Is The Big Wave World Record Held By An Adult-Learner? - Stab Mag
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Is The Big Wave World Record Held By An Adult-Learner?

Musings on inland surfers, from the mind of an inland surfer.

features // Jan 4, 2023
Words by Nathaniel Peutherer
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Editor’s note: Yes, we’ve dogged on Nazaré a lot. And yes, we still acknowledge that most surfers don’t seem to care about the biggest wave ever ridden. Regardless, the below contemplation offers a unique perspective on the topic from a now-integral part of our culture — the inland adult-learner. Enjoy.

On October 29th 2020, Sebastian Steudtner would surf the largest wave on official record at 86 feet.

Strange things happen when waves reach that magnitude. Our brain refuses to acknowledge their size. The reality of all that water collapsing far and fast is just too strange. Instead, our brains prefer to see the waves as gentle and slow moving. There are no 86-foot waves, just 8-foot waves taking their time. Only when a human on a plank is dragged across the face of that breaking water do each of the 86 feet seem to stack up before us.

Surely, only those who have dedicated a lifetime to surfing these conditions will stand a chance of surviving them, or better still, enjoying them. Which is part of why Sebastian Steudtner’s words a couple of years after his momentous ride were so unexpected:

“I didn’t grow up by the ocean. I didn’t have rich parents to travel around with me as a kid, I didn’t start surfing until I was an adult…”

This quote stayed with me long after I’d stopped mind-surfing the record breaking lump of saltwater. It didn’t seem possible for someone who had learned to surf so late in life to reach this elite level. Time and a lack of ocean instincts are against them. Perhaps then Sebastian’s words aren’t entirely true. Multiple sources — including the biography on the world record holder’s personal website — tell of Sebastian’s first time surfing French waters at the age of 9, and his subsequent trips to Hawaii at age 13.

What is true, and what remains so impressive to me, is that Sebastian undeniably grew up very far away from the ocean he would one day build a career in. In his younger years, many miles and months at a time frequently separated Sebastian from what he loved to do the most. In this it seems his words were an attempt to highlight something rare amongst surfers: his lack of an organic connection to the sea.

The surfing world is flooded by stories of people who grew up with the sea close by. These people were reading waves before they could read books. Their parents, also keen surfers, held them up on a foam board before they could walk. They surely fell, most of us do. But unlike most they didn’t feel panicked. They met all of that water overhead with a comforting sense of youthful indifference. Their connection to the ocean fits so sensibly within the narrative of their life that they never had to force it. It is organic, their connection to the ocean does not come out of the blue. 

These people were born ‘water babies’ and have grown into ‘watermen’. Each time they paddle out it is with the knowledge that they couldn’t have done differently. They know they might get hurt. The ocean may take a liking to them and refuse to let them go. But all the while they accept their surroundings. Icy draughts of saltwater surge in their veins while the swell nudges them outwards.

 Photo: Lorge Leal/Porsche

This harmony with the ocean is poetic. It is also a privilege. Very few people have the chance to spend their childhood by the ocean. 

Like many others, I grew up countless miles from a surfable coastline. ‘Surfable’ sometimes feels too generous — the closest beach breaks almost never work. Further north more reliable surf can be found, along with the beaches I remember from my childhood. It was here that my gramps would take us whenever we would come to visit, and here where my gran would stand worried because we were going too deep. It’s where I first stood on a surfboard. Its where my gramps ashes were scattered. It’s theclosest thing I have to a home break – and yet I’m no local there. 

It’s always strange to read articles about localism in surfing when you are the surfing equivalent of homeless. The northern folks are always friendly. They say, “it’s cold and it’s gloomy but I’d have it no other way”, “it’s home”.

It’s not my home, but it is where I forged my connection to the ocean.

The Mount Everest of surfing. Photo by Jeff Flindt/Red Bull Content Pool

I wonder if Sebastian Steudtner faced similar challenges while he was learning to ride waves. His accomplishments are all the more incredible in this context, surfing without a home break, or a community, or the instinctual ocean literacy that comes from having the sea close by at an early age. There is a lot written about the surfers, divers, conservationists, biologists, and photographers for whom the sea has been a constant from their earliest years. Little is written about those who first had to find their way into that ocean community. That is why Sebastian Steudtner’s words are so refreshing. 

We are all equal in our connection to the ocean, but we are not equal in how we came to acquire it. Some are born with it, a few of us inlanders are just too stubborn to go without. The ocean does not choose us, so we choose it.

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