This article originally appeared in SURFER Magazine, Volume 59, Issue 4. Subscribe here.
If you were to use a yardstick to compare the biggest airs of 1990 with the biggest airs of 2018, you'd see that above-the-lip maneuvers have grown vastly higher over the past three decades. But if you took that same yardstick and compared airs done by surfers with those done by snowboarders or skateboarders, you'll quickly see that the latter two easily out-launch and out-rotate surfers any day. Find Danny Way's 25.5-foot air on You-Tube and contrast it with the 6-ish-foot alley oop Jack Robinson landed in West Oz back in March. It's not even in the same league, let alone ballpark.
Paralleling wave-borne punts with those done in snowy halfpipes or in concrete pools begs an obvious question: why the enormous difference? Will surfers ever be able to slingshot themselves skywards at heights that rival snowboarders and skateboarders? Or does surfing have unique limitations and we've already reached the uppermost level of aerial maneuvers?
According to James Riordon, the head of public relations at the American Physical Society, the answer is both yes and no. Based on a couple "simple calculations," Riordon's figured out how to roughly estimate the max height surfers can launch themselves above the lip. Unlike snowboarders and skateboarders, surfers are reliant upon the speed of the wave they're punting off. And since waves slow down as they reach the shore, the speed a surfer can obtain becomes limited, and therefore so does their launch.
The calculation works like this: multiply the depth of water by 2.5, or, perhaps more easily observable, multiply the wave face by 1.5 and that will spit out the theoretical max number of feet a surfer can be sent into orbit. To help those not-so-good with numbers, that means someone like Dane Reynolds or Matt Meola can get 6 feet of air on a 4-foot wave and 9 feet of air on a 6-footer—not too far off what guys are doing today.
According to the equation, it should be mathematically possible for someone to fling themselves 60 feet in the air on a 40-foot wave. But according to Riordon, that's not actually physically possible. "The faster you move on a wave, the more air drag you have to deal with," says Riordon. "The thing about drag from the air is it's very low when you're moving slowly, but rises quickly as your speed increases. So even though you go faster on a really big wave, you would also slow quickly as you turned up the wave to go for an air."
But according to Riordon, there's a sweet spot. The rough speed a surfer can go before air drag really pumps the breaks is about 25 miles an hour, which would require about a 12-foot wave. And according to Riordon's calculations, a surfer could hypothetically land an 18-foot air on a 12-foot wave.
That's just talking about a straight air. Once you start throwing rotations into the mix, the height decreases. "The more rotations you want, the longer your hang time needs to be, but the higher you go, the less energy is available to spin," explains Riordon. "A 150-pound surfer riding the ideal-sized wave from the question above has about 4200 joules of energy available to them just as they are launching off the lip of the wave. If half that energy goes into getting height and half goes into spinning, they will go about 9 feet in the air, have about 1.3 seconds of hang time, and spin for about nine rotations, which is a 3240. That's if they were spinning like an ice skater, with their hands and legs pulled in as tight as possible.
But that's really hard to do with a board, so it's an upper limit that no surfer will probably ever reach."
More realistically, Riordon posits that guys can probably start landing 1080s in 8-foot surf. "That will be tough, but I imagine we'll be seeing people pulling off at least 900s in coming years," says Riordon.
We took these projections to aerial wizard Albee Layer, who thinks both options—an 18-foot straight air and a 1080—aren't completely out of reach.
"I think to do an 18-foot air, your timing would have to be absolutely impeccable," says Layer. "In bigger waves when you start doing airs, you have to really focus on timing to land back in the transition. You're not going to do an 18-foot air into the flats—you'd break your board and every joint in your ankles, knees and hips. But I think it's doable. Something like that is going to happen eventually."
As for landing a 1080, Layer's already got that move on his to-do list. "That rotation is my next goal in life," he says. "I was talking to snowboarders a bunch and they were trying to coach me through it, but it's so hard to bring your board with you when you're spinning that fast. I think we need to make boards as short as possible and more aerodynamic in a way where you can just bring it around with you. That's why my newest board is really small and the nose and the tail are almost identical."
"But I think the main culprit of why surfers aren't finding the limit with airs is that probably 50 percent of the most talented surfers aren't focused on airs," says Layer. "There's no reward for doing new airs in surfing. If you look at any other action sport, every single competition is based around forcing the athletes to do a new trick. It's all about incentivizing people."