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

7 of the world's scariest waves to surf

Feeling fearless? Best check yourself before you wreck yourself on these bone-crunching waves.
By Josh Sampiero
4 min readUpdated on
Big waves mean big adventure. After all, that's one of the reasons Red Bull Cape Fear exists. Along with Shipstern Bluff (where Cape Fear ran in 2020), we thought we'd take a look at some of the other fearsome, mega-sized waves around the planet – the kind that'll chew you up and (hopefully) spit you out.

Ours – Sydney's fearsome locals-only wave

Location: Sydney, Australia
Fear factor: 8
Can you ride it: Almost definitely not
The reason this beast is called 'Ours' is because notorious Australian surf gang the Bra Boys claims ownership of the mean slab in Sydney's Botany Bay. While it was the site of the 2014 Red Bull Cape Fear contest, it's pretty much off-limits for any normal surfer and with good reason – it breaks onto shallow reef just a few feet from the rocks. Gulp.

Mavericks – mainland America's premiere big wave

The big empty
The big empty
Location: Half Moon Bay, California, USA
Fear factor: 9
Can you ride it: If you don't mind freezing water and looming rocks.
The story goes that local Jeff Clark surfed Mavericks for years before anyone decided to join him. But once they did the rush was on. Beginning in the 1990s, Mavericks catapulted to the top of the big wave surfing world's radar. Later that decade, waves like Maui's Jaws and Tahiti's Teahupo'o stole a bit of Mavericks spotlight. In the 2000s, it was Nazaré. Despite the competition, though, Maverick' remains a point of pilgrimage for aspiring and veteran big wave surfers alike.

Teahupo'o – the below-sea-level beast

Carlos Nogales rides into an XXL wave in Tahiti
Carlos Nogales rides into an XXL wave in Tahiti
Location: Tahiti
Fear factor: 9
Can you ride it? Not likely
Teahupo'o, often known as 'Chopes', is most likely the world's most famous wave. How scary is it? The name is loosely translated as 'to sever the head' or 'place of skulls'.
How does it work? The ocean approaching the reef is incredibly deep, but the reef itself is very shallow. On a big swell, water is pulled off the reef and then quickly re-deposited back on it. Hopefully without you.

Pipeline – the world's deadliest wave

All eyes on Pipeline during This Is Live
All eyes on Pipeline during This Is Live
Location: North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii
Fear factor: 8
Can you ride it? If you can snag one from the local pack.
For a while in the early part of the 20th century, both local and visiting surfers to 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 – huge, 10-foot-plus things – seemed, and pretty much was, impossible.
Guys like Phil Edwards and Gerry Lopez gave it a go anyway, and as surfboards became shorter, lighter, and more high-tech, Pipeline became the Mecca for tube riding. It's danger however has never ceased. To date, it's considered the world's deadliest wave and it remains the ultimate proving ground for surfers.

Nazaré – Europe's mega wave main stage

Eric Rebiere sets his line on a big Praia do Norte wave during the first big swell of the 2017/18 big wave surfing season.
The peaks of Nazaré
Location: Nazaré, Portugal
Fear factor: 9
Can you ride it? If you're brave enough, maybe
Brought to worldwide attention when Hawaiian hellman Garrett McNamara picked off a massive bomb that measured 24m from trough to crest, Nazaré is now Europe's biggest big-wave attraction. Easy viewing from the cliff means that any time the wave breaks, the show is on.

Jaws – the original tow wave

Shane Dorian at Jaws
Shane Dorian at Jaws
Location: Maui, Hawaii
Fear factor: 6
Can you ride it: Maybe...
The world's mega wave was discovered on the North Coast of Maui by windsurfers in the 1990s. Well before big wave surfing got where it was today, fearless waterman like Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton windsurfed upwind from Ho'okipa Beach Park to score bombs at what locals called Pe'ahi.
Nicknaming the break 'Jaws', it quickly gained notoriety as tow-surfers began to tackle it on glassy days. These days, very few waves go unridden at Jaws, as any winter swell brings a crowd of wave riders waiting to test their mettle.

Shipstern Bluff – meet the mutant

Surfer Mick Fanning rides a giant wave at Shipstern Bluff in Tasmania
Mick sticks the step
Location: Tasmania, Australia
Fear factor: 10
Can you ride it: Take our advice and skip this one
If the first peak of big wave riding was tow surfing, followed by paddling in to monsters on big-wave guns, then we're officially in the 'slab' era – where performance surfing is defined by the brave souls willing to explore double-up lips, vertical drops and everything in between. One of the most famous examples? Shipstern Bluff, seen above, where Mick Fanning is dropping into a bone-cruncher.
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