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Journey to the World's Heaviest Waves Part 1 (of 2) - Banzai Pipeline to Mavericks

Big wave surfing is not for everyone, but for those who enjoy bone-shaking walls of water, here are 20 seriously meaty bomboras, barrels, peaks, ledges and slabs (arranged in alphabetical order) set to make the heart beat like a punk rock drummer...


Banzai Pipeline and Backdoor, Oahu, USA :

Located on the North Shore of Oahu, Pipeline is arguably the heaviest and most deadly wave in the world, and a magnet for only the most committed surfers. Hollow and ultra powerful lefts and rights (Backdoor) break just metres off the beach over a jagged coral reef. Pipeline has claimed at least seven lives since the 1980s, including local bodyboarder Joshua Nakata, renowned water photographer Jon Mozo in February 2005, Tahitian pro surfer Malik Joyeux in December 2005, aspiring Japanese pro surfer Moto Watanabe in January 2004, and experienced Puerto Rican surfer Joaquin Velilla in January 2007. Ironically, the most dangerous days at Pipeline are not the biggest, but when the swell is picking up quickly and doubling-up over the shallow inside section. Regulars claim that the heaviest thing about the spot is not the power in the lip, but the uneven reef, littered with gaps and holes that can cut you to shreds. Add in the crowd factor (looking over your shoulder at take off for clear traffic), then the last minute drop, only to find you’ve taken off on a closeout no one else wanted!!! Despite the well-publicised danger, Pipe remains one of the most crowded and intense lineups in the world. According to Pipeline Master Gerry Lopez, “You’re always right on the edge at Pipeline. You’re always hanging by your fingertips; you never really have it under control.”



Belharra, France (photo : Justine Dupont by Bastien Bonnarme) :

Mystical and magical Basque big wave spot 2.5 kms off the coast of the classy town of Saint Jean du Luz. ‘Belharra’ is Basque for ‘grass weed’ and is essentially a 14-18 metres deep shoal (in the ultra deepwater Basque coast) with a plateau and spooky overhang known to swallow ships whole. In fact, before a nearby jetty was built, Belharra was able to completely drown moored boats by literally sucking them under water. Positioning here is a headache with huge surging walls of water coming out of nowhere like a tsunami. Although it rarely breaks (and was only first surfed in November 2002) the potential for monster NW Atlantic swells and light local winds is HUUUGGGGEEE. The hardy local collective of paddle surfers at the spot opt to wear no leashes due to the colossal amounts of whitewater that can prevent any human from resurfacing. The out of sea location means boards just move into deep water and can be collected by a fellow paddler or jetski.



Cape Fear, New South Wales, Australia :

Historic wrecker-of-ships and DEADLY, mutant slab in Sydney. Located in the Kurnell National Park, crashing in front of a large cliff face, local surfers simply call this hollow, fast, mega-powerful right-hander ‘Ours’. The Pacific here pitches up furiously on a shallow and sharp ledge, producing a slab that catapults towards a cliff face before detonating onto rocks and exhausting its energy as spit, foam, whitewater surge and chaotic backwash. Making the drop is the first dilemma, then a racing barrel that wants to ragdoll you into oblivion, with a rock-wall-barrier skirting every move. This is home patch to the infamously hardcore Bra Boys. “Pound for pound, Cape Fear is the heaviest and most dangerous wave in the world," explains Mark Mathews. Further, “the best way to describe Ours is to talk you through what happens when you nosedive while taking off on the first wave of the set. First, you’re going to get driven into the surgeon’s table, which is a flat bed of reef in front of the takeoff which is covered in razor sharp barnacles. If you don’t break one (or more) of your limbs on impact, then you’ll certainly have one sliced to shreds. When you eventually surface, bruised and bleeding, you have to deal with four 6-8 ft waves each with 4 ft thick lips using all their power in a bid to impale you on the cliff face. So, yeah… make the drop!”



