Judging Surfing’s Gnarliest Waves

This week, the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards will crown the mightiest rides and nastiest wipeouts of 2013. We called surf journalist Chris Dixon, who will help pick the winners, to check in on the state of big wave surfing.

Joe Spring

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This Tuesday, surf writer Chris Dixon flew from South Carolina to join hundreds of industry professionals in Irvine, California, for the 2013 Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards on May 3. The XXLs are the Academy Awards of the surf industry, a star-studded get-together that honors the men and women who hurl themselves into building-sized waves churning at the speed of locomotives. Along with a small jury of meteorologists, surfers, and journalists, Dixon will measure riders' biggest waves using still photos, calipers, and the surfers’ estimated height in a crouch.

Chris Dixon was 14 when he stood up on a board for the first time in Surfside Beach, South Carolina.  After that, he rebuilt a 1962 Cadillac Coupe de Ville so he could drive every weekend to Carolina to get his fix. He fueled up on gas that cost 80 cents a gallon and hit the same breaks every weekend, even while attending the University of Georgia in the early 90s to study journalism. He'd call the Village Surf Shoppe in Garden City every Friday to check conditions before taking off, but usually left no matter the report.

“The conditions here on the East Coast are so variable I’d get down sometimes and the conditions would be shitty,” he says. “But that was part of the fun of it; the adventure of it was never knowing what you were going to get.”

After graduating, and freelancing for Surfer, Dixon got his big break when he convinced the magazine's editor, Steve Hawk, to hire him as the founding online editor of “Somehow I convinced them to hire this East Coast cracker to start up their Web site,” he says. Dixon would go on to collaborate with Surfline founder Sean Collins as he built his site into a live-video-streaming, worldwide-wave-projecting behemoth.

We caught up with Dixon for some wisdom about the state of big wave surfing, his opinion on when someone will ride a 100-footer, and how climate change might affect your break.

When did you get into covering big wave stuff?
Jay Moriarty died right around when I got my job. There was a real gloom over the Surfer offices when I arrived, but there was also this reverent awe for Maverick’s, which was still a fairly new discovery. I got to go to the first contest at Maverick’s and the first contest at Todos Santos in Baja. I went out on a boat at both of those places. Sean and I worked with Dave Gilovich and tried to do the first ever webcast of a surf contest from Todos Santos. 

I also worked with a guy named Evan Slater who was one of Jay Moriarty’s really good friends and was there when he died. He ended up as the editor of Surfer, and is now the digital director of Hurley. He was such an interesting study, because he seemed like such a mildmannered guy, but then when you started talking to him, you realized that he loved blasting Fugazi at earsplitting levels, and how cerebral he was.

I wanted to find out who these people were and I wanted to tell their stories. My first big New York Times assignment was about the controversy jet skis were causing at Maverick’s.

What led you to move from the online world to freelancing?
When I decided to quit working at Surfer, I wanted to go back into the larger world of journalism. Before I started working at Surfer, I dabbled at doing some freelancing for The New York Times from the Southeast. I was 30, and I felt like, If I don’t get back into doing this, I’m going to be trapped in the surf world forever.

So I left Surfer. I went to meet a bunch of editors in New York City. One of them was Terry McDonell who was at Men’s Journal. He told me his buddy Jimmy Buffett was looking for a surfer who knew how to do Web sites. Jimmy hired me to travel with him for a year and I did a proto-blog—video editing, photography, and wrote travel articles. Again, I had Jimmy Buffett as my editor. That was pretty cool.

If you want to have some inspiration towards living a life worth living following your own passions, you would have a hard time following a better example than Jimmy Buffett. After working with him, with his encouragement, I just leapt back into freelancing. That was when big wave surfing was really taking off with Jaws and Laird Hamilton and these guys towing at Maverick’s, and the revelation of Cortes Bank in 2001, which stupefied everyone.

