When The Surf's Way Up

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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

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In the summer of 1992 Hamilton and some surf buddies were taking turns dragging one another on surfboards behind a boat, "and a little light went on in our heads. We thought this might be an incredible way to surf big waves," he says. They tried it out that winter when the surf got up, and suddenly they were gliding onto big waves with ease. Then they started using shorter boards, which are more maneuverable. Foot straps held the surfers in place as they were towed onto waves by jet skis at speeds of about 40 m.p.h., with top speeds reaching 65 m.p.h. "That just pushed it over the top, allowing us to virtually ride anything the ocean could produce," says Hamilton. Soon other surfers began copying his tow-in technique. "The advent of tow-in surfing has expanded everyone's concept of what is possible, to the point now where big-wave surfing is almost unrecognizable compared to 10 years ago," says Surfer magazine's George.

But it wasn't enough for surfers to know how to mount and ride a 100-ft. wave. They needed to know where and when to find the giant swells. Enter Sean Collins, a college dropout and son of a Navy navigator, who began compiling surf forecasts while riding the waves of Baja California in Mexico in the 1980s. Using data from ships at sea, weather reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, satellite photos and readings from ocean buoys, he began predicting with remarkable accuracy where and when the big swells would hit. In 1985 he launched Surfline, a pay-per-call surf-forecast service and 10 years later put it online. It is now the standard guide for surfers around the world, getting more than 1 million hits a month.

No one monitors Surfline more closely than Bill Sharp, who conceived the Billabong Odyssey 100-ft.-wave project and runs it from his office in Newport Beach, Calif. If conditions look right, Sharp, 43, is ready to fly a team of the four best surfers available at the time along with four support personnel wherever in the world big waves are developing. "Big waves need a big storm with winds preferably over 70 m.p.h., and you want it to last two to three days, ideally blowing toward you," he says. The best waves come from fierce winter storms in the north Pacific that can cover thousands of square miles. Hurricanes in the Atlantic can pack much faster winds, but they cover only a couple of hundred square miles and blow in a circle, generating short, choppy waves, not the long, sustained swells that surfers need.

With surf forecasting in place and the new tow-in technique being steadily refined, the records have started to pile up: in 1998 Ken Bradshaw from Sunset Beach in Hawaii rode the first wave over 60 ft.; in 2002 Brazilian Carlos Burle surfed a 68-ft. swell; and this year Cabrinha reached the 70-ft. threshold. Sharp says storm patterns have been relatively subdued in the past few years, but he thinks that when the next El Nino warming of the Pacific happens, adding 20% to 30% to the power of storms likely to impact prime surfing sites, surfers will have a chance at 100-ft. swells. Two jet skiers claim they saw 100-ft. waves breaking several miles outside San Francisco's Maverick's reef in 2002, and Hamilton says he has seen 100-ft. waves on the outer reefs between Hawaii's Oahu and Kauai islands. "Using these machines and the little boards, we're going into outer space," says Clark, pioneer of the big swells of Maverick's reef. "We don't know where it's going. It is the new frontier."

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