Surfing Advancements And Mega-Waves

I have never surfed in my life. But, I love watching surfers do their thing. And lately, for no apparent reason, I’ve been watching some longer documentaries about the history of surfing or specific surfers or specific surfing spots all over the world. If I had to compress the short but storied history of surfing into one compound sentence, I’d share with you that the first known recorded sightings of people “riding waves” was in the late 1700s in Polynesia, that artwork exists from this era to support these sightings, but that it was hundreds of millions of years ago when the Earth’s mantle broke through the ocean floor to form the many archipelagos of the Pacific (such as Hawaii and Polynesia, among others), and that the tropical waters that formed around their shallow shores made for intense wave channels like Pipeline and Jaws because of the steepness differential with respect to the reef.

Surfing grew in popularity and, eventually, became a sport that had corporate sponsors, professional surfers, and an entire industry built around it. More recently, technology advancements have enabled surfers to access new waves that were mostly untouchable to their surfing predecessors. A great example of this is called “tow-in surfing” where groups of surfers are brought by large jetskis into extremely large breakers that are often located either too far out in the ocean for anyone to swim to or near land that is inaccesible to humans. In some extreme cases, surfers will have to take helicopters out the middle of the ocean to catch mega-waves, where the chopper drops down a large jetski that tows-in the surfer into the wave.

Why am I writing about this to begin with? I heard a great quote from Kelly Slater, who said (and I’m paraphrasing): “The great thing about catching a wave is that you don’t really know if the wave is going to be big or small. The only way to know is to ride the wave.” When I combine that quote with the new waves tow-in surfing makes accessible, I can’t help but think about technological advancement in all aspects. Top riders like Slater, having mastered waves close to accessible shores, can now leverage technologies (jetskis, ocean floor maps, weather predictions, tide readings, etc.) to identify, pick, and ride waves that are significantly bigger than what they’d traditionally be exposed to.

Many of us are like these surfers. We are looking for big waves to guide us to somewhere exciting. But, the really big waves aren’t right in front of us. We can’t access the big waves easily. We can’t even really see them. They’re sometimes hidden behind massive cliffs, or reside way offshore, beyond what our naked eyes can see. We think we can see them because we read optimistic blog posts about the future, or “tech predictions” from tech celebrities, but all of those seemingly rational analyses are often based on waves that can be accessed from shore. We need technology to identify and reach these mega-waves. We need imagination to determine the various inputs that could make conditions ripe for waves that are bigger than we can envision in our minds, so that we can make slightly more intelligent bets. We need surfers who are brave enough to be airlifted to the middle of the Pacific with 100-ft swells and then towed into waves that are too fast for even the fastest jetskis to outpace. We need surfers who are talented enough to handle all sorts of wave patterns, both with strength and agility.

And, we need people who are like Kelly Slater. In one of the documentaries I watched, Slater visited a famous surfer reef in Tahiti, where the local surfing star hosted Slater for his trip. He was asked what makes Slate such a great surfer. His answer: “I think what makes Kelly Slater a great surfer is that he loves surfing more than anybody else.”

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2016 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus