting for the World Surf League Big Wave season to commence, which kicked off in Nazaré on the 22nd January.

Cotty is also an alternate for the Eddies, a paddle only big wave competition. He explains his relationship with both disciplines of big wave surfing:

‘They’re almost like 2 different sports to be honest. Tow surfing you’re obviously using jet skis to position yourself on the waves riding really short boards with foot straps and working in teams. Where as paddle feels very much more like you against the ocean.

Generally, paddling boards up to 10ft or bigger and having to position yourself under waves, that all natural instincts are telling you not to, then turning and paddling into them!

I love doing both but to be honest, after the big wave paddle tour was cancelled a few years ago and the only contest on my schedule was the Nazaré tow challenge I’ve definitely focused more on towing. Getting on the list as an alternate for the Eddie is a huge motivation to start paddling more again.’

Andrew Cotton stood with surfboard and jet ski

How are big waves created?

Alongside powerful swells, geometry, winds, tides, and swell direction also play significant roles in generating sizeable waves.

Each big wave location will have a unique combination of these factors in creating enormous waves.

Another important element in the creation of big waves is a change in water depth over a short distance from extremely deep to shallow.

For more information on the science of waves, check out this blog from the RNLI.

Why are Nazaré’s waves so big?

The big waves at Nazaré are generated by Europe's largest underwater canyon. Unlike so many other big wave spots located near islands, such as Tahiti and Hawaii, the extreme change in sea depth required to generate monster waves is created by Nazare’s 200km long and 5km deep submarine canyon that suddenly stops at Praia do Norte. Sections of Nazaré’s canyon are three miles in deep, which makes parts triple the depth of the Grand Canyon.

However, it’s not all about the canyon. While this is a defining feature, the waves don’t make themselves. Another key ingredient is strong storms in the North Atlantic that occur during Big Wave season.

The Nazaré Canyon divides the swell created by large offshore storms in the Atlantic into one swell funnelled by the canyon and another swell situated by the canyon.

With the varying depths between the canyon and continental shelf at Praia do Norte, the canyon acts like an ‘amplification machine’. The powerful energy of the swell funnelled by the canyon channel maintains speed due to its sheer depth. It then meets and collides with the additional swell beside the canyon closer to shore, helping to produce the mammoth waves that Nazaré is famous for.

When big swell is present, waves that were 30ft offshore become 60ft plus monsters closer to the beach.

Water trapped by the converging swells and blocked by the cliff of Praia do Norte also creates an additional current/ channel in the opposite direction of the incoming swell, adding more height to the final wave. A Northeast (NE) wind also adds to the final product.

In conclusion, there are four main elements needed to awaken the Nazaré giant:

      • Swell refraction
      • Rapid depth reduction
      • The meeting of waves produced by the canyon
      • The local water channel

Keen to know what it takes to surf some of the most dangerous and colossal waves on the planet? Check out our blog Charging Nazaré - Riding Giants with Andrew Cotton to find out what the big wave rider has to say about it himself.

Andrew Cotton surfing

Photo courtesy of Tim Bonython

How are big waves measured?

The answer to this question is highly debated and is a controversial topic.

How surfers measure waves across the world varies which can be quite confusing. For example, the online surf report and forecaster Surfline provides a few measuring methods depending on the surfer's preference, including Face Height (measuring the front of the wave top to bottom) teamed with Body Height (refers to the top of the wave on the body assuming the surfer has their knees slightly bent on a wave, such as ‘chest-shoulder high’ ) as well as the ‘Traditional/ Hawaiian system (measures around half the face height).

As you can imagine, accurately measuring waves as they get bigger doesn’t get much straightforward.

Back in 2023, big wave pioneer Garrett McNamara described the uncertainties around big wave measuring, and how exactly it is done when it comes to big wave comps with the World Surf League (WSL) in an interview Forbes.

‘The way they’re measuring and handing out awards is really a mystery to everybody. I do know that WSL [World Surf League] supposedly oversees it.’ 

McNamara believes that a wave measurement ‘should be crest to trough - they never do that - they start about 20 feet up from the trough.’

