The world’s biggest, most powerful waves don’t intimidate surfing’s elite big wave riders. In fact, they energise them. From the ferocious waves at Teahupoo to the world record back-breaking rides at Nazaré, these are the playgrounds of the big wave pro surfers. This adrenaline-fueled tribe of young surfers is bonded by an unwavering reverence for the ocean’s primal power and the passion to conquer its most colossal juggernauts.

Read the inspirational stories of these ecstatic watermen and women like Laird Hamilton, Kelly Slater, Garrett McNamara, and Laurie Towner, forged over years of intensive preparation and triumphs worth retelling again and again.

Let’s jump in.

The Big Code Red

The “Code Red” events at Teahupoo are significant milestones in the history of big wave surfing due to the extreme conditions and unprecedented size and power of the waves surfed. These events cemented Teahupoo’s reputation as one of the most dangerous and challenging big wave surfers’ spots worldwide.

The first “Code Red” occurred on August 27, 2011 during the Billabong Pro Tahiti competition. The Tahitian Coast Guard issued a “Code Red” advisory prohibiting all nautical activities due to the extreme waves over 20 feet high. Despite this, elite surfers like Laurie Towner and Dylan Longbottom defied warnings to tackle the massive “liquid avalanches”, captured in the documentary “Code Red” showcasing the ferocious wave scale.

The second “Code Red” took place on July 13, 2022 under similar banned conditions. Surfers including Billy Kemper and Matahi Drollet braved what were described as some of the biggest waves ever seen at Teahupoo, reaffirming the wave’s formidable legendary status.

Teahupoo’s unique dangers stem from its shallow coral reef causing abrupt, thick, hollow tube formations. The underwater topography acts like a funnel, compressing and accelerating extreme wave energy as it approaches the reef. This results in waves both towering and powerfully thick.

In Tahitian culture, “Teahupoo” translates to “wall of skulls” or “broken skulls”, reflecting the wave’s life-threatening risks. Yet its cultural significance and historic surfing moments like the “Code Red” events have mythologized Teahupoo as the ultimate big wave challenge pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational

An image of Kelly Slater at The Eddie
Kelly Slater at The Eddie, Waimea Bay
Photo courtesy of Karendesuyo

The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, known simply as “The Eddie“, is surfing’s most prestigious and challenging big wave competition. Held at Oahu’s Waimea Bay to honour legendary Hawaiian surfer and lifeguard Eddie Aikau, the event only runs when open-ocean swells reach staggering 20-foot minimums.

Eddie Aikau became Waimea’s first official lifeguard in 1967, saving over 500 lives during his tenure by braving waves most would never dare. Tragically in 1978, Eddie disappeared at sea while attempting to paddle for help after the voyaging canoe Hokuleʻa capsized.

To commemorate his bravery, The Eddie was established in 1984 but has only occurred 10 times to date due to the stringent 30-40 foot wave face height requirements during its December to February holding period. When conditions meet this threshold, a 12-hour window opens for 28 to 40 of the world’s best big wave chargers to paddle into heats at Waimea under their own power.

The competition has crowned legendary winners like 

More than just a contest, The Eddie encompasses the reverence of Hawaiian culture through traditional ceremonies and blessings. “Eddie Would Go” has become a phrase synonymous with selfless courage, reflecting the event’s deeper purpose to inspire new generations through its namesake’s daring example.

The Millennium Wave

Laird Hamilton’s ride on the “Millennium Wave” at Teahupoo on August 17, 2000 is an iconic big wave surfing moment. At the shallow, reef-obstructed break in Tahiti, a massive swell arrived creating waves of unprecedented thickness and power that day.

As part of a sportswear company filming session, Hamilton and his crew scored extraordinarily unusual conditions. When the first tri-decker sets detonated, Laird prepared to tow into what would become historic. Captured by a cinematographer and photographer, the “Millennium Wave” revealed itself as a true “backless monster”, a barely comprehensible, wedging liquid apocalypse.

As Hamilton stroked into the absolute heaviest thought possible, the entire South Pacific seemed to vertically collapse, dwarfing even his 220-pound frame with sheer mass. For a few infinite seconds, Laird somehow threaded the phenomenally thick, heinous beast, disappearing into the tubular core before defiantly emerging.

Spectators could scarcely fathom what they’d witnessed. Hamilton showed his chops as one of the few surf legends and had just conquered a liquid juggernaut few dared imagine rideable, taking tow-in big wave riding to new realms. The ride shattered previous perceptions, proving the potential of modern equipment and exemplary skill and courage to survive conditions previously deemed too extreme.

The First Pipeline Masters (1971)

The inaugural Pipeline Masters in 1971 planted the seeds for one of professional surfing’s most iconic and prestigious events. Held at Oahu’s mythical Banzai Pipeline, the aim was to showcase the sport’s highest performance arena world championship tour and catch waves on a bigger stage.

