The Big Wave World Tour is the real deal. Real enough for the Association of Surfing Professionals to recognize it as “real,” bringing it under its control last year. This gave it the support it needs to develop into the ASP powerhouse and mainstay that it can be. And in the middle of a raucous 2013-14 season that sees popularity absolutely soaring — thus far peaking at Mavericks — BWWT and big wave surfing is proving to be the best thing for surf right now.
Even though the exclusion of Mavericks in the 2014-15 season is cause for debate, nothing can detract from how far big wave surfing has come. Because of the relatively, er, flat learning curve — big waves are good; small waves, bad — the BWWT, founded back in 2009 by big wave legend Gary Linden, speaks clearly to a wider audience. It sidesteps the subtleties that go into World Championship Tour scoring, providing a platform that is more conducive to generating a larger fanbase. Simply put, big wave surfing is easy on the eyes: someone catches the biggest wave and they win. And in the same vein as a wider audience, non-traditional brands are showing interest which is also elevating the sport to new, unprecedented levels. See our Mavericks. With the support of Universal Sports (live broadcast) and main sponsor Xpreshon, a non-surf-specific action sports entertainment provider, the big wave event off the coast of California was televised live for the first time in its hallowed history. It is even being said to be the most watched surf competition ever. This means more people watched Grant “Twiggy” Baker take home his second title than watched Kelly Slater duke it out with Mick Fanning and John John Florence at Pipe Masters. And then there are the countless gnarly viral videos from Nazaré and Jaws and Teahupoʻo, garnering more views and outside attention than the our industry knows what to do with.
We need this. “We” as in the surfers.
Sure, “selling out” through focused commercialization and increasingly crowded lineups are total buzzkills, but the swelling popularity and subsequent flood of money that the industry experiences not only affects sponsors, brands and shops around the world, but, most importantly, gives a larger community of surfers an opportunity to make a career out of their passion. Since its inception, the BWWT has grown threefold to include over 100 competitors. And that is set to grow even more with a qualifying series and women’s leg in the works, as well as a feeder system of sorts through the other tours governed by the ASP.
Recently trending Andrew Cotton is the perfect example of what the BWWT has the capacity to do. Invited to Punta Galea in Spain as an alternate last fall — before he rode the wave that made him a household and surf shop name — he was stoked about surfing with the regulars, if only to see what they were riding. He ended up being left out of the actual competition, but being present put him on an exposed plane that might someday introduce a sponsorship (in addition to current sponsors Tiki Surf) and begin providing the necessary income it takes to be a full-time surfer, a dream of his since he was eight. Presently? He’s making ends meet by working six to seven days a week as a lifeguard and plumber during the off season.
That doesn’t mean big wave surfing is for everyone, though. At least not yet. It’s still a man’s world — “traditionally.” Big wave surfing is neither for the weak at heart, nor the inexperienced, and the massive swells separate the men from the boys. And when you’re young, the sunny beaches and branded boardshorts might appeal before stormy conditions and bloated inflation vests. However, the ASP’s adoption of the BWWT is making it more accessible to viewers and surfers alike. Under the same governing body, athletes are able to compete in both events, whereas before it was sanction-based, even causing a huge name like Slater to once pull out of Mavericks last minute. And the aforementioned feeder systems are making sure the younger athletes are well prepared when they do start charging the 20 footers. Greg Long is only 30 and, following an inspired recovery and return to big wave surfing, is poised to lead the pack — a pack of young-gun crossovers making a name for themselves in both BWWT and WCT.
While the weathered vets who’ve pioneered these efforts are undoubtedly the main reason big wave surfing has arrived, particularly in the capacity that it has, it is with the John Johns and Albee Layers and Nic Lambs that the sport’s future stands — and from the outside looking in, it appears to be in quite good hands. Their stylish cutbacks and aerial ingenuity have put them on magazine covers, in videos, and on tour, and placed them high in the minds of groms looking on from the beach, yet they’ve somehow matured well past their respective ages, and are not only accepted but embraced as near equals at Jaws, Mavericks, and wherever Twiggy’s taking them down around South Africa. They truly walk on both sides of the swell and are graceful doing it — not satisfied with only one or the other — laying the groundwork for generations to come.
Still, it requires a discipline and patience and sensible spontaneity to chase swells, traits that have been typically reserved for the old dogs. Instilling that quality-over-quantity approach in young surfers is a nod to a classic philosophy that’s extremely healthy for the sport, as well as the inherent safety, breathing exercises, and respect. Numbing accidents like Long’s and Maya Gabeira’s emphasize the importance of these considerations. But if the risk is significantly higher, the reward — personally, especially mental and physical development, and publicly in the way of self-marketing and potential financial gain — is as well.
So as the Slater-Andy Irons-Mick Fanning duels slowly transition from recent memory and live action and transcend to folklore, look forward to the new breed that promises to battle it out in multiple arenas, both smaller and bigger. And keep pumping for a return to roots in the BWWT, tinted with a progressive flair brought from the youth of the WCT. What is swelling up off in the horizon will be here sooner than you think, and it should have you stoked.