Fittingly, the birth of big wave surfing occurred on the same island where surfing itself originated: Oahu, Hawaii.
For centuries, Hawaiians of all classes surfed together on the smaller waves of Oahu's southern shores, along the beaches of what today is Honolulu and Waikiki.
However, towards the middle of the century, as the sport gained popularity and surfboard technology and construction improved, Hawaiian surfers began turning their attention to the much larger surf on Oahu's West and North shores.
Visiting surfers from Australia, the United States, Brazil and South Africa started turning up on Oahu more and more each winter and together with the Hawaiians they began taking on the island's biggest waves. For a long time, Makaha was Oahu's premiere big wave venue, but later, the North Shore's Waimea, with it's truly huge surf, took center stage.
At the same time, just up the beach from Waimea, waves like Pipeline and Sunset offered surfers more big wave options and conditions that require a more diverse set of technical skills – namely barrel riding.
The strapped revolution begins
From the 1970s onward, big wave surfing spread to surf communities around the world. Yet the sport within a sport remained relatively obscure, its adherents few and far between and the evolution of equipment far slower than that of small wave surfing's.
Then, in the 1990s, a small group of surfers from Maui began to think deeply about how they might ride the giant waves they watched breaking off of their own northern shore. In their case, the wave they watch most was called Pe'ahi. Looking at this wave's mountainous peak and hallow, lorry-sized barrels, the surfers nicknamed it Jaws.
The problem with Jaws was that the wave moved in from the horizon so fast that it was – at the time, at least – impossible to catch with arm strength alone. In a flash of brilliance, the surfers, led by Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox and Darrick Doerner, figured out a solution – they would use an inflatable, motor-powered zodiac to 'tow' each other into the waves. They attached foot straps to their boards and headed out to meet Jaws head-on.
Their exploits soon lit the world on fire and from covers of National Geographic magazine to feature-length films, the 'Strapped Crew' had seemingly reinvented big wave surfing overnight.
A return to the roots... with a tech twist
For the first decade of the new millennium, tow surfing was the preferred way to tackle the biggest waves on the planet – until a new generation of purists, aided by some inventive surfboard shapers, decided to take the sport back to its roots.
The surfers and shapers worked together to redesign big wave surfboards, so that they could paddle faster and thus be able to catch bigger waves, while at the same time be more maneuverable.
For the first few years of this purist revolution, it seemed as if the days of jet skis buzzing the lineups of the world’'s biggest waves were over. Instead, they became tools of safety. Big wave surfers found that they could use the machines to zip into the dangerous 'inside' sections of big wave breaks to quickly pluck a surfer who had just wiped out from the water and whisk them to safety.
Along with inflatable vests and safety teams, the jet ski has become an integral part of any big wave session, whether surfers are paddling in under their own arm strength or towing in like Laird Hamilton and friends did in the old days.
It's true that big wave surfing is arguably one of the most high-tech extreme sports out there today, but the experience of watching a human drop down the face of a giant wave remains the same as it always has – pure adrenaline, pure stoke.