Judging the World’s Biggest Waves

With a world record on the line, determining the winner of the Billabong XXL "Biggest Wave" award turned into one of the toughest judgment calls in big wave surfing's history.


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On April 29, I received an invitation to the monolithic California headquarters of Billabong where I’d sit alongside a panel of journalists, filmmakers, photographers and big wave surfers to judge the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards.

What began as a far simpler single award called the K2 Big Wave Challenge back in 1998 has morphed into surfing’s night at the Oscars, providing big wave hellmen and women a widescreen recognition of the crazy risks they took the preceding year. Officiating our effort would be the former Surfing magazine editor who dreamed up the first K2 Big Wave Challenge—Billabong’s blonde bombshell Bill Sharp. 

What followed was probably the most difficult and carefully deliberated XXL judgment any of us had ever been a part of. 

First, some background. The XXL awards include “Wipeout of the Year” ($5,000), “Billabong Women’s Performance” ($5,000), “Ride of the Year,” which is the most lucrative prize at $50,000.

A surfing “Academy,” made up of a few hundred journalists, industry insiders, and surf legends, chooses these winners by online ballot. And while the surfers generally consider the academy’s “Ride of the Year” the apex award, the media gives more attention to the XXL’s two final awards—XXL Biggest Paddle and XXL Biggest Wave. Why? Guinness recognizes the verdicts of these two in its Book of World Records. And this year, it seemed that a world record was on the line that could overthrow Garrett McNamara’s ride from 2011

As always, Sharp displayed a series of blown-up photos of mind-blowing rides, along with video and computer stills so we could examine waves, surfers, and camera angles down to the last pixel. 

This year, it seemed that a world record was on the line that would overthrow Garret McNamara’s ride from 2011.

Judging the XXL’s biggest waves has always been equal parts science and art—and it’s always been controversial. “Biggest” is actually two categories: The “Biggest Paddle Award” ($20,000) goes to the surfer who strong-arms into the biggest “paddle” wave while “XXL Biggest Wave” ($10,000) can include paddling, but is typically focused on less challenging—but still perilous—jet-ski assisted tow-in waves. (Only once has a paddle entry won both categories—Shawn Dollar’s 2012 Cortes Bank behemoth.)  

The most important element in judging any wave is discerning the bottom or trough—the point at which a wave begins curving upward from the horizontal. From there, it’s a relatively simple matter of knowing the height of a surfer, then multiplying his height from the wave’s crest to its trough.

In first taking up the “Biggest Paddle” category, the consensus was that no one eclipsed Shawn Dollar’s 61-footer at Cortes Bank for the Guinness world record. After another hour, hunched over screens and posters, we unanimously ruled in favor of Hawaii’s fearless charger Mark Healey at Maui’s Jaws. In his crouch, Healey’s hail-mary backside widowmaker is ten times overhead, or 52 feet.

We then turned our attention to the “Biggest Wave” award. The most breathtaking photos in Sharp’s arsenal showed Andrew “Cotty” Cotton, an affable 34-year-old British plumber, lifeguard, and father of two who charged down a Portuguese rogue spawned from the bowels of hell. Maybe it was the biggest thing ever ridden—even eclipsing Garrett McNamara’s 78-footer two years back. (McNamara actually towed Cotton into this wave.) But closer examination led to the longest jury deliberation in XXL history.

The difficulty of judgment boils down to this: At Mavericks, Jaws, or Teahupoo, where deep-running ocean swells abruptly jack up onto a ledging shelf and throw out gargantuan barrels, the trough is fairly easy to discern. That’s not the case at Nazaré, Portugal or with the sloping, giant wave that breaks off Belharra, France. And those were the waves we were looking at this year.

Nazaré and Belharra both have a gradual bottom transition that allows waves to reach enormous heights and for surfers to hit tremendous speeds—think of a super-G skier bombing a run.  But they’re not as steep, and in Nazaré’s case, most images are taken from a much higher vantage point, and are thus that much harder to judge.

