Despite all the hype, all the crazy images we see on Shark Week and Kai Lenny’s Instagram feed, surfing is, by and large, a pretty safe sport. People do get injured, and a few die, but considering that we are immersing ourselves in huge, wild oceans and intentionally playing in exploding energy every day, the casualty rate is pretty low.
That being said, there are a handful of waves out there that are dangerous as all hell. Whether due to shallow reefs, thick lips, angry locals, or hungry sea life, these waves injure, maim and kill more people than most of the rest of the world’s waves put together. We’ve put together a list of some of the most dangerous so that you can avoid them at all costs—or, if you are a lunatic charger, go chase them down the next time they break.
The Sharkiest – St Leu, Reunion Island
Someone once wisely noted that if water is salty, it has sharks in it—which is a cheeky way of saying that there is always the risk of shark attack when sliding on waves. But some lineups are sharkier than others, and St. Leu is one of the sharkiest of them all. It wasn't so long ago that Reunion Island was a booming surf destination. In fact, the world tour’s first Rip Curl Search event was even held there, at the high-performance, left-hand reef point known as St. Leu. But a rash of shark attacks in recent years has led to empty lineups (mandatory at some breaks), shark culls, and a surf tourism industry that has pretty much been abandoned. Still, for those who are willing to brave the dangers of old whitey, St. Leu continues to peel off with mechanical precision, a perfect wave populated by a helluva lot of sharks.
SPOT GUIDE: Reunion Island
The Heaviest - Nazare
Gone are the days when people wrote Nazare off as a huge mushburger. If the world’s gnarliest big wave chargers say it’s the heaviest wave on the planet, then it is—and if you don’t believe them, all you have to do is fly to Portugal, make the long paddle around from Praia do Sul on a XXL day, and stare down a maxing wedge at Big Mama as you turn the corner in front of the cliff. Nazare is enormous and out of control and terrifying, with no margin for error and absolutely no safety zone. The wave was removed from the Big Wave Tour this year, and pretty much everyone stopped paddling it. That should tell you something.
LIVE CAM: Nazare
The Shallowest – One Palm Point
Before there was Skeleton Bay, there was One Palm Point. Somewhere in feral Indonesia there’s a perfect left-hand barrel that runs for nearly a mile. The only problem is that it explodes on dry reef the entire way. It’s 12 hours from the nearest hospital, and it’s not a matter of if you go head-first into the reef, but when.
The lunatics who surf it wear booties and helmets and customised full suits with body armour, and still rarely come away unscathed. I surfed it with Mikala Jones, and it was the only time I’ve ever seen him hesitate or wear a helmet. The only time his brother Daniel surfed it, he pulled into a 15-second barrel on his first wave, then bashed his face on the reef and paddled straight to the boat. Natxo Gonzalez went last year, and told me he never wants to see the lineup again. That pretty much sums it up.
WHEN TO GO? One Palm Point
The Most Crowded - Malibu
When does a gentle, waist-high peeler become one of the most dangerous waves in the world? When 1,000 people all try to surf it at the same time—which happens pretty much every day at First Point Malibu. The fact that the wave is a perfect logging canvas only exacerbates the problem, because everyone knows that real loggers don’t use leashes—even the ones who can barely stand up on their heavy, volan-glassed, single-fin death projectiles. If getting run over by kooks is how you want to die, go to Malibu—all your friends are already there. BONUS contender: Newquay Bay in Cornwall, UK on a hot summer's day.
The best time to go to Malibu? See HERE
The Most Deadly – Pipeline
When it comes to pure numbers, no wave is more dangerous—or has killed more people—than Pipeline. This is due to a combination of a shallow reef, one of the heaviest barrels on the planet, and the fact that virtually no wave goes unridden. Sure, a lot of the best rides in the history of our sport have happened at Pipe—and the number of epic barrels ridden versus the number of people who have been killed definitely makes the risk worth the reward. But the risk is real, nonetheless.
At least 14 people have died at the North Shore’s most notorious lineup, the most recent a beloved local bodyboarder who tragically passed in 2019. But the vast number of near misses and career-ending injuries is equally as sobering. Recent, noteworthy accidents include Owen Wright’s head injury during the Pipe Masters a few years back, Bede Durbidge’s destroyed pelvis, Dusty Payne’s face plant on the reef, and Evan Geiselman’s near drowning and rescue by world champ bodyboarder Andre Botha. But for every famous pro who goes down hard at Pipe there are a dozen unknowns who have also paid the price. The statistics tell the tale, and in this case they confirm that Pipeline is the world’s most dangerous wave.
Want to see your favourite heroes sling it over the ledge at Pipe? See when to go, HERE
Cover shot by Helio Antonio.