Greg Noll's legendary big wave at Makaha as captured by Alby Falzon

Greg Noll’s legendary Makaha wave, that didn’t make Mr. George’s list. His Pipeline wave did, though.

The Inertia

Editor’s Note: This is a new series from Sam George offering a somewhat definitive list of the best of the best

Whether you agree with it or not, everybody loves a Top 10 list. If it aligns with your point of view, there’s that warm glow of validation, like, “Yeah, see, I was right.”  If out of alignment, this gives you a prime opportunity to smugly assert your awesome base of knowledge on said subject, even going so far as to amend, or even present a list of your own. And that’s fair – if you disagree with any in this ongoing series of top 10 lists, send us one of your own. 

But these are mine. First up: Surfing’s Top 10 Rides of All Time.

10. Andy Irons, Teahupo’o, 2002

The mark of a master in any sport is the ability to make the very difficult appear easy. But sometimes an even more compelling performance is when a master is pushed just a little bit past their limit, yet somehow pulls it off with consummate style. Case in point, the late Andy Irons’ 2002 Teahupo’o bomb (42-second mark, above). Goaded by his brother Bruce into an extreme, under-the-ledge drop, Irons admitted he was “frozen in fear” as he slide-slipped down the face, and almost pushed the eject button.  Instead, he kept his cool, reconnected at the bottom, barely slipped under the lip and emerged from the spit after what he called a ride that totally changed his life. Ours, too.

9. Duke Kahanamoku, Kalahuewehe, 1932

Way back in the day, long before modern surf forecasting, Waikiki surfers believed that big south swells were caused by “Japanese earthquakes.” Regardless, legend has it that during one such swell Duke picked up a big comber at the outside break of Kalahuewehe, also known as Castles, and taking advantage of the inherent glide capabilities of his 12-foot, solid redwood board, slid all the way through the lineups of Cunhas and Publics, eventually connecting with Queens Surf on the inside, before continuing the ride to shore. Just a legend? Well, what sort of ride deserves a spot on a top 10 list any more than a legendary one?

8. Kelly Slater, Lemoore, 2015

It’s easy to focus on exactly how Kelly rode the first wave presented in that paradigm-shifting, 2015 Surf Ranch video reveal –the guy ripped.  What makes this ride one of the most remarkable in the history of our sport, however, is that he somehow rode with all his characteristic skill, poise and verve on a wave unlike any other that had ever before existed on earth. An extraordinary expression of spontaneity, but more importantly, of imagination. Because we’ve all ridden waves like this in our dreams; Kelly lived that dream, all the way to the Jet-Ski pickup.

7. Koa Smith, Skeleton Bay, 2018

One wave, ridden for over one-and-a-half kilometers. Eight distinct barrels, racking up almost a full minute of tube time. One particular barrel clocking in at 27-seconds.  The biggest smile ever seen afterward. Any questions?

6. Greg Noll, Third Reef Pipeline, 1964 

The late Greg Noll earned the nickname “The Bull” by muscling his way into steep Waimea Bay elevator drops. Even made a lot of them, iron-legging his way to the shoulder. But in terms of groundbreaking, Earth-shaking, history making rides, none of those at Waimea compare to his pioneering, first-ever, Third Reef Pipeline epic. When, after punching through the shore break and making his way out into blue water, he waited for almost five hours before lining up and paddling into a windblown giant and, riding the same board he would at The Bay, screamed across the biggest left wall ever seen, all the way through to the inside reef and eventual annihilation. This ride, not his 1969 Makaha Point Surf swan song, should define the great man’s legacy.

5. Filipe Toledo, Jeffrey’s Bay, 2017

Forget anything you see at barrel-specific competitive venues like Pipeline, G-Land, Teahupo’o and Cloudbreak; plenty of free-surfers have shown that they can equal the rides of the top competitive pros on waves like these. The best competitive surfing –what separates the tour surfer from the freesurfer – is the ability to seamlessly link a series of varied, dynamic maneuvers, while being judged under the pressure of a time constraint. Which makes Filipe Toledo’s perfect 10 at J-Bay the greatest competitive ride of all time: two huge, perfectly-executed alley-oops, followed immediately by a full-rail down carve, a tail-drop reentry, another beautiful roundhouse cutback, a fins-free snap, another 12 o’clock reentry and a lip-glide-to-the flats floater. Absolutely peerless.

4. Tom Curren, Jeffrey’s Bay, 1992

To paraphrase eminent surf journalist Matt George [disclaimer: my younger brother], while just about any surfer can ride a perfect wave, very few have ridden a wave perfectly. During his very first session at the legendary South African pointbreak, Tom Curren did just that. 

3: Molly Picklum, Pipeline, 2024

Judged on a curve, and one of the surfing world’s most awesome, and most dangerous curves at that, Australian Molly Picklum’s perfect 10 in the semifinal of the Lexus Pipe Pro is one of the greatest rides ever seen in those hallowed hollows. It’s difficult to stress enough the challenges female surfers have faced when it comes to just catching a wave, any wave, at Pipeline –just ask pioneering Pipe riders like Keala Kennelly and Rochelle Ballard. To go from almost complete ostracization to scoring a perfect 10 at Pipe in just a few short years represents the greatest quantum leap in surfing performance since the advent of tow-in surfing. Onya, Pickles!

2. Tie: Shane Dorian, Peahi, 2011

Progression takes place in successive steps; innovation leaps over barriers, both perceived and actual. Shane Dorian’s barrel ride at giant Peahi fulfills the latter. Not only because he rode a 50-foot wave the way most surfers would ride a five-foot wave, and not only because he successfully pulled in and out of a tube. No, what made this ride supremely innovative is that Dorian did so paddling into the wave and riding it on a big, long, hard-to-control surfboard, bouncing down the curl, barely setting his edge, somehow holding that fat rail in the face and maintaining his gunslinger’s cool throughout. Completely redefining what was possible on boards the same length that Greg Noll rode at Third Reef Pipe 47 years previous. Amazing.

Justine Dupont, Peahi, 2021

In director Stacy Peralta’s fine 2004 documentary “Riding Giants”, modern-day alii Titus Kinimaka defines Laird Hamilton’s total mastery at Peahi by his ability to slow himself down in situations when most surfers would be running for their lives. You can add French surfer Justine Dupont to that list of big wave masters. Towing in from way behind the peak, the point on this massive Peahi wall where she actually drags her hand, scrubbing off speed as she endeavors to backdoor the 40-foot barrel section, makes this not just the greatest big wave ride ever by a woman, but one of the greatest big wave rides of all time. That she gets spit out on the shoulder is just the cream in the Gǎteaux basque. Salut á tous Justine.

1: Laird Hamilton, Teahupo’o, 2000

What can you say about a single ride that changed just about everything? That completely rewrote the accepted doctrine of what was sort of wave was rideable and what was not. That completely changed the way surfers looked at their existing maps, tapping into new and increasingly more incredible possibilities in fearsome waves around the globe. That introduced the concept of flotation as a safety tool, the ski as an exploration asset. And the ride itself. Sure, surfers have since ridden much bigger waves at Teahupo’o than did Laird this day. But never from as far up the reef; never doing a mid-face turn and climbing up the concave wall before dropping into the conventional take-off zone from behind. Never, because Laird was the first, and last, surfer to ride a wave like this, proving that the impossible was possible. So, what do you say about a ride like this? Simply that it belongs at the top of the list. 


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