This year has seen an unprecedented advancement in big-wave surfing.
Why? Because there were a lot of big waves. When you squeeze three years of opportunity into one season, performance levels are going to rise like tensions at a Trump rally. Technology has helped, too.
"Each time Jaws breaks there's a video edit out the next day with every single wave from that session," says big-wave savant and obsessive footage-reviewer Albee Layer. "They're just on Youtube, so everyone can see 'em. And with so many swells in a row, guys can study that footage and look at their lines, look at other people's lines, then go out and try it the next swell. That helps progression as much as anything."
But progression is hard to keep up with, too. There are so many guys in the water. So many waves ridden. So many wipeouts. In one contest guys are rewarded for the drop, in the next you have to make the wave. And so, in an effort to get some clarity on what makes a well-ridden big wave, I spoke with Albee, Greg Long, Shane Dorian and Kai Lenny on the subject. The main course of these conversations will be out in next month's print mag, but for now, enjoy this appetizer. —Taylor Paul
ALBEE LAYER: A well-ridden big wave is taking off as deep as you can, on the most critical part of the wave, and making it to the channel. It's not just making it to the bottom of the wave and getting exploded. Also, a well-ridden big wave isn't a straight line to the channel anymore. People are starting to draw different lines, doing little turns, and it gets overlooked. But I think that's the next step. Barrels are always going to be the staple — that's the best way to ride a big wave, but I think we're just going to see different lines when the wave doesn't necessarily barrel. I saw Kai Lenny catch a huge wave the other day and he was…expressing himself. He was drawing the line he wanted, not just a survival line.
KAI LENNY: To me, the best big waves are the ones that look effortless, where the guy's board is slicing through the wave perfectly and their arms are steady and they kick out. But those waves, to the average person, are boring, so most of the time they go unrecognized. It's the wipeouts or near wipeouts that go viral.
SHANE DORIAN: I think it's more of a feeling you get when you see somebody do it. The moment I saw the wave that Albee got at Jaws during the Eddie, I knew that it was an amazing big-wave ride. It was highly technical, it was a big wave — you know, it wasn't the biggest wave — but just the way he rode it was so technical and demanded a lot of skill. Not your Waimea-stance, just-getting-down-the-face kinda ride. Albee is one of the hardest chargers at Jaws. He goes on really gnarly ones that are technical and need a lot of commitment, just because the drops are so steep. I also really like the way that Kai Lenny surfs. He seems to bridge the gap between surfing super technically — on a shorter board with an aggressive style — and going for really big waves. That's a rare combination.
GREG LONG: The size of the wave, criticalness, level of performance, style and the completing the wave. I'm always a fan of completed rides, because it shows true skill and wave knowledge. It's easy to go out there and just huck yourself over the ledge and get to the bottom of the wave. There's obviously consequences and sometimes technical surfing involved, but that's not what I feel the sport's about. It's finding and riding the biggest waves, taking off at a critical point, making that bottom turn and getting to the shoulder with control and style.