Stab Magazine | The Debate Over The Ride Of The Year Award According To Kelly Slater, Albee Layer, Nathan Fletcher, Billy Kemper And More

The Debate Over The Ride Of The Year Award According To Kelly Slater, Albee Layer, Nathan Fletcher, Billy Kemper And More

We tapped 16 of surfing’s heavy hitters for who should’ve been in the Big Wave Awards Ride of the Year nominees, the difference between paddle and tow, and what the ideal judging panel would look like. 

style // May 1, 2019
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 10 minutes

A few weeks back, the Big Wave Award nominees shot out of the WSL’s PR Machine. Praise and outrage followed its release.

Whether it’s Spike Lee stomping out of the Academy Awards or Albee Layer’s continual social media grenades, it’s clear that the greatest talents often have sensitive hearts. And, subjectivity is the shear-fire wind to raging debate.

The nominees for Big Wave Awards Ride of the Year are the most scrutinized, raising one big question: What is the criteria for Ride of the Year?

From this stems many smaller questions.

Are Kai Lenny’s snowboard-esque carves and airs on a mountainous Jaws face a better or more critical ride than Albee Layer’s come-to-Jesus tube, both of which followed the Pe’ahi Challenge’s abbreviated Round 1?

Or does Ramon Navaro’s tow-tube at Cloudbreak match up to the casual pig dogging of Laurie Towner’s paddle-in during the same swell?

The subjectivity of surfing and the increasing progression in the XXL category is a script that requires consistent revision.

BRIAN2 copy1

Nate Fletcher and the pinnacle of Gnar. Chopes, 2012.


Brian Beilmann

For instance, in 2012, Nathan Fletcher won Ride of the Year with his Chopes tow-in that resulted in possibly the most hell-hearted photograph in surfing shot by Brian Bielmann (above). He fell in the tube. That year he and Garret McNamara’s World Record breaker at Nazaré went tow to tow, and Nathan won.

As Nathan Fletcher told Stab, “When I won the XXL, everything changed for paddling and towing. The two separated. There are milestones in surfing, and once something happens the judging becomes refined. We’re getting too smart. There needs to be set rules for different categories. Right now, there are no rules to abide by.”

2012 to 2019 has seen a seismic shift in what’s possible in big waves, particularly in what can be done utilizing two arms and a surfboard.

So, should Twiggy’s absolute demon of a Jaws tube be counted towards Ride of the Year despite the fact he didn’t complete the ride? What about Billy Kemper’s during the same event? The two were undoubtedly the biggest and heaviest tubes ever paddled into at Jaws; neither of them came out, and both surfed the waves with an ability that supersedes what we thought possible in 2017.

The exact criteria is uncertain. And this uncertainty’s harbored plenty of opinions both for and against the nominees.

The nominees for Ride of the Year were:

Grant Baker (Durban, South Africa) at Jaws, Maui, Hawaii, on November 26, 2018.
(Video by Carlo Carbajal)

Natxo Gonzalez (Basque Country, Spain) at Nazaré, Portugal, on November 16, 2018.
(Video by Jon Aspuru)

Billy Kemper (Maui, Hawaii) at Jaws, Maui, Hawaii on November 26, 2018.
(Video by Johnny Decesare)

Kai Lenny (Maui, Hawaii) at Jaws, Maui, Hawaii on November 26, 2018.
(Video by Ryan Johnson)

Ramon Navarro (Pichimelu, Chile) at Cloudbreak on May 22, 2018.
(Video by Taylor Curran)

Here’s the first of a two-part series featuring the opinions of the world’s most prominent big wave surfers: Kelly Slater, Nathan Fletcher, Grant “Twiggy” Baker, Billy Kemper, Kai Lenny, Albee Layer, Mark Mathews, Eli Olson, Nic Von Rupp, Nathan Florence, Bianca Valenti, Laurie Towner, Makua Rothman, Natxo Gonzalez and Paige Alms.

We asked each three questions:

1. What three rides were overlooked for Ride of the Year?

2. Should we still be placing paddle and tow into the same Ride of the Year category?

3. What does the ideal judging panel to nominate and give these awards look like?

ScaleWidthWyIxMjAwIl0 Kelly Slater Cloudbreak

Slates knows how critical Laurie Towner’s wave at Cloudbreak was. Here’s a paddle wave of Kelly during the “swell of the year” in Fiji.


Edwin Morales

Kelly Slater

I can’t say the best three that were overlooked. I haven’t watched enough to make the call of who and which. But, I’m sure Laurie’s wave will be in that convo.

It will be interesting to hear it better defined; is there a size limit before it’s considered a “big wave”?

Tow waves should definitely be in a separate category. I don’t think that’s even a convo. You can clearly ride big waves better when towing and catch anything anywhere you want.

