About That ’100-Footer’…a Guinness Judge Explains How Record Waves Are Measured

nazare portugal 660On January 28, remarkable photo and video footage appeared that showed 45-year-old Hawaiian Garrett McNamara sliding down a mammoth peak at Nazaré, Portugal. That wave, and the others that crashed into Nazaré that day, was generated by a barocyclonic low that swept across the Atlantic and focused powerful swells into Nazaré’s deep submarine canyon. Within hours there were reports that the wave might have shattered McNamara’s own record of 78 feet to reach a sky-scraping 100.

The stories didn’t cite a source for the estimate, a fact McNamara pointed out when interviewers asked him if he thought it was that big.

“Surf Europe was the first one we’ve found to put it up,” he told Outside. “It’s all from a picture, they don’t even know if it’s Photoshopped or not. My mother-in-law told me, ‘Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.’ That’s a good way to think about it.”

Most people didn’t think about it at all, and “100-foot wave” quickly became gospel. If you read Wired or The Daily Beast or watch Anderson Cooper, you’d guess it’s only a matter of time before the Guinness Book of World Records in London certifies the monster as a new benchmark.

The thing is, Guinness doesn’t certify wave heights. Surfers do. And in 2011, I became one of the handful of people to sit on the panel of judges.

Several years ago, Guinness decided that the ultimate arbiters of wave height should be people who actually ride waves – a jury of big wave meteorologists, big wave surfers, and the journalists who not only cover these surfers but sometimes are nearly killed doing so, and the company found a ready-made panel in the form of the judges for the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards.

The first version of the XXLs came in 1997 and was called the K2 Big Wave Challenge, a yearlong competition launched by former Surfing Magazine editor Bill Sharp. Sharp is a fair big wave charger in his own right. He was one of the first guys to paddle in at Baja’s Todos Santos and California’s Cortes Bank, and his spine-twisting kneeboard exploits at Newport Beach’s Wedge are the stuff of local legend.

Sharp’s idea was simple and explosively popular – the surfer to paddle into the biggest wave of the year would earn payout equal to $1,000 for every foot of wave height.

After being judged by a panel that included big wave surfers such as Evan Slater and Philip “Flippy” Hoffman, Californian Taylor Knox was given the inaugural K2 award and $52,000 for a bomb he rode off Todos Santos. A couple of years later, the XXL awards concept was further honed by Sharp and the late, great meteorologist and founder of Surfline.com, Sean Collins. Eventually, Billabong signed up as the title sponsor, and it’s been the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards for better than a decade.

In 2011, after years of covering big wave surfing for surf magazines and The New York Times, I was invited by Sharp to be part of the XXL jury, and one spring day I was ushered into a conference room at Billabong in Irvine, California, with a team I respected enormously: Sean Collins; Jeff Divine, photo editor for The Surfer’s Journal; Taylor Paul, Surfing Magazine editor; twice big-wave world record holder Mike Parsons; and a handful of other equally renowned surfers. To prevent bias or the perception of it, no Billabong representatives were allowed in the judging room. For his part, Sharp stayed out of the deliberations — his job only to ensure that we had every possible angle of the waves in photos and videos.

On this day, the stakes were high. Shane Dorian had blown minds by paddling into a wave at Jaws that seemed poised to break a year-old 55-foot record set by Maverick’s charger Shawn Dollar.

XXL judging panels can be tense affairs; everyone in the room realizes what’s involved for the nominated surfers. The first important measure in actually judging a wave height has to do with determining how tall a surfer is. You must get a measure of how tall an XXL nominee is in a crouch, to the inch, to give a frame of reference for his or her wave. Next, the panel must agree on where the trough – or flat water in front of the wave — actually begins and where the wave begins to curve upward and reach for the sky.

Arguments over trough location can be particularly heated. At some spots, like Jaws, where the wave’s transition to vertical is often clearly defined, determining the trough and thus the height of a wave is fairly straightforward. At other spots, it’s not so easy. In the 2008 photo of Cortes Bank, the trough of Mike Parsons’ wave is completely obscured by a wave in the foreground – meaning judges had to interpolate where the trough actually was. At a spot like Nazaré, Portugal, where the waves can be much more slopey and often obscured by spray, the determination of the trough’s location can be doubly problematic. This is where – and why – judges try to rely on several images of a wave taken at different angles at the same moment.

