Stab Magazine | The 10 Heaviest Waves In The World, According to Mark Mathews

The 10 Heaviest Waves In The World, According to Mark Mathews

Step into a different (and rather darker) world!

Words by stab

Mark Mathews is a gent Stab is fond of, mostly because he is very kind, but also because he has a rare determined courage. And because of that, he’s one of Australia’s most popular big wave hypebeasts. The kinda waves Mark surfs aren’t the fake-it-til-you-make-it kind, but more the you-best-come-prepared kind. Mark has surfed most of the world’s most well-known big wave spots (and plenty that ain’t so well-known), but has done his best work at Ours, Shipsterns and The Right, three spots that land themselves firmly on his list of the world’s top 10 heaviest waves. Care to know what else made the list? Read on…


1. Cape Fear, NSW

Most Shallow

See the proximity to rocks? The backwash? The grouping of lips above Tom Dosland’s head here? All instruments in Cape Fear’s death kit. Photo: Bill Morris

The best way to describe Ours is to talk you through what happens when you nosedive while taking off on the first wave of the set. First, you’re going to get driven into the surgeon’s table, which is a flat bed of reef in front of the takeoff which is covered in razor sharp barnacles. If you don’t break one (or more) of your limbs on impact, then you’ll certainly have one sliced to shreds. When you eventually surface, bruised and bleeding, you have to deal with four six-to-eight foot waves each with four-foot-thick lips using all their power in a bid to impale you on the cliff face. So, yeah… make the drop.


2. Pipe and Backdoor, Oahu

Worst Crowd / Tied for sharpest reef  

Julian Wilson. Photo: Brian Bielmann
Julian Wilson and the wrong side of commitment at Pipe. Photo: Brian Bielmann

The heaviest thing about about it is how uneven the reef is, with the big gaps and holes. The lip smashing you into the reef is generally not ridiculously powerful (compared to some places – see: Chopes), but when you hit an uneven edge of the reef, it doesn’t need to be that powerful to really do damage. If you hit a part that’s sticking up, or hit the edge of a hole or something, that is why that place is so bad. You get thrown over the lip and it mightn’t seem that bad, then you hit a part that’s sticking up and you’ll have a dead leg for the next month. Or worse. The second heaviest thing is the crowd. You’ve got to look over your shoulder til you’re dropping out of the lip, to see if anyone’s coming. Then it’s beyond last minute when you take off. By the time you figure if anyone’s going, it’s so late already. You end up not really picking the waves you wanna pick, and you’re going on waves just because no one else is going, which is usually because they’re closeouts. On top of that, drop in on the wrong person and you’re gonna have a fight on the beach, which is usually worse than wiping out.


3. Teahupoo, Tahiti

Most powerful / Tied for sharpest reef

Photo: Brian Bielmann
This just doesn’t get old. Nathan Fletcher, hovering on the brink of darkness, Chopes. Photo: Brian Bielmann

Chopes is tied with Pipe for sharpest reef. The one saving grace about Chopes is that the wave is so perfect. You’re kinda not guessing when you’re taking off or pulling in. At the same time, it’s probably the most powerful wave in the world, from going so deep to so shallow, that quickly. Chopes just keeps getting more and more shallow for a period, until you’re in the lagoon. Which is bad for hitting the bottom and getting dragged – I saw Makua come up with half a face once – but the good thing about it is if it stays shallow for long enough, then it takes all the power out of the wave. Waves like Jaws stay powerful for a long time. It seems like the worst things you see at Chopes aren’t on the tow days when everyone’s wearing life jackets. It’s always on the solid paddle days, because it moves into the inside, shallower part of the reef. Some days it’s all paddle but gets to a point where sets are unpaddleable. And then those sets will only come through every hour, say. Everything inside that hour you can paddle. That’s the scariest thing about paddling there. It’ll be eight foot, but a 15 foot set will come through out of the blue every hour. You’re sitting there thinking you’re in the spot, and something twice as big as the biggest wave comes through… that doesn’t happen in many other places.


