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They're Big, Dangerous, Rough And Ready

These five spots have some of the most daunting yet exhilarating waves in the world.


May 30, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Special to The MIAMI Herald

Although new big-wave spots are being pioneered, most of the world's top big-wave riders earned their stripes at one of the world's most renowned big-wave breaks. These include:

Waimea Bay, on the North Shore of Oahu: The oldest institution in big-wave surfing. But before modern surfers ventured to the North Shore in the '30s, Waimea Bay was off-limits. The hill overlooking the Bay is an ancient heiau, a hallowed ground where Hawaiian chiefesses were brought to deliver their young.

The bay itself was believed to be cursed, and several great surfers have died there. Eddie Aikau, a legendary Hawaiian big-wave rider and lifeguard at Waimea state park, disappeared there.

After his death, George Downing, a North Shore pioneer, began a contest in his honor. The Quiksilver Eddie Aikau memorial invitational contest is held every year, and it determines the best big-wave surfer of the North Shore winter.

Because the contest is held only if the waves at ''the Bay'' are more than 20 feet by Hawaiian standards (again, that's measuring from the back of the wave, so the part being ridden exceeds 40 feet), that event is considered the truest test of big-wave riding skills in competitive surfing.

Mavericks, Half Moon Bay, Calif.: Out of a sense of tradition as much as oceanographic fact, most Hawaiians maintain that Waimea Bay gets bigger than Mavericks. But ever since Mav's pioneer Jeff Clark chose to expose the hidden behemoth he discovered in California's Half Moon Bay, Maverick's has captivated the attention of everyone interested in big-wave surfing.

Today, few surfers believe in their heart of hearts that Waimea is heavier than Mavericks; the essence of lineup ambience at Maverick's is intimidation. The wave breaks far out to sea in sharky waters, and it usually requires a long paddle through the fog. The water at Mavericks is colder (20 degrees colder) and murkier than it is at Waimea, the wave is thicker, and the cavernous bottom is much more dangerous. Indeed, early on its history, Maverick's killed Mark Foo, one of surfing's most celebrated and capable big-wave riders.

Killers, Isla Todos Santo, Baja, Mexico: In 1998, pro surfer Taylor Knox won the inaugural K2 Big Wave challenge and $50,000 for making a 52-foot wave at this reef break off of Isla Todos Santos, Baja Mexico. That wave was judged the biggest wave ridden by any surfer than winter.

Like Mavericks, the water is cold, kelpy, and murky; big sharks patrol the island's shores. But the most unnerving thing about surfing Killers is the distance to the nearest hospital -- and a Mexican hospital, to boot. To reach the break, you have to take a boat across 12 miles of stormy ocean from Ensenada, Mexico.

Dungeons, Cape Town, South Africa: When it's big, the surf shakes Hout Bay quayside, which is more than a kilometer from a Hout Bay quayside. There, tourists dine on fresh seafood, but out in the lineup, the surfers hope nothing eats them.

While great white sharks are occasionally spotted at Mavericks and Killers, they're usually spotted at Dungeons. This area is one of the species' favorite spawning sites. This wave is the most recent big-wave break to gain common acceptance as one of the world's biggest waves. But, few people look forward to surfing it. Nonetheless, it has produced South Africa's first great big-wave riders. Although completely inexperienced at the break, Cape Town surfer Cass Collier and Ian Armstrong were declared Big Wave World Champions at Killers the first year the contest series was held.

Tres Palmas, Rincon, Puerto Rico: Although it's warmer, softer, and generally more user-friendly than the other renowned big-wave breaks, Tres Palmas is the only legitimate big wave in the western Atlantic basin. Because the abysmal Puerto Rico trench allows huge swells born in the North Atlantic to assault Puerto Rico's shores without being retarded by a continental shelf, the waves rival Hawaiian waves in power. In fact, many East Coast surfers first go to Puerto Rico to train for Hawaii. But the most epic contest ever held at Tres Palmas occurred between local surfers and a major developer who wanted to build three mega-resorts over the break.

The surfers knew that runoff from the resort would damage the fragile elkhorn coral reef that shapes the wave, so, with the help of the Surfrider Foundation, they lobbied on both the commonwealth and the federal level to have the reef protected.

The development proposal was shot down; this winter a marine reserve was created that encompasses the reef.

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