The Top 10 Deadliest Waves

Transworld SURF takes you on a harrowing ride around the world in search of the world’s deadliest waves… —By Justin Cote and Ryan Brower

Location Map of the world\'s deadliest waves

Banzai Pipeline

Located on the North Shore of Oahu, Pipeline is undoubtedly the heaviest and most deadly wave in the world. Hollow and powerful lefts and rights (Backdoor) break just off the beach over a jagged coral reef.

Over the years, Pipeline has tragically taken the lives of more spots than anywhere else combined, including local bodyboarder Joshua Nakata this past March, renowned water photographer Jon Mozo in February 2005, Tahitian pro surfer Malik Joyeux in December 2005, aspiring Japanese pro surfer Moto Watanabe in January 2004, and experienced Puerto Rican surfer Joaquin Velilla in January 2007. The list of casualties goes on…

Unidentified getting lip-launched at Pipeline. Photo: Brian Bielmann

Ironically, the most dangerous days at Pipeline aren’t the biggest, but actually when the swell is picking up quickly and doubling-up over the shallow inside section. Despite the well-publicized danger, Pipeline remains one of the most crowded and intense lineups in the world. According to Pipeline Master Gerry Lopez, “You’re always right on the edge at Pipeline. You’re always hanging by your fingertips; you never really have it under control.”

Ghost Trees

Located off the coast of Pebble Beach in Northern California, Ghost Trees is colder and more shark-infested (great whites to boot) than most breaks in the world. Add in the huge boulders that line the shore and bottom and you’ve got yourself California’s heaviest wave.

Alistair Craft at Ghost Trees. Photo: Nelly

Typically a tow-in wave, this deadly right-hander recently took the life of renowned California waterman Peter Davi. While it takes a swell of mammoth proportions to break, when it does, Ghost Trees draws the most out of the North Pacific energy and wave faces can reach upwards of 80 feet with twenty-foot wide boils burping and gurgling up the face of the wave. A recent discovery, Ghost Trees is only tackled by the most accomplished of big wave surfers.

Mavericks

Imagine being young Jeff Clark, walking home from school everyday along the cliffs in Half Moon Bay in Northern California, and staring at this phantom right-hand break off one of the cliffs a few hundred yards outs out. The wind is howling, the air is freezing, the water temp is creeping into the 40s, and there are school bus sized Great White sharks lurking jut below the water’s surface.

NorCal local Ben Andrews at Mavericks. Photo: Jack English

Back in 1994 Mavericks claimed the life of legendary Hawaiian big-wav surfer Mark Foo. The thick lips pitching off the boil are notoriously brutal, which can hold you down and bash you into boulders the size of houses, and even has had its fair share of great white attacks. It gets hollow, it gets ledgy, and when people talk about freight trains in the water, this is what they mean.

Teahupoo

Regarded as one of the most challenging surf breaks in the world, Teahupoo is located on the southwest tip of Tahiti—the main island of the French Polynesian archipelago. The top-heavy left breaks a half-mile out to sea and mere feet over a living, razor-sharp coral reef.

Even the best pay the price at Teahupoo. Bruce Irons. Photo: Jones

What makes Teahupoo unique is the top-heavy nature of the wave—during a big swell, it looks like the ocean is folding over itself rather than a normal wave. Teahupoo, or Kumbaya as it has been called in the past, has claimed the life one surfer, Tahitian Briece Taerea, who attempted to duck-dive a monster 12-footer only to be sucked back over the falls and onto the reef below. Dubbed “The Heaviest Wave In The World,” Teahupoo lives up to its moniker every time a large southwest swell slams in to Tahiti. Another scary fact: Translated into English, Teahupoo means something along the lines of “to sever the head,” which harks back to the area’s tribal battles that occurred hundreds of years ago.

Waimea

The North Shore of Oahu is littered with world-class breaks, and just down the Kamehameha Highway from Pipeline lays the cove that houses the granddaddy of them all: Waimea Bay. While often overlooked nowadays due to the boom in tow-surfers that favor outer reefs, Waimea is still the measuring stick for big wave spots worldwide. Packing a life-threatening punch, Waimea has set the standard for big-wave surfing for nearly forty years, and the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, one of the most respected surf events in the world, is still held there only when the surf is 25 feet or bigger.

