“Ho, brah, you gonna need a bigger board, eh?” he said, eying the 6’4″ single-fin under my arm. The man was slightly overweight, with wispy gray hair and a thin salt-and-pepper mustache. It was only 8 a.m., but he stood uneasily in the sand with a brown-bagged beer in hand, which he held outstretched toward the lines of whitewater on the horizon. To borrow a traditional Hawaiian phrase, he was clearly a “crazy old uncle,” and not necessarily a trustworthy source for a surf report.
But from this particular Oahu beach, nearly a quarter mile from the break my two friends and I came to surf, it was hard to gauge the size of the waves. It was the tail end of a substantial swell that had lit up Waimea the previous day, but the forecast predicted a quick drop and we assumed this corner of Mokulē‘ia reef would be holding something in the 4- to 6-foot range. Out on the horizon, a small sliver of whitewater spread left and right at a uniform pace,suggesting that whatever size it was, the shape was good. We thanked the man for the warning and paddled out anyway.
It didn’t take long for the distant whitewater lines to come into focus, taking shape as heaving peaks breaking at least double overhead on sets. We were severely under-gunned. My arms felt weaker with each stroke toward the shifty lineup as my body went through the medley of stress responses typical when placing yourself in an idiotic situation: first your mouth goes dry as a sun-beaten desert, then your stomach ties itself up like a balloon animal, and finally the bones in your knees take on a strange, gelatinous quality. But somewhere in your brain, perhaps right behind your prefrontal cortex, there’s a spongy zone called the “delusions of grandeur center,” which can undermine every single one of those physical alarm bells.
There wasn’t a breath of wind, the lineup was empty, and despite how violently the waves were breaking, they were also nearly perfect. It seemed like the ideal venue to attempt to push myself and see where my limitations lie. This was a bold frontier for me, and exploring it could only make me a better surfer—if it didn’t kill me, that is.
This issue is all about frontiers, both the literal and figurative boundaries that we try to cross in our surfing lives. Australian-born big-wave surfer and craftsman Ben Wilkinson has spent the past few years exploring the frontiers of oversized surf, where he wants to pioneer bigger turns in more consequential waves. California’s Dane and Tanner Gudauskas recently decided to seek out their threshold for feral adventure by heading into the frozen, craggy northwest corner of Iceland to go tent camping with quivers in tow. And features editor Justin Housman interviewed a handful of the best high-performance surfboard shapers in the world to see what the next frontier of progressive surfcraft will look like.
For as long as modern surfing has existed, the concept of the frontier has been close to our hearts. We obsess over finding new waves to ride, new ways to ride them, and new surfcraft that can allow us to continually improve and stretch our limits just a bit further. It’s in this tiny, inch-by-inch progression that surfers are truly their best, most creative, innovative, and determined selves.
Maybe that’s what I was telling myself that day in Mokulē‘ia, when I started paddling for a sizeable set wave. My body wanted nothing to do with the wave, but the delusion center of my brain was able to override it and force my arms to start scratching toward shore. I stood up, airdropped some 6 feet or so, and the lip hit me square in the back, sending me on a roller-coaster ride into the depths, and then up and over the falls, and into the depths again. “I’ll be fine as long as my leash doesn’t break,” I thought, about two seconds before I felt the popping sensation of the taut rubber cord snapping and then going slack.
I had tunnel vision when I reached the surface, feeling a strange combination of panic-fueled nausea and existential gratitude. I thought there could be no better feeling in surfing than pushing yourself beyond prior boundaries and into new frontiers. But, as it turns out, the best feeling in surfing is coming up after a brutal beatdown at an outer reef and seeing your friend in the channel, paddling your board back out to you.
TODD PRODANOVICH, Editor