Once the trough location has finally been determined, height ruling becomes a matter of literally taking a multiplier of the surfer’s height from the trough to the crest – via digital means and through the old fashioned method of walking a pair of calipers up to the top of the wave.

In the case of Jaws and Shane Dorian, the clearest photo gave an image that put the roughly 5-foot-tall crouched Dorian onto a wave that was judged to be better than 11 times overhead, or a new world record 57-foot high paddle-in wave. The following year, I pulled myself out of judging because I had written a book about the Cortes Bank, but attempts at precision went even further. Because “height of surfer” perspectives can be affected by the angle of the photograph, a measurement was actually taken of Garrett McNamara’s shinbone – with a subsequent “shinbone multiplier” to try to get as accurate as possible.

Exacting scrutiny by the XXL panel revealed that McNamara’s 2011 Nazaré ride – a wave the media speculated as high as 90 feet to in fact be 78 feet – one foot taller than a 77-footer ridden by Mike Parsons at Cortes Bank in 2008.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsHzU0ynRZk?rel=0&w=660&h=495]
Mike Parson’s wave at Jaws was measured at 64 feet, but in the beginning looks much, much bigger.

So, what of the “100-footer”? In the hazy, straightforward-shot of McNamara in front of the Nazaré headland that’s gone viral, it’s tough to determine the location of the wave’s trough at all. To the untrained eye, the photo seems to show McNamara only halfway down the wave’s face. Other angles seem to show McNamara to already be at or near the trough at that precise moment – which could cut the wave’s height measurement substantially. An interesting analysis was provided by surf meteorologist and NOAA oceanographer Pat Caldwell, who is also a friend of McNamara’s. In US News & World Report, Caldwell estimates McNamara’s 100-foot wave at roughly 60 feet.

McNamara’s wave was not the only monster ridden that day, either. Waves caught by Portugal’s Antonio Silva and McNamara’s friend Keali’i Mamala will likely also be taken into consideration in the year’s tow-surfing category. And it’s also worth noting that a new paddle surfing record might have been set on December 21, 2012, at the Cortes Bank, by Shawn Dollar. Dollar barely negotiated a towering peak that many of his peers are calling 60-feet high.

“It was fully a hail Mary,” Dollar told me. “I’ve never, never gone that fast on a surfboard.

Over the last few years, the spotlight actually has shifted away from tow-surfing — toward surfers like Dollar, Shane Dorian, and Greg Long, who eschew jetskis in favor arm strength and paddling. Indeed, though final figures have yet to be determined, XXL director Sharp reckons that the prize for the biggest wave caught paddle surfing will be increased this year, while the tow-surfing prize will be reduced. It’s all being driven by the XXL surfers themselves, Sharp says, and is part of a reevaluation of the risks and rewards of bare-handing a titanic wave. Indeed, Long was nearly killed during the same December paddle session at Cortes after being held down by three successive waves.

Regardless of how the numbers shake out, I’m looking damned forward to the XXL results this year. Big wave surfing is blowing up and I’m simply happy to see guys like Shawn Dollar, Greg Long, and Garrett McNamara getting serious attention – and kudos – for what is among the riskiest and most amazing pursuits on planet earth.

Chris Dixon is author of Ghost Wave, The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth


{ 25 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Kyle

    Finally someone talking some sense about this wave. I keep getting asked about and say pretty much the same thing. Thanks for having the credentials and eloquence to save me the breath.

  • Sylvester

    Does lens perspective factor into any of this? Shhoting from land with an 800mm lens will undoubetdly make any wave look bigger than it actually is. I guess you’d have to be standing as close as possible to the beach with a 50mm lens to get a true representation. I don’t really know though, just what a photographer buddy or mine told me.
    Any other shooters out ehre who can chime in on this?

  • Chris Dixon

    Sylvester, that’s a great question I probably should’ve addressed more clearly in the article. As Steve C points out, generally the focal length of the lens probably wouldn’t make a huge difference – as long as the focal length is greater than 50mm. Anything smaller, and as you probably know, you can get a magnifying effect – til you get down to 15mm and the full-on fisheye. A 35 mm lens would seem to be a length that could skew things slightly bigger than they are without giving the obvious effect of a smaller length – and that could be problematic – particularly if the surfer is not in the center of the shot. From my experience, it’s evident that’s why there are always surfing lensmen in on the judging. Jeff Divine and Sean Collins in particular had eagle eyes for that sort of distortion, but it’s something that every photographer judge is surely aware of. The perspective on the shot – whether the shooter is above, below, or directly down the line in front of the surfer can have a dramatic effect, and that’s why multiple angles are so important. You can really tell how this affects things by watching the Mike Parsons video from start to finish – it was shot from a helicopter by legendary water camera artist Phil Boston – and early on, when the pilot is higher up, the wave looks stupendously big. As the pilot gets lower, and closer to the wave, it’s true height becomes more apparent. Though of course, it’s still pretty stupendous.

  • Marty (Kowabungadude) Nardi

    It is called “forced perspective” and is a commonly used technique of movie makers. I worked for Disney as a set builder. Simply stated put a small object in the foreground and the object in the background looks exponentially larger than it is. The paddle in guys at “Jaws” are awesome and a breed apart. I live on the North Shore of Maui at Peahi (Jaws) and the fact that the Red Bull people have cut off all acess to the locals is “I don’t have the adjective” not one that can be printed. Aloha from Peahi! Can I get a pass and not risk getting arrested for checking out the surf in my own backyard?

  • hugo

    the theory that the lens focal lenght magnified the wave has a flaw. Garret would be also magnified in the same proportion as he is riding it.

    • steve casimiro

      It’s not the magnification, is the compression of space within the image and the illusion that one thing is larger relative to another. The linear relationship between a surfer, the wave face, the lip, and trough all affect the perception of height relative to one another — and all of these are affected (though not necessarily magnified) by lens choice and camera angle.

  • hugo

    the measuring of the waves only takes in account the surfers size, not other elements . And he is in the same focal length as the wave.

    • steve casimiro

      Wave height is calculated based on surfer height. But a wave isn’t a vertical wall with a surfer standing at the bottom. It slopes and the surfer stands somewhere in the middle, and as the story mentions, figuring out the bottom, the trough, is difficult, often generating heated debate. Take a picture of someone standing five, 10, and 50 feet in front of a tree and see how the perceived height of the the tree changes.

      And as a personal aside, who really cares if a wave is 76, 77, or 78 feet, other than someone marketing a big wave contest?

      • Chris Dixon

        Steve, I’ll take a stab at that one.
        Lots of folks care whether it’s 76, 77 or 78 feet because people – as a rule – like to push the limits. That’s the reason some want to climb the tallest mountain in the world, or run the fastest mile while others want to eat the most hot dogs. Big wave surfing’s no different in this way. It’s just that the mountains are temporary and can always grow bigger.
        And Hugo, to your point that the surfer is always in the focal length, there are definite caveats to that. If someone shot a big wave surfer with, say, a 28 mm lens, and the surfer was not centered in the shot but more off to the side, he could appear vastly smaller than he would if he was in the center of the shot. The lens would make things in the center of the shot bigger, and at the periphery smaller. With modern 12, 14MP cameras, it’s easy to even take a high-rez shot this way – that would make the surfer appear to be in the center by simply cropping it.
        Good discussion here – and Nardi – shoot me some contact info. Sounds like a good story.

  • John

    It’s all about camera angle. Garrett’s 78 foot wave from last year seems like an overestimation to me. His “world record” wave of 11-1-11 was really between 65 and 70 feet from my analyses. The camera angle is very high (50 feet or more?), up on the cliff. Also Garrett was probably 10 to 20 feet below sea level, when he was photographed. One more thing, just before Garrett was covered by spray from the preceeding wave he squatted down even more with his arms spread-eagle. At that moment they captured the famous still image. This gave the illusion that Garrett was in a LESS squatting position. Garrett is 5’10″ tall.

    Surfers’ heights should always be given so we all know the true scale of big-wave surfing.

  • Armindo Ferreira

    You can gather as many pics as you want of one and the same wave and all have different heights. It’s all about the moment the wave is at it’s highest and in my opinion that’s right before it breaks when it seem to jump a bit. That is my experience from watching the waves of praia do norte all my life.

    To my shame I didn’t actually see this wave but I have seen many others that were in my humble opinion at least a 100ft and probably much more (even tho it’s hard to tell without a surfer on it I can tell you they were higher then me standing at least 100ft above the water) and I can tell you now that if surfers keep coming to Nazaré, records will be broken, even if this is not the one to do it.

    So in my opinion it all stays a bit arbitrary for several reasons.

