This Insane Photo Book Reveals Extreme Surfing’s Biggest Waves

The world’s largest walls of water “present the ultimate life-or-death situation.”

Kai Lenny in Pe‘ahi, Hawaii, home of the “Jaws” surf break, in 2019. Photo by Fred Pompermayer.

In the world of extreme sports, there are few things as formidable, and hazardous, as big wave surfing. By big we’re talking 20 feet high or more, something nearly impossible for outsiders and casual riders to comprehend.  

American legend Shane Dorian, who quit championship competition surfing in 2003 to go all in on big waves, calls them “the ultimate challenge,” noting, “They can also present the ultimate life-or-death situation.” 

He makes the remark in the foreword to one of the most impressive photographic tributes to the sport ever published, Big Wave Surfer: The Greatest Rides of Our Lives, new from Rizzoli and authored by another surfing legend, Kai Lenny. 

Kai Lenny surfing Jaws in 2016. Photo by Fred Pompermayer.

The book profiles the world’s top competitors on the big wave scene, accompanied by jaw-dropping imagery. “It is hard to define big wave surfing as just a sport for me,” Lenny writes in the introduction. 

“Sports have rules that must be followed. But in the water, the only rule is that you respect the ocean for its relentless yet somehow comforting presence…. [As] the saying goes, ‘The greater the risk, the greater the reward.’ And I believe that is true.” 

He writes that while “I still don’t believe I have ridden a wave that can top my very first one, but all the waves that I have ridden after, especially the giant ones, have been stepping-stones toward my next goals. It is important to remember that you don’t become a big-wave surfer overnight. Sure, you could catch one huge wave by sheer luck and reckless abandon; that may work once, but most likely won’t work twice.”

Kai Lenny at the Eddie Aikau Big-Wave Invitational Opening Ceremony, O‘ahu, 2019. Photo by Brian Bielmann.

“[And] when things go wrong, they go wrong really quick. Before you know it, you’re skipping down the face until the wave starts to suck you vertically into space. Everything is lightweight; it feels like floating, and then, a lung-collapsing slam. You want to fight it, escape it, but there is nowhere to go. You, my friend, are at the mercy of the ocean, and it’s not letting you come up until it says so.”

Struggling against the omnipotent force of the water will only make defeat more crushing—literally. The only way to survive, Lenny counsels, is to “Relax, let it take you [and] go with the flow. While all this is happening, you haven’t taken a breath in what feels like an eternity.”

“Thirty seconds feels like three minutes; time moves at a snail’s pace. Only when it’s finally over can you break the surface; time rushes back to full speed, and there’s suddenly five seconds before the next wave lands on your head.”

Nazaré in Portugal is home to the biggest surfable waves on the planet. Photo by Mattias Hammar.

He notes that immediately trying to go out and ride the biggest wave you can find is sheer madness: “Before doing anything extreme and possibly life-threatening, it’s essential to create a foundation that you can build off of.” 

“For me it wasn’t instantly going out and trying to ride a big wave; it was taking baby steps toward riding incrementally bigger waves up the coast… until I hit Jaws”—the legendary surf break on the north shore Maui known for its monster waves. 

“It certainly is a radical feeling to paddle into a lineup and look around at your peers, who are the best of the best, and feel astonished at what they are able to do in such intense, unpredictable scenarios,” Lenny writes. 


“It’s a feat that truly inspires me to go over that ledge when the next wave comes in. There’s no pulling back; it’s full blind faith. Regardless if you make it or not, there’s an incredible rush. Kicking out of the ride of the day, the ride of the year, and possibly the ride of your life—while everyone is cheering on the boats, in the lineup, and on the cliff—is what I imagine winning the Olympics feels like in a stadium.” 

The rush of the moment isn’t his only motivation however. “I surf because I love it, and when faced with a towering mountain of water, it becomes something more: a mirror reflecting who I am as a person in the moment. I will admit I have been disappointed, and other times proud. When facing fearful odds, the fog of self-reflection is lifted.” 

“I believe it’s possible to find this anywhere as long as you are pushed to your limit, truly living in the moment, and free of caring what anyone else thinks. That’s when time slows down; that’s when anything becomes possible.”