The Inertia Senior Editor

Big waves are something that are just now starting to make their big break into the competitive surfing world. And it makes sense–the vast majority of the non-surfing world can connect much more readily with Laird’s Millennium Wave or GMac’s Nazare monster than with two foot Huntington slop or eight million consecutive air-reverses. From Cortes to Mullaghmore, here are five of the biggest, heaviest, scariest Waves Ever.

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1. Cortes Bank sits barely submerged about a hundred miles west of San Diego, on the outer limits of California’s Channel Islands chain. The shallowest part of the bank is the top of Bishop Rock, which sits anywhere from 3-6 feet from the surface depending on the tide. Way back in 1961, Oceanside’s Harrison Ealey pulled up his man-pants and became one of the very first – if not the first person (opinions vary on the matter) – people crazy enough to surf the wave that breaks above it. Shawn Dollar broke Shane Dorian’s world record for biggest paddle-in wave with his 61-foot behemoth. Chris Dixon wrote a book dedicated to this wild place that everyone should read, entitled Ghost Wave.

Shawn Dollar’s record-breaking paddle in, Cortes Bank 

2. Nazare became the centre of a debate shit-storm when GMac surfed what was, no matter what your opinion, a really gigantic lump of water. Consisting of three sections (Praia – along the beach, Sítio – an old village on top of a cliff, and Pederneira – another old village on a hilltop), Nazare is home to  just under 16,000 people, the best beaches in Portugal, and some really big waves. About a half mile off the coast sits the mouth of largest underwater canyon in Europe, which funnels long-period swells directly towards the town and its residents, some of whom, you can bet, think that the bunch of wild men that show up every winter to surf there are insane. Keep your ears perked for whether Benjamin Sanchis’s butt-puckeringly big wave is the new record.

Garrett McNamara’s record-breaking tow in, Nazare

3. Jaws has been, and always will be, a bit of a benchmark for big-waves. Every year, all the biggest names in big-wave surfing flock there to high-five, surf giant waves, and evade death’s watery clutches. Also known as Peahi, Jaws trips the ocean onto the north shore of Maui, where spectators watch from the cliffs above. Up until Shawn Dollar’s Cortes Bank wave, Shane Dorian held the world record at Jaws for his paddle wave that measured in at a ball-crunchingly big 57 feet.

Shane Dorian’s 2011 record-breaking Jaws wave

4. Teahupoo is one of the most dangerous waves on earth. Located on the southwest coast of picturesque Tahiti, Chopes is a backless monster that dumps its weight onto a shallow reef. Teahupo’o actually is loosely translatable to “sever the head,” or “place of skulls.” Whatever the direct translation is, it’s got nothing to do with puppies or the melodious tinkle of children’s laughter. Since Laird’s famous Millennium Wave, there have been five recorded deaths and countless injuries.

Laird Hamilton takes on Teahupoo

5. Mullaghmore comes from the Irish saying, “An Mullach Mor,” meaning “The Great Summit.” Touted as one of the best big-wave surfing destinations in the world, the village is steeped in history from Celtic legends to IRA bombings. It’s cold, it’s stormy, and it’s one of the most visibly stunning places on the planet. The tallest wave ever recorded there climbed to 67-feet, and was spawned by something aptly named “The Viking Storm.”

Peter Conroy at Mullaghmore




  • Jérémy Judah

    Teahupoo means sever the head?? Place of skulls?? Ah boooonnnnnn
    And there is been 5 recorded deaths since 2000?? Sureeeeeeeeeeee
    Dude I don’t know where you copy/paste the content of the Tahiti section or if you just made taht up out of thin air but if you want a tiny bit of credit as a journalist don’t write those kind of things…..

    • TheInertia

      Hi Jeremy,
      thanks for reading. I did my research. Before you try and discredit me as a journalist, you should too.
      -Alex

    • TheInertia

      Hi Jeremy, thanks for reading. I did my research. Before you try and discredit me, you should too. And who said anything about me being a journalist?
      -Alex

  • Jérémy Judah

    Hi man, sorry about that I didnot mean to be rude…. but well I just need to correct what I reckon is no….so let’s compare research and/or sources…with let s say, local knowledge….
    Teahupoo means the wall of heads (Te ahu upoo) and got his name from a battle between the locals of the southern area of the island and the locals from Papara who came to invade their place. Long story short the locals won and build a wall with the heads of the dead warriors from Papara that they killed.

    As for people dying in Teahupoo, it s pretty surprising then than not any local has heard about people dying there, while there s only one access back to shore and there s always somebody hanging around there…. and on such a tiny island and a tiny village where coconut wireless makes everything happening being public info within 24h nobody would have known? The last and only person who passed away there so far was Brice Taera, a local bodyboarder in 2000, before Laird wave, and no one have had the bad luck to join him in the sky since, even though a few came close.
    Here are for the Teahupoo related facts.

    Now just for you to know, Wikipedia is a community Encyclopedia, people put things there and they are not necessarily right and checked, especially for such “low important things such as surf stories”, and Wiki is refused as any official reference for articles or study reports as it’s content does contains lots of mistake.

    This being said it does deserve to be in the top 5 of your list….

    • TheInertia

      Hi again Jeremy,
      thanks for the info… it’s interesting to hear a local’s version. I did read that legend about the wall of heads, but I took that as that more as a legend surrounding the place (of which there are many, as I’m sure you’re aware) than the actual meaning of the word. The way I understood it, “Po’o” means head or skull, while “Teahau” means to shave or slice, or something similar to that.. and “Place of Skulls” is pretty similar to “Wall of Heads.” Keep in mind I said “loosely translated.”

      Regarding the deaths, I got the number from numerous sources, including The Australian (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/sport/teahupoo-hopefuls-faced-with-huge-swell/story-e6frg7mf-1225905935048), a book called Amazing Surfing Stories, written by Alex Wade, and four or five others, which I’ll list if you’d like to see. I realize that Wikipedia isn’t a source to be trusted, so I don’t use it for fact-checking.

      Thanks again for reading, and be careful out there… you’re right, it certainly does deserve to be on the Top 5.

    • Michael Cowley

      Hi guys, you know it’s pretty simple to correct the info in Wikipedia. I’ve checked in to correct on two occasions, not related to Teahupoo, it’s worth getting the facts up there.

  • Bruno

    Not that I disagree with the list… but leaving Waimea out?

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