4 Waves That Are Harder to Surf Than They Look

Matt Rode

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Updated 33d ago

Surfers tend to be an obsessed bunch. When we aren’t actually riding waves, we spend our hours watching video of other people riding them, often in far-off, exotic locales that we also dream of one day surfing. We mind surf along with the sport’s best athletes, and convince ourselves that if only we could go there, we too would get barrelled for that long, or boost airs that big.

The reality is often much less pretty, as we tend to discover when we actually book trips to the lineups of our dreams. While some waves live up to the hype and are relatively easy to surf, others can be much more difficult than they appear. Here’s a list of four waves that look pretty straight-forward on screen, but are actually quite challenging in real life.

Skeleton Bay, Namibia

Skele Bay's best left to the world's greatest barrel riders.

When the first footage came out of Cory Lopez getting endlessly drained at Skeleton Bay, goofyfoots around the world started rubbing their hands in delight. An overhead sandbar that ran for miles, and barrelled the entire way—this was the best wave in the world, and it didn’t even break on reef.

Forecast: Skele Bay

For those first few months, the hardest thing about Skeleton Bay seemed to be finding it—until everyone did, and realised that things weren’t as easy as they seemed. First of all, Namibia’s crown jewel only breaks a handful of days per year, which already makes it hard to score.

Then, to top it off, the lineup is plagued by a raging current, the drop is as gnarly as Chopes, and the wave races away at breakneck speed, making it all but impossible to actually lock into the barrel of your life. Even the best in the world get smoked as often as not in their search for 40-second tubes. As Anthony Walsh once quipped, if you get into a wave easy at Skeleton Bay, you probably aren’t going to get a good barrel on it.

The Surf Ranch, Lemoore

Another wave that was revealed in the digital age, Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch blew everyone’s mind when the footage first came out—and has continued to be the standard against which other wave pools are measured. In theory, it is a pretty easy wave to surf—an easy drop into a cruisey, perfectly paced wave with fun turn and barrel sections mixed in to keep things interesting.

What makes it difficult is that the wave can’t be read the way normal ocean waves are, so you can’t see the sections coming and react to them. The only way to surf the wave properly is to memorize all of the sections, or have Raimana Van Bastolaer shout instructions at you from a jet ski—neither of which sounds very cruisey when you are trying your best not to blow a single wave that costs approximately as much as a plane ticket to Hawaii.

Waimea Bay, Hawaii

The shore break at Waimea is no joke.

The shore break at Waimea is no joke.

© 2019 - Pic uploaded to MSW by Joey Sadoy.

For aspiring big wave surfers, Waimea Bay has to seem like the perfect place to start. First of all, it has huge historical significance—it was pretty much the first big wave to be surfed! It also enjoys a huge channel where you can safely sit on the shoulder and slowly work your way into the lineup without risk of taking a rogue wave on the head (unless it’s an Eddie swell that is closing out the bay, and in that case big wave beginners probably shouldn’t be out).

Spot Guide: Waimea

Finally, it’s essentially a straight hander that at first glance appears to involve little more than dropping in and going straight, or possibly bottom turning to the shoulder. What you can’t see from the video (which is typically shot straight on) is the fact that the drop at Waimea has a crazy lurch to it. While other big wave spots allow you to roll in from the outside, Waimea is more like an oversized slab than a bombie.

It’s like a warmer, shorter, slightly less square Mavericks, with a boiled-out, beyond-vert takeoff that tries to barrel before typically flopping as the wave hits deeper water. While it is technically possible to roll in on the shoulder, if you are surfing Waimea properly, you are knifing it under the lip of a psycho lurch monster—and there’s nothing simple about that.

Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa

Golden J-Bay from a few months ago.

Golden J-Bay from a few months ago.

© 2019 - Deon Lategan

Technically speaking, J-Bay is a pretty easy wave to surf (if you discount the swarms of sharks and surfers in the lineup). But surfing it WELL is a whole different story.

When to go: J-Bay

The annual world tour event is a prime example of how J-Bay can pick apart a surfer’s weaknesses and lay them bare for the world to see. Very few surfers actually make J-Bay’s varied sections and relentless speed look good (think Mick Fanning, Kelly Slater, Joel Parkinson, Andy Irons, Occy, and Gabriel Medina), while everyone else appears to either be trying to keep up, or trying to slow down to find a section to hit—and these are the best in the world we are talking about. For the rest of us, there’s not much hope. Race down the line on the longest wave of our life? Easy. Surf the wave to its full potential? Virtually impossible.

Cover shot of JBay by Deon Lategan