Ranking the most dangerous waves in the world is like measuring your dick with Apple’s latest app: controversial. To reduce the subjectivity of judging something that literally changes with the wind, we hit up Garrett McNamara, legendary big wave surfer and 8 year world record holder for surfing the world’s biggest wave, to understand which of the world’s famous big waves are the most dangerous, and why.
Oh and a side note: McNamara says, “There are definitely big waves all over the world that are unchartered and that people aren’t talking about—and a lot of them get overlooked because we’re focussed on where we’re going… I guarantee you there’s tens of thousands of waves like these around the world, and we don’t go on the days when they could be good because we’re at our spots—everybody goes to the wave they like and they know.” For now, this is what we’ve got…
Looking out over the picturesque cliffs on Maui’s North Shore, you wouldn’t expect such an ominous break to exist. Otherwise known as Peahi, the Hawaiian word for “beckon,” Jaws gave birth to the tow-in surfing revolution of the late 90s, and has now been reclaimed as an XXL paddle-in surf spot graced by the likes of Shane Dorian, Mark Healey and—you guessed it—Garrett McNamara. If the obligatory “rock off” to enter the water doesn’t chew you up and spit you back out, you then have the fast moving, mountainous walls of water to contend with. However, according to Garrett, if you’re an expert with a safety vest (and a serious set of cojones) the danger vs. reward ratio at Jaws is actually pretty good. Compared to some of the other places he’s surfed, “Jaws has a barrel without too much risk.” It’s also, he tells us, “Pretty deep and there’s a defined channel.” Of course the risk of being underwater for a hell of a long time is there, but if you’re towing you’re pretty safe.”
Mavericks is located just off the coast of Half Moon Bay, in Northern California, and has hosted some of the most dramatic moments of a bygone era in big-wave surfing (back when it was all about making the drop rather than getting barrelled). Throughout this time there have been a number of high profile drownings at Mavericks, due to “The Cauldron”, a “hidden threat” just beneath the massive peak which Grant Washburn, longtime Mavericks devotee explained to National Geographic as, “A deep hole in the bottom of the ocean (that) inhales seawater, surging violently with each passing swell… responsible for regular two wave hold-downs, and the deaths of Mark Foo and Sion Milosky.” Oh and there are great whites, which is enough for us to bump it above Jaws.
4. Shipstern’s Bluff
Once called “Devil’s Point” (inspired by the apocalyptic headland that stands sentinel over the break), Shipstern’s Bluff sits in a remote corner of southeast Tasmania, where it is pummelled by giant purple blobs that track in on weather maps from as far as the South Pole. The spot is infamous for giant steps in the wave face that a surfer must jump down to ride to safety. “Like Ours (another Australian slab),” Garrett told us, “Shipstern’s is super high risk,” with a less objectively perfect reward (i.e. it’s not a perfect cylinder like Pipeline or Teahupoo). “The reward is there,” he says, “But the potential for injury is higher because it’s not perfect.”
Coming in at number one on most “Most Dangerous Waves” lists, more people have died surfing Pipeline, on Hawaii’s North Shore, than any other place (since 1989 it has taken the lives of seven surfers, and threatened the lives of countless others). However, contrary to popular belief, a wave’s death toll does not reveal its lethality so much as it indicates the number of people that surf it regularly. So although more deaths have occurred at Pipe than Teahupoo, it isn’t necessarily more dangerous (just similarly deadly and has been surfed by more people over a greater number of years). Of course it takes just as much skill (or more) to surf Pipeline as a deepwater wave like Jaws or Nazare—but surviving it is more about luck. You can train for underwater hold downs—but whether or not you get knocked unconscious by the reef at pipeline (or trapped in an underwater cave) is down to chance.
Teahupoo, located in the tropical island paradise of Tahiti, is known for its inch perfect barrels, crystalline water, and sharp reef. To us, this is the most perfect barrel in the world. So when we asked Garrett which wave had the best “risk/reward” ratio, we expected him to say, “Teahupoo,” get the quote, and move on. However, after recounting a crazy wipeout he had here a few years ago, Garrett concluded that Teahupoo provides the greatest risk and greatest reward of all the waves he’s surfed. Since discovering Nazare (the world’s biggest wave, which doesn’t really barrel) back in the late 2000’s, Garrett’s focus has now changed: “I’d much rather get the best barrel—I searched for the biggest wave in the world and found it. I still go back there but now my focus is perfect barrels.”
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Located in a sleepy fishing village an hour and a half north of Lisbon, Nazare flew under the surfing world’s radar until Garrett McNamara, invited by locals, pioneered the break in 2011. He describes it as a “supersized wedge” that is supercharged by a large offshore canyon that funnels incoming swell lines into each other, creating Nazare’s trademark, mountainous a-frame “peaks” which then crash into the headland.
“I don’t know if there will be anything bigger than Nazare.”
Although Nazare is not as technical a wave to ride as the shallow reef breaks of Pipeline and Teahupoo, according to Garrett it is the most challenging deepwater wave he’s surfed: “It’s way harder than jaws—it has every bit of the challenge as Jaws as far as the wave and the chop, but it moves around and there are no channels so you’re never sure if you’re ok.”
“You’re never sure if you’re in the spot.”
Also revealing is the number of people out. Sure, it takes finesse to surf a shallow reef, but lots of surfers have that, which is why you see (advanced) amateurs out at Teahupoo and Pipe. However, seven years after its discovery, Nazare is still relatively uncrowded. Why? It’s unpredictability: “Some waves just cap on the top but they’re the biggest things you ever saw, some are top to bottom and they’re the biggest, roundest waves you’ve ever seen—there’s so many types—it’s so challenging.”
“It’s definitely harder to find the waves and it’s the same challenge (compared to other spots) catching them.”
Having said that, he added, “Nazare is all sand so as long as you’re not close to the rocks on the first peak, the chance of surviving is very high.” The problem is though, if you want to move in and get a wave, “The risk of getting pounded is also very high.” And if you get pinned in the impact zone it’s not like Jaws (where a jetski can come and get you) or Teahupoo (where you eventually get washed into a lagoon)—in Nazare you’re trapped.”
Despite that, Garrett see’s the upsides, returning most winters to chase big Atlantic swells: “The good thing about Nazare is it’s not that crowded yet, so you can pick your spot and hang out, or you can move in and go balls to the wall.”
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