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Big Wave Riding- The Science Behind the Ride

By: Lola Frailey Wednesday May 1, 2019 comments Tags: noni for cramps, noni for pain, things to do in hawaii

Waimea Bay, Hawaii

Waimea Bay is nestled on the north shore of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands and is a legendary spot for big wave surfing. Here, surfers flock to the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational to watch the world’s best surfers tackle big waves reaching up to 60 feet!

Whoa! How is a wave that big created? Let’s start with the basics. Currents…..

What is a current?

A large movement of water going in one direction is a current. Currents can be either temporary (surface currents) or long-lasting (deep ocean/ocean floor).

Did you know? Long-lasting currents shape the Earth’s global climate patterns by moving heat around the world.

In the Arctic, cold salty water is left behind when ice freezes. The denser water sinks to the ocean floor creating the global conveyor belt of water that slowly moves heat around the world. It can take up to 1000 years for a current to make a complete circuit.

Scientists worry that the melting ice caused by global warming is weakening the global conveyor belt by the Arctic adding more than normal fresh water into the circuit. A 2018 study found that the ocean current that courses around the Atlantic Ocean (Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) is the weakest it has been in 1,600 years.

Rip Currents (Rip Tides) 

Rip currents (aka rip tides) are narrow channels of water that form when waves of different intensities break on the shoreline. In order to keep the water level even, large amounts of water is pulled from shore back into the ocean. Rip currents can move as fast as eight feet per second easily overpowering a swimmer trying to return to shore.

Did you know? Instead of swimming against the current, swim parallel to shore. Eventually you will swim out of the rip current while maintaining most of your energy to make it back to safety.


Tides are actually the biggest waves on the planet. Tides are what cause the sea to rise and fall along the shore around the globe.

Did you know? Tides exist due to the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun by causing two bulges (high tides) in the ocean.

Larger than normal tides occur when the moon is either on the same side of the Earth as the sun or directly on the opposite side of the Earth. Smaller than usual tides occur when the sun is at a right angle from the moon.


Waves are commonly caused by wind transferring its energy to the water. A wave's size depends on wind speed, wind duration, the area over which the wind is blowing, and the distance traveled before the wave crashes ashore.

Did you know? When waves crash ashore they can make a significant impact to the landscape by shifting sand and carving rocky coastlines.

The smallest category of waves (aka ripples) are less than one foot high. Big waves (aka swells), can travel long distances increasing in size before crashing ashore reaching 20 feet or more.

Famous destinations for big wave riding include:

  • Waimea Bay, Hawaii
  • Maui, Hawaii
  • Mavericks, California
  • Mullaghmore Head, Ireland
  • Teahupoo, Tahiti

What is big wave riding?

Big wave riding is a discipline within surfing in which experienced surfers either paddle into or are towed onto waves which are over 20 feet high! Every winter surfers flock to Hawaii in anticipation of winter swells ranging from 20-50 feet. A prestigious contest called “The Eddie” is held on Oahu at Waimea Bay in honor of Eddie Aikau, a champion lifeguard and big wave surfer. The Eddie competition is annually held between December 1 and the last day of February and only receives the green light call that the contest is a “go” when open ocean swells reach a minimum of 20 feet consistently which translate into 30-40 foot wave faces inside the bay. Participation is by special invite only and those invited must paddle out into the waves entirely on their own and may not be aided by watercraft. Since The Eddie’s inauguration in 1985 the tournament has only been held nine times due to surf not meeting the 20 foot criteria for a consistent period.

Fun Fact: On November 11, 2016, Paige Alms of Maui was crowned as the first women's big wave surfing champion at the first ever big wave surfing contest held for women.

Big wave riding requires extensive discipline and knowledge. In addition to discipline and knowledge, the size of a surfboard is imperative to surfing big waves successfully.

Did you know? A larger, longer surfboard is more stable allowing a rider to paddle fast enough and catch a wave. However, stability limits maneuverability and surfing speed.


There are many dangers to big wave riding and should only be attempted if you are an experienced surfer or professional.

One of the greatest dangers of big wave riding is the risk of being held underwater by two or more consecutive waves. During a big wave wipeout, a wave can take a surfer down 20 to 50 feet below the ocean’s surface. Water pressure at that depth can rupture one's eardrums. Once the surfer stops spinning from being taken down by the churning water, they have to quickly regain their equilibrium and determine which way to swim in order to reach the surface before the next wave hits them.

Did you know? Surfers could have less than 20 seconds to reach the ocean’s surface before the next big wave hits them.

Best defense when in trouble

Stay calm. A professional surfer gave this advice: “I tell myself: I am going to be fine. Then I go all floppy and limp and go with the flow. You can’t fight it. I wear flotation devices and safety equipment and I know if I relax I will start coming to the surface soon enough. If you try to tense up or swim you will waste energy and oxygen.”

Another surfer stated: "Wipeouts can last 10-40 seconds underwater, but I know I can hold my breath for 5 minutes if I have to. You can train yourself to hold your breath. We normally only breathe with the top of our chest and use about a fifth of our lung capacity. So at home I make a conscious effort to do belly breathing – three seconds in to inflate my stomach and ten seconds out - and that really oxygenates the blood to prepare me physically and mentally in case I fall.”

Practical surfing tips

Not a big wave rider? You can still enjoy small waves at other beautiful destinations in Hawaii. While visiting Hawaii, take advantage of our free Noni Farm Tours. Click here for for more information.  

Some simple reminders before surfing are:

  • Never surf alone
  • Wear a flotation device
  • Let someone know your location before surfing
  • Use a large surfboard for more stability
  • Take a class
  • Wear sunscreen
  • Take Noni Lotions with you

When starting out, you will fall. You will be sore. Noni IcyHeat Sports Formula can be your best go-to when it comes to muscle pain and cramps.

Did you know? Your feet contain over 7,000 nerve endings.

Applying Noni IcyHeat Sports Formula to the bottom of your feet in addition to the area exhibiting pain can help stop pain faster, helping you sleep better, and ultimately making you ready for the “big wave” waiting for you to ride tomorrow.



Lola Frailey

About the Author: Lola Frailey