THE FIRST time I saw a truly big wave was on Dec. 4, 1991. I was in Hawaii, and my trip coincided with the Triple Crown of Surfing, a series of three competitions held on Oahu's North Shore. On the day of the big-wave contest at Sunset Beach, the sky was cloudless, but a veil of mist hung in the air from the force of the waves slamming down. That was startling, because the Sunset wave itself—the face the surfers would be riding—broke more than a half-mile offshore. But then a set rolled in, a pulse of energy that caused several waves to jump up in size. The water rose and rose until a tiny figure appeared at the top and dropped onto the face of a 30-foot moving cliff. Whenever a wave broke, the beach shook with a little hum of violence.
I've witnessed avalanches, explosions, wildfires and monsoons, but I'd never seen anything as intimidating as those waves. One surf expert described this break as "the entire Pacific Ocean rearing up to unload on your head." On big days at Sunset, people were often swept away by ferocious currents and surges. What kind of person would insert himself into these elements? I wondered. This version of surfing seemed more gladiatorial than athletic, like grappling with bull elephants.
Which is why, a few years later, I was stunned to see a photograph of a man riding a wave more than twice the size of Sunset, somewhere in the 60-foot range. The surfer was Laird Hamilton, a 28-year-old from Hawaii who looked completely at ease inside a barrel as tall as an office building. Since surfing became popular in the mid--20th century, faces in the 40-foot range had represented the outer limits of human paddling abilities. Anything bigger was simply moving too fast; trying to catch a 60-foot wave by windmilling on your stomach was like trying to catch the subway by crawling. Never mind, though, because even if you could catch the wave, there was no way to ride it. Too much water rushes back up the face of a giant wave as it crests, sucking you and your board over the falls. To Hamilton and his friends, this had been unacceptable. A new system had to be invented. So they created tow surfing.
Borrowing ideas from windsurfing and snowboarding, they made shorter, heavier surfboards with foot straps and thinner, stronger fins that sliced through the water like knives. Then they added Jet Skis and water-ski ropes to tow one another into perfect position at 30 mph. Just as a wave began to peak, the rider would let go of the tow rope and rocket onto the face. The driver, meanwhile, would exit off the back. Using this method, a surfer could catch the biggest waves out there.
Hamilton was the test pilot, followed immediately by other surfers and windsurfers in his circle: Darrick Doerner, Brett Lickle, Dave Kalama, Buzzy Kerbox, Rush Randle, Mark Angulo and Mike Waltze. Nicknamed the Strapped Crew, they experimented on the outer reefs of Oahu and Maui, far beyond the crowds. "No one was there," Hamilton said. "No one had ridden waves this size. It was like outer space or the deep sea. We didn't know if we were going to come back."
Anything involving giant waves is a risky pursuit, but tow surfing seemed to court disaster. The sport's learning curve was a series of hard lessons, and the price of falling was high: dislocated shoulders, shattered elbows and burst eardrums; broken femurs, snapped ankles and cracked necks; lacerated scalps, punctured lungs and fractured arches; hold-downs that Lickle described as "sprinting 400 yards holding your breath while being beaten on by five Mike Tysons." As for stitches, Hamilton said he "stopped counting at 1,000."
Despite its dangers (or maybe because of them), tow surfing grew in popularity and visibility through the 1990s. The riders ventured onto ever more treacherous waves. They tinkered with equipment. They refined their techniques. Working in teams of two—a driver and a rider—they figured out how to rescue one another in behemoth surf. A kind of natural selection occurred: Riders who'd glimpsed their own mortality a little too closely drifted to the sidelines. At the opposite end of that spectrum was Hamilton. The more intimidating the conditions, the more he seemed to thrive.
Then, in July 2001, an impresario named Bill Sharp issued a challenge. He had created a competition in which the surf wear company Billabong would offer a $500,000 prize to anyone who rode a 100-foot wave. Almost overnight the idea of the 100-foot wave became the media grail, tow surfing's equivalent of a moon landing.
There were a couple of snags. First: Was it physically possible? No one knew how riding a 100-foot wave might differ from, say, riding a 75-foot wave. As they grow in size, waves increase dramatically in speed and energy. At what point would the forces overwhelm the equipment, or the surfers? "It's a deadly scenario for everyone involved," said Capt. Edmund Pestana, then Honolulu's ocean safety chief. Second: Even if a surfer wanted to take his chances, there was the problem of finding the wave. One-hundred-foot waves were not exactly kicking around within Jet Ski range. And the huge freaks that pop up out of violent storms to batter oil rigs and sink tankers—these are unsuitable for surfing. Waves in the center of a storm are avalanches of water, waves mashed on top of other waves, all of them rushing forward in a chaotic jumble. Surfers need giant waves of a rarer pedigree. Ideally, a rideable 100-foot wave would be born in a blast of storm energy, travel across the ocean for a long distance while being strengthened by winds, then peel off from the storm and settle into a swell, a steamrolling lump of power. That swell would eventually collide with a reef or some other underwater obstacle, forcing its energy upward and sideways until it exploded into breaking waves. And that's where the ride would begin—far enough from the storm's center to be less roiled and choppy, but not so far that its power was too diminished.
That was a pretty tall order. If the ocean was a slot machine, ideal waves of even 60 or 70 feet came along about as often as a solid row of cherries. So a surfer who intended to ride the perfect 100-foot wave would be signing up for a global scavenger hunt. He'd have to scour the oceans, monitoring the weather's every nuance like a meteorologist, and then show up at precisely the right moment toting Jet Skis, safety equipment and surf gear—not to mention photographers to record the moment and a highly skilled partner who didn't mind risking his life. This was a surfing competition in the same way the space shuttle was a plane.