On 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.
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