Cloudbreak, Fiji (Kohl Christensen on the ride of a lifetime : photo : Stu Gibson) :

Already celebrated as one of the fastest and most challenging waves on the planet, Cloudbreak can handle SERIOUS South Pacific size. Just south of Namotu Island, the wave famously grows (getting quikcer, shallower and more critical) as it riffles down the reef. So at 8-10 ft a wipeout here (which won't tend to wash you into the lagoon) means an intimidating paddle as water lunges down the live coral, while every duck dive seems to be under a bigger and bigger lip. If you do make the drop, fasten your seat belt because this is a bullet train. Apparently the ones that look like closeouts are the best! There are sometimes two or three barrel sections. But it’s easy to get completely lost behind the curtain with the tube monster eager to swallow you whole, or spit you out (however experts claim Cloudbreak doesn’t really ‘spit’, it ‘breathes’). Then watch out for the end section that will likely throw in a side chop or an uneven lip. Even the Namotu Island resort literature warns that Cloudbreak is for heavy wave connoisseurs only.



Cortes Bank, USA (photo : :

Mysto open ocean bombora 150 kms off the Californian coast, west of Point Loma, San Diego. Treacherous for shipping, but in prime place to create mountainous surf, breaking with Poseidon’s rage on the shallowest part of a 20 km long underwater seamount (hence the name Cortes Bank). Inevitably it has become the focus in the search for the elusive 100 foot wave. Mike Parsons and Brad Gerlach came close, and although it produced surf in the giant range (Parsons holds two Guinness World Records here - one for his 66-footer in 2001 and one for his 77-footer in 2008) the magic one hundred footer has yet to be ridden. Poseidon really delivers a torrent of a ride at this number, wrangling, bouncing and jostling with raw out-at-sea energy. Logistics mean that it is rarely surfed (but will get crowded when it’s on). The wind needs to be calm and it’s an overnight trip on a boat to get there.Yet when conditions align, it has the potential to break all records for the biggest wave ever ridden.



The Cribbar, UK (photo : Tim Nunn) :

Wild Celtic reef and the oldest big wave spot in Europe, positioned off the Towan Headland, in Newquay, Cornwall. ‘Kribow’ simply means ‘reefs’ in Cornish, and offers a steep, sometimes lethal takeoff followed by a slingshot left or right towards the jagged cliff face. It only comes alive on solid southwest to northwest swells, low spring tides, preferring a southeast wind. First ridden in September 1965 by Bob Head, Rod Sumpter and Jack Lydgate (with no buoyancy vests, jet skis or even wetsuits). And tackled again in 1966 by Ric Friar, Pete Russell, Johnny McElroy and Lydgate. “It was a highlight that I vividly remember to this day,” says Pete, who now lives in Australia. “Although I have surfed on a lot of big days since, I’ve never experienced the adrenalin rush of that day. In the glassy mist off the cliff face it was surreal. I can still picture Jack (Lydgate) paddling under the lip of a huge wall and getting absolutely creamed. Boy did he show some heart.” In the pre-leash era, Jack’s board swept in, was pinned against the rocks and broke in two. He got straight to work on the long swim ashore. Pete paddled way outside and caught a giant left hander. He was half way down a saltwater avalanche before everyone watching from the cliffs realised the wave was being ridden. He charged right on a few more monsters. On one enormous shoulder Doug Wilson clicked a photo. It looks eerily like Sunset Beach in Hawaii. This type of big wave surfing was totally new to Europe. “Then I got caught inside and thought I was gone,” says Pete. “Fortunately the wave that smashed me was the last in the set, or I might not have lived to tell the tale.” In order to commemorate 50 years since the Cribbar was first ridden, the Cribbar Surf Heritage Project was launched with the aim of installing a statue on the Towan Headland, serving as a lasting reminder of those who have successfully ridden the wave, and inspiration to those attempting to ride the wave in the future



Cyclops, Australia (photo : Jamie Scott) :

