What Does the Future of Big Wave Surfing Look Like?

Matt Rode

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Updated 22d ago

Things are looking kind of weird for professional big wave surfing. There aren't that many people making a living from charging XXL swells and that was before the coronavirus and lockdown took hold.

Despite the fact that surfing liquid mountains attracts a much larger non-endemic audience than most other surfing sub-genres, big wave surfers as a whole have struggled to find consistent financial support. Combine that with the fact that the Big Wave Tour was canned this past year, and “professional big wave surfing” was already on shaky ground. To all appearances, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis have effectively sounded the death knell for the sponsored pursuit of heavy water.

Forecast: Jaws

So does that mean that big wave surfing is a thing of the past? Not necessarily. The very fact that a large number of the world’s best big wave chargers weren’t making a living from sponsorships means that they were less dependent on the industry than other types of professional surfers, and therefore less likely to be completely grounded by the economic downturn.

While unemployment is estimated to hit a distressing 20 per cent in the general US population over the coming year (it has already exceeded that in places such as Hawaii), nearly 100 per cent of athletes who get paid to surf have seen cuts in their funding—so as bad as the unemployment crisis could become, those who had other means of supporting their own surfing pursuits are likely to fare better than people who were purely professional surfers.

Big wave surfers have always been their own breed, often finding rugged, creative waves to fund their addiction. Hawaii has been a great example of this. While the island of Oahu has been suffering through a massive economic crisis caused by the nearly complete halt of the tourism industry, there has been no shortage of swells in the 10-foot+ range—and places like Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay have been as busy as ever. Meanwhile, Mexico’s Puerto Escondido was big enough to justify guns a few months ago, and the local chargers were out en force, despite the fact that the beaches are still closed there.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time chatting with some of the world’s best chargers about what they think professional big wave surfing is going to look like a year from now. Some, who don’t enjoy the backing of high-level sponsors and spend the majority of their time charging at home, didn’t seem too concerned. For them, it’s business as usual—work their 9-5 jobs, train during the offseason, and be prepared to put everything aside when the buoys light up.

Others were a bit more outspoken about the future of professional big wave surfing. Here is some input from a few of the faces you’ve seen on the Big Wave Tour over the past couple of years.

Sebastian Stuedtner (dedicated Nazare tow enthusiast, former Big Wave Awards winner)

We will continue to push the boundaries of the sport—COVID-19 is not going to stop that. We need to work on the safety standards, and we need to unite. I don’t think the challenges we are facing have much to do with this pandemic, but instead with the athletes and communities working with each other in a collective effort to elevate the sport. 

Tim Bonython (big wave documentarian who has been present for virtually every noteworthy XXL swell over the past few decades)

Mr Bonython is responsible for this crazy edit... yeah.

Well the first thing to ask is what professional big wave surfing actually is. How many guys are actually making money surfing big waves? There are a few who are the full package, like Kai Lenny, and I don’t think much will change for them. But most big wave surfers fund their passion by holding second jobs, and I think that will continue to be the case. So the question is how this economic downturn will affect their day jobs. Those who lose their jobs or don’t have as much work obviously won’t be able to chase all of the noteworthy swells to Cloudbreak and Teahupoo and Nazare anymore. It looks like the economic hole we are in is pretty deep, so that might be the case for the next five years. I guess we will just have to wait and see.

Natxo Gonzalez (Spanish young gun, Big Wave Tour fixture, surf explorer, rider of the best XL paddle barrel ever at Nazare)

We are going to stay here in Spain for a year or so. Maybe there will be another lockdown next winter, that’s what we have been hearing. We will see what happens. We will probably travel around in Spain—not even the rest of Europe, probably—and work here at home. It’s good to see the beauty of home. We often travel to Hawaii, because we know how good it is there, but sometimes we miss out on the beautiful places that we have right here at home. So I think that this will be a time for everyone to see the amazing places that they have at home, and enjoy them. Hopefully there isn’t another lockdown in October, and we can surf here. We are lucky in Spain to have big waves, so we are still going to train and do the same things as normal, but stay local here in our country.

Live cam: Nazare

Greg Long (multiple-time Big Wave World Champ, multiple-time Big Wave Awards winner, considered by many to be one of the best and most prepared heavy water experts in history)

“Professional big wave surfing” will undoubtedly endure hardship congruent to that of the surf industry in general. There were already very few men and women who have been able to make a living as big wave surfers, and as we see the entire industry tightening its financial belt in unprecedented ways, there are unfortunately going to be more than a handful of “pros,” both big wave and small, who find themselves looking for new ways to make a living. There are going to be a lot fewer people chasing swells, as financial travel support will no longer be there. And competitions will be relegated to whatever the WSL decides to support in the coming year. I’m hopeful that we could see a resurgence of local, grassroots big wave contests like in the old days—pay your own way, enjoy the day of big waves with your friends, and the only thing you go home with is bragging rights and memories to last a lifetime.

Keala Kennelly (big wave aficionado, hellwoman, big wave world champion)

That is hard to say. We rely on chasing swells. With travel bans that makes things difficult. Mexico and Tahiti have already had some great swells and I am here quarantining in Hawaii with major FOMO.

Ultimately, we are likely to see a handful of noticeable changes over the coming year when it comes to big wave surfing. Under the new paradigm, some of these new dynamics could include:

1) Less people chasing swells. While this is certainly a bummer, both for the surfers and their audience, the reality is that there were only around 50 full-time XXL swell chasers before this crisis hit. That number will likely be cut in half, but there will still be a small cadre of committed heavy water hunters who will find ways to fund the chase.

2) A renewed focus on local big wave scenes. With less money to chase and document swells around the world, there will be a renewed focus on local surfers charging their home spots. Oahu’s North Shore, Maui’s Peahi, Cape Town, Nazare, Maverick’s, and Puerto Escondido already make up the bulk of the big wave media we consume each year, and they all have large populations of resident chargers. While Southern Hemisphere spots such as Punta Lobos and Pico Alto might have fallen out of vogue with the media ever since since being dropped from the tour, they also have large populations of surfers who are out every swell, swinging on the biggest sets. While you might not see as many itinerant pros chasing every purple blob, that gap will be filled by local chargers who will step up when their home breaks go XXL.

3) A return to grassroots big wave competitions: This has already been in the works, ever since the WSL cancelled the tour. Even if there is no money or corporate support, the world’s best surfers will continue to test themselves against each other with homegrown competitions, just as they did before Gary Linden created the Big Wave Tour. Sure, these events may see a lot more local names than visiting pros, but considering the opportunities that will provide for lesser-known surfers, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Cover shot: Kai Lenny at Nazare - where do we go from here? By Helio Antonio