Watch Garret McNamara's world record breaking run on a 90-foot giant wave:
While native Hawaiian and Olympian Duke Kahanamoku is rightly credited with pioneering the modern sport of surfing nearly 100-years ago, the history of surfing dates back just a bit longer ago then that, to the indigenous cultures of Peru.
Surfing in Peru actually predates the human colonization of Hawaii by approximately 1,500 years (scientists think it could even be longer than that.) Physical evidence points to surfing having been invented on Peru’s north Pacific coast by pre-Columbian cultures that used reed boats to surf the waves. Peruvian pottery from as long ago as 1000 BC have images of people surving on them, and the sport is depicted on ceremonial vessels of the Viru Culture, some 3,000 years ago. This all goes against the popular notion of surfing having Polynesian origins, as anthropological and archaeological evidence puts Polynesian surfing somewhere around the mid 1700s. There is no argument, however, against surfing being a huge part of ancient Polynesian culture. There is evidence of surfing taking place in Tahiti, Samoa, and Tonga in the 18th century. Which brings us back to Duke Kahanamoku, whose photo while standing in front of his massive longboard in Los Angeles in 1920 is still the defining image of what it means to be a surfer:
Things have changed, of course, since those Kontikis (the Peruvian Incan ancestors who rode the waves) were in their reed boats, and since Duke was first showing the world the beauty and excitement of surfing in 1920s. Today, surfing is a big time competition sport, with some surfers, such as Laird Hamilton, nearing household name status.
Laird is most famous for big wave surfing, and the documentary, Riding Giants, is a great place to start in trying to decipher surfing’s tumultuous ride from obscure, little known hobby to huge, international sport. And now, with ESPN's videoof Garret McNamara breaking the world record by riding a 90-foot wave, we might have a new big name in big waves.
Let’s get a little perspective, however, on just how insane big wave surfing can be. Garret McNamara essentially rode a wave that was nine stories tall. Next time you're on the ninth floor of a building, think about that.
To qualify as a ‘big wave,’ surfers have to ride a swell that has to be at least 20 feet high. These waves can kill you in a number of ways. A 20-foot wave can cause serious damage, including snapping legs, arms, backs and necks if you have a bad wipeout. In a big wave wipeout, a breaking wave can push a surfer down up to 50 feet below the surface. On top of that, they send the crashed surfer to the depths in a wild tailspin, completely disorienting them. Surfers have drowned by simply not knowing which way was up. As if this wasn’t scary enough, they’ve also got a clock once they’ve wiped out. Typically, they have only 20 or so seconds before the next huge wave comes in. They also have to deal with the intense water pressure at that depth (it can be strong enough to rupture your eardrums), as well as strong currents that can pin a surfer to the ocean floor. Big name surfers such as Mark Foo, Donnie Solomon, Todd Chesser, Peter Davi and Sion Milosky have died riding these giants.
What McNamara just surfed was so monstrous, his margin for ever was basically zero. Any kind of screw up on a rushing mountain of water that size could be instantly fatal, but this is the modern sport of big wave surfing, with competitors trying to outdo each other by riding the biggest monsters they can.
We’ve come a long, long way from pre-Columbian Peru.