There is a profound mysticism in big wave surfing that exists right alongside the ever present mortal danger that is involved in it’s execution. The stark reality that the next 50 (+) foot wall of water that one chooses to ride, could be the last. History has given us more than several tragic examples of this. Big wave surfers to a man/woman claim that the experience of such perilous riding produces an almost indescribable feeling of nirvana. As an ‘Addidas’ wearing concrete walker, I can only take their word for it. Frankly, I’d be lying if I were to say that there wasn’t a slight twinge of jealousy when considering the special form of joy that big wave surfers experience. Surely, there is little, if anything, in everyday life that can compare to the pure exhilaration of ‘tow in’ big wave surfing. The world of big wave surfing consists of a small, niche (originally 2 dozen) and certainly select group of athletes with daredevil plasma running in their bloodstream. Of these transcendent surfers exist a group of bonafide legends. Men who routinely stare eye to eye into their mortality, atop the very wave they wish to conquer. The courage and grace that these men exhibit in the subsequent moments that follow, are exactly the stuff of legend. Idiots Guide presents a look at 10 of the greatest big wave surfers the world has ever seen…
#10. Darrick Doerner / Designated Driver Incorporated
Darrick Doerner, also known as ‘Double D’ is one of the pioneer’s of ‘tow in’ big wave surfing. Doerner is an accomplished big wave surfer, but is mostly known as an ambassador and ‘all around waterman’ for all things ocean, surf, big wave tow-surfing, paddle, stand up paddling, and windsurfing. A true California surfer kid, he’s been a part of the surfing scene since the late 1960s and 70’s. He has had a significant role in the safety of professional surfers in the notoriously dangerous waters of Hawaii. Doerner started a water safety company, named ‘Designated Driver Incorporated’. Darrick has worked on many film and television projects that include ‘Big Wednesday’, ‘Baywatch’, ‘ER’, ‘The Big Bounce’, and of course the iconic film ‘Point Break’ (1991).
#9. Ken Bradshaw / 1982 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Champion
Ken Bradshaw is a native of Houston, Texas who has become a legend of ‘tow in’ ‘Big Wave’ surfing over the past 4 decades. Bradshaw, coming off an amazing decade of the 1980’s, cemented his legend on the morning (11:30am) of January 28, 1998, when he towed into, and successfully rode, an approximately 80 (+) foot wave on the outer reef of the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. His 30 second ride was epic. Unfortunately, this record breaking ride was eye-witnessed by many, but not officially photographed.
#8. Greg Noll / American Big Wave Surfing Pioneer
Greg Noll was there when the legendary ‘North Shore’ of Hawaii was ‘discovered’ in the late 1950’s, through the 1960’s. Noll epitomized his nickname ‘Da Bull’ a function of his hard charging ,almost reckless style, jailhouse striped shorts, and habit of staring down immense walls of raging water, especially the treachery at the place they call ‘Waimea Bay’. A place where 25 foot elevator drops are common. Noll and his companions used ‘Guns’ otherwise known as long running surfboards (11’6). Greg Noll often referred to Waimea Bay as his ‘gal’ of which he had a twenty-five year love affair. Noll went on to become one of the pioneers of successful surfing movies and videos, as well as an incredible surf board designer. Greg Noll…one of the all-timers.
#7. Mike Parsons / 2nd Place Junior U.S. Surfing Championships 1983
Mike Parsons is a Laguna Beach, California native and big wave legend, who’s surfing career started at the tender age of 6. By 2001, Parsons had already reached legendary status when he towed into, and successfully rode an approximately 66 foot wave at the Billabong XXL competition in Cortes Bank, California. A feat for which he was awarded $66,000. At the time, the largest cash prize awarded in professional surfing history. Parsons is also credited for successfully surfing a 64 foot wave at the ‘Jaws’ break on Hawaii’s north shore on the island of Maui. A feat that was featured as the opening scene of the film Billabong Odyssey (2003). Not to be outdone, on January 5 of 2008, Parsons surfed a 77 foot wave, again at Cortes Bank, California, which officially landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records, for biggest wave to ever be surfed. Questions?
#6. Gerry Lopez / Pipeline Masters Champion 1972 & 1973
Gerry Lopez aka ‘Mr. Pipeline’, is one of the pioneers of big wave surfing specifically with regards to the famed ‘Banzai Pipeline’ on Oahu’s North Shore. Lopez is widely considered to be the best ‘Tuberider’ on the planet. Lopez was at the forefront of the integration of ‘downrailer’ surfboard edges, which allowed for the successful navigation of vertical drops into the thick tubes of the Pipeline. In 1972, Lopez won the Pipeline Masters competition, a feat he repeated in 1973. The competition has since been re-named the ‘Gerry Lopez Pipeline Masters’. That’s saying something, no? In 1999, Surf Industries Manufacturing Association (SIMA), named Lopez the ‘Waterman of the Year’.
#5. Brock Little / Named Best Waimea Bay Rider in 1990 & 1993.
