Every year come early April, the WSL releases their nominees for Ride of the Year, XXL Biggest Wave, Paddle and Wipeout for their annual Big Wave Awards. And, like clockwork, the selections trigger controversy.
This year, it was Albee Layer and Laurie Towner who took to social media first to voice their thoughts, opinions and suggestions after their waves were left out of the Ride of the Year conversation. Albee's wave in question was a crazy paddle barrel at Jaws (after the WSL called off the Jaws Challenge for being too big, somewhat ironically), and Laurie's was an insane Cloudbreak airdrop-to-tube on a cartoonish-looking bomb.
The waves were undoubtedly deserving of a nod, but, to include them, what would you cut? Therein lies the problem. While Albee feels tow waves shouldn't be considered in the Ride of the Year category, many others, including the founder and event director of the Big Wave Awards, Bill Sharp, disagree on that point, as we learned when we spoke to him on the phone recently.
There are a couple layers of controversy swirling around the Big Wave Awards this year. First, unmade waves like Twiggy [Grant Baker] and Billy Kemper's rides at Jaws getting the Ride of the Year nod over made waves like Albee Layer's Jaws tube and Laurie Towner’s Cloudbreak paddle bomb. Can you fill us in on the intricacies of the selection process?
It's a large group of people that weigh in; it's not like a few people in some back room trying to manipulate results. I imagine it's similar to what the Academy Awards must go through every year. There's a lot of great performances that go on and how do you narrow it down to five rides, when six and seven are amazing too? That's always the problem. There's always a couple great rides that get left out, and a case to made for why they should be included.
In this year's case, wave height had a lot to do with it [deciding on a final five]. It's the Big Wave Awards—it's not the solid, hollow and perfect wave awards. It's really meant to be the greatest performance on the very biggest wave. Some years a couple surfers do amazing things on waves that are just a little smaller and don't get the nod, and that's really what happened in this year's voting.
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@wsl @wslbigwave award nominations are in haha. Every year I think it'll be different and I end up feeling just like Dwight above. Taking nothing away from any of the surfers nominated, they are all the best of best obviously but in my opinion falling shouldn't count and towing shouldn't be compared to paddling. I can't believe @biancavalenti and @nicvonrupp waves were no where (as well as a few others and also mine haha). I swear this needs to change, just for the longevity of our sport as a whole. We should encourage the next generation to SURF big waves not survive them. It's a weird thing to tell the next generation that it's okay to fall in life threatening situations. Just one persons thoughts on a subjective sport, if I offended you just take comfort in knowing I'm pouting from a hospital in a land locked state and won't be winning any awards. But also deal with it cause I'm going nowhere
Was there any conversation about not including the impressive, but incomplete rides that ended up nominated?
There's a history of waves that have won that haven't been totally clean makes. Take Nathan Fletcher at Teahupo'o, for example. He didn't perfectly make that wave [Code Red swell in 2011], but it was the most amazing thing that anyone had ever seen at that point in time, and parts of his board and body did come out of the tube, which was enough.
The rules don't outline exactly what a perfect make is, they leave it ambiguous about being successful in some manner. And it's meant to be that way.
Speaking of ambiguity, Eli Olson mentioned on Instagram that his wave at an outer reef on Oahu wasn't nominated for Biggest Wave because it was impossible to see the bottom of the wave, and thus accurately judge the size, from the angle it was filmed. Can you explain how that measurement process works?
Until we get laser range finders setup for every big wave that's worthy of discussion, there's a certain amount of imperfection in the art—because it's not so much a science, but an art—of measuring waves that are really a transient moment in time. And sometimes it's hard to be certain. When big waves come in these days they are almost always captured from an assortment of angles—cliff, water, drone, land, etc. But every now and again we get what's almost like a Sasquatch sighting, something that appears to be stunning, but it's hard to be certain, because it's misty, or from an unfamiliar angle and you can't see exactly where the bottom of the wave is, and that makes it super hard to automatically include. The rules define that the evidence needs to be really firm, and when there's only one angle of a ride to judge, it's tough to say one way or another with any level of certainty.
