From THE WAVE: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean. Copyright © 2010 by Susan Casey. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a Division of Random House, Inc.
The first time I saw a truly big wave was on Dec. 4, 1991. I was in Hawaii, and my trip coincided with the Triple Crown of Surfing, a series of three competitions held on Oahu's North Shore. On the day of the big-wave contest at Sunset Beach, the sky was cloudless, but a veil of mist hung in the air from the force of the waves slamming down. That was startling, because the Sunset wave itself - the face the surfers would be riding - broke more than a half-mile offshore. But then a set rolled in, a pulse of energy that caused several waves to jump up in size. The water rose and rose until a tiny figure appeared at the top and dropped onto the face of a 30-foot moving cliff. Whenever a wave broke, the beach shook with a little hum of violence.
I've witnessed avalanches, explosions, wildfires and monsoons, but I'd never seen anything as intimidating as those waves. One surf expert described this break as "the entire Pacific Ocean rearing up to unload on your head." On big days at Sunset, people were often swept away by ferocious currents and surges. What kind of person would insert himself into these elements? I wondered. This version of surfing seemed more gladiatorial than athletic, like grappling with bull elephants.
Which is why, a few years later, I was stunned to see a photograph of a man riding a wave more than twice the size of Sunset, somewhere in the 60-foot range. The surfer was Laird Hamilton, a 28-year-old from Hawaii who looked completely at ease inside a barrel as tall as an office building. Since surfing became popular in the mid-20th century, faces in the 40-foot range had represented the outer limits of human paddling abilities. Anything bigger was simply moving too fast; trying to catch a 60-foot wave by windmilling on your stomach was like trying to catch the subway by crawling. Never mind, though, because even if you could catch the wave, there was no way to ride it. Too much water rushes back up the face of a giant wave as it crests, sucking you and your board over the falls. To Hamilton and his friends, this had been unacceptable. A new system had to be invented. So they created tow surfing.
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