What is the world’s most powerful wave?

Pipeline? Maverick’s? Teahupo’o? Jaws? Is it some unnamed, untamed offshore100-footer that crushes cruise ships like Styrofoam coolers and only comes to life every quarter century? Could it be the mighty tsunami? Nature’s ultimate party crasher, screaming a thunderous surprise as it trashes whole coastlines with strength wrought from the earth’s very core?


The most powerful wave in the world is no more than waist-high. It’s probably pretty mushy — certainly not lethal. Chances are it’s a backyard sandbar at the end of the block. Or a break like San-O or Cocoa or Waikiki, a local hot spot with long, lithe rollers but little sex appeal. It’s wherever you caught your first real ride, the one that sent electricity up your spine and altered your brain so that the ocean never looked the same again, sending you on a mission for more, more, more, no matter how hopelessly endless that quest may be.

Neptune knows we’ve put everything into perfecting the art of capturing waves. Satellites, websites, watercraft, weather maps, charts, swell models, big-wave guns, small-wave boards, travel reports, high-end resorts, cameras, computers. Hardly a piece of technology exists that we haven’t converted to maximize our collective wave counts and multiply our pleasure. No longer content to camp out and let the mountains come to Mohammed, we must know the second the mountains have even begun to grow — no, we must know before the atmospheric forces have barely concentrated enough to create the mountains — giving us ample time to pack a flotilla of PWCs and fly there so we can conquer a lifetime’s worth of legendary peaks in a single day.

Thank god they’re immortal. Were waves like the buffalo of America’s frontier days we’d certainly have slaughtered them all. Save maybe one or two. And we’d likely bend all our resources toward hunting those down, as well. But try as we might to track, tame and even cage them, these beasts remain as wild and unpredictable as any in nature. This very lack of control is what makes surfing so exciting. You may be able to predict the weather, but you can never nail a session. Supposedly all-time days suddenly become torture, watching set after perfect set go to someone else, while a single ride just as easily transforms a crap afternoon into a favorite memory. You can plan each second of your water time but the surf will always make the final call, a painful fact etched in the sunken face of every skunked traveler returning from a supposed sure-bet or fallen competitor who wisely but tritely reasons, “It’s all a matter of who gets the waves.”

And nobody can pinpoint that precious speck of information. All you can do is try to be there when it happens. Which is why waves will always demand our undivided attention. It’s why they excite us with their sculpted beauty, frighten us with their sheer treachery or hypnotize us with their subtle strangeness. It’s why we seek out the single potentially pullable section from six rows of churning whitewater. Shrink our minds to the size of a six-inch boat wake. Press pause in the middle of a friggin’ animated movie just to hoot over some two-dimensional fantasy.

The truth is: it’s the waves which control us. We’re the ones who are predictable, willingly surrendering ourselves to the sea and every possible session with no idea of how good, bad or even deadly that experience will be. And while we sacrifice our entire lives toward amassing as many surfs as humanly possible, in the end there are only two waves with any real power: that very first ride — and the one yet to come. Matt Walker