As far as Ride of the Year goes, only complete rides should be entered. That doesn’t nullify in any way how gnarly some rides are but non-makes should have a category of their own.

Twiggy and Billy’s waves are hard to comprehend and are worthy of their acknowledgment. I think Twig’s, in particular, is the heaviest wave ever paddled into and then the position he put himself on that wave was crazy. His drop was also in its own stratosphere. I’m not sure if you can place what happens on big waves into standard categories. What happens on those waves requires a different dissection and evaluation.

As far as who should make these calls [the awards], a panel of themselves [the big wave surfers] and few others who know what they’re looking at. Why don’t the big wave crew form a committee and not have to be disheartened about the process? It would make sense and they could have a liaison with sponsors to make sure they are represented well.

You’ll hear a lot about this wave over the course of these posts.

Albee Layer

Laurie Towner’s wave from Fiji is a no brainer. It was huge, barreling and perfect. And, he surfed it with style – which I think is part of the problem. I don’t know why but the XXL love people on the verge of falling.

I feel kind of weird picking myself, but since no one put me in the top five I guess I will [Laughs]. It was one of the best wave of my life on one the scariest days we’ve had anywhere in a long time.

Three more waves come to mind in no particular order. Bianca’s [Valenti] Puerto wave was amazing. Seemed like the best wave of the year there. If she was just a little deeper I think it would’ve been a clean front runner for the win. She’s a fucking boss!

Nic Von Rupp’s left at Mavs was a huge leap forward on how a big wave can be ridden out there. If it was slightly bigger, he’d be winning.

Then, Eli Olson’s wave at Outer Logs. Yeah, he didn’t get barreled but he caught one of the biggest paddle waves of all time and he did it sitting in a line up in the middle of nowhere by himself. That was insane! How it’s not up for biggest paddle seems nothing short of insulting to him and all of us.

The hardest part is not even knowing who got the most overlooked. From the boys at Mullaghmore to what Matt Bromley was doing on that Nias swell. It seems like each year, they pick from the same group of people and locations. They also seem to have a hard time picking people that aren’t on the BWT. The Big Wave Tour is still a very very small representation of big wave surfing as a whole.

Tow in waves and falls have no place in the Ride of the Year in my opinion. There should be separate awards for paddle and tow because I love watching what Kai does towing and want him to keep pushing it. More of us will join on the days that permit it but just surviving a wave on a tow board is something we can move past.

People have been doing that since I was an infant.

Nathan Fletcher

When I won the XXL Ride of the Year everything kind of changed. After that paddling and tow started to separate. But when I won my award there was a huge argument because I didn’t complete the ride. It was between me and Garret [McNamara] who was nominated for the first real big wave ridden at Nazaré and mine was at Teahupo’o where I fell in the barrel. If you’re going to accept waves that aren’t made you have to accept anybody’s wave.

As we get more educated, we realized there is a need for different categories. There are certain moments in time, certain milestones in surfing that happen and the judging criteria gets more refined.

Now we’re smart, tow and paddle should be in their own categories [for Ride of the Year]. It doesn’t make what Kai Lenny did on that Jaws wave any less gnarly. He was having more fun than anybody but for the Ride of the Year, you can’t put that against Twiggy or Billy’s waves. They’re on two different levels. For Twiggy to do what he did on that wave was so gnarly – to make it to the bottom contour then get shot out… It was pretty much a make.

People talk about Eli’s [Olson] wave. I was in the water when Eli was at Outerlogs with John John. It was a huge day. He got put into position by John John. A couple of years ago, it would’ve been up for Ride of the Year. But once Shane Dorian got super barreled at Jaws the bar got set at a different level for that. Eli didn’t get tubed. 

The bottom line that it comes down to is this is what ruins surfing because you’re trying to make it some sport but in the end, you’re doing it because your heart is telling you to go out there and go nuts. Some do it because they love it and other people do it because it’s being documented and it’s gonna go somewhere.

Then you got guys like Tom Lowe who is just going out in the biggest coldest conditions without cameras. There’s a contrast of guys that just want to get their shots and guys like that.

As far as who got overlooked? I don’t really know. I don’t pay that much attention anymore.

As far as who should judge these things? I don’t know, you guys… Somebody who just lives and breathes surf. Just don’t let the surf historians get involved [laughs]. It should be 10 or 20 guys that judge it in the BWT with some guest like Tom Curren or Michael Ho. There need to be a few older guys who really don’t give a shit.


There’s a reason Coyboy Bill’s won 3 Pe’ahi Challenges.



Billy Kemper

For me, I feel like Laurie Towner’s wave at Cloudbreak should’ve gotten more attention. What Laurie did on that wave was insane. The way he rode it was really technical. I went on the first wave of that set and got so flexed. When I paddled back out I was right below him while he was butt-dragging.