The late Brock Little is a beloved all-time legend in the surfing universe. A fearless big wave surfer, Little ran with the very best from Haleiwa, Hawaii; to Waimea Bay, to the far east. Little was originally from the wine country of Napa, California, before his move to Hawaii at 3 years of age, his surfing odyssey began at age 7. In 1980, Little was a finalist in the United States Surfing Championships. Throughout his career he finished among the top surfers in the world with shocking consistency. Being named best Waimea Bay surfer by his peers in 1990 and again in 1993. In February of 2016, the world lost Little after a bout with cancer, he was 48 years old. His legacy is that of an all-time great.
#4. Dave Kalama / Co-Pioneer ‘Tow In’ Big Wave Surfing
Dave Kalama is a legendary, pioneer big wave surfer, and stand-up paddle surfer who is credited, along with Laird Hamilton, with the development of modern big wave ‘tow in’ surfing. He rode with a crew that included legends Darrick Doerner, and Buzzy Kerbox. Kalama is a legacy surfer as his father Ilima Kalama won the 1962 World Surfing Championship. You can’t talk about big wave surfing without talking about Dave Kalama.
#3. Jeff Clark / Legendary Mavericks, Half Moon Bay Surfing Pioneer
Jeff Clark is credited as the ‘Godfather’ of ‘Mavericks’, and has been riding Mavericks for over four decades. A feat made even more noteworthy by the fact that any one ride can be a surfers last, and regrettably, it has taken the lives of some of the greatest surfer’s on earth. Mavericks has been described as a ‘hateful’ surf spot with extremely dangerous hard right-breaking waves, but on the other hand, it’s some of the best big wave surfing on earth. A prime example of the dichotomy that all big wave surfers live with. Before Clark, nobody knew that ‘Half Moon Bay’ was a clandestine big wave spot. Clark is widely considered to be one of the greatest big-wave surfers of all-time, famously having surfed Mavericks alone for over 15 years before anybody of consequence in the surfing community realized it’s big wave majesty. A feat equivalent to climbing Mount Everest alone for years before anyone knew it existed. Then in 1992 ‘Surfer Magazine’ broke the story of Mavericks, called ‘Cold Sweat’ and the world descended on northern California. Did you know that Jeff Clark is an ambidextrous big wave surfer? True story. He is one of the few on earth with that ability. In 1994, Surfer Magazine named Jeff Clark one of the ‘World’s Best Big Wave Riders’. You can learn more about Clark and a host of other all-time greats in the critically acclaimed and highly recommended documentary ‘Riding Giants’ (2004) directed by Stacy Peralta.
#2. Mark Foo / Legendary North Shore Hawaii Big Wave Surfer
Mark Foo was originally from Singapore, China before his family made the fateful decision to move to Hawaii when he was 10 years of age. Foo grew up and into the Hawaii surf scene and became a local legend and then a world renowned legend. In 1977 Foo became a part of the professional surfing tour, and the IPS World Tour. By the mid 1980s, Foo had become synonymous with the big wave surfing scene on the legendary North Shore of Oahu. Foo’s legend grew as quickly as his predilection for surfing the biggest waves and obscene swells that the North Shore could conjure. Like many people who love something too much, that thing can sometimes kill that person. Sadly, this was the fate of Mark Foo on the morning of December 23, 1994 while surfing the treacherous waves at Mavericks, in Half Moon Bay, California. He went down on a seemingly innocuous wave and never resurfaced. His loss was felt throughout the surfing community and beyond. His legend as one of the greatest big wave surfers of all-time is secure.
#1. Laird Hamilton / The Greatest Big Wave Surfer of All-Time…
There’s Michael Jordan in basketball, there’s Willie Mays in baseball, there’s Wayne Gretzky in hockey, and then there’s Laird Hamilton in big wave surfing. Period. He is also a world class wind surfer. True story. Hamilton, along with partner Dave Kalama, is credited as being the co-inventor of ‘tow-in’ big wave surfing. A former model, Hamilton started making a name for himself surfing alongside a collective called the ‘Strapped Crew’ named for their feet being strapped to their boards while surfing the imposing ‘Jaws’ surf on the north central coast on Maui. In 1992 Hamilton, recognized that in order to ‘catch’ a big wave, there needed to be enough speed. So, along with fellow big wave riders Darrick Doerner, Dave Kalama, and Buzzy Kerbox started using inflatable boats to get a ‘tow in’ to the biggest waves available, and the rest as they say is history. In the year 2000, Hamilton went to surf the extremely hazardous, shallow-water reef break at Tahiti’s Teahupoʻo break. Then on the morning of August 17, Hamilton shocked the world by making history when he dropped down into the well of an enormous tunnel vortex wave, directly in view of several photographer’s and videographer’s. Hamilton successfully rode the most ridiculously improbable wave…ever. His ride immortalized by the legendary photo that ended up on the February 2001 cover of Surfer Magazine with the caption “Oh My God”. Oh my God, indeed. Laird Hamilton is a gifted athlete, and there’s not too much that he can’t do on a surfboard. A true trailblazer, and the hands down greatest of all-time…