Swells That Defined The Decade

Matt Rode

by on

Updated 25d ago

The year's pulling fast to a close and so too are the 2010s. But how will we reflect on perhaps the greatest shift in surfing that we have ever seen?

Surfing's bigger, there's more athletes, freesurfers, soul searchers than ever before. There's more access to funding, women have equal pay. The Olympics! And yet, at the same time, humble foam riding has gotten smaller too, contests can now be beamed to all manner of devices that fit in the palm of your hand. Eyes glued to screens no bigger than calculators.

It's only natural then that the way we interact and engage with surfing has evolved. Double-tapping images as a sign of appreciation has overtaken jamming hard-earned cash into registers for mags. In the 2010s, we lost the great Andy Irons and the way we handle and comprehend death in our community has blown out. Social media has exploded and exposed surfing to fresh fans across the globe - while still maintaining surfing as something you connect with, just now in a variety of different mediums.

Brazil emerged as a dominant force, Kelly still rules the roost and probably will do for another decade - jury's out on that one. But if there's one thing we can be sure of; there will always be waves. There have always been waves and the past 10-years have served up some prime beef with all the trimmings. In light of that, we've decided to take little look in the rearview at some of the sessions that will go down in history, from 2010, right through to the modern day. And oh, if you didn't know, MSW has historic charts where you can find and compare historic data too. Just hit the spot you want to check, then click the historic tab at the top of the page. Easy as that.

Without further ado...

Aaron Gold/Pedro Calado at Peahi, Jan 15, 2016

It was the biggest, cleanest Peahi ever paddled. Aaron went right, Pedro went left, and the big wave community spent the rest of the year splitting hairs. In the end, it was Aaron who got the nod (and the world record), but we were all winners for getting to live in an era when waves like could be ridden and documented.

Mark Healy at Puerto Escondido, May 4, 2015

We all saw this storm coming weeks ahead of time, but only a handful of chargers were willing to paddle out when Puerto Escondido went XXL. CO2 canisters were confiscated in Mexico City, a few guys nearly drowned, and Mark Healy pulled into the biggest, brownest barrel that’s ever been ridden in Mexico. Don't forget the check the forecast, HERE.

Ramon Navarro at Cloudbreak, May 22, 2018

This was the wave that everyone had been waiting for at Cloudbreak. We’d seen a few unicorns slip through under the paddle crowd over the years, but this time Ramon was there to tame the thing. It was a windy day, so he did it from behind a ski—but most will agree that waves like this are beyond the realm of paddling, even under the best of conditions.

Thundercloud paddle sessions x 2

These were the sessions that showed the world what Cloudbreak could do once it hit the XL range—and that made the idea of big wave barrels more than just a pipe dream. While there were numerous memorable barrels paddled during these two swells, it was the unicorn 20-footer that nearly ate Mark Healy that would ultimately redefine big wave perfection

Mikey Wright at P-Pass, winter 2014

P-Pass is the world’s easiest right-hand barrel—until it gets over eight foot. Once it hits the 10-foot+ range, it’s a whole other beast. Mikey Wright happened to be in Micronesia for a maxing P-Pass swell, and wasted no time showing the world how a slabbed-out reef pass is meant to be surfed.

Related feature: Is P-Pass the world's easiest barrel?

Russell Bierke at Shipstern’s Bluff, summer 2019

After the initial reveal at the turn of the millenium and Laurie Towner’s impossible paddle slab in the early 2000s, Shipstern’s had largely become a tow-only joint. But then Russell Bierke went there, and decided to try to wrangle a few old-school. The bomb he air-dropped into ended up being arguably the best wave ridden in 2019.

Slater/John John semifinal at Teahupoo, summer 2014

The world tour commentators love to wax hyperbolic about whatever event they are covering, and it’s rare for a contest to be completed without claims of “best ever” being bandied about. But the actual best heat ever was inarguably John John Florence versus Kelly Slater in the semifinals of the 2015 Teahupoo event.

Nathan Florence at Teahupoo, May 18, 2015

There have been a lot of amazing waves ridden at Teahupoo over the years—maybe more than any other spot, when you take into account both paddling and towing. But when it comes to pure commitment and skill, none comes close to comparing with Nathan Florence’s impossible takeoff to high-line slab. The wave was all of 12 foot, and at Teahupoo, that means something. It was the only wave ever paddled at Chopes to be nominated for an XXL Ride of the Year Award, and that’s saying something.

Twiggy at Peahi, November 26, 2018

There are certain moments that, when viewed live, sear themselves into your memory forever. When Twiggy dropped into THAT wave, the entire world held it’s breath. As he navigated the step, we all shook our heads. When he snuck under the lip, we started to believe. And when he got blown out onto the shoulder, it didn’t matter that he wasn’t on his feet. Biggest wave of the year. Probably the biggest barrel ever paddled into. Arguably the greatest wave ever ridden. At 42 years old.

Ian Walsh’s perfect 10 at Peahi, October 28, 2017

Not only was Ian’s barrel one of the best ever ridden at Peahi, but it was ridden during a contest, with the added pressure of a jersey and a one-hour heat. It was an unanimous 10, and should have been a 12 when compared to other wave scores in that semifinal. Ian went on to win the event—a fitting result for a monumental effort.

John John Florence at the Eddie, February 25, 2016

If he wasn’t officially the best all-around surfer in the world on the morning of February 25, 2015, John John Florence certainly was that night. Already proven in barrels and in the air, John John showed us all what he was capable of in closed-out conditions at the world’s original big wave spot, winning what is arguably the most prestigious contest in existence in the process.

Koa Smith at Skeleton Bay, 2014 and 2018

As if one endless, Internet-breaking left-hander wasn’t enough, Koa Smith somehow managed to mine two of them from amongst the Namiban chaos. The first was a 40-second+ barrel captured on POV that forever changed how we viewed the barrel. Then, four years later, he found an even longer, more perfect wave that lasted two minutes and served up eight ridiculous barrels.

The Indo swell, July 25, 2018

Balangan from that dream run.

Balangan from that dream run.

© 2020 - XL Swell

Once again, this was a swell that we could see coming weeks before it ever hit. Half of the world’s heaviest hitters descended on Nias and Kandui, but it was a boat with a broken mooring rope that got the ride of the year, getting pitched over the falls on a legit 15-footer at Lagundri Bay.

Nazare, November 8, 2017, featuring Rodrigo Koxa

No list of monumental rides and sessions would be complete without mentioning the world record. Rodrigo Koxa was one of a few hardy enough to brave maxing Nazare, and was rewarded for his courage and tenacity when he towed into the biggest wave ever surfed—an 80-foot behemoth at the world's biggest wedge. Also the day Andrew Cotton broke his back. See our full feature about that session, HERE.

Additional reporting by Jason Lock, cover image by Helio Antonio.