How about tow vs. paddle when it comes to Ride of the Year. Might those two be separated in the future? I think we can all agree that what Kai Lenny did at Jaws and Ramon Navarro did at Cloudbreak were unbelievable, but also impossible without a ski. Should we compare tow vs. paddle as apples to apples?
Nobody is saying the Ride of the Year is meant to be apples to apples. The rules say it's supposed to acknowledge the ride showing the most advanced and committed level of big-wave surfing performance. Especially if it's coming from guys who have the credentials as paddle surfers. Take Kai and Ramon, and look what they've already accomplished in big-wave paddle surfing.
But when those certain days come, it's just too big to paddle. And, suddenly, these waves that totally would have gone to waste, cannot only be accessed, but guys are now surfing in a way that's futuristic, on a wave that otherwise would have gone unridden. That's ideal. That's really what we're trying to do, whether you're towed or whether you paddled. If the results are spectacular, and it's a wave that you just want to watch over and over again, and it's inspiring to an audience, and at the same time inspiring to the best big-wave riders in the world, it should be considered for Ride of the Year. And in the case of Kai and Ramon this year, ask any big-wave surfer and they'll tell you those days and waves are the reason to keep a big-wave tow board in the bag.
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I feel for the surfers who have to keep the corporate wankers happy. I'm a bit bummed but in some way happy this wave didn't make the top 5 nominees for @wsl @wslbigwave awards. After surfer mag didn't put this wave in their top 5 for barrels of the year beaten by 3 foot skeleton bay waves and a few others (if had the chance I wouldn't swap all 5 waves chosen in surfer awards for this one haha) I knew there was no way this wave would make the top 5 big wave award nominations because of corporate bull shit! Whats the surf industry going to get out of Laurie Towner. The reason I'm some what happy is because all my life I though it would be amazing to have a ride of the year next to my name. I now know it's a meaningless award chosen by kooks with no idea who play the cards of surfers careers. Winning awards would be in some big wave surfers contracts, it use to be in mine and it truely sucks for the surfers trying to make a career out of riding big waves, lucky for me it means nothing now. Although the money would of been nice if I made the top 5 it reassures me I want nothing to do with winning awards, I will never enter a wave again if I'm to ride another bomb, which I will. This wave is MY ride of the year, maybe my ride of my life and no one can take that from me. Maybe I'm being biased you tell me? I wouldn't change this wave for anyone else's wave this year if had the chance even if you were to give me 50g on top, there is no better feeling than to successfully paddle a big scary draining wave safely to the channel. To all the up and coming big wave surfers Fuck the big wave awards, do it for yourself no one else! Sorry If I'm being negative Im not the only one who feels a little hard done by in this years nomination there is a hand full of terrible decisions. I just want what's best for the future of young big wave surfers and this needs to be fixed! honestly @wsl get tow waves out of ride of the year! You shouldnt be helped by a jet ski it's also hard to think an unmade wave can be ride of the year. Well @granttwigbaker wave might be an exception haha Also sorry for the novel
While it happens every year, how do you feel when surfers like Albee and Laurie go to social media to voice their opinion and/or displeasure about not being nominated?
Oh, I love it! I think it's the best thing possible, because what it does is it shows that they really care, and that they are passionate about big wave surfing and wish they had gotten that nomination. To me, the worst thing would be if guys like that didn't care. I love the debate and I love all those guys. I think it's a great thing for the sport and I hope it pushes them into more amazing performances and they get the nod next year.
A lot of people like to blame politics when it comes to controversial decisions. What do you say to that as it relates to the Big Wave Awards?
It's absurd. It's not like the Big Wave Awards have this giant list of endemic sponsors that we're beholden to. To me, the great thing about the Big Wave Awards is it really democratizes the process. Surfers don't have to go through years on some sort of Qualifying Series. If they show up and blow up, they're instantly on the radar, and I'm really proud of the process. Look at surfers like Lucas Chumbo and Justine Dupont. They've risen from relative obscurity to the very top level of big-wave surfing in a year, each one of them. You don't often see that in other types of event structures. In reality, the Big Wave Awards operate exactly opposite of backroom politics, and actually offer more opportunity for an obscure surfer to make a name for themselves.