Consider two representations of two very big waves, below. The first is a photograph of Mike Parsons at Cortes Bank. The second is a video of Garrett McNamara near Nazare, Portugal. Now take out some measuring tape and make the distance of one foot between your hands. That's the amount, according to the Billabong XXL committee, that McNamara's wave is bigger than Parsons's wave.
One foot is also what makes McNamara's 78-foot wave the new world record and Parsons's 77-foot wave the old one, as it was tentatively announced a Guinness World Record.
So how does this committee of judges determine that the filmic representation of one wave is a single foot bigger than the photographic representation of another wave?
You'd think that it was a very scientific process that involved charts and graphs and graphs of charts. You'd think that the committee might send someone to the surf-spots to try to assess exactly how many feet below sea level part of each wave breaks. You'd think that this person would bring the photograph and the video with them to determine, from the exact site where each wave was documented, what was overlooked on film. Basically, you'd think that some on-site research and head-scratching would occur.
According to Chris Dixon, who has served on the XXL panel in the past, the judging process is, as it turns out, a surprisingly crude estimation. In an article for Surfer magazine, Dixon recounts his own experience as a judge, writing, "...the process is fraught with peril." Dixon also points out the ambiguity of important questions including, "Where's the trough? How tall is the surfer to the inch? What about different camera angles?"
A variety of arguments could be made for why a judging panel feels the need to assert that one wave is bigger than another, when, by their current process, that's clearly indeterminable.
It could be said that it's part of a larger cultural trend to have everything quantified. If you tuned in to the Nike Lowers Pro, that trend may have been apparent to you as everything from the rides scored 1-to-10, to value of the trophy, to the number of followers held by each surfer on Twitter was measured and broadcast.
For a long time big-wave surfing was impervious to this compulsion with measuring-up. Waves were just big or really big and that was enough. Buzzy Trent is often quoted for saying, "Big waves aren't measured in feet, but in increments of fear." The recent announcement suggests that perhaps that's no longer the case.