When The Surf's Way Up

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ERIK AEDER / BILLABONGXXL.COM

RECORD RIDE: Pete Cabrinha, off Maui, Hawaii, in January, surfing the 70-ft. monster that won him the 2004 Billabong XXL Award. It is given annually to the rider of the biggest wave

Pete Cabrinha had ridden killer waves before, but this time, as he surfed down the face of a giant swell rolling in over the notorious Jaws reef off Maui, Hawaii, last January, he couldn't find the bottom. "It was growing in front of me and growing behind me, so it felt like I wasn't getting anywhere," recalls Cabrinha, 42, a veteran surfer from Hawaii. There had already been 10 "horrific wipeouts" that morning. As Cabrinha was gaining speed going down the wave, its breaking lip was closing in fast from behind. People watching from the shore began shouting, "Go, Pete, go!" as he raced ahead of the white water. He hit a few bumps but kept his balance and triumphantly finished his journey. When he reached the calm water outside the reef, his partner Rush Randle told him, wide-eyed, that it was the biggest wave he had ever seen. After the pictures of Cabrinha's ride were analyzed, they proved Randle right. The wave measured 70 ft., the highest wave ever surfed and recorded.

That record may not stand long. In this era of extreme sports — when even an 80-year-old former President dons a skydiving suit and jumps out of a plane to celebrate his birthday — big-wave surfers have set their sights on a loftier, more hubris-laden goal: a 100-ft. wave. "Twenty years ago, no one would ever have conceived of [riding] a 100-ft. wave," says Sam George, editor of Surfer magazine. "But the surfers that are really at the vanguard today are confident they can ride [one]." In 2001 they were further emboldened in their quest when Billabong, an Australian surfwear company, set up the Billabong Odyssey, a fund to pay for surfers to travel anywhere in the world in pursuit of a 100-ft. wave. Billabong will award $250,000 to the first surfer who conquers one. Generated by a perfect storm far out at sea, traveling faster than 40 m.p.h. and breaking with an earthshaking force that would be heard several miles back from the beach, a 100-ft. wave would probably kill anyone who fell off it. But Billabong has 64 volunteers on its list ready to give it a try.


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"It is like running and tapping the dragon on the tail and getting away with the flames all around you," says Jeff Clark, a longtime big-wave surfer at Maverick's reef, south of San Francisco. But not everyone escapes the dragon: three big-wave surfers have lost their lives in the past decade. Nevertheless, chasing the big wave has been embraced by the $4.5 billion surfing industry, which uses dramatic photographs to promote the extreme image of the sport to younger consumers.

The history of big-wave surfing, documented in Riding Giants, a film directed by Stacy Peralta that opened nationwide last week, goes back a half-century. Its pioneer is Greg Noll, a stocky Californian nicknamed the Bull, who, with a small group of friends, began surfing big swells off the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, in the 1950s and '60s, riding waves up to 30 ft. high. But with the boards and techniques available then, it was not possible to go much higher. In the '70s and '80s surfers instead sought to conquer challenges on smaller waves with a range of turning and tube-riding maneuvers. Then in the early '90s came Laird Hamilton, a blond, 6-ft. 3-in., 220-lb. former model and surfing prodigy, who brought big-wave surfing crashing back onto center stage.

Born in California but raised in Hawaii from age 2, Hamilton, 40, became the acknowledged dragon slayer of surf — a glamorous outsize personality who tested the limits in everything he did, often as camera shutters whirred. A thrill junkie, he surfed the highest waves, bungee jumped from a 700-ft. bridge and broke the European speed record for windsurfing. He even stunt surfed in the opening sequence of the 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day. But since childhood Hamilton had been mesmerized by the huge outer reef breaks that appeared after some Pacific winter storms. He regularly surfed the biggest waves he could catch: "It is as if you are on a racetrack, and it is moving too, [and] all of a sudden turns pop up and bumps are flying at you ... and that is part of the excitement," he says. But as the swells got bigger, their speed increased, and even Hamilton's pumped-up arms couldn't paddle fast enough to launch him onto the fiercest waves before they passed underneath him.

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