Bruce Irons at Waimea. Photo: Checkwood

With the combination of neck-breaking shorebreak and wave faces that can reach up to sixty feet, Waimea has seen its share of tragedy and claimed the life of Dickie Cross in 1943 and aspiring California pro surfer Donnie Solomon in 1999. Legendary Kauai waterman Titus Kinimaka also had his femur snapped in half after a particularly nasty wipeout back in 1989. Said Hawaiian pro surfer/esteemed shaper Dennis Pang of Waimea wipeouts: “At Pipeline, it’s white when you’re underwater, and at Sunset it’s gray. Waimea is black.”

Shipstern Bluff

If there’s one wave that could possibly mirror the shape of Teahupoo, it would be Shipstern Bluff, located off the south end of the island of Tasmania. Access to “Shippies” is via a two-hour hike around Tasman National Park, or a long and bumpy boat ride from the nearby harbor.

Australian hell-charger Laurie Towner tackles Shipstern Bluff. Photo: Jones

The bottom at Shipstern is a slab of granite that takes the brunt of huge swells traveling from deep water and expounding all their force onto this ledge. It also breaks right in front of a boulder-piled headland, adding even more risk to the already impossible drop. Add in the fact that you’ll need to be wearing a 4/3 wetsuit and booties almost year round here, and one can easily see why it’s only ridden by the most demented of chargers.

Dungeons

Located off the South African coast near Hout Bay, Cape Town, Dungeons not only offers the danger of one of the most harrowing rights in the world, but only a short distance away lies some of the most shark-infested waters on the planet.

Mark Healey air drops into oblivion at Dungeons. Photo courtesy Red Bull BWA

The northern coastal area of Cape Town happens to be home to Seal Island, a small landmass that houses thousands of seals. Surrounding this tiny habitat of seals are masses of great white sharks waiting for the seals to enter the “death zone,” which comprises the area around the island. These great whites are also the world-famous ones known to “breach” for their dinner, a phenomena where the sharks slam their prey from underwater and in the process completely emerge from the water, nabbing a bite while airborne.

With this heightened risk at Dungeons, also know that it’s got frigid water, gigantic underwater boulders, and hold-downs that can be longer than anywhere in the world. Considering it got its name from a local who was held under for two consecutive 25 footers, it’s easy to see why this right-hander has been the site for Red Bull’s Big Wave event since 2000. Plus it’s only accessible by boat, so you’d have better be one of the top ski teams in the world when you head to Dungeons.

Cyclops

Cyclops may be the least surfed wave on our list, and there’s good reason for that. Located off the Esperance coast in Western Australia (seven hours from Perth), Cyclops can only be accessed by boat. Still a fairly new wave on the surfing world’s radar, its got probably the heaviest, thickest lips in the world.

Duck dive at Cyclops? Fat chance. Photo: Scott

The depth change is extreme, and when giant swells roll in, they explode all their power onto the razor sharp coral. This causes Cyclops to take the shape of no other in the world, literally engulfing itself. Cyclops derived its name from the oval-like barrels that form once the chunky lip hits the reef. But not every wave is perfect here, and most times you’ll see a wave here that is so deranged in shape that you’ll probably shit your pants. Even if you can find the spot, good luck trying to make the drop, and then dealing with the shallow, deadly reef below.

Ours

In New South Wales, Australia lies a break so carnal that even Pancho Sullivan was once said to want nothing to do with it. Located in the Kurnell National Park, Ours is a hollow, fast, powerful right-hander that breaks in front of a large cliff face. Even if you make the drop, which you probably won’t, then you’ve got to race through a barrel that wants to tear you limb from limb, and if you don’t make it you get pinned up against that cliff face we mentioned. This is also a favorite spot of the famed Bra Boys, so when they’re out, which is when it’s firing, you don’t want any part of it. If the waves don’t kill you, the locals might.

Ours. Photo: Jones

New Smyrna

Compared to the other waves on this list, New Smyrna is a creampuff in terms of sheer force, even though it does offer some of the best surf in Florida. When there’s swell, this can be one of the top spots in the Sunshine State, but the other side of this is everyone else knows this too.

New Smyrna local. Photo: Dorsey

So why is this spot on our list, you ask? Well we’ve got 18 reasons why New Smyrna made the cut, and they can all be summed up with one word: sharks. Dubbed the “Shark Attack Capital of the World,” New Smyrna has already seen 18 shark attacks in 2008, and it’s not out of the norm for attacks to occur year-round here.

Located on the south side of the murky waters of Ponce Inlet, New Smyrna also has some world-class fishing, which means sharks aren’t far away either. And when the majority of the attacks are from Bull sharks, some of the most feared sharks in the world, you are pretty much putting things on the line when you surf New Smyrna.

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