The difficulty behind official surfing measurements is also a perspective shared by Cotty who, in an interview with Inertia, explains the many variables that contribute to determining the height of a wave. He expresses ‘As surfers we can’t agree on a 3ft wave. So when you’re thinking of a wave of like 80ft plus, how are you ever going to agree on it. And with the methods that they’re doing it, it’s just nonsense. Which is fine, it doesn’t matter but you can’t take it too seriously.’ All in all, he thinks, 'we have to take the measurements with a pinch of salt.’ But concludes that hopefully technology should improve and this will help the measuring side to the sport in the future. 

Taz Knight surfing a massive tube

What is the history of big wave riding?

Approaching the 1950s, big wave surfing started to gain recognition in Oahu, Hawaii, when Hawaiians started challenging themselves riding the island’s biggest waves. Makaha was the original big wave spot, but the undeniably huge waves of Waimea started to steal the limelight.

Attention later turned to Pipeline and Sunset, with barrel riding on the cards.

With the burning desire to ride Jaws/ Pe'ahi, Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama, Pete Cabrinha, Darrick Doerner and Rush Randles produced the biggest game changer to big wave riding in the 1990s. Personal watercraft, and later jet skis, were implemented to help surfers catch bigger, more gnarlier waves. Boards were shortened and adapted to use foot straps instead of leashes, and waves of 50ft were dominated.

The use of jet skis in surfing changed again in the 2010s, after the ‘purist revolution’ when big wave surfboards were redesigned to paddle fast while retaining manoeuvrability. Personal watercraft were used as a way to save surfers after catching a big wave instead of towing them into wave.

With the tow-in surfing falling out of favour, the need for personal watercraft to get on the waves of Nazaré’ once again changed the image of big wave riding, as tow-in watercrafts being a fundamental part of riding Nazaré. 

Taz Knight surfing a big wave

When did people start surfing Nazaré?

Surfers have only properly started tackling Nazaré’s gigantic winter waves from 2011 when Nazaré pioneer Garrett McNamara entered the Guiness World Records riding a 78ft wave.

Prior to this, surfers had only been surfing at Nazaré’s main beach Praia do Sul since the 1960s in the summer months. Over time, both Praia do Sul and Praia do Norte became favoured by fair-weather bodyboarders.

However, in the typical cycle of a true tourist destination, the small Portuguese fishing town became a ghost town as Autumn came around, and its giant waves went unknown for decades.

Anyone who did know about the waves didn’t know how to get them as they were too big for paddle-surfing.

It wasn’t until a local Portuguese bodyboarder Dino Casimiro got in touch with McNamara reportedly back in 2005 to tell him about the huge winter swells, finally convincing McNamara to investigate the spot himself in 2010. Prior to this in 2004, some surfers did try to surf it, but didn’t have the right equipment for waves of such magnitude and felt falling was too dangerous in such conditions.

Fast forward to now and Nazaré is synonymous with big wave surfing and the sport’s mecca - a pretty incredible turnaround from how it all began. 

Taz Knight paddling in the sea

Big wave equipment

Safety

When riding such enormous waves, safety is the highest priority. 'Safety equipment is pretty damm important and something I won’t surf without no matter what the size.’ explains Cotty.

In a previous dryrobe® interview, Cotty sums up the importance of keeping up to date with the development of safety and equipment for his performance.

‘Every year I'm looking to improve in every aspect. That's not just improving my fitness, but it's improving my safety and my equipment. That can be down to board design, to the latest inflatable vest, experimenting with cross training and spending more time in the water - trying to foil, or paddle different boards.’

Taz Knight walking in the dunes with surfboard

Taz explains how the main and probably most prevalent risk of big wave riding is concussion:

‘Most big wave surfers I know would have suffered concussions of varying degrees of severity. Which for many well-documented reasons is not great. Annoyingly, helmets won’t really help in most cases and can sometimes make it worse. Obviously, it’s a very dangerous sport, but a lot of the other risks can be minimised by modern equipment. Inflation vests and jet skis have allowed the sport to explode in recent years.’ 

Boards

The surfboard is a basic but fundamental piece of kit for the sport. We asked Taz what he couldn’t do big wave surfing without and loved what he had to say:

‘Jeez. These days, so many things! If you wanna be pure about it, I guess all you really need is a board. The rest is just frills to make us feel more comfortable. That being said, if you paddled out naked, no leash, to maccing Nazaré; you would probably die.’

Over the years, surfboards for big wave surfing have gone through many redesigns and adaptations.

