Big Wave Surfing is a discipline within surfing in which experienced surfers paddle into or are towed onto waves which are at least 20 feet (6.2 m) high, on surf boards known as "guns" or "rhino chasers". Sizes of the board needed to successfully surf these waves vary by the size of the wave as well as the technique the surfer uses to reach the wave. A larger, longer board allows a rider to paddle fast enough to catch the wave and has the advantage of being more stable, but it also limits maneuverability and surfing speed.
In 1992, Big Wave Surfers Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox, and Darrick Doerner introduced a cross over sport called Tow in Surfing. While many riders still participate in both sports, they remain very distinct activities. This type of surfing involves being towed in to massive waves by jet ski, allowing for the speed needed to successfully ride. Tow in Surfing also revolutionized board size, allowing surfers to trade in their unwieldy 12 ft. boards in favor of light, 7 ft boards that allowed for more speed and easier maneuverability in waves over 30ft. By the end of the 1990's, tow in surfing allowed surfers to ride waves exceeding 50 ft.
In a big wave wipeout, a breaking wave can push surfers down 20 to 50 feet(6.2 m to 15.5 m) below the surface. Once they stop spinning around, they have to quickly regain their equilibrium and figure out which way is up. Surfers may have less than 20 seconds to get to the surface before the next wave hits them. Additionally, the water pressure at a depth of 20-50 feet can be strong enough to rupture one's eardrums. Strong currents and water action at those depths can also slam a surfer into a reef or even the floor, which can result in severe injuries or even death.
One of the greatest dangers is the risk of being held underwater by two or more consecutive waves. Surviving a triple hold-down is extremely difficult and surfers must be prepared to cope with these situations.
A major issue argued between big wave surfers is the necessity of the leash on the surfboard. In many instances, the leash can do more harm than good to a surfer, catching and holding them underwater and diminishing their opportunities to fight towards the surface. Other surfers, however, depend on the leash. Now, tow in surfboards utilize foot holds (like those found on snowboards) rather than leashes to provide some security to the surfer.
These hazards have caused several big-wave surfers to die. Some of the most notable are Mark Foo, who died surfing Mavericks on December 23, 1994; Donnie Solomon, who died exactly a year later at Waimea Bay; Todd Chesser who died at Alligator Rock on the North Shore of Oahu on February 14, 1997; and Peter Davi who died at Ghost Trees on December 4, 2007.
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