Organized by 1968 world champ Fred Hemmings, the first Pipeline Masters was a remarkably modest affair compared to today’s standards. A simple card table setup on the beach with a $1,000 prize purse from Continental Airlines sponsor served as contest headquarters. Yet it represented a significant step—the single-heat format with six surfers was the first world title ever broadcast nationally on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, exposing pipeline’s heavy challenges to mainstream audiences.

In relatively small six-foot Hawaiian (12-foot face) surf conditions that day, Hawaiian charger Jeff Hakman emerged victorious, pocketing the $500 winner’s purse in front of fewer than 50 spectators. While humble beginnings, the 1971 Pipeline Masters crucially established the North Shore’s preeminent wave as an ultimate performance proving ground for respected big wave surfers.

The event quickly evolved alongside the sport’s professionalization. By 1975 it had expanded to multi-heat formats as prize money increased. Soon after it became an anchor event of the prestigious Triple Crown of Surfing alongside the Hawaiian Pro and World Cup.

From the pioneering 1971 edition emerged a litany of legendary Pipeline Masters champions. Icons like Gerry Lopez, Andy Irons, and Kelly Slater (eight wins and six consecutive world titles) would etch their names in Pipeline’s lore through heroic performances in grotesquely large, high-consequence conditions. Their battles, innovations, and never-say-die Pipeline tenacity inspired generations while shaping the sport’s direction.

Garrett McNamara’s Nazaré Wave (2011)

An image of a record breaking surf in Nazaré, Portugal
Record breaking surf in Nazaré, Portugal
Photo courtesy of Luis Ascenso

In November 2011, big wave surfing underwent a seismic shift when Garrett McNamara tucked into an incomprehensible 78-foot mountain of water at the once-obscure fishing village of Nazaré, Portugal. His record-shattering ride instantly transformed this humble locale into big wave lore’s latest cathedral.

The ingredients were primordial: an extreme Atlantic swell started saturating the continent’s longest underwater canyon, a stopper-like abyss that drastically multiplied the incoming surge’s size and ferocity. As the monstrous initial waves arrived, McNamara and his team sprang into action, pioneering tow-in techniques to stroke into the outer limits.

The Hawaii charger’s perspective from his hydrofoil board must have been positively apocalyptic. Yet with nerves of titanium, McNamara committed and threaded a threshold very few humans could fathom—a solid 60-feet-plus larger than the successful rides of his previous benchmarks at Jaws and Maverick’s. For almost 30 precarious seconds, the big wave legend descended into freefall, endured a heavy bodyboarder-esque trim, and incredibly, survived the heavy-as-heck exit to forever etch Nazaré into the big wave record books.

In an instant, McNamara’s heroics elevated this sleepy Portuguese outpost’s status to one of the most ferocious and highly-coveted big wave playgrounds on the planet. Top XXL contenders began descending from all corners, rigging intensive code red campaigns to withstand mammoth crane-scaled poundings far eclipsing most breaks’ most extreme thresholds.

As the best surfers of all time increasingly push their physical and mental capacities at Nazaré’s Praia do Norte, McNamara’s legacy as the motivating catalyst who first unlocked this Atlantic titan grows further assured.

The First Mavericks Surf Contest (1999)

Big wave surfing’s modern arena was officially established on February 17, 1999, with the first “Men Who Ride Mountains” contest at the cold-water giant known as Mavericks. This reef-blocked spot off the California coast near Half Moon Bay had become legendary through stories and a few grainy photos showing its huge white arches and deadly challenges.

Local pioneer Jeff Clark, who first started charging Mavericks alone as a 17-year-old in 1975, partnered with Quiksilver to manifest a dedicated big wave event that could finally put this mysterious behemoth on center stage. While the 15-foot conditions that first morning fell short of Mavericks’ most apocalyptic potential, the lineup of two-dozen XXL chargers affirmed this was the gladiator pit big-wave surfers had been seeking.

Ultimately, Santa Cruz’s Darryl “Flea” Virostko emerged victorious on the day, upstaging fellow big wave contemporaries Richard Schmidt, Ross Clarke-Jones, and Peter Mel in the original four-man final heat’s pinnacle rides to establish himself as a surf legend. However, every competitor intermittently groaned under Mavericks’ oppressive weight and consequence that winter day as spectators watched in awe from the harsh bluffs.

The 1999 event achieved its mission, laying the foundations for Mavericks to evolve into big wave riding’s most highly-anticipated annual proving ground. It was pure surfing inspiration, and in the two decades since, the mere whisper of John Muir’s “ghost-wave” has beckoned each new generation of gladiators to ride waves to this hallowed, dangerous break to etch their grandest performances.

Stories From the Big Waves

These awe-inspiring tales from the best surfers in the world epitomize the ocean’s supreme power and the human spirit’s imperative to challenge preconceived limitations. As new generations pursue bigger storms and more monstrous waves, the legends and moments outlined here will forever inspire the surfing community’s boldest explorers of the unbridled sea.