On December 4th, 1969, Greg Noll sat alone in the water at Makaha arguing with himself about what the odds were of actually surviving one of the massive waves freight-training down Kaena Point. Three storms had converged in the Gulf of Alaska, creating a 2,000-mile-long wind fetch starting at the Aleutians and stretching nearly all the way to the North Shore. For three days, the Pacific throbbed with the biggest surf anyone had ever seen.
And here was Noll, all alone, leash-less, floating amidst what would become known as The Swell of the Century. Eventually a wave presented itself. Noll swung his 11’4″ shoreward, paddled as hard as he could, and rode what has become one of the most mythologized waves in surfing history.
Despite there being no photographic evidence of Noll’s wave, we can imagine what it looked like. Because for the better part of four decades, big-wave paddle surfing largely looked the same: brawny brutes charging headfirst, poised in a boxer’s crouch, waiting for the axe to fall. Comfort and control being the foundation for anything resembling grace, even the most memorable rides possessed a certain cavalier crudity: point and shoot, make the drop, hunker down, and hold on. And while it’s always been awe-inspiring, it’s never been terribly pretty to watch.
But in the last eight years or so, a handful of surfers have stretched our collective understanding of what paddling into and riding massive waves looks like.
“The older mentality was all about making the drop,” says Albee Layer. “It seems like a few guys still have that ingrained in their surfing. They take off, stand on the tail, and just make sure they make the drop.”
Watching Layer swing a sub-9-foot blade under the ledge at Jaws, surely the old guard would take no offense to the Hawaiian’s patricidal irreverence. There’s no denying he’s doing something wholly different in the water. Different, but familiar. Because Layer’s not just picking a line and sticking to it. He’s channeling Curren at Sunset. He’s back-dooring building-sized waves, pumping carefully and crucially over ridiculous foam balls. He’s charging mountains like they were molehills.
“For me, it’s all about surfing waves of consequence like they’re not waves of consequence,” says Layer. “I don’t think anyone has any style when they’re just holding on, going straight. When you start to have control, and approach it like it’s just any other wave, that’s when you start showing signs of style.”
“For me, it’s all about surfing waves of consequence like they’re not waves of consequence. I don’t think anyone has any style when they’re just holding on, going straight. When you start to have control, and approach it like it’s just any other wave, that’s when you start showing signs of style.”
Benefiting from tremendous advancements in safety—new standards of inflatable flotation, highly trained emergency-response teams—as well as a seismic reconsideration of big-wave board design, Layer, Ian Walsh, Greg and Rusty Long, Matt Meola, Grant “Twiggy” Baker, and a small group of close friends and comrades have drawn the deepest, most committed and nuanced lines we’ve ever seen in waves of consequence.
“With shorter boards, you can take off twice as late, but have twice as much control,” says Layer. “That changed my whole approach.”
Layer looked to Maui-based windsurf-board shaper Sean Ordonez to build him boards that could give him that perfect balance of paddling power and high-speed control. Shane Dorian pursued similar ideas with John Carper. Greg Long and others looked to Chris Christenson. And the results have been undeniable. This group has suddenly been able to employ the same qualities we’ve come to consider as style’s benchmarks—speed, power, flow—to get ridiculously barreled.
And of this crew, none has pushed the limits of both commitment and composure as much as Dorian. His lines at Jaws, Puerto Escondido, and Mavericks are razor sharp. To see Dorian whip it on a chip-shot Mavs bomb, surefootedly handle a 6-foot boil, knife a full-rail bottom turn, and back-door nearly the entirety of the bowl is to see a master at work. So much strength and purpose in his movements, and yet there is the same careful, calm composure of his small-wave free surfing.
One of the most stylish surfers of the whole Momentum era, Dorian was pushed into heavier waves by the late, great, Florida-born, Island-bred Todd Chesser. Like Dorian, Chesser’s considerable talent in mortal-sized waves translated beautifully into the big stuff.
“Todd was always trying to really surf in big waves,” says Dorian. “Drawing these big lines, trying to get barreled.”
And surely Chesser would be proud to see Dorian and Co.’s exploits. For this new guard, it’s not just balls and bravado. It’s about brains and beauty, evident in sweeping, considered bottom turns, double hand-drag tube stalls, and church-mouse-quiet body language in truly harrowing situations. And thanks to modern surf forecasting’s remarkable accuracy, this crew is getting to surf waves this size more often than ever before.
“The more times you surf these waves, the more you come to understand the way they move, the way they behave,” says Greg Long. “All that info goes into a memory bank to analyze the situation faster and react to that moment. There’s a familiarity now. And it’s an open forum between us all. If someone has a spectacular moment, we share that.”
The more times you surf these waves, the more you come to understand the way they move, the way they behave. All that info goes into a memory bank to analyze the situation faster and react to that moment. There’s a familiarity now.”
And don’t doubt for a second that the kids are taking notes. For them, this is the new standard: Layer standing tall, arms behind his back, as all hell breaks loose around him; Dorian drawing clean lines through the belly of a beast in Puerto Escondido; Long swinging it on a wide one, a good 50 yards deeper than the rest of the pack at Jaws, looking supremely confident as a 30-foot tube section builds in front of him.
“Nowadays kids aren’t growing up looking at these waves like they’re ‘big waves,’” Layer says. “They’re growing up watching Dorian. The kids see guys that age, that in tune with the ocean; that’s just normal to them. I can’t imagine what they’ll be doing when they’re my age.”
But try, for a second, to do just that: Imagine. Greg Noll’s wave at Makaha set a standard by which waves were measured for almost a half-century. Now Layer, Dorian, Long, and the like have set a new standard. But, as a garbage man said, this is just the lemon next to the pie. It’s gonna get bigger. And it will be beautiful to behold.