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How Will We Know if This Was the Biggest Wave Ever Ridden?

SKYE put the question to Billabong XXL Event Director Bill Sharp
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013

Facebook: Tó Mané

The moment Bill Sharp saw this photo in his inbox Monday, Jan. 28, he knew it would rock the surfing world.

"Even after all these years, when a classic photo like that comes in, it's like Christmas," he said Tuesday. "I love it."

Sharp is the event director of the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards, which has been awarding prizes for the biggest wave ridden each year since 1998 and also certifies rides for Guinness World Records.

The photo, which went viral shortly after it was taken Monday, shows big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara dropping into a monster wave off Nazaré, Portugal. McNamara holds the world record for the largest wave ever ridden -- a 78-footer that thundered into Nazaré in 2011. Now, many are wondering if this wave is even bigger -- possibly even reaching a mind-blowing 100 feet.

Sharp will help answer that question, so SKYE asked him about the business of measuring really big waves.

SKYE: How do you determine who's ridden the biggest wave in a given year?

There are usually nine experts – editors, big-wave surfers -- who decide. We look at all the photographs and videos of the top waves from different angles. By using one definitive image that shows the face the best and surfer the clearest, it's fairly simple. The biggest challenge is finding the top and bottom of the wave. The top is usually obvious but the bottom isn't -- finding where the slope ends and the flat sea begins is the hardest part. But with our judges, you're talking about guys who have looked at millions of waves and have a good sense of the geometry of waves.

How do you measure the wave? Do you pull out a tape measure?

Yeah, we do. But the way to do it precisely is on the computer. You marquee the pixels that show the surfer from the top of his head to the bottom of his foot and cut and paste that and stack it up. That reduces the margin of error.

Say the surfer is 5'11, and he's in this stance where his femur is at this angle. As silly as it might look, we'll find the judge who is the same height and have him assume that stance and measure him. Then you multiply that height and you come up with a number and check it for reasonableness.

This photo appears to have been taken from a high point. That would seem to make it harder to gauge the size, wouldn't it?

Yeah, this image is trickier than most because it combines a high angle, the telephoto lens for shortening and a lot of mist and flat lighting, so deciphering where the true bottom of the wave is would be very difficult with that image alone. Fortunately that ride was shot by 20 to 50 photographers there. That photo was the first one in my inbox, but as the other photos come in, that will help determine how big it actually is.

Do all of the judges get in the same room when you make that determination?

Yeah. It's an annual tradition. We usually do it at Billabong headquarters in a big conference room. I'm the non-voting facilitator. We have some Mexican food and beers and watch all the videos. It's like a surf movie -- we hoot and holler. Then we get down to brass tacks and do the measuring.

When will you be deciding this year's winner?

This year's awards are May 3. We usually do it at some point in the week prior.

Thanks so much.

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