4. Jaws, Maui

Shane Dorian and the reason why men strap on life vests and paddle their daggers into the thunderdome. Photo: Epes/A-Frame

Wiping out at Jaws is no fun. First up comes whiplash so violent you barely stay conscious. Then after 10 front somersaults, four cartwheels and seven mctwists, you find yourself 15 feet below the surface fumbling for you parachute cord. Instant relief overcomes you upon inflation, but it’s short-lived. After breaking the surface you have about three and a half seconds to suck in as much of that glorious o2 as possible before a 25 foot wedging double up detonates on your head, which is unfortunately being held up in the firing line by that once-awesome life jacket. Now you’re thrust into another violent underwater gymnastics routine until your lungs are seconds away from bursting. If you pop up before they burst you’re in good shape, that is until a well-meaning jetski driver does a furious burnout in front of you, crashing its rescue sled into the point of your beak before zooming off as the next 10 feet of whitewash engulfs you. At this point you’re basically welcoming unconsciousness to take you away from the pain in your lungs and the cramps firing through your arms and legs. But amazingly, you resurface once again. This is your last shot to grab a hold of that rescue sled instead of head butting it. Hold onto that thing as tight as you can. If you don’t… the Jaws shorebreak is going to use you as a human pin ball.


5. Mavericks, CA

Longest hold down

Now, I haven’t actually surfed Mavericks. But from everything I’ve seen and heard, it seems like at Mavericks it’s super common to have a two-wave hold down. I’m not sure why, but it’s definitely common. I don’t have a huge desire to surf Mavs. I mean, I’d be psyched to surf it in the contest when it’s not crowded, but it’s hard to get psyched to go there when the same swell is hitting Jaws, which is a proper, sick barrel and warm water. It’s hard to give that up. I also rate this spot higher up on the heaviness scale because it’s always paddle, never tow.


6. The Right, WA

Worst deep water hold down 

Photo: Ray Collins
And ever shall this moment live in infamy. Mark Mathews, The Right. Photo: Ray Collins

The Right pushes you way deeper than anywhere I’ve ever surfed before. To the point where you feel like your ears are gonna pop every wave, and you’re trying to equalise as you’re going down. You’re getting rolled and you feel the pressure, and you’re grabbing for your nose to get rid of it. No where else does that. You see two burst eardrums every swell. I don’t know if it can be paddled. I’ve seen a couple of bodyboarders paddle it, but where they’re dropping in is the edge of the barrel. It looks like it’s such a peak, but the distance from where you could paddle into it, to the part where you’re actually going through the barrel, is really far, further than you think. Even making a drop in the spot back where it’s doable, you’d be too deep to make the barrel. If it wasn’t so sharky I’d love to have a try at paddling on a smaller day. I find that place so sharky. I’ve seen glimpses of big ones. But other guys have seen full on huge fins swim past. As if it needs to be any more scary. In saying all that it’s not shallow. I find Chopes more scary when it’s big cause I’m scared of hitting the bottom, whereas at The Right, I can deal with the deep hold down, and not having to worry about hitting the bottom is kinda nice.


7. Shipsterns, Tasmania

Worst step

Mark’s done this a whole lot of times, but does it get any easier? The question sure is a valid one.