  • taylor carter

    with all the technology of today we shouldnt be guessing about the height of waves . theres gotta be a way to measure them acurately with lasers or something . l

    • Marty (Kowabungadude) Nardi

      How ’bout a dude in a helicopter with a rope or cable? See ” The Wave ‘ by Susan Casey copyright 2010 pgs. 229 and 230. At the University of Hawaii we all got an education about grams and millileters and centimeters. Hawaii is the only place in the world where wave height is measured on the back of the wave and not the face. The Hawaiians know the truth. Billabong and Red Bull really don’t get it. They are just out to make money from something pure and simple. Garret McNamara rules. Check out Redbullusa.com/jaws. and you will have a window into a sham.

  • Chris Dixon

    Taylor – lasers and even drop buoys outside the surf zone have both been discussed and really aren’t all that feasible if you think about it. Too complicated and too many variables. The way forward in my mind – and this has been experimented with – is to render the wave photos on a 3D grid of sorts. Then you could manipulate the angles to get a truer measure of height. Bottom line though, it ain’t ever gonna be as precise as a laser measurement of the top of Everest.

  • John

    Chris, I like the idea of converting photos into a 3D grid which can be manipulated thru CGI. I thought of tiny micro buoys bobbing from trough to crest. Or how about some kind of a radar scan of the entire wave could give an accurate measurement moment to moment?

    When I analyzed Garrett’s wave of 11-1-11, I watched the video dozens of times. It was compelling, so I wanted to know the truth. Then, since I am exactly Garrett’s height, 5’10″, I photographed myself imitating his final stance just before the spray covered him and the wave reached its’ max height. Then I superimposed my own photo over the wave and got a number of times overhead that was disappointing. That is how I came to wonder about the accuracy of the XXL judges determination.

  • Tom Kelly

    Not a surfer but why can’t they carry a smartphone and get a detailed recording of their 3D position and speed from the accelerometer?

  • John

    Yes, an accelerometer or some other sensor on their ankle or board that can be located from another device, like a radar gun, from a point on shore that can determine exactly, to the inch, what vertical elevation above the trough. If such technology exists.

    • Chris Dixon

      Actually GPS – unless highly, highly precise that would do little to tell you the height of the wave – nor would it give you an accurate measure of speed. You might get an accurate measure of forward speed, but remember, on a big wave, the water is also being drawn back up the face at a high rate of speed. So while your forward speed might be something in the realm of 45-50 mph on a big wave, to the surfer, the apparent speed is even greater because he/she is not only going downhill and forward, but is also racing against the water being drawn back up the face of the wave. No one to my knowledge has measured this, though forecaster Mark Sponsler of Stormsurf.com – who was watching Shawn Dollar from the shoulder out at Cortes – told me he reckoned that Shawn’s board might have been moving as fast as 70mph (110-155KPH) across the surface of the water. Super G speeds. As for the helicopter with the rope, well, sure, I guess you could do that, but how farking annoying would it be to the guy trying to ride the wave? And how dangerous to the pilot?

      • Marty (Kowabungadude) Nardi

        Don Shearer the pilot of the famous yellow rescue helicopter at Jaws is a welcome sight to a surfer facing potentially fatal multiple holddowns after a wipeout. Yes it is a dangerous profession for the surfers, the rescue ski drivers and the helcopter pilots. All done in the name of making this endeavour as safe as possible. Read ” The Wave ” by Susan Casey to gain more insight. It also chronicles the game changing input of the late Sean Collins on the forcasting side of the house.

  • John

    For what it’s worth, since I’ve been estimating wave heights for 15 years, I finally analyzed the photo of Garrett on 1-28-13 on the Billabong web site, “Biggest Waves”. The camera angle seems even higher than his 11-1-11 wave. Just a rough approximation using a ruler on my pc screen and a calculator, I get a size for Garrett as approx 5/16″ and the wave at 3.5″ to 4″ depending upon where the trough is, I get about 11.2 to 12.8 times overhead. Factoring in the high camera angle, this indicates a wave of between 60 and 75 feet, probably closer to 60 than 75.

    • Marty (Kowabungadude) Nardi

      Richard “Dick” Brewer is the greatest living shaper and probably the best “gun” shaper of all time. He paddled out at Waimea on his own shapes every time it broke fpr 7 years. While hanging out with RB in the shaping room watching him shape a 9’6″ “Thruster Gun” for me the conversation inevitably turned to big waves. Brewer said, ” big waves are not measured in feet, they are measured in increments of fear”.

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