The WSL Chases A New High

After two decades, the Big Wave Awards are no more with the WSL unveiling an ambitious new project.

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By Stu Nettle (stunet)
Photo: WSL/Brent Broza

The WSL Chases A New High

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Stu Nettle (stunet)
Swellnet Dispatch

Last week, amid little fanfare, the World Surf League (WSL) pivoted its big wave focus. The change in strategy was announced via a short press release. A statement that was notable for what it said, and also for what it didn't say.

The WSL will “continue its commitment to big wave surfing through a revamped strategy” the release boldly stated, explaining that they were rolling out a new initiative called the Big Wave Record Chase.

The Record Chase combines a few areas of expertise. There’s the big wave surfers, of course, a little-known group called the ‘WSL Science Team’, the Guinness Book of World Records are involved, and so too are Box to Box Films, who recently produced the Make or Break series for the WSL.

Before explaining the new strategy any further, it's important to note what wasn’t said in the press release. No mention was made of the Big Wave Awards.

Beginning in 2000 under the auspices of Billabong, the annual awards were acquired by the WSL in 2014 and have been held every year since. As other big wave developments came and went, most notably the now-defunct Big Wave World Tour, the Big Wave Awards became the mainstay of the big wave calendar. Much as ‘opening day’ swells kicked off each northern hemi season, the Big Wave Awards ceremony closed it.

Now, however, the awards are no more. Though when Swellnet reached out to the WSL, their answer was open-ended. When asked if the Big Wave Awards are finished, their reply was, “For the moment, yes.”

So let’s take a closer look at the Big Wave Record Chase. Though it has a list of competing interests, it is essentially a clever way the WSL can create high end video content. I’m sure you’re aware of the WSL’s movement into this space. Superficially, the WSL organises tours and sanctions titles, yet it’s essentially a media company; reach and scope matter every bit as much as title integrity. Combining the two is the magic formula. Make or Break (sorta) nailed it, Ultimate Surfer most certainly didn’t, but you can see how the WSL is starting to package their various products.

It’s why recent news about Netflix wanting to buy the WSL should surprise no-one. The theatre of pro surfing runs each year, the drama is happening regardless, they just need someone to film and produce it to take it to a bigger audience.

Even with the best scheduling and longer waiting periods, the Championship Tour can still fall well short of Dream Tour ambitions. See Grajagan this year, or Portugal, Margaret River, and El Salvador. It’s hard to imagine how scriptwriters could pump up enough drama to overcome a lack of waves.

There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that when Kerry Packer, the now-deceased media mogul, advised Nat Young on the content of his documentary about Australian surfing he said, “Make sure there’s lots of big waves. The man on the street loves them.” Point being, the big stuff brings its own drama, and crucially, you don’t have to be a surfer to appreciate it.

Following this line of thinking, the WSL’s new Big Wave Record Chase would seem a masterstroke. Let the surfers submit their bigguns, as they’ve always done, the WSL Science Team will adjudicate them, then, if necessary, Guinness ratifies any winning waves. Each world record winning surfer wins $125,000 and will be the subject of a documentary about the wave.

Over at Nazare, where most records will be broken, and where big wave surfers had gathered for a two day swell, the news received a frosty response. The WSL held a Zoom forum where surfers could hear the WSL's Jessi Miley-Dyer explain the format, and they could also voice their concerns.

A major concern that arose from the Nazare Zoom meeting was the process of awarding world records. Historically, Bill Sharp, who devised the original Big Wave Awards, would measure the winning wave using a mix of trigonometry and divination. Some surfers, however, were bypassing Sharp and going directly to Guinness World Records, or, as was the case with Brazilian Vini dos Santos, getting a local academic from the University of Lisbon to ‘prove’ the size of his record-breaking wave.

With no official channel, any surfer who caught a big one at Nazare could, potentially, front the media and claim a world record. It’s a hell of an accolade to have on a big wave resume, especially if you’re shopping around for sponsors.

In a video released earlier this year, Portuguese big wave surfer Nic von Rupp lamented the end of the big wave season. “Every year it’s the same story,” said von Rupp, “it comes to the end of the season and everyone starts pulling out their measuring tape and measuring their dicks. Claims start appearing all over the internet.”

“It’s not good for the sport when you claim waves are bigger than they are. I think the system is a bit broken; there needs to be a scientific fact of how to measure a wave.”