I feel like Laurie has been overlooked way too long by the surf industry, I don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors but that wave should straight up be in the finals.

It’s sad he doesn’t get the recognition. I’ve tried to be quiet on Instagram about it. I told Albee to shut up and stop being a bitch about this [laughs] because at the end of the day we’re just surfers.

Also, at the Nias swell, Matt Bromley paddled into some crazy ones that no one talked about. He paddled one wave at Nias that was psycho. They haven’t given paddle slabs the recognition it deserves.

Albee’s wave after the contest was pretty sick. I think it only got brushed under because of the waves me and Twiggy got right before that. God, if we rode out of those…

It’s pretty hard to overlook those two waves but Albee’s was insane! It wasn’t as big or as deep but he made it so clean. When I look at the finalists and I see Kai Lenny doing bunny hops with straps on I can’t handle it.

Mr Bromley at Nias.

The whole paddle versus tow things freaks me out. Like Ramon’s wave was incredible but if you’re towing you should be backdooring the entire wave. It was a pocket ride. Albee’s waves outdid those two in my opinion.

At least there are awards, though! SURFER Poll doesn’t give out $75k checks; we’re lucky to have that. But if the awards want to continue the first thing that needs to happen is towing and paddling need to be separate for Ride of the Year.

Towing can have biggest wave of the year and master slab. I’m 100-percent for towing waves like Shipsterns and the Right, but as far as Jaws and Mavs goes, let’s see people paddle to the fullest potential. I think that’s something that needs to be taken into consideration.

Judging this stuff is really hard. Surfers are really biased, and sometimes racist. Everyone plays favorites. If I’m being honest, I’d give Albee an award over Natxo because he’s my friend [laughs], nothing against Natxo but Albee’s my friend and I want him to win.

Best would be to bring in some retired surfers like Pete Mel and Snips [Mike Parsons], then maybe like Tony Moniz, Laird Hamilton, throw in the greatest of all time and people that are still relevant. Then have Kelly Slater and John John weigh in. If Kelly or John speak up people are going to listen.

Mark Mathews is a man with zero commitment issues. Here he is at the Jaws event that changed Big Wave surfing forever in 2015.

Mark Mathews

I haven’t had a chance to look them all up, so I can’t make a call on who should be in or out. But I reckon tow-ins should have their own section and Ride of the Year has to be a made wave.

Then they should create a new award, something like best drop. The drop in big wave surfing is like a move on its own. Whether you make it out of the barrel or not. It’s like Jordy doing a giant punt at North Point and not finishing the wave with a second turn. Who gives a shit about the rest of the wave after that first air.

Twiggy’s drop at Jaws was mental. Sure it would be the ultimate if he made the barrel, then he would win Ride of the Year, but he should be rewarded regardless. Just making the drop and pulling in, Drop of the Year?

Laurie and Albee’s waves should be up for Ride of the Year. Then Twiggy should win Drop of the Year, which isn’t a thing…

Bianca Valenti

The bottom line is there were more than three rides that should’ve made the finalists for Ride of the Year but didn’t. We need a better system to make the event fair so athletes are inspired to play bigger.

Many have been overlooked and many great rides have been celebrated. It’s just two sides of the same coin. I want to see calculated risk. I want to see human performance and skill elevated.

I think that tow should be its own category.

I think there are infinite possible solutions to the judging of these rides. But what’s most important to the sport is when we see ultimate performances that inspire human potential.

IMG 3470

Nic Von Rupp has earned himself an Overall Performance Nominee.


Pedro Miranda

Nic Von Rupp

Hmm, waves that got overlooked? How the fuck is Albee’s not in the top five? I mean, they called the comp off and the guy goes out there by himself, sits there, almost gets cleaned up by this massive set and then gets barreled in front of everyone! What else can you do?

I thought Kai Lenny’s paddle airdrop at Mavs was really nuts too.

Tom Lowe’s Ireland paddle bomb into a Teahupo’o-looking 20-foot barrel should have been a finalist too. I feel like guys look the other way when it’s something in Europe.

Maybe my Mavs left wave could have made the cut too? [Laughs] I don’t know.

You can’t put tow and paddle on the same level, they are two different sports. A Ride of the Year should be named on difficulty degree of the ride. Every paddle wave regardless of how easy or gnarly it was is harder than towing, therefore paddle should always have the upper hand compared to towing.

Tom Lowe at Mullaghmore.

Part II featuring Greg Long, Grant “Twiggy” Baker, Kai Lenny, Laurie Towner, Paige Alms, Russel Bierke, Eli Olson, Nathan Florence, Natxo Gonzalez and Makua Rothman coming tomorrow.


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