It takes a special kind of courage and balls of steel to ride monstrous waves with towering heights of 80 ft or more. Daredevils are what we call them — the bravest of all surfers. Riders who travel the globe for the biggest waves, looking to make their mark in the records and surfing history.
In 2018, a Portuguese surfer named Hugo Vau surfed ‘Big Mama’, a wave that’s measured about 115 ft (35 meters) in Praia do Norte, Nazaré. Although this feat is still unofficially recognized by the World Surfing League, it’s considered the biggest wave ever surfed today.
Vau is just one of the hundreds of surfers who dedicate their lives to pursuing the death-defying drops of big-wave surfing. In this article, you’ll discover the world-breaking records made by some of the most fearless surf personalities. We’ll also discuss Nazaré, the famous surf destination in Portugal where you can find the most outrageous waves.
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How are big waves measured?
When surfing waves with heights similar to buildings that are eight to nine storeys tall, surfers look like tiny little specks trying to get away from jaw-dropping waves that are out to eat them alive. Since it’s difficult to measure these waves in action, how do you think experts calculate wave heights?
As of writing, there is still no official method used to measure the exact wave heights ridden by the surfers. The most common method is by measuring or estimating the surfer’s height and comparing it to the height of the wave they surfed. Experts also calibrate photos and video footage to determine wave measurements.
Fixed structures and floating vessels are also key in calibrating wave heights. An example of this is the lighthouse in Nazaré that’s often used as a visual comparison.
According to Miguel Moreira who works at the University of Lisbon’s Department of Sport and Health, Faculty of Human Kinetics, the only way for a record to become official is when the WSL officially acknowledged it using the method they have formulated. In partnership with the Guinness World Records, these two global brands give recognition for the record-breaking achievements in history.
World Records of the Biggest Waves Ever Surfed
Back in the 1990s, 20-foot waves are already considered too big. But when the 2000s came, big wave surfing became the newest craze among the most daring kinds of surfers.
One of the earliest records of successful big wave surfing belongs to surfing legend, Greg Noll, who paddled out a 35-foot wave in Makaha in the year 1969. During that time, it’s known as the biggest wave ever ridden, and that record remained for 20 years.
After Greg Noll, other surfers attempted to surf more outrageous waves than what he surfed on. The current Guinness World Record belongs to Rodrigo Koxa, who surfed an 80-foot wave (24.4m) in Nazaré on November 8, 2017. He was also awarded the Quiksilver XXL Biggest Wave Award by the World Surf League (WSL) for this amazing feat.
Meanwhile, Maya Gabeira led the women’s division with her record of surfing a 73.5-foot wave (22.4 m) on February 11, 2020. She was also awarded the XXL Biggest Wave Award for that season.
Shawn Dollar also broke the record of biggest wave ever ridden with the traditional method when he paddled his way (without tow) towards a 61 ft. wave (18.6m) in Cortes Bank, North Pacific Ocean.
There are also other claims that are not yet recognized by the WSL for various reasons. One of those is the successful attempt of Antonio Laureano who rode a 101-foot wave (30.9 m) in Nazaré, Portugal. This ride would top Koxa’s record once it becomes official.
You can watch him and his team’s amazing journey in the video below.
Another claim for the biggest wave ever surfed is by Benjamin Sanchis, a French surfer who rode a 108 ft wave in Nazaré on December 11, 2014. The WSL doesn’t recognize this ride as of yet, and it’s for the reason that Sanchis only rode the wave partially, meaning he didn’t succeed in riding the wave completely.
Finally, there’s Hugo Vau who’s believed to have surfed the biggest wave of all, the legendary ‘Big Mama’ in Nazaré after 7 years of preparing and anticipating. On January 17, 2018, he caught and surfed the 115 ft (35 m) massive wave in the witness of other surfers. Like other claims, the WSL hasn’t proclaimed anything about Hugo’s record yet.
Nazaré: Home of the Biggest Waves
Before the daredevils of Portugal surfed ‘Big Mama’ and other big waves in Nazaré, they used to travel halfway across the globe to visit big-wave surf destinations like Oahu and Teahupoo.
It wasn’t until 2014 that this surfing mecca became a hotspot for extreme surfers. A couple of years back, Nazaré was only popular for the lighthouse and as a summer destination where tourists come every September. When winter arrived, local surfers avoided the beach due to its dangerous swells and sky-high waves that were nearly impossible to surf on.
Because Nazaré was considerably a dead town during winter, the local government thought of ways on how to bring people in especially during the lean season. In 2004, the first attempt to surf the monster swells took place; however, the surfers gave up after more than an hour of surfing. This is because they were not provided jet skis to tow them all the way to the wave’s peak.
A year after that, Dino Casimiro, a local bodyboarder, tipped Garett McNamara, a well-known daredevil surfer, about Nazaré’s waves. But since McNamara had no idea where Nazaré was back then, he disregarded the call.
In 2010, however, Mcnamara had a change of heart, and it was the year that he surfed a 78-foot wave. This ultimately started the craze for Nazaré’s waves. In 2014, this destination generated over 40,000 tourists, catapulting it to becoming a surfing hotspot. After that, other big-wave surfers followed Mcnamara’s footsteps and the rest is history.
Rodrigo Koxa bagged the official record of the biggest wave ever surfed when he rode an 80-foot wave in 2017. A year after that, Maya Gabeira also made her first mark in the women’s division with her 68 ft. record. By 2019, Nazaré had over 350,000 tourists coming over to see famous personalities ride its colossal waves.
Surfing in Nazaré
Praia do Norte (North Beach) in Nazaré, Portugal is the only place in the world where you can find 100-foot waves. Meanwhile, its onshore waves can reach up to 60 ft before they break near the shore.
These waves are generated by the largest underwater canyon in Europe that spans 200 km long and 5 km deep. They form when the two waves that were split by the submarine canyon and continental shelf collide to create a bigger wave that intensifies as it nears the beach.
Surfers who’ve surfed on this beach described the waves as the perfect display of how powerful the force of nature is. The experience is similar to a mountain chasing them with explosive sounds that could frighten anyone out of their wits. For spectators, however, these waves are one of the most spectacular things they could ever witness.
Saying that surfing Nazaré’s mammoth waves are dangerous is an understatement. Because of the life-threatening risks they bring — such as the rocks, riptides, sand bars, and undertows that could break bones and water that could instantly turn ice-cold because of currents — locals and pros have their own team for safety measures.
Waves in Nazaré are fast and heavy, so surfers need to be towed on top of it using a jet ski. One of the famous personalities in these waters is Sergio Cosme, a jet ski driver who’s also known as the ‘Guardian Angel of Nazaré’.
Along with the driver, there’s also a spotter with a radio that keeps track of the surfer’s locations, as it’s hard to see them in white water. One rescuer (or two if it’s a big day) should also be there if anything unfortunate happens.
Safety is the number one priority for surfers. They don’t just decide one day to storm into these outrageous waves. It takes months, or even years of preparation and training before they ride their first wave.
Surfers focus on their breathing techniques, physical forms, and mental training. Others also meditate on their own drowning to help them keep calm in case it happens in reality. Because in this kind of situation, keeping calm, as well as making split-second decisions, are their best chances of survival.
It’s a calculated risk because one wrong move can lead to serious injury and death. In 2013, Maya nearly drowned while surfing and was rescued by her tow-partner, Carlos Burle when she surfed an 80 ft. wave. Big wave surfer Andrew Cotton, also suffered back injuries when he slammed into a giant wave. Fortunately, no one has died while surfing in Nazaré as of yet.
Praia do Norte in Nazaré, Portugal, is the home to the biggest waves ever surfed by famous surfing personalities like Andrew Cotton, Garett McNamara, Rodrigo Koxa, and Maya Gabeira. Its tallest wave is known as the ‘Big Mama’, and it was surfed by Portuguese big-wave surfer, Hugo Vau.
Surfing the gnarliest kinds of waves is dangerous and must not be taken lightly. It takes a solid team of professionals and years of training for these surfers to be able to put their names in world records.
We hope this article has enlightened you about Nazaré’s waves. Who knows? Maybe you’ll also get to surf them one day! If you want to learn more about big wave surfing, you can check out this post here.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is the height of the biggest wave ever surfed?
With a height of 115 ft (35 meters), the Big Mama of Nazaré in Portugal is considered the biggest wave. It was surfed by Hugo Vau in 2018 after anticipating and preparing for it for almost seven years; however, it is not recognized by the WSL and Guinness World Records as of yet.
Q: Who are the surfers who rode a 100-foot wave?
The surfers who successfully surfed 100-foot waves are António Laureano (101.4 ft), Carlos Burle (100 ft), Garrett McNamara (100 ft), Sebastian Steudtner (115 ft), and Hugo Vau, (115 ft).
Q: Is it easy to difficult to surf Nazaré?
Yes, only professional and big-wave surfers (along with their team) are the only ones recommended to surf in Praia do Norte in Nazaré. Even during the summer season, the swells here are too strong, hence why they’re not suitable for beginner riders.