The Big Blue Ocean Exploration

Herculean waves pound Europe

Surfers give chase as historic swell bears down on the coastal regions

Jamie Mitchell flew all the way from Hawaii to France to catch this wave generated by the Hercules storm. Watch what happened to him in the video below. Photo: Laurent Pujol

Jamie Mitchell flew all the way from Hawaii to France to catch this wave generated by Winter Storm Hercules. Watch what happened to him in the video below. Photo by Laurent Pujol

The same storm system that paralyzed the U.S. in a deep freeze is already having a dramatic impact in Europe, where herculean waves are pounding the coasts, attracting curious onlookers and some of the world’s best big-wave surfers to its foreboding shores. Beaches in Ireland, England, France, Spain, and Portugal have all been under siege by surf ranging from 30 to 60 feet.

Professional surfers like Jamie Mitchell and Shane Dorian have been tracking the giant low-pressure system for days, and weighed their options as to where conditions would be optimal before heading to Europe from their winter homes in Hawaii. Get too close to the massive storm and conditions would be too messy. But choose a spot too far away and they’d risk missing some of the biggest and best waves. In their search for a big-wave break sheltered by wind conditions, they decided on a renowned spot called Belharra, off southwest France.

Surfers like Mitchell and Dorian spend their winters chasing one of the coveted Billabong XXL Big Wave awards, the most prestigious honors in the big-wave surfing community. Everyone monitoring the situation on Monday was stunned by the huge spike in wave size that was showing up on weather buoys. Bill Sharp, the Billabong XXL event director, posted the following comment Monday afternoon as surfers were embarking on their quest: “62+ FOOT SEAS were recorded via satellite within the Hercules storm over the Atlantic earlier today. The 62095/M6 Buoy off Ireland leaped to near 40 feet a few hours ago before it quit reporting. (It’s been knocked offline for the last couple of hours … who knows what it’s going through out there right now!) But a 20-foot jump in wave height in just two hours? Hang on, this is about to get really heavy.”

Look closely at the top of this wave and you'll see Shane Dorian backing away. Dorian is a winner of multiple Billabong XXL awards, and was hoping to bag another one here, but couldn't muster the paddle speed. Photo: Alex Laurel

Look closely and you can spot Shane Dorian at the top of this beast. He was hoping to bag another Billabong XXL “Ride of the Year” award with this wave, but it got away from him. Photo: Alex Laurel/Red Bull

If this surfer were 300 miles closer to the storm, this wave would be torn apart by wind, but in southwest France the conditions were close to perfect as 50-to-60 foot waves marched in.

If this surfer were 300 miles closer to the storm, this wave would be torn apart by wind, but in southwest France the conditions were close to perfect as 50- to 60-foot waves marched in. Photo: Alex Laurel/Red Bull

This photo of Lahich in Ireland, taken by George Karbus and posted on his Facebook page, went viral and showcased the start of Hercules’ fury.

This photo of Lahich in Ireland, taken by George Karbus and posted on his Facebook page, went viral and showcased the start of Hercules’ fury.

As of Wednesday, it appears Mitchell, Dorian, and the others surfers who gambled on Belharra reaped the sweetest rewards, as conditions were optimal in southwest France. “Jamie looks to have caught the wave of the day,” says Sharp. “Unfortunately, he fell while trying to make the drop, so he won’t be eligible for Ride of the Year, but it was a valiant effort, and there’s always the biggest wipeout category.”

After reviewing the video of what transpired on a boat afterward, Mitchell was in good spirits. He noted how after traveling all that way, he had to at least try to make the giant beast. “But I’m not sure what else I could have done to make it,” he said.

In the end, the storm seems to have peaked Monday night, meaning some of the biggest waves may have gone unridden. But its sheer size gives Sharp some optimism about what’s possible in the future. “This is the most intense storm I can remember seeing in my 20 years of tracking these things. There was an area bigger than Spain on the Atlantic Ocean with sustained winds of 50 knots. That’s just massive.”

But Sharp, and the surfers who chase waves, know that every single element has to come together for the magic to happen. “In some places it’s pretty clear the swell peaked overnight,” Sharp explains. “In other places the local weather just tore things up, and it was too stormy. But one thing this storm proves is the 100-foot wave is easily possible. All it has to do is match up with the right reef, under the right conditions, during daylight hours.”

Massive waves hit the Azores Monday, sending an early signal to surfers in Ireland, France and Spain of what was to come. Photo: Antonio Araujo

Massive waves hit the Azores Monday, sending an early signal to surfers in Ireland, France and Spain of what was to come. Photo: Antonio Araujo

Look closely at this photo of waves slamming the coast of Portugal and you can see the fists of Hercules. Unfortunately, the swell was a little messy at Nazare, where some surfers were hoping to score.

Look closely at this photo of waves slamming the coast of Portugal and you can see the fists of Hercules. Unfortunately, the swell was a little messy at Nazare, where some surfers were hoping to score.

The historic Villa Belza in Biarritz, France, standing tall in the face of Hurcules' fury.

The historic Villa Belza in Biarritz, France, standing tall in the face of Hercules’ fury. Photo by Arnaud Texier

The lighthouse in Cornwall England has been getting battered by this storm. Photo: David Clapp/Caters

The lighthouse in Cornwall, England, has been getting battered by this storm. Photo by David Clapp/Caters

Kurt Rist braved the harsh conditions of Mullaghmore Head, Ireland, to nab this beast.

Kurt Rist braved the harsh conditions of Mullaghmore Head, Ireland, to nab this beast.

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