Andrew Cotton has a two-year old son called Ace. He was named after big-wave surfing legend Ace Cool, one of the older generation of Hawaii-based maestros of monster waves. Once upon a time Hawaii – the spiritual home of surfing, to waves what New York is to tall buildings – had a quasi-monopoly on big waves. Waimea Bay, on the north shore of the island of Oahu, was the unique arena of extreme surfing.
But in the last decade or two mega-Waimea waves have been discovered and colonised elsewhere. You don’t have to be Hawaiian any more. Like Cotton, you can be a 34-year-old plumber and lifeguard in Devon and still have a shot at conquering the biggest waves on the planet.
Cotton’s dad gave him his first board on his seventh birthday. Now Cotton’s epic exploits are fast becoming an internet phenomenon. His wave off the coast of Portugal, at Praio do Norte, Nazaré, back in February, estimated at around 80 feet, has been claimed as one of the biggest ever ridden. Cotton made it on to the final shortlist of five for the 2014 Biggest Wave at the Billabong XXL awards, the surfing world’s Oscars, which were held in Anaheim, outside Los Angeles, last night.
Anaheim, Disneyland HQ, seems like an appropriate venue for the event, because the stars of the show are cartoon-caricature waves, behemoths, hair-raising, voluptuous, terrifying, beautiful, ugly, ultimate freaks of nature, with tiny size-fetishists dancing about on top of them (and sometimes under them). “The Billabong is a core competition for us [the big-wave brigade],” says Cotton, who took his family to the Oscars and his kids to Disneyland as part of the trip. “It’s given the sport recognition and profile. We’re pushing the boundaries of the sport. This is the next level.”
In his early twenties, while Cotton’s mates were heading off yet again to the perfectly formed waves of Indonesia, Cotton said, “Sorry, lads, I’m bored”, and flew west instead to test himself against Waimea Bay. Big-wave surfers are willing martyrs – like virgins actually seeking out dragons.
When I paddled out on the north shore of Oahu one winter at the end of the Eighties, lured by the prospect of 20-footers for breakfast, it was right into the middle of a struggle for supremacy between Ken Bradshaw and Hawaiian Mark Foo. Bradshaw, originally from Texas, was a bull-headed linebacker in physique and outlook. When Foo – slim, lithe, more Bruce Lee – got in his way he would knock him off his board. “It’s easy when you know how,” said Bradshaw, unapologetic.
None of which stopped Foo riding (briefly) a 35-foot wave at Waimea that completely blew Bradshaw out of the water. The old enemies were finally reconciled to become a tow-in team, only for Foo to drown at Mavericks, the break at Half Moon Bay south of San Francisco, in 1994. Typically dark, cold, forbidding, and entirely devoid of palm trees, Mavericks had long been a West Coast rival to Waimea. Now it had extinguished a mighty Hawaiian too. Its reputation soared overnight.
The advent of tow-in – in which a jet-ski partner tows the surfer into position, thus increasing take-off speed – made bigger waves more approachable. The level leapt up from 30-foot to 60-foot and beyond. From around the turn of the millennium Peahi, also known as Jaws, the break on the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Maui, became the benchmark of the big-wave community, led by Hawaiian Laird Hamilton, who part-timed as a Hollywood stunt double for Pierce Brosnan as James Bond.
But the Hawaiian monopoly on big waves had been finally overthrown. The hunt for the 100-foot wave, led by Billabong, surveyed waves as far afield as Cortes Banks (100 miles off San Diego), Ireland and the Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal. Brazilians like Carlos Burle, South Africans like Grant “Twiggy” Baker, came to the fore, followed closely by a new band of women wave-warriors such as Brazil’s Maya Gabeira and Easky Britton from Ireland.
All were nobly abetted by Bill Sharp of Billabong, who changed – some say inflated – the measuring system more than a decade ago. The Hawaiians used to be conservative in their estimation of wave heights. American Buzzy Trent, a pioneer of big-wave surfing, famously said: “Waves are not measured in feet and inches, but in increments of fear.”
I can remember a bar-room brawl in Hawaii on account of a guy bragging about his size. The tradition was to understate. Sharp, a white-haired West Coast Simon Cowell of surfing, more into hype and hoopla, went in the other direction and focused the attention on so-called “face height”.
It was a manifest oxymoron: if the wave was redrawn as a right-angled triangle, we were talking about the hypotenuse rather than the vertical. It always came out bigger, in other words. Size mattered. Big was beautiful. Sharp not only set up the XXL contest but even became the arbiter of waves in the Guinness Book of Records.
The big-wave junkies have to feed their addiction. Ace Cool took a Freudian line: “The wave is my lover and she gives me the ultimate orgasm.” Foo reckoned it was more to do with death than sex: “A glamorous way to go.” There is no great mystery about the big-wave obsession, according to Cotton. “I just like big waves,” he says. “That’s my thing. I don’t like the crowds.”
The only crowd at Nazaré when he paddled out on 2 February, towed by American Garrett McNamara into a huge north-west swell, was the one on the beach watching. “It was massive that morning,” Cotton says. “Wild and woolly. I knew that there was potential to catch record-breaking waves.” But he spent a couple of hours in the water before he could even catch one. “As I turned around I looked at it and I knew that wave was giant – but so bumpy and dangerous. It was going so fast it was hard to get down the face.” But get down the face he did before being consumed by the wave and reaching for the toggle on his inflatable vest.
Matt Warshaw, author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing, explained the how of it. “For whatever reason, guys who ride big waves can somehow shut off the panic button. Our minds are hard-wired to not be in the vicinity of huge breaking surf. So, even though I know that big waves almost never hold you down for more than 15 seconds, I could never make myself believe that in the moment. I start to panic after about seven seconds. Ninety-nine point nine per cent of surfers do. Guys like Andrew Cotton don’t. They can make logic (waves don’t hold you down very long) override survival instinct (feels like I’m about to drown).”
For me the explanation of why is simple. “Everyone wants to be God,” as Jean-Paul Sartre said. Riding a huge wave is about as close as it gets – for a few immortal seconds. Cotton had about 10 of them before he got buried by a crumbling wall of foam.
Andy Martin is the author of ‘Walking on Water’ and ‘Stealing the Wave’Reuse content