Big Wave Surfing

Gary Miyata Photo


Old Waimea (Credit John Severson)

John Severson Photo

Big wave surfing is a relatively new Sport, when compared to the long history of surfing, and is generally categorized as surfing waves bigger than 10’ or 20’ Hawaiian size. Nobody really knows what size waves were ridden or when throughout history but it is unlikely that the native Hawaiians rode the monster waves like today’s surfers. Modern day big wave surfing was pioneered in Hawaii by some brave men in the 1940’s & 1950’s including George Downing, Wally Froiseth, Woody Brown, Joe Quigg, Buzzy Trent, Gregg Noll, Pat Curren, Mickey Munoz, Jack Webb, Fred Van Dyke, Jose Angel the Aikau brothers, and many others, but there is not enough space here to mention them all. They had their hands full tackling Makaha, Waimea, and various outer reef breaks, among others. With the advancements in board shaping, the addition of the fin and the right cameras to capture the early epic rides, big wave surfing was an instant hit world-wide in every day households.One of the overriding factors in the growth of big wave surfing is the advancement of technology and materials that shapers and surfers have had access to. New materials and production methods were seriously catching up to the demands of the people pushing the limits of riding big waves. Without the right board, no man could successfully take on huge waves. When fiberglass, polyester resins and water-proof glues became available, the shaper was able to expand the options of materials used in making the board. Local balsa (Wili-Wili) and redwood became the choices of material.

Laird Hamilton Teahupoo Tow (Credit Scott Aichner)

Scott Aichner Photo

The Malibu, the first 100% balsa production board, was an original widely-used big wave board. The Malibu was succeeded quickly once surfers got their hands on Polyurethane foam – available as ‘blanks’ and ready for shaping, after adding a wood stringer for strength. Even some of the early boards were ‘popped out’ and required little sanding. With polyurethane, surfboard production and design has drastically changed. What once took weeks before now could be accomplished in a couple of days, and now the surfer and the shaper were able to quickly produce custom boards and try many more design variations and experiments – giving the surfer the right tool to catch big waves.The long and narrow Gun has become the favorite board of big wave surfers.

Ken Bradshaw

Billabong Odyssey Photo

After the jawdropping rides of the 40’s, 50’s & 60’s, the big wave surfing scene was relatively quiet for a few decades until 1992 when Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox, Dave Kalama and Darrick Doerner discovered that the surfer could be ‘towed’ into waves using a personal watercraft or jet-ski and tow rope. Although the concept was toyed with before Hamilton’s days, it was Laird and friends who truly discovered the untapped potential of riding the world’s biggest waves by tow-in. Traditional paddle surfing is limited in the size of wave that is possible to catch because not enough speed is achieved to catch the massive, fast moving wave. Tow surfers are able to catch waves that originally were viewed as uncatchable, and like big wave pioneering just decades earlier, big wave surfing took a new direction; and tow surfers are now seeking out and catching waves that we didn’t know exist. The hard-core tow surfer uses global weather patterns, forecasts, topography maps, etc. to pursue the unknown possibilities that exist throughout the oceans.

Greg Longnecker Tow (Credit 808surfshots)

808surfshots Photo

Technology was and still is essential to the development of big wave surfing and this is very obvious when you look at the use of the jet-ski or personal watercraft (PWC). Without the personal watercraft, there would be no tow-in surfing but there have been successful uses of helicopters used to tow surfers. Tow ropes, handles, jet-ski safety modifications,  rescue sleds, jet-ski trailer & dolly, foot straps, personal swimming fins, oxygen tanks, personal flotation devices (PFD), helmets, goggles and the standard watercraft items such as tool kits, compasses, GPS devices, blow horns and anchors are items that the traditional paddle surfer never needed or never thought would be useful. With advancements in plastics, epoxies, alloys and manufacturing capabilities, the tow surfer now has the ability to personally customize their gear to meet every need for performance and safety.

Garret McNamara Record (Credit Wilson Ribeiro)

Wilson Ribeiro Photo

With tow surfing a whole new generation of boards was born including the advancement of the gravity-defying Hydrofoil or Foilboard where the board is actually above the surface of the water and connected to a hydrofoil (airplaneshaped object) that glides about one foot below the surface of the water, acting similarly to the wings of an airplane creating lift. Hydrofoil technology is a century old and used with various types of watercraft, but for tow-in surfers it brings an exciting future. Tow surfing certainly hs not been without controversy. The thought of bringing gas-powered devices to surfing sends cills up many soul surfer’s spines.

Hydrofoil Todd Bradley (Credit C4 Waterman)

C4 Photo

Some surfers believe that gas-powered personal watercraft have n place in surfing, while others see it as finding the new frontier of big wave surfing. The unpopular elements of tow surfing include the noise and pollution from the engines, possible effects on marine life, and the inevitable clash between paddle surfers and tow surfers. The good thing about tow surfing is that they can surf places where paddle surfers simply can’t go and this opens a wealth of new surfing for tow surfers. Peahi (Jaws) on Maui is a perfect example but has gone from mostly not surfed to overcrowded; and a focal point of the tow surfing community.



With many surf spots already overcrowded, tow surfing has brought a new level of debate – where do tow surfers and PWC belong within the surf community? This topic is being debated and discussed in many surfing communities around the world by Lifeguards, environmental groups, tow surfing organizations and community groups. With the boom come new laws, safety requirements, PWC regulations, mandatory training & certification and other details to work out. As long as tow surfers respect paddle surfers & other ocean activities, the community, local laws, and the ocean, their place in surfing is strong and a great source of exciting and death-defying fun for fans of surfing both in and out of the water. Big wave surfing is for elite surfers and life-long water men and women. Anything bigger than knee or waist high should be considered ‘big’ for beginners.

Waimaea Bay

2 thoughts on “Big Wave Surfing

  1. Barbara Radbel Myers


    My husband and I are traveling to Hawaii for the first time….I would love to know more about the Hawaii Surf Association Series….I understand you will be in Oahu, November 7, 2016. Can you inform me of the particulars. We will be staying in Honolulu until 11/9 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Are there going to be buses or some type of transfer services to the North Shore….Is there a cost for being a looker…..and want to watch the talent of the surfers….I also recently saw a surfer who lost her arm to a shark attack…..I was president of the National Wheelchair Basketball association for Juniors. I was just inducted to the Hall of Fame for my love and time for the development of Physically Handicapped children across the United states. I love sports and am so excited to be in Hawaii and then to be able to watch a sport that I’ve never witnessed in person….is so exciting to me….Thanks for any information Barbara Radbel-Myers

    1. admin Post author

      Nice to hear from you. Sorry I couldn’t help you with your travels. Try follow up with AccesSurf.


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