In Greek mythology, Cyclops is a member of a race of savage one-eyed giants, and in the Odyssey, Odysseus escapes death by blinding the Cyclops Polyphemus. In surfing, Cyclops is a mutant one-eyed monster slab located way off the Esperance coast in open-ocean, seven hours from Perth. Sharky, remote and accessed only by boat, it’s a new wave in surfing folklore, and some would argue has the heaviest, most hectic sledgehammer lip in the world. Following a dramatic depth change, big swells unleash all their power onto the knife-edge coral. This causes Cyclops to appear to swallow itself in a style witnessed at very few spots on the planet. It’s even too shallow to wear a leash for risk of getting tangled to the reef. Most waves are so deranged and dangerous that they simply engulf everything in their path, completely unsurfable. But ultimately some form incredible jade coloured oval barrels, like starring straight into the eye of a Cyclops. Here rests the allure for surfers.



Ghost Tree, USA (photo : Bart Keagy) :

Spooky Northern Californian big wave right hander just off Pebble Beach, mixing mountainous piledriver might with heavy kelp and freezing water. Great whites roam free, huge intimidating boulders line the shore (and the bottom) and during potent North Pacific swells, mammoth 80 ft waves (that are 20 ft wide) are possible. The boulder reef causes the face to boil, bowl and bunny-hop at chronic proportions. Typically a tow-in wave, this deadly spot took California waterman Peter Davi in December 2007. After losing his board, Davi, 45, tried to swim ashore and was later found floating unconscious.



Lunar Park, Australia :

Kamikaze left slab in Western Victoria, pioneered by bodyboarders who take ‘extreme’ to the edge, and a little bit further. In fact most of the crazy slabs now ridden on surfboards were opened up by bodyboarders, and it was George Greenough who showcased on his knees what could be done standing up, inspiring ‘involvement surfing’ (a progressive drive to ride the critical area of the wave) from the likes of Wayne Lynch, Nat Young, David Treloar, Ted Spencer and Bob McTavish in the mid to late 1960s (aka 'the shortboard revolution'). Soon Surfer magazine cartoonist Rick Griffin fantasised in his panels that some day a board would be flipped all the way over, a head-over-heels turn, right inside the tube - something long ago perfected by bodyboarders. Luna Park is tightly regulated by a hardy band of locals, but only the maddest, most talented slab-sliders would take on this reef, offering an air-drop take off, before a slicing barrel. Victoria (the southern extent of the Australian mainland) is trapped by the wild waters of Bass Strait and the Tasman Sea, and perfectly situated to receive the grizzly swells from the Southern Ocean (up to 15-20 ft). The Great Ocean Rd (a 340 km drive west of Melbourne passing many world class spots) overlooks limestone cliffs, sea stacks and caves, where a plethora of breaks unload in style.



Mavericks, USA (photo : Frank Quirart) :

Phantom Californian big wave paddle spot outside Half Moon Bay famed for delivering freight trains of water and the longest hold down, sometimes for two waves. A predominant right (with a short hollow left), it’s thick, steep, ledgy and fast, breaking over a kilometre out to sea in some the most turbulent ocean. The boil is notoriously brutal, able to pin you down and crash you into huge boulders. In 1975, Jeff Clark paddled out alone into cold, sharky, and vicious conditions to pioneer the spot. At just 17, Clark changed the trajectory of big wave surfing in California. Mavericks (named after a dog who tried to swim out to the wave) became the epicentre of big wave bravado, a stage for the careers of some of surfing most outlandish personalities from Ken Collins to Peter Mel. Hawaiian Mark Foo was killed here in 1994. Foo took off late, caught an edge, fell forward near the bottom of the wave, and his body wasn’t found for several hours. Many believe that his leash tied around the rocks. Further underscoring the danger of the place, Hawaiian Sion Milosky drowned here in 2011 after a two-wave hold down. His body was found floating at the Pillar Point Harbour mouth. Shane Dorian cheated death in 2010 when he attempted to ollie his Rhino Chaser over a giant ridge (describing it as a "Cadillac going over a speed hump") and survived a two-wave hold down. He chose not to wear a flotation vest, a mistake he says he will never make again.
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