Taz Knight getting barrelled

Depending on the type of big wave discipline, such as towing or paddling, boards vary in design and provide a rider with specific advantages. Taz describes the difference in his surfboards for different big wave surfing:

‘Pretty much everything you use to surf big waves is highly specialised. I have 3 main types of big wave equipment; Tow surfing, big paddle and paddle barrels.

Tow surfing is more like snowboarding than actual surfing. Tiny heavy boards with straps, and as much inflation as you can wear.

Big paddle surfing your board is just the biggest thing you can find that will go in a straight line and paddle fast.

For paddle barrels, you’re basically trying to ride the ‘smallest’ big board you can get away with. There are waves out in Ireland, for which I’ve had specific boards made and probably wouldn’t ride anywhere else.’

Big wave surfer and 5 x SUP-surfing world champion, Izzi Gomez has a ‘whole quiver of big wave guns’ ranging from 10’0 to 7’6, as well as tow boards, her favourire being her ‘really heavy 5’11’. She explains:

‘Big wave equipment is like no other. If you’re a competition surfer, you can kinda get away with a couple of different boards. But with big waves, you really have to have a full quiver of everything from 8ft to 11ft and then you need tow boards, and you need one that's heavier for this spot, and then lighter for this spot…

It is really interesting as it is very technical when it comes to equipment. And things that work for you might not work for others…

I think the biggest misconception is people think you can have just one big wave board and ride it everywhere- and you can, but all the big waves around the world are so different so I think having equipment made for those specific spots helps a lot and I think that’s why our equipment is so different compared to a regular surfboard.’

Izzi Gomez at Jaws

Photo courtesy of Fred Pompermayer

Big wave training

The importance of training as a big wave rider and how it impacts your ability and confidence going into the season is summed up by Taz:

‘To really feel comfortable in bigger stuff I would want to be getting pretty serious for all of August and September and then keeping it steady right the way through until spring. But like all good intentions life gets in the way!

‘I had a busy year, so definitely didn’t enter this winter as fit as I would want to be. I’m back in a routine now, so as long as I’m surfing enough and getting leg days in whenever I can, I feel pretty ready to go. But I’m probably not going to be charging 100ft Nazaré this season!’

Being ‘fit to crash’

Being ‘fit to crash’ is an awesome quote by Cotty on what he’s aiming for in his training:

‘The goal is to be fit, pain-free and to be able to take impact.’

He explains how working towards this helps when it comes to competing:

‘Throughout the season, you usually pick up little injuries or little imbalances - a lot of it is imbalances. You end up getting stronger on one side and therefore your body imbalances and sort of get a sore back or shoulders. So, the off-season is working on those. It’s like working on movement patterns, my imbalances, and general fitness.’

Izzi Gomez holding her surfboard in the sunset

But what kind of training do big wave surfers do? Izzi explains more of what her training entails and the impact of physical training on the mind:

‘I feel like a lot of the training I do for surfing in general it all kind of ties into itself. But a big one (for big wave surfing) is Deep End Fitness, which is the underwater pool training and it is holding your breath, but it is more mental training because your body can push so much further than your mind thinks it can. So it really is a full mind, body type of workout and I think that’s the best thing to do for big wave surfing because I think big wave is like 80% mental. So we do a lot of weights underwater, team building exercises, let out all of your air and then swim as hard as you can. There are a lot of things that we do, but the programme was developed by ex-special forces and marines and it’s pretty gnarly. But it’s a really cool community, and there’s a lot of big wave surfers doing that type of training.’

Physical training helping with mental focus and increasing overall confidence in the water is a sentiment also shared by Cotty, who explains how it has helped him to get his surfing to the next level:

‘Staying fit for what I do is absolutely key. It adds so many more aspects to my approach to surfing. It gives me confidence. It makes me feel good. So it prepares you not only physically, but also mentally as well. It’s one of my favourite things to do. It's not only completely necessary but it's also a pleasure to do. It's one that I really enjoy.’

Understanding fear

One thing many of us can’t get our head around with big wave surfing is how to deal with fear and how surfers remain calm in dangerous situations.

Cotty explains how it works for him:

‘That goes into the breathing and understanding that it’s ok to be scared - fear’s all good and healthy - it’s normal. Everyone gets scared and everyone has fear. So that's the biggest thing, that it’s ok to be scared. But pushing through fear is also pretty rewarding and to not let it get the best of you.

