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Big Wave Surfing

Tales from the “Unridden Realm”

A surfer’s relentless dedication to his sport is a puzzling thing for those of us who haven’t ever hung ten on a surfboard. What value, we may ask ourselves, does it have beyond personal pleasure? What drives so many surfers to shrug off conventional notions of adulthood in exchange for the promise of the ultimate “stoke”? And why does this single ambition so often produce the kind of UV-induced superficiality that has become the surfer’s archetype, parodied by dozens of Hollywood films, from Endless Summer to Point Break?

No wonder it’s difficult to believe that surfing has much spiritual currency beyond its notoriously insular subculture. But ask surfers themselves, or any of the other multitudes of “extreme sports” participants, and they’ll likely say something entirely different. Indeed, after riding thirty-foot waves or running marathons in the desert, climbing cliff faces without ropes or dropping out of helicopters to snowboard remote mountain peaks, people often claim that they’ve experienced nothing less than the timeless transcendent dimension of life. And this raises an interesting question: Are extreme sports merely satisfying a junkie’s need for adrenaline, as many of us are apt to think, or have they become a kind of modern-day crucible of the sacred?

One hypothesis is that of French “body anthropologist” David Le Breton, who believes that the “physical limit has come to replace the moral limit that present-day society no longer provides.” On this subject, Le Breton writes, “In a society where reference points are both countless and contradictory and where values are in crisis, people are seeking, through a radical one-to-one contest, to test their strength of character, their courage, and their personal resources.” The result, he concludes, is that today, it is in the realm of extreme physical pursuits that “sacred experiences . . . are abundant.”

If this theory is accurate, it supports what big wave surfers have been saying for over fifty years: that in going beyond limits to conquer the Goliaths of the ocean—waves of indescribable proportions in unimaginable breaks far from the shores we normally inhabit—they uncover the spiritual dimension of life. In fact, explains thirty-five-year-old big wave surfer Dave Kalama, those moments when you step over the edge of what you think is possible are among life’s most profound “because they are the times when you call upon or you experience the deepest sense of who you are. . . . There is something about riding a sixty-foot wave that draws something out of you. The wave commands so much focus and so much attention that it’s the only thing that matters. It’s very purifying, because as far as you’re concerned, nothing else exists.” The history of big wave surfing is filled with stories of people who live for those experiences, who look for them in the “unridden realm”—a place where death is a powerful reality and survival redefines what we know to be humanly possible.

Consider the story of Greg Noll. In 1957, Noll was twenty years old and pioneering a life of surfing on the beaches of Hawaii. In March of that year, he stood at the shore of an infamously dangerous beach called Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore and watched the approaching waves. No one had ever risked riding its ferocious surf. As Noll told filmmaker Stacey Peralta in the surfing documentary Riding Giants, “People really believed that if you paddled out at Waimea, there was going to be this vortex and there would go all the haoles flushed down the toilet.” Accompanied by a small group of comrades—fellow surfers who were responsible for forging what would soon develop into a new American subculture—Noll entered the bay and successfully caught a wave, becoming the first person ever to do so.

Noll’s greatest feat, however—what he himself describes as the most significant day of his life and the ride that would secure his place as the grandfather of big wave surfing—would come many years later in the winter of 1969. That was the year that one of the greatest swells of the twentieth century slammed into Hawaii, the result of three massive storms converging in the Pacific Ocean. As hundreds of people evacuated their homes in fear of the colossal waves that battered the coastline, Noll entered the water armed with a surfboard at Makaha beach on the North Shore. He spent two hours just sitting in the water absorbing the mind-blowing spectacle, four- and five-story-high walls of water rising up one after the other before exploding down in front of him. Finally, he paddled into a gigantic thirty-five-foot behemoth, riding its face to the bottom before being forced to jump off his board as the mass of water seemed to detonate around him. He had managed to survive the largest wave ever ridden, a record that would not be beaten for two decades. Thereafter, Noll retired from surfing completely. “That day at big Makaha was like looking over the goddamn edge at a big, black pit,” he said. “After that, there wasn’t a hell of a lot more I could do.”

