This article originally appeared in SURFER Magazine, Volume 59, Issue 4. Subscribe here.
Back in January of 2016, during one of the biggest swells of the recent El Nino season, Oahu native Aaron Gold sat out in the lineup at Jaws on a self-shaped gun. He was running on adrenaline, having gotten little sleep the night before, and when the wave of the day rolled into the lineup, he turned his board towards the shore and started scratching. "When I got to my feet, I didn't really know just how big the wave was. But it felt like I was dropping in down the face forever," Gold said in an interview afterward. He later learned that wave—a solid 63-footer earned him the new world record for catching the biggest paddle-in wave to date.
The feat was awe-inspiring to say the least—but it also wasn't entirely surprising. We've grown somewhat accustomed to the idea that human beings can paddle into cartoonishly-large walls of water using nothing but the strength of their scrawny-by-comparison upper appendages. And that's because over the past couple decades, the big-wave elite have broken any and all boundaries set upon them.
But there's gotta be a limit to what can be paddled, right? If the ocean were to produce 150-foot waves (assuming there's a spot that could hold that size) could the human body match their speed by paddling? According to perennial big-wave standout Greg Long, we're just now scratching the surface of what's possible.
"Honestly, I don't think we've reached the limit of how big we can paddle," says Long. "Every single year there's further advancements in surfboard technology and safety technology and it's really a matter of Mother Nature giving us the canvas in which we can safely go out and do it. Obviously there are paddle limitations when it comes to the amount of wind there is and how raw and ugly a swell is, but if we get a day at a break like Mavericks or Jaws that's 70 feet and glassy, there will be people who go out there and paddle it."
You might think that surfers would need some kind of jet propulsion pack on their boards in order to match the speed of a 70- or 80-foot wave, which travels at a considerably faster speed than a 30 or 40 foot wave. But in reality, catching more monstrous waves actually comes down to timing and positioning.
"I don't think having a thicker board with faster paddling capabilities will actually do you any good, because then it becomes a challenge of being able to control getting down the face," says Long "It'll really come down to the technical side of it—where you're positioned dropping in, the angle which you're setting to go down the face of the wave and being able to negotiate bumps."
The problem with testing this theory is that the ocean rarely produces swells of such magnitude where all the elements are aligned. "One of the biggest challenges our sport is up against, and why it's kept a relatively slow progression, is because we only get the opportunity to practice riding big waves maybe 30 days out of the year—and that's if you're surfing every single swell around the globe," says Long.
According to Big Wave Tour competitor Trevor Carlson, there's a new, young crop of guys (including chargers like Lucas "Chumbo" Chianca and Kai Lenny) who, given the opportunity, will push the sport to new heights in the coming years.
"There's something to be said about seeing it before you do it," says Carlson. "When you envision something and someone has already done it, it seems very possible. Surfing ridiculously large waves at Jaws or Nazaré seems doable now versus when I first went to Nazaré a couple years ago. We really didn't know if it was possible or if we were going to die when we got caught inside. When I caught a good one and didn't die, it was like, "Holy shit, I did that." Now we're no longer showing up thinking, 'Is this possible?'"
But the question of whether or not there's an absolute limit to what surfers can paddle into still remains—and will probably forever go unanswered until some freak XXL swell pops up on the charts and a few fearless souls give it a wild go.
"I try not to mentally put a cap on anything because anytime we've done that, it's been exploded out of the way," says Bill Sharp, director of the Big Wave Awards. "The sport continues to evolve and a lot of it is just that the ocean doesn't offer up 100 foot waves that often. But when the ocean does offer that up, there's a lineup of guys waiting to go."