In this case, every judge agreed that Cotty’s Nazaré wave was enormous. But was it world record? Some images shot from high on the bluffs indicated that he was only halfway down the face of a wave more than 80 feet high. But other frames shot at lower angles revealed that the apparent height of the wave is partly a function of its tremendous slope, which might indeed be a hundred or more feet long. But as judge and Mavericks veteran Taylor Paul points out in Surfing magazine, slope is not height.

Had Cotty gone left—where his wave wedges up into an apocalyptic maw—he would have been in world-record territory. But in a wise move that surely saved his life, Cotty went right, making a mach-ten turn at the wave’s bottom. As Mavericks lifeguard and photographer Frank Quirarte points out, that’s why it’s called a bottom turn, and it’s where we judge the wave’s trough. After painstaking measurements, we finally rendered a 60-foot verdict. “When he gets to the bottom and leans into his turn, that’s the wave,” says filmmaker and former Surfer magazine editor Sam George. “But the photos make it look like there’s 30 feet beneath that.”

Attention then turned to a wave that everyone initially reckoned was smaller than Cotty’s: a Belharra giant ridden by 37-year-old French photographer and amateur big wave surfer Gautier Garanx. Measurement after tedious measurement revealed that Garanx’s wave was slightly bigger than Cotton’s—62 feet by unanimous verdict.

Two feet of difference? Is this justice? Isn’t our ruling somewhat subjective? Yes on all counts. But even with computer-aided technology, finding the trough always comes down to human judgment and an inexact science. But we’re armed with some of the best photographic evidence—and the most experienced jurors—in the business. 

Some have long argued that assigning height to big waves is a fool’s errand and that as Buzzy Trent once famously said, “Big waves aren’t measured in feet, but in increments of fear.” There’s logic in that sentiment, but at the same time, the surfers themselves submit these ephemeral Everests for record consideration. And human beings, by their very nature, are fascinated with the highest, fastest, strongest, biggest, and tallest. That’s what makes the Guinness Book of World Records one of the best selling books of all time—beneath the Bible and Koran. 

And before anyone cries that the jury is biased against Europe, or specifically Portugal, remember: the XXL panel gave Garrett McNamara a still-standing world record at Nazaré.

Three nights later, Anaheim’s Grove Theater plays host to a packed house of the scantily clad, the highly devoted, the terribly inebriated and the painfully hip. For his 52-footer at Jaws, 34-year-old Mark Healey is hilarious and humble, “I ended up feeling really good about myself until I came in over the rocks and got my ass handed to me and made a complete fool of myself,” he says. “You never leave Jaws with your ego intact.”

When it’s time for Ride of the Year, 31-year-old Greg Long is rewarded $50,000 for navigating a giant backhand barrel at Puerto Escondido, Mexico. It’s one of the most technically challenging big waves ever ridden and marks a remarkable comeback for Long after a full-blown case of PTSD in the wake of his near drowning at Cortes Bank two Decembers ago.

“It’s been a pretty radical year in my life,” he says, before publicly thanking his Cortes rescuer and fellow big wave charger D.K. Walsh. “There are so many people out there I’ve met through this love of big wave surfing…you take away the awards , you take away the money, the sponsors and all the rest. I’m still the richest and luckiest person in the world.”

When it comes time for the “XXL Biggest Wave” award, Gautier Garanx is stunned. Holding a $10,000 check over his head he says, “Sorry for my very bad English. I’m not used to this kind of ceremony.” He then adds to huge applause, “I’d like to thank my first sponsor, my wife Sandy,” before strutting off the stage with the XXL’s micro-skirted check-handlers and a grin. 

In Garanx’s win though, it’s impossible not to feel for the unspeakably brave Andrew Cotton, who would have been the United Kingdom’s first XXL winner. Especially when he writes a classy entry on his Facebook page. “Obviously gutted I didn’t take home a win, but honoured to make the top five.”

Don’t worry, Cotty, your time will come. 

Check out all the Billabong XXL winners on the official website

Chris Dixon is the author of “Ghost Wave.” 

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