Surfing a 90-Foot Wave

Nobody doubts that Garrett McNamara surfed a massive wave last fall. But was it really the biggest ever ridden?


Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

For years, surfing’s holy grail has been the 100-foot wave. Last November, after a low-pressure system produced huge swells off the coast of Portugal, big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara may have come closer to that mark than anyone. According to a statement issued by his sponsors, McNamara rode a 90-foot wave, smashing “the current record [for] the biggest wave ever surfed”—a 77-footer tackled by California’s Mike Parsons in 2008 at Cortes Bank, an open-ocean break 100 miles offshore from San Diego.

Famous Unconfirmed Waves

1998, Outside Log
Cabins, Oahu
Hawaiian Ken Bradshaw claimed he surfed a wave with an 80-foot face. The grainy film proved inconclusive.

2007, Outer Spreckelsville, Maui Brett Lickle towed Laird Hamilton into waves that Lickle claims were at least 80 feet.

2008, Cortes Bank, Pacific Ocean Later on the same day that Mike Parsons recorded his 77-footer, Californian Greg Long rode a wave that everyone present agreed topped 90 feet. But his ride was obscured by other waves.

McNamara, of Oahu, is a known showman—he once traveled to Alaska to surf the giant ripples produced by calving glaciers—but he’s been playing this one cool, saying only that the wave was “substantially larger” than the handful of 60-to-70-footers he’s ridden in the past. Still, others are crying foul. Ken “Skindog” Collins, another prominent big-wave surfer, is convinced the claim is, if not overblown, at least premature.

“That wave was only 60 feet—65 max,” says Collins, who’s seen the footage that was posted on YouTube and broadcast by CNN. “Personally, I don’t think it was 90 feet, but what he did was brilliant. I guess we’ll find out how big it was at the XXLs.”

Collins is referring to the Billabong XXL Awards, an annual weighing and sifting of the year’s surf achievements, which happens in April. While the wave’s officially recognized height won’t be known until the awards are announced, we used Billabong’s surprisingly rudimentary approach to make our own educated guess. The result? We lean toward believing McNamara.

Our estimation:

Bill Sharp, director of the XXL Awards, says his judges will determine the height of McNamara’s wave by using calipers to measure the size of the surfer in a still frame. The judges will then mark the trough of the wave and the lip at its tallest point and count how many McNamaras fit between the two.

By our reckoning, the wave reached a height of 17 McNamaras. To convert to feet, Billabong will measure someone who matches McNamara’s height (five feet ten inches) while he’s in a surfing crouch. Thankfully, for our purposes, McNamara knows his crouch height: five feet.

According to our back-of-the-envelope calculation—5′ x 17—the wave is approximately 85 feet tall, a new record.

Because the footage was shot from a 90-foot sea cliff, we’re seeing more of the wave’s face than if it had been taken at water level. That could make the wave appear larger than it is.

promo logo