Surfer Mick Fanning rides a giant wave at Shipstern Bluff in Tasmania
© Adam Gibson/Red Bull Content Pool
Surfing

9 of surfing's nastiest waves

Feeling fearless? Best check yourself before you wreck yourself at this selection of the world's wildest bone-crunching waves.
By Josh Sampiero
10 min readUpdated on
Big waves equal big thrills and adventure, that's one of the reasons Red Bull Cape Fear exists. Along with Shipstern Bluff (home of Cape Fear in 2019), we thought we'd better go around the grounds and report back on some of the other oversized and horrifically terrifying waves on the planet – the kind that'll chew you up and spit you out. Hopefully in the right way.
01

Cape Solander – Sydney's psycho slab is an invite-only affair

Welcome to Red Bull Cape Fear

Welcome to Red Bull Cape Fear

© Rod Owen

Location: Sydney, Australia
Fear factor: 8
Can you ride it? Almost definitely not
Sydney's Cape Solander was originally a bodysurfing wave, all the way back in the 1960s, when it was known as Piker's Hole. Since then it's been called many things, most notoriously 'Ours', after Maroubra's 'Bra Boys' claimed ownership of the evil slab in the late '90s, shortly after the local bodyboard community had begun to truly unlock the deepest secrets of the Solander tube.

2 min

The Best Barrels of Red Bull Cape Fear

Insane vision of Cape Fear's impossible barrel. The masters of big wave surfing, turning myth into reality.

Red Bull Cape Fear was named in honour of the wave that breaks just outside of Sydney's historic Botany Bay, and after debuting in 2014, the 2016 edition of the event ran in some of the most intense conditions in competitive surfing history. When not closed for competition, Cape Solander is more or less off-limits to civilians the rest of the time anyway, as the deadly wave slams onto a shallow reef shelf, mere metres in front of jagged rocks that love nothing more than to feast on a surfer's flesh.
02

Mavericks – Mainland America's premiere big wave

Kai Lenny surfing at Mavericks in California

Kai Lenny throws himself over surfing's steepest ledge

© Fred Pompermayer

Location: Half Moon Bay, California, USA
Fear factor: 8
Can you ride it? If you don't mind freezing water, looming rocks and huge waves breaking in a very deep ocean.
The story goes that local Jeff Clark surfed at Half Moon Bay for years before anyone decided to join him. Well, except his dog Maverick, who paddled out after him, and earned the honour of having the wave named in his honour.

9 min

Mavericks host the world's best big wave surfers

After years of quiet, California's Mavericks unleashes huge waves for the world's best big wave surfers.

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Once the masses got wind of what Clark was getting up to, the rush was on, and in the 1990s Mavericks launched onto the surfing world's radar. Although Jaws and Teahupo'o stole a little of Mavericks' thunder, followed soon after by Portugal's Nazaré, the Californian cold water wave stood strong as a point of pilgrimage for aspiring and veteran big wave surfers alike. And, with paddling making a triumphant return to the top of the big wave surfing totem, expect Half Moon Bay to remain a headline act for years to come.
03

Teahupo'o – Let the games begin, at Tahiti's below-sea-level beast

Matahi Drollet inside giant barrel at Teahupoo

Matahi Drollet – Teahupoo, French Polynesia

© Chris Bryan

Location: Tahiti
Fear factor: 9
Can you ride it? Not likely
If Teahupo'o isn't the world's most famous wave, by August 2024 it just might be, after the world's biggest sporting event named the Tahitian reef as the surfing venue of choice. Combine a 10-foot west swell with death-defying tube rides and brutal wipeouts with medals on the line, and an unsuspecting general sports viewing public will be blown away by the greatest show in surfing, the images seen around the world as Paris wakes up.

3 min

Filmers@Large: Teahupoo

You've seen the photos, now shudder at the footage of Teahupo'o's biggest, scariest swell in years.

So how does 'The Wall Of Skulls' work? The South Pacific goes from incredibly deep to very shallow in a matter of metres as it arrives in Tahiti, and when big swells do the same they jack up in an instant, throwing out enormous barrels as wide as they are tall. On an XXL swell, water is pulled off the reef, vanishing below sea level before throwing out and smashing back into the razor-sharp seabed below. Hopefully without you nearby.
04

Pipeline – And still... surfing's ultimate proving ground

Pipeline: Theatre of dreams

Pipeline: Theatre of dreams

© Zak Noyle

Location: North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii
Fear factor: 9
Can you ride it? It would take a miracle, but there's a chance.
In the early part of the 20th century, local and visiting surfers on Oahu's North Shore didn't consider Pipeline surfable. It broke fast, hollow and so steep that its walls appeared to be inverted. Fitting the surfboard of the day – 10-foot-plus rhino chasers – into the curve of the wave seemed, and pretty much was, impossible.

