Interview: Sebastian Steudtner on Surfing the Biggest Wave in the World

Jason Lock

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Updated 23d ago

“I didn't grow up by the ocean. I didn't have rich parents to travel around with me as a kid, I didn't start surfing until I was an adult, I'm not from Hawaii, Australia, the US – I'm not even from France or Portugal. I'm from Germany, and still I managed to set a world record – and I hope that inspires someone.”

Sebastian Steudtner sounds almost cathartic when talking with MSW a couple of days ago. It has now been officially confirmed that Sebastian broke the record for biggest wave ever surfed, when he tore across the face of an 86ft wave at Nazare on October 29 2020. This new record tops Brazilian big wave froth lord, Rodrigo Koxa's previous effort of 80ft, set on November 9 2017.

That October session should rumble the grey matter of Nazare enthusiasts. Hurricane Epsilon had whipped the North Atlantic into a frenzy; a black-blobbed swell monster that stood at the door of Europe for a while, before completely blowing the hinges off and laying waste to just about everywhere on the Old Continent's western flank. It was this same swell that Conor Maguire surfed the biggest wave ever in Ireland and once it was done there, Epsilon pilgrimaged south, setting off France, Mundaka, Galicia before arriving in Portugal, the home of Nazare. It is now regarded as one of the most spectacular European swell events in history.

What does a record-breaking swell look like? The sheer audacity that this thing existed! One of those swells that keeps you up at night, anticipation is an insomniac's kryptonite.

What does a record-breaking swell look like? The sheer audacity that this thing existed! One of those swells that keeps you up at night, anticipation is an insomniac's kryptonite.

All that energy in the water helped create those huge, tee-peeing frames that make Praia do Norte so jaw-droppingly wild. Imagine, those waves standing tall, folding over at 70, 80ft in the air, lip cracking to trough, all sound and fury. (we covered it, HERE) An estimated 30,000 spectators lined the cliff to watch the show. In fact, it was the last session before surfing was banned at Nazare for two months, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Live cam: Nazare

Here it is, your new world record!

“I remember the waves were actually super close together,” says Sebastian. “Really fast, really steep and kind of crazy.” Usually, Nazare doesn't like a long-period swell, but on that day in October, the forecast maxed out at 16.5ft@18 seconds, with the swell coming from the north west -- that's the ideal angle to hit an under water canyon, off the coast of Nazare, which helps shape all that water into colossal, dangerous A-frames.

“It was one of those sessions where, for some reason, it kind of liked those long-period figures and you could see it all translating on the beach.

“We only had one warm up session that season, which was literally the day before this thing came in, October 28, and I had a new inflation vest. On that day, I had to straighten out and got crushed. Inflation vests... they add another dilemma to the whole scenario. Usually, you can be like 'ok, I'll just hold my breath, float to the surface when I need to.' But now there's this additional battle going on; to inflate or not? Anyway, I pulled the tab to get to the surface and... nothing happened. [laughs]. I just got cleaned up to the beach, under water. My neighbour ended up spotting me and ran down, saying to me, 'I didn't see you come up!' And I remember thinking, 'yep'. [laughs]. So I remember feeling a bit stressed the day before.” For me personally, I hope people take this away – anything is possible, I hope this inspires you

At the same time, Seb had just launched the Nazare Surf Rescue Association, a group dedicated to providing support to all Nazare surfers. “It was probably the most prepared we've been for a swell,” he said. “And everything was set for the big day on the 29th.

“We left in the dark that morning. It felt like, there was so much energy in the water. Usually those forecasts you see a lot of waves rolling in – but Big Moma wasn't working, it was way more on the inside. I have a theory that it was due to the sand on the shelf, there was a lot there after the summer. It was so intense.”

Our at-a-glance forecast for Nazare on October 29 2020. Yeah, it got chunky.

Our at-a-glance forecast for Nazare on October 29 2020. Yeah, it got chunky.

