The WSL Chases A New High
After two decades, the Big Wave Awards are no more with the WSL unveiling an ambitious new project.
The WSL Chases A New High
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.
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.
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.
// STU NETTLE
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.