4 min

The Addiction of Pipeline

Pipeline. Surfing’s spiritual home. Not the first wave ever surfed, but the first wave ever feared.

Eventually, guys like Phil Edwards and Gerry Lopez gave it a go and as surfboards became shorter and more refined Pipeline became the Mecca for tube riding. While advancements in equipment have helped with Pipeline mastery, crowds have grown both quantitatively (there are lots of surfers in the water) and qualitatively (and they're all really good), and the shallow reef is as hard, sharp and underwater cave-strewn as ever.
Pipeline's place atop the totem as the world's most dangerous waves has never been challenged, and even though it no longer determines world champions, it remains surfing's ultimate proving ground.
05

The Right – Possibly the world's craziest rideable tube

That little barrel you can see in front? Yeah, that's 5-6 feet.

That little barrel you can see in front? Yeah, that's 5-6 feet.

© Ren McGann

Location: Somewhere off the southern coast of Australia
Fear Factor: 10
The Right is a heavily guarded, shark-infested, eardrum bursting beast found somewhere off Western Australia. It's widely considered one of the most dangerous and challenging waves in the world, with powerful Southern Ocean winter swells lurching up and tripping over a shallow underwater island to create monstrous tubes up to 20 feet [6m] in height, often with no escape route..

3 min

Filmers@Large: Swell of the Century hits The Right

Indian Ocean mega swell hits Western Australia producing the biggest wave ever ridden at The Right.

While 99.9 percent of successful rides at The Right over its 15-year history have been jetski-assisted, a handful of bodyboarders have successfully paddled into and ridden out of waves. The brute force and speed with which The Right moves have so far rendered the same feat impossible to stand-up surfers. Naturally, the appeal of being the first to successfully make a wave under paddle power offers huge appeal to the kind of characters who take pleasure from such near-death experiences.
Despite the inherent risks, surfers from around the world continue to make the journey to this corner of the earth in search of the ultimate big wave experience. In recent years The Right has become a popular studio for shooting surfing films and documentaries, showcasing the incredible skill and borderline personalities of the surfers who dare to taste this monster wave.
06

Nazaré – Europe's heavyweight champ

Kai Lenny surfs big waves in Nazaré, Portugal on February 11, 2020.

Kai Lenny tackles a monster wave in Nazaré

© Mattias Hammer

Location: Nazaré, Portugal
Fear factor: 9
Can you ride it? If you're brave enough, maybe, but you shouldn't

3 min

Nazaré in numbers

A staggering string of stats shows just how powerful the waves get at Nazaré, Portugal.

Nazaré first appeared on the world's radar in 2011 when Garrett McNamara rode a massive wave, measuring 24m from trough to crest, in his first season after relocating from Hawaii to focus his attention on big wave surfing's new frontier. Nazaré is now Europe's biggest big-wave attraction, the once sleepy fishing village drawing committed teams of watermen and women from around the world for months at a time each winter, with only one thing on their mind.
Spectators on the cliffside watch the surfers in the waves below at Nazaré.

There are always big crowds at Nazaré

© Laurent Masurel/World Surf League

Easy viewing from the cliff means that whenever the waves off Praia do Norte roar to life huge crowds gather around surfing's most famous fort to witness the show, especially when the Nazaré Big Wave Tow Challenge is given the green light to run. While over the years Sebastian Steudtner, Maya Gabeira and Carlos Burle have shared some of Nazaré's craziest moments, these days Justine Dupont, Kai Lenny and Lucas Chianca consistently seem to find themselves on the biggest waves whenever a Code Red swell strafes Portugal.
Fun fact! Thanks to the bathymetry of the Nazaré Canyon the wave breaks every day in proportion to the swell, from one foot in summer to 100 feet in the depths of winter. This means literally anyone can travel to Portugal, paddle out at Praia do Norte and tell the world they've surfed Nazaré.
07

Jaws – The original tow wave

Justine Dupont surfing at Jaws.

Dupont flying through the wave of her life at Jaws

© Fred Pompermayer/Red Bull Content Pool

Location: Maui, Hawaii
Fear factor: 8
Can you ride it? Maybe...
The world's preeminent big venue, three miles off the coast of Maui, Hawaii, was first surfed in the 1970s by John Lemus, John Potterick, and John Roberson. They named the wave Jaws after the unpredictable nature of the Great White Shark that the 1975 blockbuster movie was based on.
In the 1980s fearless watermen like Dave Kalama sailed upwind from Ho'okipa Beach Park to tackle the mountainous peaks of Pe'ahi, and in the 1990s Kalama and a crew of close friends including Laird Hamilton, Pete Cabrinha, Darrick Doerner and Rush Randle became the first to tow into huge swells behind inflatable Zodiac boats. It opened up a whole new realm of possibilities, and limits have continued to be pushed since jet skis were introduced to the equation soon afterwards.