Maya Gabeira and Alemao de Maresias partnered with Seb on the ski, with Alemao eventually whipping Seb into the record breaker. “I remember thinking, 'oh that's fast,” Seb said. "The wave was chattery, crazy. It felt big, but at the time, I wasn't really sure how big. That's how it is out there, you just keep going."

When asked what breaking the record means to him, he said: "It is great to have, feels like it was destined to be. I've been putting all my energy into this, I don't know who else cares as much as I do out here, it's great to have this one on the resume, let's see what comes from it.”

It's fitting Seb mentioned destiny. Cast your mind back, way back, to the start of 2018; Koxa had just broken the record at Nazare a couple of months before and momentum was building around that video. Then, on January 18 2018, Sebastian surfed a gigantic freak of a wave out there. Ribs through the face of the wave, Sebastian an ant in comparison to the size of this thing. At the time, many thought it had broken Koxa's new record. That video of Sebastian's wave broke the internet. Only, the wave wasn't attributed to him, it was wrongly attributed as Rodrigo's and touted as Koxa's 'record breaking 115ft wave'. To this day, it is still living life on social media – wrong credit always attached (article HERE).

“We did the math back in 2019,” said Sebastian. “And it's the most widely shared piece of surf media, ever. It's the billion view wave, it's had more than a billion views across various platforms.”

Even Jackass star Steve-O shared the vid, racking up 2,000,000 eyeballs on that wave, Seb surfing, Koxa credited (though Steve-O apologised and spent some time with Sebastian at Nazare...)

“The way I look at it now is, maybe I didn't get the credit for it – we'll never know why it went out wrong – but it's probably one of the most successful surfing releases of all time – for me personally, the acknowledgment of the public in that sense, makes it ok for me. People are correcting it when they see it now. The people have spoken. On the business side, it's messed up [laughs].”

Has Rodrigo Koxa been in touch about the new record? "No, he's been quiet," said Seb.

The Koxa bomb! The Brazilian put his name on the map with this juggernaut.

As for a board you need to go about whipping into an 86ft wave: “I was on my Sunova, 6'0” board, weighing about 6.5kgs. It was the limit of what that board could take. I look for manoeuvrability and speed out there.”

Any thoughts on why it took two years to come to light? “I don't really have an opinion on that,” he said. “But look at other sports. Usasin Bolt ran really fast, faster than anyone else ever, would it take a year, two years to say he won the race? Then another eight months to say that's the world record breaker... people wouldn't take that serious, our sport needs to have better care-taking – so many people put in so much effort. It deserves more. More love and more care.”

Every season there's always the spurious claims of the 100ft wave ridden. We ask Sebastian, has it already been surfed? “The one that I think would come close was Hugo Vau's wave in 2018. The shot was so backlit you couldn't really see him on it, but it was a Big Moma wave and it was gigantic, like nothing we've seen before.”

Seb's 2018 entry.

As for pushing the limits of what's possible at Nazare, Sebastian's partnered with German luxury car company Porsche, working with their engineers. They've been dissecting the inner-machinations of what makes a board tick, employing a scientific approach to go faster, bigger. “I've just got back from their wind tunnel. It's a mix of their engineers and another German tech company called Schaeffler. We want to have more speed, and this is a great way to really push what we can do out there.” How that looks is all hush hush right now, but we'll update you when lips loosen.

As for what Sebastian hopes people will take away from smashing the world record? “My summary is that, I hope that we, as a community, find a way of coming together, this record is dividing the community one more time and it's showing how desperate people are to accomplish something – I just want it to unite everyone. I hope it leads to progression and not the opposite. For me personally, I hope people take this away – anything is possible, I hope this inspires you."

Seb, Maya, team talk.

Seb, Maya, team talk.

“Oh and hey, I guess it was a surprise to some people but not to you...” says Seb about MSW spending hours analysing footage of Nazare and calling this the biggest wave ever surfed before anyone else did. (shameless plug...). Go see that article HERE and congrats again Seb -- and to Jorge Leal who filmed this monster.