“Measuring waves shouldn’t come down to who has the best PR agent and who wins the media war.”

To address these concerns the WSL is instituting a “transparent" measuring process. “The WSL has a dedicated team for big wave record measurements,” a WSL spokesperson explained to Swellnet. “They are often referred to as the WSL Science Team and are a part of the Kelly Slater Wave Co Science team, and collaborate closely with the University of Southern California, Viterbi School of Engineering, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.”

Here at Swellnet we’re acutely aware of how hard it is to reach any sort of consensus over wave height, a problem that only magnifies with size. When asked, we received a back of the napkin explanation for wave measurement but it also came with a note saying ‘more would be explained shortly’. We’ll wait for the further explanation before making any judgement on that.

Though he surfed it in October 2020, Sebastian Steudtner only claimed the world record for this 86ft Nazare wave in May this year. The delay a result of the WSL overhauling the measuring process and partnering with Guinness World Records (WSL/ Jorge Leal)

Putting wave measurements aside for the moment, what’s clear is the WSL is attempting to do the same with world records as it does with world titles: legitimise them. By bringing Guinness into the fold, and then creating a major documentary release the WSL, via the Big Wave Record Chase, will be the lone authority on big wave records and no correspondence will be entered into.

If surfers are satisfied by the work of the WSL Science Team then the WSL will go some way to quelling those concerns. Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t the only issue raised. Though it wasn’t articulated directly, a sense of uncertainty prevails. Sure, the WSL’s business case stacks up, and the surfers appear to appreciate the goal of legitimacy, however many of them couldn’t quite see how they fitted into this new future.

“I liked the nomination process [of the Big Wave Awards],” one surfer, who wished to remain anonymous, told Swellnet. “You could see what everyone had achieved through the season and it really created this family, you know? Now one person wins and that’s it.”

Of course, economic matters were questioned too; big wave surfing is a horribly expensive pastime, and with sponsorship hard to come by, any windfall is welcome. Though the prizemoney was less for Big Wave Awards, it was doled out each and every year. Now, however, prizemoney is only awarded when a new world record is broken.

As one surfer dismissively told Swellnet: “They’ll be handing out one oversize novelty cheque every five years.” That might be overstating it, at the current rate a record drops in each of the four categories (paddle and tow, men and women) approximately every four years, meaning the WSL should celebrate a record with one documentary (and a novelty oversize cheque) each year. Possibly more during boom years, possibly none if the swell busts.

Nearly seven years ago, in January 2016, Aaron Gold paddled into this Jaws wave, which was measured at 63ft. It's held the world record for the largest men's paddle wave since (WSL/Brent Broza)

There’s no doubt the Big Wave Record Chase is an idea with merit. That, if done right, it’ll appeal not just to surfers but also to the man on the street - the woman on the street too. However, there’s an expectation that, when the big storm comes, the surfers will just be there, turn up on set and act out their roles. To an extent it’s true, big wave surfing is a labour of love, but it’s costly, and to have the size of the carrot suddenly reduced will set mouths in motion.

The Big Wave Record Chase would have been a good addendum to the Big Wave Awards. The Awards celebrating the yearly cycle of big swells, the Chase honouring those rare pinnacle moments. However, without a sponsor to support the Big Wave Awards the business case isn't plausible. The WSL has been hunting a sponsor with no success so they've put all their energies into the Record Chase which will...or at least, should, see a pay off when the rights are sold.

So after two decades, the Big Wave Awards have been put on ice - as the WSL said, they're finished, "for the moment" - while we wait to see if the WSL can act on their ambitious new plan. With stories that write themselves and a RED camera covering every angle, the foundations are in place for knockout viewing, but then again, if the surfers feel they aren't being served then the Record Chase may become a wild goose chase.


How The Big Wave Record Chase Works

Unlike the Big Wave Awards, there now just four categories:

  • Largest Wave Surfed - Unlimited (Male)
  • Largest Wave Surfed - Unlimited (Female)
  • Largest Wave Surfed - Paddle (Male)
  • Largest Wave Surfed - Paddle (Female)

Meaning the sole big wave focus is now on Nazare and Jaws, as without a 'Ride of the Year' category waves such as Teahupoo, Mullaghmore, or Shipsterns will no longer feature.

Surfers submit potential record-breaking waves to the WSL, who then assess the waves using a yet-to-be-announced method - though the WSL has pledged full transparency.