Nearly thirty years later, Texan-born surfer Ken Bradshaw would share a similar experience. Having already become the first man to ride a forty-foot wave, on January 28, 1998, he eclipsed all previous big wave records at an outer reef off Oahu called Outside Log Cabins. During the height of an El Niño storm, on what is now called Biggest Wednesday, he was towed into a wave that was acknowledged by all who saw it as measuring eighty feet from trough to crest. He flew down the vertical face of the wave at death-defying speeds of forty-five miles per hour. “The gods were smiling on him,” said a stunned friend who watched the spectacle from shore. Yet shortly after the ride that was to become the stuff of legend, Bradshaw fell into a deep existential depression. At forty-five years of age, he had finally lived the dream that had defined his life’s purpose. What was he supposed to do now? It was only later, when he discovered new frontiers (in the form of even more challenging breaks), that he began surfing again.

Three years after Biggest Wednesday, Laird Hamilton, the originator of tow-in surfing and perhaps the greatest big wave surfer alive today, would find himself at just such a new frontier. In 2001, Hamilton traveled to Tahiti to surf a unique cyclone-shaped wave called Teahupoo (pronounced cho-pu), which translates into English as “broken skulls.” Indeed, the elements at Teahupoo seem almost designed for death. Just under the surface of the ocean, razor-sharp shallow reefs extend from the beach and then dramatically drop off to a depth of three hundred feet. When an approaching swell hits this reef wall a third of a mile offshore, it creates a tubular wave so powerful that it has been called a “freak of hydrodynamics.” As ex–pro surfer and writer Matt Warshaw observes, “Waves as small as three feet can be ridden at Teahupoo, and at six feet it still has a reasonable shape and demeanor. Above eight feet, however, Teahupoo gets exponentially stronger, thicker, rounder, and more malevolent: each ride begins with a vertical entry; each wave transforms into a thick-walled cavern, which in turn collapses with enough force to send shock waves running through the still water of a nearby channel.” Just four months before Hamilton arrived at Teahupoo, local pro surfer Briece Taerea was slammed into the underwater reef while riding a fifteen-foot wave. He broke his neck and back in three places, went into a coma, and died two days later.

Within seconds, the first wave that Hamilton was towed into grew to mammoth proportions. One photographer who witnessed the scene could only describe the monstrously thick wall of water, measuring eighteen feet tall, as “liquid napalm.” In the middle of his ride, in which he had to drag his right hand against the inner surface of the wave just to avoid being sucked upwards by hydraulic forces, Hamilton disappeared into the wave’s hollow spinning core as the tube began to shut down on itself, ejecting an explosion of whitewater mist. Seconds later, he suddenly reemerged . . . alive. Footage from that day shows Hamilton sitting in a boat afterwards, weeping from the power of the experience. “I felt honored,” he would later say, “to be awarded with something so magnificent.”

It’s no wonder that, as Drew Kampion wrote in his book Waves: Form and Beauty on the Ocean, surfing’s most captivating challenge has always been riding big waves and “in a real way, the men who were able to ride them were accorded a kind of god-like respect within the society of their peers.” Though the grace of its masters can make it look effortless, surfing is amazingly difficult. Just paddling into the lineup, the area beyond the surf zone where surfers wait for advancing waves, is exhausting and quickly humbling work. Actually catching a wave requires that the board be moving at the same velocity as the oncoming swell, and it demands a simultaneous combination of spontaneity, speed, balance, and stamina. And that’s just for a wave four feet high. Try for a moment to imagine being in the path of a fifteen-foot wave. In essence, it is a force of energy perhaps ten feet taller than you and moving through the water at a speed of twenty miles per hour. Riding a wave this size—the general height qualification for big wave status—requires a level of skill and experience difficult to comprehend.

Big waves are actually quite rare. Eighty percent of all ocean waves are less than twelve feet high, and forty-five percent are smaller than four feet. The largest waves, those measuring over thirty-five feet, require anywhere from six to nine hundred miles of unobstructed ocean, or “fetch,” to reach full size. By the time such an anomaly encounters a reef break or shore incline, it has become a powerful rolling mass of wind-born energy moving through the water at speeds of thirty to fifty knots per hour and capable of exerting forces of more than three tons (that’s six thousand pounds of pressure per square foot) as it finally curls up over itself and breaks. In an attempt to elucidate just why the experience of riding a wave is so unique, author Daniel Duane writes in Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast, “The climber never quite penetrates the mountain, the hiker remains trapped in the visual prison, but the surfer physically penetrates the heart of the ocean’s energy—and this is in no sense sentimentality—stands wet in its substance, pushed by its drive inside the kinetic vortex. Even riding a river, one rides a medium itself moved by gravity, likewise with a sailboard or on skis. Until someone figures out how to ride sound or light, surfing will remain the only way to ride energy.”

