The Inertia

A few weeks ago, Filipe Toledo pulled off an absolutely ridiculous aerial at the Oi Rio Pro. He received a perfect 10 for the wave and went on to win the event.

During the broadcast, one of the announcers exclaimed that Filipe must have cleared 15 feet. I’m a forensic biomechanist so I get all excited at the thought of adding numbers and measurables to surfing. I couldn’t help but try and add some objectivity to this feat, so I did some rough analysis using photogrammetry and projectile motion calculations and came up with some quantities and comparisons.

What initially stands out is the speed he’s carrying as he cruises down the line before launching. The intent is obvious: some form of flight is coming. By the time he launches, he’s traveling more than 20 mph (~32 km/h), or about 30 feet per second. That’s not very fast in a car, but to a fully-exposed human speeding along a wall of moving water and energy, the slightest false twitch is going to end poorly. Guys like Filipe Toledo make gnarly falls look trivial but that’s because they know how to fall. Most of us would be mangled by a mishap in these circumstances. Here’s some context: studies on the survivability of falls into water (i.e. from bridges, usually with lethal intent) suggest speeds near 80 mph are the upper limit. It’s worth noting that recreational stunt divers routinely reach speeds of 60 mph — nearly three times Filipe’s speed on this wave. So, he is moving at about 25 percent of what is considered survivable and around 33 percent of what stunt divers achieve without suffering a severe injury. Which to me is still impressive.


That speed combined with his launch angle enabled Toledo to fly about five to six feet above the lip of the wave. The number doesn’t fully describe what he felt, though. Notice that he lands at the base of the wave, whereas he took off near the top of it. Taking that into account, his overall fall distance was in the range of 10 to 11 feet, which is equal to the height of an official NBA basketball rim (10 feet). Hopefully, it goes without saying but that is not a reasonable distance to fall. Filipe makes it look easy partly because the water provides some cushion on his landing, but more so because of his flexibility. If you watch closely, he basically ends up sitting on his heels. That actually hurts my knees just to think about. As Filipe lands, his right knee is at the extreme limit of flexion, twisted a bit, and supporting much of his body weight before he springs back into a standing position. Ever wonder how to tear a meniscus, an ACL, or both? Well, this exact movement is the perfect formula for it. But I digress.

Overall, what stood out to me the most about this aerial was the distance he’d traveled, appearing to stay suspended in the air forever. Awhile back, I put some numbers to an aerial John John did at Bell’s during the 2017 Tour. I really don’t want to make too many comparisons, as it’s important to recognize these are different maneuvers, performed on different waves, in very different conditions. There are too many variables to avoid the obvious apples to oranges conclusions. But with all that said, just for fun, let’s compare anyway:

In Rio, Filipe traveled nearly 30 feet in the air. That’s twice the initial broadcast estimate and approximately the length of a stretch limo. It was also about 50 percent greater than the distance traveled by JJF during his Bells aerial, which was closer to 20 feet. Their speeds were comparable but JJF’s launch angle was steeper, causing him to go higher and travel a shorter distance. To get these distances, the video was analyzed by comparing objects of known dimensions, like Filipe’s height and the length of his board, to objects of unknown dimensions, like the height and distance he traveled. In order to confirm these estimates, further calculations were done using the equations of projectile motion. To go into those would bore you to death but I’m fairly confident in the calculations.

Filipe spun about 405 degrees in roughly 1.2 seconds. That’s one complete rotation, and then some. It wasn’t quite a 540 as announced at the time. Meanwhile, JJF completed three quarters of a rotation or about 270 degrees in a little more time. So, Filipe spun about 35 percent more than JJF, in less time.

Hopefully, these numbers enhance the incredibly athletic things you’re witnessing in the water this year. I know they help me wrap my head around them.

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