The largest wave ever surfed (that has been recorded) was 78ft. That’s approximately the size of an 8-story building.
When we speak of surfing as an extreme sport, big-wave surfers truly live up to the name by facing waves more than 20ft in size and traveling at speeds of 80 km/h and faster. Big wave surfers such as Jeff Clark, Eddie Aikau, and Shane Dorian are a breed of their own.
Below is a list of some of the most iconic, influential, and experienced big-wave surfers that the surfing community has to offer.
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Best Big Wave Surfers
Because what we all consider “the best” is subjective, it is impossible to decide who is or was the best big wave surfer of all time.
That being said, here is a list of some of the most iconic big-wave surfers of all time.
One of the most respected names in the world of surfing, Eddie Aikau, born in Kahului, Hawaii, in 1946 transformed from being the first official lifeguard hired by the City & County of Honolulu to becoming a legendary big wave surfer that every surfer has heard of.
According to Eddie’s younger brother Clyde, he was “high risk at an early age” and although quiet, was always ready for a challenge or something risky.
- Date: May 1946 – March 1978
- Place of birth: Kahului, Hawaii
- Famous for surfing: Waimea Bay
- Eddie saved over 500 people as a lifeguard.
- Eddie never refused to enter the ocean if someone was in trouble and never lost a single person.
- Eddie was lost at sea after embarking on a historic migration route between the Hawaiian and Tahitian islands. After the canoe developed a leak, Eddie attempted to swim to shore for help but was never seen again.
There is only a small handful of surfers that are willing to brave the gigantic waves of Maverick, let alone be the first.
Jeff Clark, born in the USA was constantly seeking bigger and stronger waves as he grew up until he discovered Maverick.
Being the only person brave (or crazy) enough to paddle out and surf these waves, Jeff surfed Maverick alone for 15 years before he could convince another surfer to join him.
When you understand that Maverick can get up to 60 ft, and breaks half a mile for the shore, you will begin to see why Jeff is such a legend.
Not only does the wave break far out, but it breaks around a point, which leaves the surfer with a 45-minute maze of rocks and well to get past before they even reach the backline.
- Date of Birth: March 1957
- Place of birth: Redwood City, California.
- Famous for surfing: Mavericks.
- First person to surf Maverick.
- Surfed Maverick alone for 15 years.
- Founder of the Mavericks surf contest.
- Stared in the films “Riding Giants, Step Into Liquid, Adventures in Wild California, and Discovering Mavericks”.
Gregg Noll (Da Bull)
Born in California, Gregg Noll was an accomplished lifeguard and one of surfing’s first big wave celebrities.
Nicknamed “Da Bull” by Phil Edwards (the first surfer to ride pipeline) for his charging surf style and bull-like physic.
Gregg was a pioneer in big wave surfing, particularly for dominating Waimea Bay, which was commonly known as his “gal”.
Once called “the Babe Ruth of surfing” by Jim Kempton, the president of the California Surf Museum, Gregg was a fearless big wave surfer, film star, and longboard shaper, just to mention a few.
- Date: February 1937 – June 2021
- Place of birth: San Diego, California.
- Famous for surfing: Waimea Bay, and Makaha.
- In 1953 Greg moved to Hawaii to live off the land and surf the coastlines with several other surfers.
- Manufacturer of “Da Cat” surfboards.
- During a storm in 1969, Greg rode what was deemed to have surfed one of the biggest waves in history at Makaha.
After touring for 11 years as a professional surfer, Shane Dorian gave up his pro career to indulge in the world of big-wave surfing.
Since leaving the pro surfing world in 2003, Shane has caught the biggest wave at Waimea, one of the best waves at Jaws of all time, and the biggest paddle-in wave at Nazare.
Shane is a force to be reckoned with in the big wave world and remains one of the best big wave surfers of all time.
- Date of Birth: July 1972.
- Place of birth: Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
- Famous for surfing: Waimea, Jaws, Nazare, Mavericks, Teahupoo, and more.
- Founder of the Shane Dorian Keiki Classic.
- Billabong has been a long-time main sponsor of Shane.
- Awarded “Surfer of the Year” by WSL for his wave at Jaws.
A pioneer of tow-in-surfing, and called the greatest wave rider of all time by many, Laird Hamilton seems to be completely fearless.
Not only is Laird one of the inventors of tow-in surfing, but he is also at the core of stand-up paddleboarding, and hydrofoil boarding.
This one model has become a legend in the surfing world and was once called “the sport’s most complete surfer” by Surf Magazine.
- Date of Birth: March 1964.
- Place of birth: San Francisco, California.
- Famous for: Being a pioneer in tow-in surfing, Hydrofoil boarding, and stand-up paddleboarding.
- Laird was a model before his surfing career.
- Laird has been the star in multiple films, as well as taking part as a stuntman in surf scenes.
- The New York Times bestseller “Force of Nature: Mind, Body, Soul, and, Of Course, Surfing” was released by Laird in 2008, which is now a go-to manual for those seeking inspiration on living a healthy lifestyle.
What Is Big Wave Surfing?
Big wave surfing is exactly what the name implies – surfing big waves. However, in order to call it big wave surfing the wave needs to be a minimum of 20ft (6m).
Big wave surfers are either towed or paddled onto these giants and often reach speeds of 80km/h (50mph).
What was once an activity for the insane, has now become a popular extreme sport that hosts global competitions and championships.
Who Founded Big Wave Surfing?
The true origins of big wave surfing will never be known as indigenous peoples from around the world have been surfing for longer than we can record.
However, the origins of modern-day big wave surfing are often attributed to George Downing, Wally Froiseth, Woody Brown, and Buzzy Trent (among others), who started a big wave riding movement in the 1940s and 50s.
It was these legends that were the first to face the crushing waves in Makaha, Hawaii, and showed the world what could be possible on a surfboard.
Who Surfed the Biggest Wave?
Many big wave surfers have claimed to surfer the biggest wave, however, not all of them have been recorded.
That, however, was not true for Garrett McNamara, a US big wave surfer who holds the record for the largest wave ever surfed.
On 11 November 2011, Garrett dropped in on a 78-foot wave at the famous Nazare in Portugal.
Although Garrett sounds like a madman, he is not the only one to face waves this size.
Maya Gabeira, a Brazilian surfer saw Garrett’s challenge and in 2020, surfed the same break, dropping in on a 73,5-foot wave.
Although Maya did not beat the record for the biggest wave surfed in the world, she still holds the title of the biggest wave surfed by a woman.
Big wave surfing is by far the most extreme that surfing as a sport has been.
Regardless of the era, since big wave surfing has become popular, surfers from all around the world are on the hunt for the next biggest, fastest, and most raw waves.
When big wave surfers drop in on their rides, they are not only facing a long fall, but they are playing with life and death.
G’day, my name is Rach Taylor and I’m the proud Founder of Surf Hungry. I am a former Australian Olympic athlete and Australian representative surf sports athlete. I’ve worked in the surf industry and lived at many of Australia’s best surf spots, sparking a life-long love of the ocean and a passion for surf sports which also rubbed off on my two young sons! I am also lucky to spend a lot of ocean-time in my favorite second home, Indonesia. In addition to SurfHungry I have founded several other websites in my areas of passion, namely coffee and rock climbing, and am also a regular rowing content contributor.