For those driven to put themselves in the center of the “kinetic vortex” of big waves, the risk is incredible. Being caught in the falling lip of a wave can send surfers underwater so deep and so fast that the pressure change breaks their eardrums and the capillaries in their lungs. Dismemberment, fractures, or broken bones from contact with the ocean floor or from the seething force of whitewater are so common that Laird Hamilton stopped counting his stitches after a thousand. Both of his feet are disfigured from broken arches, but he claims that they may now be “stronger than before.” Derrik Doerner, another pioneer of tow-in surfing and the man who launched Hamilton into the infamous wave at Teahupoo with a jet ski, was once hit in the face by a surfboard underwater. Just before he went unconscious, he felt his cheek. “My hand went in, like, two inches,” he says. “The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a helicopter. I had a broken jaw, broken cheekbone. I needed 123 stitches in all.”

Even more horrifying is native Hawaiian big wave surfer Titus Kinimaka’s experience riding Waimea Bay in 1989, one day before the famous Eddie Aikau surf contest. At dawn, he paddled out into the eighteen-foot swells and spent several hours surfing. While riding his final wave, however, the lip collapsed on top of him and his surfboard “chopped” into his right leg. “I dove under and got tumbled around again,” he says, “and when I finally came up there was something hitting me on the side of my cheek, back by my right ear. I was kind of dazed, wondering, ‘What is this thing?’ and I grabbed it and was looking at it, and then I realized it was the bottom of my foot.” Suffering from a snapped femur, the first thing Kinimaka asked when given the bad news was if he would still make the contest the next day. “What was I thinkin’?” he mused during an interview a year later. “I was possessed.” Indeed, after a steel rod was inserted through his right hip and he spent four months in bed healing himself, the first thing Kinimaka did was go out and surf ten-foot waves at Hanalei Bay.

What could possibly motivate big wave surfers to risk so much? In regard to his ride at Makaha in 1969, Greg Noll writes, “Some of my friends have said it was a death-wish wave. I didn’t think so at the time, but in retrospect I realize it was probably bordering on the edge.” In fact, it seems to be that very edge, the one between life and death, that surfers find so gripping. Perhaps this is because, in the words of mountain climber Lionel Terray, it is only “after treading the delicate path on the frontiers of Death for a long time [that] we can fully hug Life in our arms again.” Dave Kalama has said that surfing big waves “goes from being the scariest experience of your life to being the best experience of your life, all in a matter of seconds. And, fortunately—or unfortunately—that feeling is one of the most addictive things in life, like air or water. To keep your sanity, you have to ride waves, and some of them need to be big. . . . The closer you get to total annihilation, the more real everything becomes.”

Derrik Doerner says of his experience in the water, “It’s meditation to me. I get back on land, I stub my toe, I trip. Whereas out there, it’s just . . . perfect. All the elements come together, and there is no fear.” And as the famous bodysurfer Mark Cunningham explains, “It’s not just riding the waves, it’s swimming through them, it’s diving under them, opening your eyes underwater as you watch this thing impact right in front of you. And you just knife right through there, between the bottom and where those whitewater fingers are tryin’ to grab you. Just the whole dance out there. You’re like a piece of the ocean. I mean, what is the human body made of? Water. The physical makeup of the bodily fluids and ocean is very similar. And now you’ve found each other.” While recalling his own mythical eighty-foot wave, Ken Bradshaw told an interviewer, “I guess it’s an addiction. I have no idea, but it must be like being on drugs. Because when you’re not doing it, it torments and eats away at you. When it is happening . . . I guess it’s like looking at life itself. For a moment, you’ve got it all. It’s yours. You’ve gone to the very epitome of what you can do. How many people can say that in this world?”


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This article is from
Our Ken Wilber Issue


June–August 2006