Here’s the thing about chasing the world’s biggest waves: you don’t really know where they are. You do, however, know where they’re not. That’s easy. Shallow beaches with big shelves leading far out to sea. Beaches protected from raw, open ocean power by headlands or the sweep of a coastline away from the prominent direction of swells. Really big waves break only along coastlines where very deep water abruptly gives way to very shallow water, relatively speaking. Though you can’t see it, a swell’s energy radiates vertically, downward through the water column. We see the “ripple” at the surface, but the power stretches far below. Once that dispersed energy hits a shallow reef or a sandbar, it’s forced upward into a wave. The greater that discrepancy between deep water and shallow reef, or sand, the bigger the wave.
Of particular interest to the madcap surfers who want to ride the biggest waves then, are volcanic islands that thrust upwards through deep, open stretches of ocean. Think, Hawaii. Roaring swell trains chug through the Pacific then smash into volcanoes rising above thousands of feet of seawater. Wherever that happens, you’ll find gigantic surf. Doesn’t need to be an island chain the size of Hawaii, though. Little islands can produce the world’s biggest surf too, should the conditions align.
There’s a tiny Chilean island, 500 miles from the mainland, called Alejandro Selkirk, that fits the bill. The wide-open Pacific lashes the western coast with ferocious, cliff-beating surf in the southern hemisphere winter. Surfers have known of the place for years; at least one strike mission to surf big waves there roughly a decade ago resulted in grainy images of impossibly large waves being ridden, but the place isn’t on the radar of even the hardiest surf travelers.
The island’s original name was Más Afuera, which means, basically, “farther out.” As you’d imagine from a name like that, it’s isolated. The Chilean tourism authority renamed the island in the 1960s after Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish man who was shipwrecked on a nearby volcanic island where he survived by himself for months, the inspiration behind the great English novel, Robinson Crusoe. A few dozen lobster fishermen live there today, but even then, many head to the mainland in the colder months.
The island is so isolated in fact, it has become, oddly enough, the final resting place for some of the late writer David Foster Wallace’s ashes. His friend and fellow author Jonathan Franzen was so distraught after Wallace’s death, he flew to the most lonely place he could imagine in order to be alone and to grieve. Franzen chose the setting for Robinson Crusoe, packed a container of DFW’s ashes, and spread them on the rocky coast.
A decade later, a group of surfers headed for Alejandro Selkirk in search of not isolation, necessarily, but massive waves. Perhaps the biggest waves in the world, even. Chilean big-wave pro Ramón Navarro accompanied Léa Brassy and Kohl Christensen to the little island, rolling the dice and hoping for the rare combination of swell power, swell direction, wind direction, and the incalculable chaotic forces swirling in unseen ocean currents and moods that result in truly huge and rideable surf.
Did they find the world’s biggest surf? They did not. Although perhaps that day it was. It’s an ephemeral thing, surf. It comes and goes, never the same way twice.
Very large waves though, were ridden by the crew. They surfed a deepwater reef that looks like it produces a serious left that certainly could rival some world-class big wave breaks, and a powerful right-breaking reef/point wave that resembles the turquoise jewels spinning off the steep cliffs of a similar island, Madeira, a Portuguese principality far into the Atlantic.
Also, they found an island deeply proud of its rugged character, free from the garbage polluting so much of the world. Literally. The crew of surfers intended on beach cleanups, but were shocked to find little, if any, plastic littering the pristine, volcanic beaches. As it turns out, plastic is not only rare on Selkirk, but also on the neighboring islands of the Juan Fernández Archipelago of which it is a part. Locals actually call visitors from the mainland, plásticos, for their propensity to bring plastic with them when visiting the islands. Think about that for a moment.
The surfers may not have found the massive waves they searched for, but as in all adventures, it’s not so much whether you found what you sought that defines success. Did you learn something? Discover something new? As the below short film shows, the surfers found a community deeply in harmony with nature, a small village that’s giving, generous and welcoming.
Just leave your plastic at home.