With the much-hyped El Niño winter rapidly approaching the Northern Hemisphere, skis will be fueled, GoPros will be charged, forecast graphics will loop, and tow teams across the globe will be primed to slingshot the most fearless souls into giant swells. All will be in search of potential fame and fortune from a single wave. In a recent article by MSW about the impact of El Niño on global surf forecasting, Ben Freeston suggests, “The current outlook does raise the interesting possibilities of conditions that’ll allow for boundaries to be pushed yet further in giant surf this winter.”
While much of this might be hype fodder, and the giant wave output of El Niño may end up being about as newsworthy as a Joe Turpel nasal squeal, it does raise the question of how far the big-wave hunters are willing to push these boundaries. And in that same vein, how far we, the industry, the sponsors, the fans, and the coveted mainstream media, are willing to push surfers beyond those boundaries.
When I think about the facet of surfing that has evolved into dedicated “big-wave surfing,” I can’t help but draw parallels with pursuits such as climbing and wingsuit flying. Like surfing, the characters involved in these pursuits are fascinating and their achievements are often spectacular. However, where big-wave surfing thankfully lags behind (for the moment) is in the death toll. Despite these tragic incidences, there’s a pervasive sentiment that dying is just a part of what they do.
American climber Rob Slater once said, “Summit or death. Either way, I win.” A short while later Rob died climbing K2. Within the climbing fraternity some individuals knowingly place themselves in situations where the chance of death is more likely than the chance of survival. Among serious climbers there seems to be an understanding – quite often masked by black humor – that they will lose their lives in the mountains. The world’s most dangerous mountain, which is only the tenth highest, is the deadly Annapurna in Nepal. Since the first ascent of Annapurna, 157 people have conquered it, but more than 60 have died trying. More than one third of climbers who attempt to summit Annapurna will never come back. I wonder if the desperate pursuit of ever-larger surf and our exposure to it via technology is leading big-wave pioneers down the same reckless path to acceptance of death in order to pursue personal glory, financial gain, and fulfillment of duties to sponsors.
In terms of parallels with big-wave surfing, the more recent evolution of wingsuit flying is perhaps a better comparison. Both pursuits are relatively new, at least in terms of what can now be achieved through advancements in technology and design. Additionally, both attract characters who are often “ordinary” people with day jobs and both exist partly as underground movements perpetuated by athletes who seem infallible, if not invincible. The overwhelming reaction to the recent death of legendary figure Dean Potter was one of disbelief. But why was anyone surprised? Tragic? Yes. Surprising? Not in the slightest.
At least fans of wingsuit flying may be less culpable in the deaths of athletes like Potter. In the area of Yosemite National Park where Potter made his final leap, wingsuit flying is strictly forbidden, as it is in many areas. And in general, the lives of the athletes are bought and sold less often by the energy drink giants and to a mainstream audience hungry for near-death click bait. This is where media treatment of big-wave surfing is treading a very fine line. The world of wingsuit flying is secretive and understated. Perhaps this allows them a figurative ripcord to bail out when they feel their personal limits are being pushed too far.
In surfing, things are very different. Apart from the intrinsic culture of machismo, how many big-wave surfers are going to have the guts to pull back when the weather has aligned or when the money and effort it took to get them there has been spent? Better yet, when will they pull back when the entire world is watching? The hunger to be accepted by mainstream media is what often drives people over the ledge.
A single clip can transform a career, sometimes even a single wipeout. When unmade waves can make a reputation, who is to say the risks of “just going” aren’t worth it, even if you’re not quite prepared or not quite able? Yes, I’m looking at you, Maya Gabeira.
Niccolo Porcella and Tom Lowe are also recent examples of surfers who transformed spectacularly unmade waves into notoriety and cash money. Both were respective nobodies to the majority of surf fans and certainly to a mainstream audience. That was before they threw themselves to the lions of Teahupo’o and Puerto Escondido. Millions of likes, clicks, and shares later, the evidence of their unmade rides are borderline iconic surf images. I’m pretty sure they must think it was worth the near-death beatings they must have endured.
None of us are forcing these surfers to go, but we sit behind our screens lusting and eager to see the next guy get brutalized and rag dolled. We’re like Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator, aroused and shifting in our chairs, sucking air through our teeth and breathing hard before rewarding the big-wave gladiators with our modern day version of the thumbs up/thumbs down signal, which decides whether they live or die in the scathing landscape of social media.
The real danger is that we have become desensitized to giant waves to the point in which we are forcing a situation where deaths will become inevitable. The irony is that it’s probably not surfers who are steering this change either. For many everyday surfers, the big-wave movements hold little appeal. That’s not to say they don’t find it impressive, but it’s just not relatable to their own surfing experience. To a non-surfer, however, it’s a whole different story. It’s no coincidence that the first product of the WSL foray into filmmaking will be a documentary about Laird Hamilton. What is his relation to pro surfing again? And what is the purpose of this film if not purely to sell it to the non-surfing world?
The world of big-wave surfing has been elevated to an unprecedented level. Big waves are relatable to people who don’t surf, and their expectations are seldom realistic. Consider how many times you have introduced the fact that you surf to someone, then spent the next few minutes humming and hawing over the answer to the inevitable question: “What’s the biggest wave you’ve ever surfed?” There’s no satisfactory dialogue in this situation. There’s just no relaying the fact that 8- to 10-foot might not sound like much to them, but to most of us it’s pretty bloody full on. Trying to explain this to them is like trying to stuff a dog in a rucksack.
So how do the economics of these superhuman feats function? Does a high-profile fatality generate less revenue for sponsors? Or more? If Tom Lowe or Niccolo Porcella had never surfaced, would the recorded evidence of their accidents have been afforded the same courtesy? I doubt it.
The surfing landscape as it stands puts us in places we could’ve never dreamed of. Surfers and non-surfers alike can get barreled through the eyes of others, or tackle giant waves beyond anything we’d otherwise never be capable of. We live vicariously through the GoPro POVs of others, and I strongly suspect that dying vicariously in this same way might attract the most clicks of all.
The dangers inherent in surfing giant waves are nothing new, and many legends have been lost in dedication to this pursuit. But I can’t help but feel that in some ways we’ve been living a charmed life. Question is: When we’re on the precipice, who steps up and says, “Don’t go?”