Any wave deemed to break a new record will be entered into the Guinness World Records. The winner will receive $125,000 ($100,000 for the surfers, $25,000 for their team), and then be the subject of a documentary about the ride.


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simsurf Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 9:41am

"Brazilian Vini dos Santos, getting a local academic from the University of Lisbon to ‘prove’ the size of his record-breaking wave."

Very brazzo

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freeride76 Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 10:05am

Sounds to me like WSL have pretty much abandoned Big Wave Surfing as a sport and have turned it into a complete novelty show.

Is there anyone out there who can distinguish, or more importantly who cares, whether a wave ridden at Nazare is 73 ft or 78ft?

Even the guys doing it don't seem to care.

Is that a Doco subject that would hold interest?

It seems like that novelty factor died out years ago.

I think WOZ is trying to flog a dead horse here for whatever they can get.

stunet's picture
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stunet Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 10:26am

In 2011, GMac was deemed to have ridden a wave one foot bigger than Mike Parsons - 78 feet vs 77 feet. Rodrigo Koxa then rode one that was two foot bigger again - 80 feet vs 78 feet.

I think most surfers realise those numbers are ridiculous.

That said, I reckon the Big Wave Record Chase is a good idea. However, the Big Wave Awards ran for two decades and I can't see the Chase having the same longevity.

Same location, same premise, and pretty much the same story. Hard to see how the docos can keep on delivering.

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ryder Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 11:13am

The only way to really calculate wave height at Nazare is by photographing the wave from the same X-marks-the-spot on land and using the same lens focal length.

But then you have the parameters of the wave breaking further out or further in or wider etc... The variables change all the time and calculating wave height at such a spot just can't be done accurately. Photographing the wave from an elevated position just throws all calculations (and science) out the window.

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mpeachy Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 11:20am

Yep sometimes you see a wave from two different angles and it looks completely different sizes

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Craig Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 11:21am

Don't get Ben started re size observed from up top a cliff, and the same size observed when out in the water or down at sea level.

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mpeachy Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 11:24am

He'd be right though, even when it comes to just checking local beachies the cliff-top check can be very deceptive

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Craig Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 11:26am

Oh 100%, I believe it's always bigger than it looks from up high, but he thinks it's smaller than it looks up high.

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Sprout Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 11:51am

Looking down at waves makes them look bigger than they actually are.
Did I just agree with Ben, shit.

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mpeachy Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 11:53am

Yep I agree with Ben too. Definitely gotten skunked a few times after a cliff top check. That being said, the distance is probably relevant too, and if you are a long way away and on top of a cliff it would look smaller.

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Craig Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 11:55am

Ha, yep totally re those last points. I feel like from above, the wave face is compressed, and hence doesn't show the true size.. Drone footage being unflattering etc.

And here in this little discussion is where we'll run into so many different opinions.

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Sprout Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 12:04pm

Colour of the water a possible factor? As in, darker = deeper, so when viewed on high, the swell line looks darker than sea level hence bigger than it actually is? Interesting anyhoo.

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thermalben Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 12:27pm

Stop fighting it Craig, you're out-numbered.

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Craig Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 12:29pm


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tubeshooter Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 4:19pm

I have to agree with Craig on this one. I've underestimated the size many times from numerous high vantage points. Paid the price for those mistakes too on some of the rock offs.

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tiger Friday, 25 Nov 2022 at 3:52pm

Yes Craig, you're tripping.

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bluediamond Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 12:27pm

Depends om the period. A 12sec 4-5ft swell can look 8fy plus from up high, a 18sec 10ft swell can look 4-5ft from up high.

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lilas Sunday, 27 Nov 2022 at 8:56am

There is one way to get a true measurement of wave size (not that it matters one bit!)
It's called Photogrammetry [I do this in my line of work] and it requires a fair amount of equipment and knowledge although it's more on the equipment side.
The short an curlies of it is that you need multiple camera angles [with overlapping views] of the wave with a scale reference. You then throw these images into a computer and it spits out a 3d model of the wave. You then set the scale of the model based on the scale reference [something like a long pole with markers on a the back of the ski. The no one can argue about your "world Record" as this is a scientific standard [as long as the cameras and processing are good.
The main difficulty in achieving this is that Photogrammetry HATES reflective surfaces and gets incorrect results. Rather large problem there that not even polarized lenses will solve.
...but like I said at the start...sounds like the WSL trying to make it into a circus [again]

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frog Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 10:50am

Flogging a Dead Moose.