The classic saying is ‘Fear’s healthy, panic’s deadly.’

So simple things like nasal breathing and thinking about what you want to do and how you want it. Not thinking about the worst-case scenario.’

He makes it sound so easy…

Izzi Gomez believes her origins as a SUP surfer is a large factor in why she feels comfortable on big waves:

‘The way I got comfortable in big waves, I always competed in SUP throughout my teenage years. We had to compete in places like Cloud Break and Sunset Beach, and even there were some bigger swells when we had to compete in Europe. And it was a contest situation so it really forced me to surf in conditions that were bigger than I would have surfed normally and I think that’s what made me more comfortable. So I’d say that I really had the thought to get into it because I had those experiences through SUP.’

Izzi Gomez at Cortes Bank

What are the biggest waves ever surfed?

Officially, the largest wave ever surfed was by German surfer Sebastian Steudtner on October 29th 2020 at (you’ve guessed it) Praia do Norte, Nazaré at 86 feet (26.21 meters.

Due to the controversy around measuring waves within the surf world, there might be some disagreement on the biggest waves ever surfed. For example, in an interview with Forbes, Garrett McNamara believes ‘The official record is 86 feet, by Sebastian Steudtner. But I believe Lucas “Chumbo” Chianca [97.3 feet] should have it.’

The Women’s Guinness World Record for the largest wave surfed was by Maya Gabeira at 22.4 m (73.5 ft). It was also awarded as the biggest wave surfed by anyone that year.

The biggest wave surfed successfully without a tow in was by Aaron Gold (USA) at 19.2 m (63 ft) at Jaws on 15th January 2016. The world record for riding the largest wave ever paddled into by a woman was by Australian surfer Laura Enever at 43.6ft (13.3m) at Himalayas in Oahu, Hawaii in January 2023.

On the subject of the biggest waves ever surfed, we had to ask our ambassadors what their biggest waves to date are, here are their answers…

Cotty:
‘Over the years I’ve definitely surfed some pretty big waves, some personally I feel in the 80/90ft range and could be in contention for biggest ever but unfortunately with the way the big wave world is in the 15 years I’ve seriously been chasing big waves I’ve never had a wave officially measured by the WSL which for me and many other big wave athletes in the same situation is very frustrating. But regardless of any official measurements I’m surfing big waves for the passion and enjoyment not trophies, and every season there’s always bigger waves to chase.’

Izzi:
‘Some of the biggest waves I’ve surfed to date are on the 50ft side. I'm really bad when it comes to wave size, and that was at Cortes Bank and Jaws. It’s pretty crazy because I’m from Florida and the waves are really small there, and just to look back at how far I’ve come and where I’ve ended up, it’s a huge achievement, and I forget to remind myself of that sometimes. I get so caught up in,’ I’ve ticked this off, what can I accomplish next?’ But, yeah, it’s pretty amazing.’

Taz:
‘It’s hard to say really! I always just say “dunno, pretty big?” I have towed some pretty big waves – probably my best ‘big wave’ achievement from the purely size point of view would be a wave I paddled in Mexico in 2015. It was pretty epic, but my goals have never been to surf the biggest waves I can find. Even that trip, the best wave from my perspective was a big tube I got a few days later on a wave half the size!’

Izzi Gomez at Jaws

Photo courtesy of Fred Pompermayer

Has anyone surfed a 100-foot wave?

Not officially, but who knows what could happen this big wave season.

One interesting documentary series on the subject is 100 Foot Wave from HBO. It follows big wave surf pioneer Garrett McNamara and other dedicated big wave surfers including Cotty on the quest to find the ‘Everest’ of surfing.

Now on its third season, we asked Cotty what to expect:

‘Season 3 of 100 Foot Wave is coming out this summer, it’s focused on last year’s Big Wave season. From what I hear it’s going to feature and follow surfers in and around Nazaré same as previous seasons, but also they follow us on the mission we did to Cortez Bank off San Diego, Hawaii and maybe Ireland. I haven’t seen anything and probably won’t until it’s out on the telly haha’

Eager to watch the season 1 and 2? The series is available in the UK on Now TV, Sky and Amazon Prime Video.

Andrew Cotton holding a surfboard

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