9 min

Filmer Ryan Moss takes us inside an epic sessions at Jaws

In late January 2020, a huge swell at Jaws saw a star-studded cast of big wave surfers put on a show.

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These days PWCs are used more for safety and less for towing at Jaws, as big wave paddle surfing has swung back into vogue, in lockstep with leaps forward in fitness and board design. On XXL swells no wave goes unridden as crowds of chargers come from around the world to test their mettle, and if conditions align allow the Big Wave Challenge to run. From the birth of towing to the forefront of paddle progression, Jaws continues to set the bar for big wave surfing.
08

Cortes Bank – Big wave surfing on steroids

Justine Dupont riding a huge wave at Cortes Bank, off the coast of California, USA.

Justine Dupont's career session, 100 miles off the coast of California

© Frank Quirarte/Red Bull Content Pool

Location: 100 miles off the coast of Southern California
Fear factor: 10
Can you ride it? Once you find it, and arrange a boat, a skipper, a PWC, a tow partner and a safety team, you still probably shouldn't
Nearly 100 miles off the Californian coast, with very few lineup markers and more than the odd shark lurking beneath the playing field, Cortes Bank is the last frontier in the big wave realm. Breaking on a submerged island (arguably the furthest in the Channel Islands chain), the shelf has the appearance of an underwater mountain, and the waves that break over it might just be surfing's Mount Everest.

18 min

Twenty Foot Plus: North Pacific

The world’s best big wave surfers chase a cool new swell from Waimea to Jaws, Cortes Bank to Todos Santos.

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First ridden, though barely 10-foot at the time, by boat captain Harrison Ealey in 1962, surfers and seamen had their eye on the mythical surfing Atlantis ever after. Following a handful of reconnaissance flights and a few more 10-foot sessions, in 2001 a crew of legends finally hit the jackpot when legendary photographer Larry 'Flame' Moore and Surfing Magazine editor Bill Sharp orchestrated the Project Neptune mission that set the surfing world alight after Mike Parsons rode a 65-foot wave that put him into the history books, alongside tow partner Brad Gerlach, and fellow surfers Ken Collins and Peter Mel.
Further missions to Cortes have been few and far between, so specific must conditions be to warrant rolling the dice, but every success has borne spectacular results. Parsons rode a 75-footer in 2008 that entered him into the Guinness World Records, and in early 2023 Justine Dupont matched that feat with a wave that's also estimated to be 75 feet, and is currently under review by Guinness.
09

Shipstern Bluff – Meet the mutant

Surfer Mick Fanning rides a giant wave at Shipstern Bluff in Tasmania

Mick Fanning flies over surfing's most famous step

© Adam Gibson/Red Bull Content Pool

Location: Tasmania, Australia
Fear factor: 9
Can you ride it? Take our advice and sit this one out
Big wave surfing is a cyclical creature. What started with paddling into waves at Waimea progressed to towing into the huge open ocean waves of Maui and Portugal, before they too were paddled. These days we're officially in the slab era – where high-performance, heavy water surfing is defined by those brave souls willing to explore double-ups, vertical drops and evil steps in the face, and do so by mixing paddling and towing. One of the most famous examples is Shipstern Bluff, at the southern end of the earth in Tasmania, most recent home of Red Bull Cape Fear.

3 min

Sessions Shipstern Bluff Stands And Delivers

Tasmania's most notorious wave roars to life and opens up the Australian winter in style.

Accessed either by boat or walking two hours through a national park to Cape Raoul, Shipstern Bluff – named after the steep rocks that tower over the wave and which resemble a ship's stern – was first surfed alone by David Guiney in the 1980s. Through the 1990s its reputation grew and by the turn of the millennium, with PWCs all the rage, 'Shippies' exploded onto the pages of surfing magazines the world over, with everyone from world champions Mick Fanning, Kelly Slater and the late Andy Irons, and renowned chargers like Mark Mathews, Nate Florence, Laurie Towner and Dylan Longbottom making the trek to Tasmania to take on the right-handed horror.
It's the locals who will forever be the men and women who surf Shipstern Bluff best, however. Guys like Marti Paradisis, James and Tyler Hollmer-Cross, Danny Griffiths and Mikey Brennan have built careers and bulletproof reputations throwing themselves over the step again and again; sometimes to oblivion, occasionally to glory, and always with a wild glint in their eyes.

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