When it gets to a certain size, it’s the opposite of Chopes where it becomes so unpredictable as to what it’s gonna do, and that’s what makes it real scary. At Shippies you don’t know what it’s gonna do, it steps and might pinch, or run off the reef and close out, or be perfect. That makes it so heavy. The bottom’s not all that heavy. It’s at that level where it’s deep enough so you don’t always hit the bottom. It’s got a mellow crowd. I guess it’s pretty sharky, but I’m used to surfing down there so I don’t worry about it as much. It is cold water though, and it is powerful. It’s those wipeouts where you’re not worried about hitting the bottom, but more worried about the force of the wave tweaking your neck or dislocating your shoulder or something. When you paddle in or let go deep, it’s close to the cliff. But the water seems to sweep you past the bad part of the rock. I’ve been washed onto them, but further down the line. The first time you surf it you fully think you’re gonna be on the rocks if you fall off. But once you get the experience out there, that’s not the thing you’re worried about. The step is Shippies’ most defining factor. It’s the whole thing of trying to get off the step and into the barrel in one smooth motion. Often your timing’s out so you’re off the step and don’t get time to put in your bottom turn so you get lipped in the back, or something. Then there’s all that force, on top of you being in an awkward position.


8. Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca

Worst paddle out 

Shane dorian 2821
Shane Dorian and Puerto. Not for weekend warriors. Photo: Edwin Morales

I didn’t think this’d be one of the heaviest, but I’ve been told it’s crazy heavy. To me, big beachbreaks are scary. There’s no channel to save yourself in. And a lot of the time, big beachbreaks when you get caught inside, they hold you in that zone where you’re stuck inside. So it pushes you out from the beach but in from the back, holding you right in the impact zone. I’ve heard Puerto’s just like that. That Off The Wall type thing, it just holds you there dropping sets on your head. But then, like all of these spots, the danger is night and day whether or not you’re wearing a safety vest. I get the feeling it’d be like surfing Off The Wall or a big South Oz beachie where you don’t have the safety of the channel, and it’s certainly not just one and done.


9. Dungeons, South Africa

John John Florence makes Dungeons look a helluva lot easier than it is. The chances of a turbo set crushing the skyline behind this one are high. Photo: Alan Van Gysen
John John Florence makes Dungeons look a helluva lot easier than it is. The chances of a turbo set crushing the skyline behind this one are high. Photo: Alan Van Gysen


I’ve never surfed Dungeons, and I’m not particularly excited to, either. I’m pretty paranoid about sharks. I’ll go out of my way to surf a sharky wave if it’s a really good barrel, and Dungeons and Mavericks do seem like sick, fun big wave spots, but as far as being next level like Jaws where you can get spat out of a barrel… if Jaws-quality waves were breaking at Dungeons, I’d be out there. But it looks pretty unpredictable. It doesn’t have a specific takeoff zone. And, some waves run off a lot. Then other waves are burgers. It looks like you could get left in a bad zone inside if you caught one that didn’t run down the line. But then you could get one that runs off away from you down the line and you get hammered. So, it seems real unpredictable. Then there’s fishing trawlers going in and out of that bay all day with Whites just trailing them in and out…


10. Cloudbreak, Fiji

Fastest wave

Photo: Volcom
Never forget. This is what Cloudbreak can handle. Photo: Volcom

I haven’t surfed Cloudbreak too far past 15 foot, which makes it hard for me to comment on a day like the big day when the contest was called off. But it’s super powerful for the size. At eight to 10 feet it feels way more powerful. It’s one of those waves where it washes you in, but you don’t go fully into the lagoon. You’re trying to get back through it, but because the wave grows as it steams down the reef, you wipeout and then get pushed down the reef and every single one you get on the head feels bigger than the last, because they keep growing. At Chopes you wipe out, get washed into the lagoon and it’s over in one or two waves. But at Cloudbreak, it’s almost always gonna be five heavy ones on the head after you wipe out. It’s a really fast wave too, so it’s easy to get caught behind. It’s pretty perfect, but it’s got that end Shish Kebab section that can be tricky and uneven. The majority of really big waves don’t run down a reef at a speed where you’re surfing in the barrel for a really long time, but Cloudbreak does. Big Chopes is a relatively short barrel but at Cloudbreak it’s a two or sometimes three-section barrel. If you got a 20-footer out there you could have a heart attack from such prolonged adrenaline of being in a barrel that long. The Right is the craziest, most intense feeling, but only for two seconds. Cloudbreak just keeps going.



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