Especially with Nazare in the equation where a little extra wedge effect could briefly spike a peak to a few feet or even 10 ft above a "record" but still be a 2 second run across the peak then onto a fat shoulder. Imagine filling a documentary building to that 2 second climax with the safety net of multiple jet skis visible at all times.

In contrast, you have the life and death drama of climbing El Capitan free solo by Alex Honnold. This allows a solid build up story and the actual climbing event that lasted for hours - so much great content and tension - to fill the documentary.


Now if the angle was to wait for the biggest days ever, ban jet skis from the line up - except maybe to drop people in the line up at the start of the day, and send out the heroes to paddle in and survive wipeouts and swims if they can, it would rate through the roof across the planet. But people would die - often.

Huge wave paddle in sessions without a jet ski lifeline is like free solo climbing with no rope.

It would be a whole new set of survival skills and drama that would match Free Solo or Alone for appeal to the masses.

Elo, the magic recipe to save WSL is there if you want it .... Some crazies will go out if the cameras are on and the paycheck is big enough.

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bluediamond Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 11:26am

"Now if the angle was to wait for the biggest days ever, ban jet skis from the line up - except maybe to drop people in the line up at the start of the day, and send out the heroes to paddle in and survive wipeouts and swims if they can, it would rate through the roof across the planet. But people would die - often."
Well that would definitely boost their ratings. What other live stream offers the likelihood of viewing death?
WSL might just be hungry enough for 'viewership' to take that thought seriously.
Anyway what happened to surfers riding big waves because they love it?

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Ash Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 12:15pm

"a little-known group called the ‘WSL Science Team’ " Mmmmm, this is surfing, right? It sounds so corny, but if you're into it they've got it covered.

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garyg1412 Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 1:02pm

The word "Chase" is even corny-er. About as corny as the word "League" I reckon. Marketing all starts with a catchy phrase and the WSL is all out of those I'm sorry to say

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rooftop Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 2:21pm

Instead of culling the categories (best ride, best wipeout etc) to one-dimensional surf porn, they should have expanded them. How about best takeoff, best near-make, best recovery/near miss, best big wave air, best pull-back(!), toughest paddle-out...

Best near-make would be hilarious and heartbreaking. Best pull-back would get you a ribbing forever. Best recovery would be guys accidentally straightening out, arms wheeling, then regaining balance and ducking under avalanching lips that just manage to slick their hair back. These are the stories we talk about in the carpark, and comment on in the forums. Why not just amplify it? It should be grounded in the culture.

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Vince Neil Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 2:57pm

'Huge wave paddle in sessions without a jet ski lifeline is like free solo climbing with no rope.'

That's a tautology - free solo means no rope.

Huge wave paddle sessions without a jet ski lifeline is like the kind of surfing that many of us do. Except what we consider 'huge' is relative to our experience and ability etc.

Or you could say that what Alex does is like paddling huge waves, like Jamie Mitchell, but without a jet ski back up.

Or you could say what Alex does, inherently life threatening as it is, is like a backpacker taking a swim at Bondi. The only difference being Alex doesn't have a lifeline (clubbie in the tower who could save them) and Alex is far less likely to get into trouble.

Is a backpacker swimming at Bondi braver than Alex Honnold because they are putting themselves at more risk is what I want to know?

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Vince Neil Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 3:00pm

or is a backpacker at Bondi as brave as a surfer at Nazare, once it goes pear shaped, its all in the hands of the gods. Is RCJ the only tow surfer at Nazare to wipe out and make it to safety without a jetski, or is that a common thing, to dodge bombs, hiding behind rocks, and survive?

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Lanky Dean Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 3:10pm

Wonder if this has anything to do with the wsl being taken to court by one of its riders last year.

Either or, as a former big wave surfer I'd like to say that the last 20 years has been a blast.
There's been a lot of exposure.
A lot of success, A lot of memories.
I've seen friends win awards, contests and push the limits.

These days I don't understand the focus on Nazare.
I think they need to focus on all locations.
Northern and Southern hemisphere.
The tour should encompass tow and paddle surfing.
Sometimes the biggest wave isnt the most interesting.
West oz
South oz
Cloud break
Punta del lobos
El buoy

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bbbird Thursday, 24 Nov 2022 at 11:12pm

Redbull have their own surfing big wave awards....
Chumbo, Kai Lenny & local crew are really surfing these big waves

Biggest wave straight drops compares with the biggest ski jump awards...

