ONE rainy day last November, I started receiving a steady trickle of emails with links to the same jaw-dropping photograph: a surfer in a black-and-yellow wetsuit skittering down the face of a huge, aquamarine wall of water, looking for all the world like an exotic insect fleeing the maw of an about-to-snap venus flytrap.
Depending on whether the sender was a surfer or a non-surfer, the subject line of these missives was usually either “surfer breaks record for biggest wave ever ridden” or “OMG! HAVE YOU SEEN THIS?!? IT’S INSANE!!!”. The surfer in question was Hawaiian hellman Garret McNamara – a man chiselled from granite who guffaws in the face of danger, a man who was once described as “one of the most extreme-high sensation seekers on the planet”, a man who lets millipedes crawl around inside his mouth for kicks – and the wave, breaking near the Portuguese village of Nazaré, was unquestionably a monster. But “biggest ever ridden”? Really? I wasn’t so sure.
In surfing terms, measuring wave height has always been a controversial business. Almost from Day One, healthy dollops of machismo have been involved. In the pub, a four-foot wave can quickly become an eight-footer, but at the beach it’s important to let everyone know you think the six-foot waves breaking out the back are really only two-footers, ’cos, y’know, you’re no stranger to the big stuff. In Hawaii, home to some of the biggest waves in the world, they’ve even developed their own inherently macho scale. Broadly speaking, this involves dividing observed wave heights by two, so, whereas at most surf spots a wave measuring twice the height of the surfer riding it might be considered a ten or 12-footer, at somewhere like Sunset or Pipeline it’ll be deemed “six-feet Hawaiian”. Never mind that it could snap your surfboard clean in half. Try calling it a 12-footer, you’ll be laughed out of town.
Part of the problem lies in the ambiguous, ever-changing nature of breaking waves. Scotland’s most famous wave, Thurso East, offers a good example. When waves here first hit the top of the reef, they might measure eight feet on the face, but as they gradually rumble towards shore, they get progressively smaller. By the time they eventually peter out on the inside they might only be two or three feet. So do you measure their maximum height? Their minimum height? Or pick a spot somewhere in between?
Things are further complicated by the fact that the trough of most breaking waves is well below the waterline. In the case of the Tahitian death-wave known as Teahupo’o, a ten foot wave can be eight feet underwater. From the shore it looks like a two-footer; from the channel it looks like something out of the Old Testament, as if Moses might be waving his staff about nearby. The waves here are thick, too. The lip of a wave might be two or three feet of solid water. Do you include the whole of the lip in your wave height calculations? Or do you just measure the rideable part of the wave?
All these factors and many more will have been hotly debated, earlier this month, by the judges of the Billabong XXL Awards – a panel of experts who get together once a year to decide which surfer has ridden the biggest wave of the winter. It’s a high-stakes business, with the winner of the Biggest Wave Award taking home $15,000 (£9,300). This year, there was little doubt that McNamara’s Nazaré wave would scoop the 15k, but the big question was: would it be deemed bigger than the current world record holder: a 77-footer ridden – or rather, “survived” – at the Cortes Bank in 2008 by California’s Mike Parsons? In the end, the panel decided McNamara’s wave was a 78-footer – not quite the 90 footer some people had claimed back in November, but still a world record by 30cm. Having re-examined pictures of the two waves, though, I still have no idea how the XXL panel made their decision. The shot of Parsons’ wave is taken from water level, so it’s impossible to tell how much more of the wave is dropping away beneath his feet, while in the McNamara shot, both surfer and wave are partially obscured by a cloud of spray coming from the wave in front. One thing’s for certain though: there can be few more life-threatening ways to make money.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West