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."
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.”
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