Take a good, long look at the image above.
On the face of the wave, veined as it is with tiny lines of white, there’s one thin line that stands out from the rest. There, streaking diagonally in the center of the frame, is the wake left by a man so small compared with the giant he’s riding that he’s all but unfindable with the naked eye.
That’s Rodrigo Koxa, riding a wave last November in Nazaré, Portugal.
On Saturday, at the World Surf League’s 2018 Big Wave Awards, the Brazilian surfer’s wave was declared the biggest ever surfed — at a whopping 80 feet tall. That beat the previous record — 78 feet by Garrett McNamara, also at Nazaré back in 2011 — and it naturally won Koxa the night’s prize for biggest wave of the year.
Koxa said that, as unprecedented as the wave may have been, he did appear to have some inkling about what was in store, even before a Jet Ski towed him straight into the maw of this heaving goliath.
“I had an amazing dream the night before, where I was talking to myself: ‘You gotta go straight down. You gotta go straight down.’ I didn’t really know what it meant. But I figured somebody was talking to me,” he said, according to Surfline.
“When I got my wave, I let go of the rope, I started to use my rail to angle towards the shoulder, but then realized, if I used my rail, I’d never get deep. And then I remembered: ‘go straight down.’ When I said it, I remembered my dream. I turned and I almost fell, but then I got my feet again and went super fast. I’ve never had a big wave like that where I didn’t use the rail at all. Just went straight down. It was amazing.”
Now, you might have some questions — besides the obvious ones about where, exactly, this world-class surfer’s self-preservation instincts ran off to.
The first of these being: How do these waves get measured, anyway? After all, it’s not as if Koxa had a mountain-sized yardstick and a team of scientists standing out in the lineup with him on that fateful Nov. 8.
Here we’ll defer to Surfer Magazine, whose photo editor, Grant Ellis, has numbered among the Big Wave Award judges. Paraphrasing Ellis, the magazine describes “a crude science, but a science nonetheless”:
“It starts with a handful of big-wave statesmen and experts gathering in a room in Huntington Beach, [Calif.,] discussing each of the nominated rides at length, and then busting out the trusty ol’ ruler and calipers. Using oversized images of the waves, and the known heights of each surfer, they estimate the surfers crouching height in the moment the photo was taken, creating a scale that they can then use to determine the overall height of the wave, from trough to lip. And then, bingo — you’ve got a reasonably accurate measurement on a monster wave.”
And if you’re wondering why the gentle rollers at your home break — should you be so lucky to live by the beach — look nothing like Nazaré or its fellow famed big-wave brethren, such as Northern California’s Mavericks or Hawaii’s Pe’ahi, perhaps better known as Jaws, NPR’s Scott Neuman was helpful enough to explain back in 2013.
The key at Nazaré, as with several other spots, rests with what’s going on well beneath the wave you see stalking the surface — a deep underwater canyon that concentrates the strength of the waves, then slams them into suddenly shallow waters.
“So, first you’ve got really deep water,” Micah Sklut, forecaster and founder of Swellinfo.com, told Scott at the time, “and then as it approaches the shore it gets very shallow, and that enables the waves to climb really, really big all of a sudden.”
Of course, Koxa wasn’t the only surfer to win a Big Wave Award on Saturday. Breathtaking rides by several other surfers earned honors, as well. That includes prizes for best overall performance, best paddle (for paddling into the wave, rather than using a Jet Ski) and naturally, best wipeout.
Happily, you can watch all of them below and check out all of the nominees here.