Scientific analysis of these skier jumper & dynamics

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stunet Friday, 25 Nov 2022 at 7:55am

Not quite. Red Bull were the sponsor of the WSL-sanctioned Big Wave Awards, but for whatever reason they've pulled out and so, without a sponsor, the WSL have canned them.

The video above is from the 2021/22 season.

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freeride76 Friday, 25 Nov 2022 at 8:19am

What about the Oakley Big Wave awards in that still a going concern?

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stunet Friday, 25 Nov 2022 at 8:34am

Stopped six years ago.

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freeride76 Friday, 25 Nov 2022 at 8:53am

hahahaha, I need to check the date on the old Surfing Life mags I have in the dunny.

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theblacksheep Friday, 25 Nov 2022 at 11:03am

Latino's are generally 20% shorter than the rest so using a human as a scaling object favours them..... crouch low for the photo's and lie about your height and board length....

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monkeyboy Friday, 25 Nov 2022 at 3:40pm

Not sure the "man in the street" gives a shit. But watching a contest like the Eddie is just brilliant - not a lot happens for a while but when it does it's awesome viewing I reckon. I'm not so sure about surfing documentaries although I did like Storm Surfers. TC and RCJ were/are just so down to earth about their achievements. All a bit lost now with Insta and the look at me crowd.

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reecen Saturday, 26 Nov 2022 at 4:00am

If it is just focused on Nazareth and Jaws, people will tune out.
Pretty much the only “big wave documentary” that we as a family watch more than once is Storm Surfers.
It’s just far more interesting watching the search for big waves, having to be mobile, getting skunked, different conditions, scoring when it all eventually comes together.
It did help that it finished at Turtle Dove but even that has so much more to give on the right day.
So many spots that would create far more entertainment. Much easier though to just be ready for a few common spots to light up and pull the trigger on the cameras but we have all seen it before and it’s boring now.

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alistair.baird Saturday, 26 Nov 2022 at 10:23am

Smells like a breakaway tour could happen. Pete Mel, Kai Lenny and others need money to chase monsters. Elon Musk could dump squillions and they could watch it on Mars,

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bluediamond Saturday, 26 Nov 2022 at 3:23pm

Attempting to surf Nazare blind. What a hellman!!
(Sorry links on fb but its a ch9 feature)

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Ash Saturday, 26 Nov 2022 at 5:12pm

If the WSL Science Team is Ronnie and Vaghn Blakey + Barton, I'll pay attention. Rabbit should be given a scholarly science advisory role.

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truebluebasher Sunday, 4 Dec 2022 at 10:02am

Big Wave Awards (WSL / Pro League)

Snack Size!
26m ~ 2020 Nazare ~ Astronaut on $Gazillion Space Shuttle life lined & strapped to Boyz Toy!

30m ~ 1755 Nazare (Fishers - Oar/Paddle)+ Portuguese Fisherz, Boogerz and Basherz
3x 100ft Wave Set ~ Surfed Recorded & Painted ... All say Aye!

................................................................Massive Pay Gap........................................................................

250m / 820ft is yer typical Entry Level for Big Wave Amateur Surfers
(No Jet Thrusters or Tow-ins or support crew!) Just the real deal.

250m ~ 1963 Vajont Dam (Town's Death defying Bodybasherz) 2,018 {RIP}
50% of 500 surviving Wave Pool Tsunami Surfers Suffered PTSD
One of 30 surviving Gromz 12y/old Micaela was hurled over 350m & buried alive...
Sadly only to lose her own expected daughter 6 years to the day of Disaster! (PTSD is real!)

260m (850ft) 1980 Spirit Lake Tsunami/s surfed by a Fisher in his wooden dinghy.

524m (1,720ft)1946 Lituya Bay (2 Fishers Oar/Paddle) Surfed over trees way up the mountain side.

How do modern day Space Station Astronaut Toy Boyz measure up to Old School freestylerz?
Crew can Judge for themselves...WSL Big Wave Astronauts register as blip on the Old School circuit!

Surfing Community have never & will never award biggest waves surfed despite the tragedies.
Surf history is of no interest to Pro Surfing community...just keep printing more stickers please!

Salute! {RIP} The biggest Wave Surfers in are the waves they surfed! Shh!