Most people will agree that, when it comes to surfing, barrel riding is the ultimate experience. And generally speaking, the bigger, heavier, and deeper the barrel, the greater the thrill. Obviously what constitutes a “big” barrel is different for each person—not everyone can ride a 40-foot tube at Jaws, and, to be quite honest, not everyone wants to.
For some people, an overhead keg at their local beach break is huge and scary and exciting—and that relative nature of surfing is part of the beauty of the pursuit. But those at the top of the surfing food chain have taken barrel riding to new heights over the past decade, and, thanks to the ubiquitous nature of surf and social media, we fans now get the chance to ride along with them, virtually in real time. So while most of us might never paddle huge Teahupoo or Cloudbreak, we certainly know when someone pushes the sport forward with the latest and greatest tube ride.
In case you’ve been preoccupied with filling your own tube quotient lately—and no one would blame you if you were—we’ve put together a list of some of the biggest, baddest tube rides in history. Obviously this isn’t meant to be comprehensive—any subjective list like this one will end up excluding dozens of worthy rides, so feel free to point out any we missed in the comments below.
And you will note that we have intentionally left some of the best tube rides in history off the list (such as Koa Smith’s mind-bender from Namibia a couple of years ago). That’s because this is meant to be a list of the heaviest barrel rides, not necessarily the longest or most perfect. And finally, you will note that we only include paddle waves on this list. That’s because everyone knows that towing doesn’t count.
With that being said, here’s our list, in no particular order, of the most monumental barrels ever surfed.
Ian Walsh, Peahi
The barrel at Jaws had been successfully ridden for nearly two decades before Ian Walsh paddled out for his heat in the 2018 Peahi Challenge, both by tow surfers and a handful of paddlers like Shane Dorian and Albee Layer. But Ian’s wave was on another level, both for how deep and long it was, and the fact that he rode it during a heat. It was awarded a perfect 10 because the scale doesn’t go any higher, but if you compare it with other barrels ridden during the same heat, it was clearly a 12.
Ramon Navarro, Cloudbreak
Cloudbreak might not be the biggest or most consistent big-wave spot on the planet, but on the rare occurrence that it goes XXL with good wind, it very well might be the best. There have been a handful of legit Thundercloud sessions over the years, but the most monumental might be the swell during the Fiji Pro, when textbook perfect conditions and a pumping 12-18-foot swell showed the world what Cloudbreak was capable of.
A lot of good waves were ridden that day, but Ramon’s was the standout—and the fact that he was overlooked for a Big Wave Award nomination was the year’s biggest controversy. Ramon would go on to tow the biggest wave ever ridden at Cloudbreak nearly a decade later, but it is his original paddle wave that all Cloudbreak rides should be measured against.
Nic Von Rupp, Maverick’s
For decades, the left at Mavs has been one of surfing’s great unicorns. Surfed on occasion by Mavs pioneer Jeff Clark, the left is much heavier and hollower than the right, and stays open where the right typically pinches.
The problem is that when Mavs hits legit size, the left becomes virtually unpaddleable. That all changed this past winter, when perfect conditions and an all-star crew saw the left at Mavs become the focus rather than a freak sideshow. A number of the world’s best big wave goofyfoots packed slabs on the left that day, including Will Skudin and Manny Resano, but it was Nic Von Rupp’s acid drop to arm bar barrel that set the standard for Mavs sessions to come.
Laurie Towner, Shipsterns Bluff
If Teahupoo introduced the world to the beauty of slab surfing, Shippies showed us its ugly side. The twisted, stepped-out Tasmanian slab was paddled up to around eight foot, but above that quickly became the realm of the tow crew—until a young Laurie Towner paddled out and showed the world what was possible.
On location with Billabong’s A-team to shoot their latest video, Laurie was relatively unknown, while nearly everyone else in the water were established legends. While guys like Andy Irons and Joel Parkinson whipped Shippies and gathered clips, Laurie sat out the back and waited for a wave with an entry. He ended up paddling a next-level beast that doubled-up into something out of a nightmare—a legit 12-foot slab that to this day is arguably the biggest barrel ever paddled at Shipsterns—and established himself overnight as one of surfing’s greatest and most understated hellmen.
Natxo Gonzalez, Nazare
Portugal’s most famous wave—and quickly becoming one of its most iconic landmarks—Nazare is widely considered the biggest, scariest, most dangerous lineup in existence. Yet for all of its heroics, it is a very difficult wave to get barreled at, even from behind a ski—a fact that has led some people (who have obviously never surfed the wave) to call Nazare a burger.
During last year’s Nazare Challenge, Natxo Gonzalez put that criticism to rest by backdooring an “inside” wedge and muscling through the best barrel section we’ve seen ridden at Portugal’s oversized beach break. He scored a 10, made the finals, qualified for the 2019 tour, and came this close to winning Ride of the Year at the Big Wave Awards.
Grant “Twiggy” Baker, Peahi
There was only one wave that had the potential to beat Natxo’s Nazare effort—and it was a somewhat controversial one, because it was an incomplete ride. But despite the fact that he didn’t come out of the barrel on his feet, Twiggy’s wave during the first round of the Peahi Challenge was still being heralded by those whose opinions mattered as the greatest wave ever ridden.
It was the biggest wave paddled in 2018/19; the drop was unlike anything we’d ever seen before, including a 40-foot, double-up step in the middle of the face; and the lip that Twiggy snuck under was as thick as any we’d seen at the wave most people called the world’s biggest barrel. The fact that the foamball ate Twiggy before he could exit didn’t matter. His body and board were catapulted out onto the shoulder, where he shook it off, paddled back out, and assumed his rightful place at the top of the big wave hierarchy. World champion. Biggest wave of the year. Ride of the Year. Biggest barrel ever paddled.
Cory Lopez, Teahupoo
While Tahiti’s infamous wave is now a household name, back in the late 1990s it was just starting to gain recognition as the heaviest reef pass in the world. People knew about it—and knew how scary it could be—but no one had really explored the upper limits of its paddleability.
Then Cory Lopez spun on a legitimate 12-footer—the thickest, darkest wave anyone had ever attempted to paddle—and freefell into its depths. No one even knew if a wave like that was survivable, let alone surfable, but Cory packed it like a champ—in the middle of a heat, no less. Despite the fact that he didn’t make the barrel, Cory’s drop and commitment to the bowl on a wave that heavy redefined what was possible on a surfboard. Two decades later, the number of waves that have been paddled at Teahupoo at that size can be counted on one hand.
Nathan Florence, Teahupoo
If Cory Lopez showed the world what was rideable at Teahupoo, Nathan Florence picked up where he left off and showed us what was actual makeable. His wave was arguably as big and heavy as Cory’s, but Florence took off 10 feet farther down the face, finessed his board through an impossible high line above the foam ball, and somehow got spit out of what many consider to be the best barrel ever made.