Has el nino already served up the largest waves ever caught?
While huge swells have blasted nearly every coastline of the planet in recent months, it has been the Hawaiian Islands which have had the most mind-bending proof of the power of the current El Nino weather phenomenon. December 7-8, 2009 saw one of the biggest swells in modern history batter the northern shores of the entire Hawaiian Chain, followed by another extraordinary day of outer reef waves on Christmas. From these historic moments of oceanic grandeur have come images which show several top big wave surfers paddling into what may well be the biggest waves ever caught by human power in the long history of the sport.
Among these superlative rides is a massive dark wall caught by Shane Dorian and Mark Healey which closed out the legendary Waimea Bay on Oahu on December 7. Also up for consideration is another mammoth peak at Waimea ridden by Chile's Ramon Navarro which earned the South American hero a perfect score in the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau event on December 8. And more recently, grainy, documentary photos have arrived depicting Garrett McNamara paddling into a distant peak at Outer Log Cabins, a rarely-seen outer reef far off the North Shore shoreline, previously only the domain of tow-in surfers with jet-powered watercraft.
All are likely to figure prominently as finalists for the Monster Paddle Award to be given out at the tenth annual Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards to be held in California in late April. A panel of big wave surfing and photography experts will analyze the available images and by interpreting the known sizes of the surfers and their surfboards, calculate reliable height estimates for the face of each wave. One will emerge as the Monster Paddle winner and will receive $15,000 out of the total event purse of $130,000.
The current world record for a paddle-in wave belongs to Taylor Knox of San Diego, California who rode a wave measured at 52 feet at Todos Santos Island off of Ensenada, Mexico during the last major El Nino episode in 1998. Many experts are expecting an update to the Guinness Book of World Records once this winter's measurements are complete.
Dorian and Healey are veterans of decades of big wave hunting and both concur that their shared ride at Waimea was easily the biggest either had ever caught. "I'd been waiting 15 years for that wave," said Dorian, of Kona, on the Big Island. "That wave, we could see it from when it was like two or three minutes away from breaking, we could see the wave coming in, everybody's screaming on the beach and yelling and stuff... When the wave finally came in, it was SO big. The thing was a MONSTER. We both put our heads down and started paddling and somehow we both caught it.
"I was going no matter what," Dorian added. "And I know Mark felt the same way. It was just fun. A party wave -- a wave of that size, and it was for sure the biggest wave I've ever paddled into, and to do it with my real good friend, it was very....memorable."
Mark Healey has lived down the road from Waimea all his life and has been one of its most dedicated practitioners. But he'd never seen waves like this.
"That was the biggest day I've ever had at Waimea," said Healey. "And that wave in particular was definitely by far bigger than anything I've ever caught out there, for sure."
The wave was so large it closed out all the way across the Bay, not allowing the surfers the opportunity to kick out over the top of the wave as usual, and forcing them to straighten out and take the endless tons of whitewater on their heads. But for Healey, a renowned freediver with the ability to hold his breath for over five minutes, it was a fun experience. The longtime friends surfaced unharmed right next to each other, hooting with excitement.
"We were pretty stoked," said Healey. "Big waves are different, there's a lot of brotherhood involved, stuff like that. I'd rather have had Shane catch that wave than ride it alone. It was cool to share a wave like that with a friend, and someone I look up to."
McNamara, another North Shore stalwart, likes his own chances in the Monster Paddle derby. A past winner of the XXL Paddle crown in 2007 for a huge wave at Northern California's Maverick's, "GMac" reckons his Outer Logs Christmas present was several notches larger. "I don't know how big it was," McNamara said. "But I do know it felt at least ten feet bigger than anything I've ever paddled into. The Mavs wave a few years back was small compared to it...."
Remarkably, there may be much, much more to come. This week the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center issued an alert confirming that the current El Nino episode had intensified in the last 30 days from "moderate" to "strong," adding that the condition would exert a "significant influence on the global weather and climate in the coming months." And for surfers in the North Pacific basin, that means more enormous waves. According to Surfline.com, major new swell events are lining up in the coming days, impacting the Hawaiian Islands around Monday and the West Coast around Wednesday of next week.
Categories in this year's event include the Billabong XXL Ride of the Year, XXL Biggest Wave, Monster Paddle, Monster Tube, Surfline Best Performance, Billabong Girls Best Performance and the crowd-pleasing Verizon Wireless Wipeout of the Year. In addition to all the latest entries in each category, full event details including formats, rules and archives of past XXL years can be seen at the event website at www.BillabongXXL.com.
The Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards are presented by Monster Energy. Surfline is the official surf forecast, Verizon Wireless is the official communications provider and Honda Aquatrax the official watercraft. The event is sponsored by Surfing Magazine and Air Tahiti Nui airlines.