The science behind riding the world's biggest wave

In Nazaré, Portugal, lies the world’s biggest waves. Kirsten French spoke to surfers who have taken on the big one and they talked about how it felt:

“The amount of speed you get going down those waves is incredible,” says Maya Gabeira of Brazil. (About 45 miles per hour.) “The water is changing under your feet as you’re going down. You have to navigate, do jumps, a lot of adjusting. It’s very instinctive and very, very intense. On the really big waves, there’s a noise that’s indescribable. When the lip of the wave breaks and it hits the bottom, it’s like an explosion. It’s like a bomb.” At Nazaré, Gabeira has broken the world record for the biggest wave ever surfed by a woman: 73.5 feet.

French also discussed the science behind it all (oceanography) and how climate change affects it all:

The future could bring even bigger waves to Nazaré and other big wave locations around the world, as climate change sets off more severe storm events. How big? It’s hard to say. The energy in a wave is the square of the wave height, as a rule of thumb. A storm that is twice as powerful would produce a wave that is 50 percent bigger. Storms, and therefore waves, will also be more unpredictable.

Nazaré can already be unpredictable—it can break almost anywhere, which means that, unlike most other big waves, there is no channel or safe zone to which a surfer can escape if things go awry. In 2013, on her debut ride, Gabeira nearly drowned after she wiped out, lost her life jacket, and was knocked unconscious under an avalanche of exploding white water. It took four years and three spinal surgeries before she could return. Doctors and her surf idols Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton told Gabeira to quit. Of course, she didn’t quit. (Her story is the subject of a new documentary, Maya and the Wave, which won acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and screens at Doc NYC on Nov. 9.)

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