Where do you think Cortes Bank ranks in its ability to generate the largest waves in the world?
I think it’s pretty clear that the two places capable of spawning the largest, or at least the tallest, waves, are Cortes and Nazaré, Portugal, which was revealed by Garrett McNamara over a year ago. Both places have unique bathymetry. Rather than pushing waves outward—like at Teahupoo and Maverick’s—at Nazaré and Cortes they go up and up and up. The biggest in terms of size? I don’t know, because we haven’t seen how big Nazaré can get. I have some video from the 2008 Cortes mission, that hasn’t been seen publicly, that shows some outside waves that were probably 100 feet high. I think Nazaré is probably capable of spawning 100 footers.

The difference between Nazaré and Cortes is that Nazaré breaks closer to shore, in front of a headland, which is gnarly. Cortes is 100 miles out to sea and it breaks over a shipwreck, which is also pretty damn gnarly. Plus out there, you could just be swept into this caldera of whitewater and just disappear.

The most recent article you wrote for Outside was about Garett McNamara dropping in on Greg Long on a wave at Cortes Bank, which resulted in Long nearly drowning. Why do you think McNamara dropped out of this year’s XXls?
Only Garrett really knows why he pulled out of the XXLs. It’s a tough one for Garrett. I have a ton of respect for him. Anyone that follows big wave surfing will tell you he’s one of the unsung chargers in big wave surfing. He does a lot of stuff off the radar.

Maybe Garrett feels like, and I’m not going to speculate for him, but what do I have to gain by being in the XXLs? Did he need to compete in the XXLs now that most of the world thinks he rode a 100-foot wave, thanks to Anderson Cooper and 60 Minutes? I doubt if we’ll know if that weighs into his thinking or not. Was it 100 feet? Garrett didn’t say the wave is 100 feet, but Garrett has to deal with the fallout from it being declared that big.

Greg Long, Shane Dorian, a host of others have gotten a lot of attention in the last year for paddling into bigger and bigger waves. What’s the next frontier in big wave surfing?
They’re now wondering if they’re not hitting the ceiling. That’s something Greg himself is wondering. Was his wave at Cortes too big to paddle?

Cortes especially, it can be paddled a bit bigger maybe, if the waves are big and clean and perfect, but I think that the guys are starting to wonder if its physically possible to go much bigger out there. Maybe you can catch the wave, but there may be no way to survive a wipeout there if your safety gear doesn’t function. Greg was able to survive it, not only because he had this amazing safety team working for him, but because he was using an experimental new leg rope that did not break. It was thicker than any leg rope ever used before, and they were able to find him because his surfboard was attached to him. If his surfboard had not been attached to him, he almost certainly would have drowned.

So that’s a question, has the paddle ceiling been reached? I don’t think anyone’s willing to jump on a jet ski yet, but I think they’re finding themselves close to that limit at Cortes now.

Do you think there are more new big wave spots out there?
Yeah, there are. In Surfer, in 1996, we did this big issue called “The Future is Now.” One of the features in that issue was a center insert, “The Surfer 2035 Issue,” looking forward to the 75th anniversary edition. Evan Slater wrote this amazing, prescient piece about a fictionalized seamount in the South Pacific where there was going to be this big wave surf competition. It was so much like Cortes Bank—which he knew nothing of at that point—that I have to wonder if he was psychic. There are spots now that I guarantee you would slacken peoples jaws, to learn that people are surfing them and not revealing them.

As sea level rises, do you see a shift in where waves break or big wave spots happen?
You would have to have a dramatic rise, a 30-foot or more rise in sea level, to really change the marquee big wave spots to a big degree. You have to remember that truly big swells reach a thousand feet down into the ocean. So, you’re talking about spots that have been around for thousands of years.

What global warming will do, and is already proving to be doing, is make waves bigger. Though another recent long-term study suggested that waves would be smaller a half century from now. So really, the bottom line is:  Who the hell knows?

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