Every year in late April, just as the North Pacific is going to sleep and the southern hemisphere is starting to kick into gear, big wave surfing’s biggest names gather at The Grove in Anaheim for a decidedly informal night of thrills, spills, and a couple hundred grand in the World Surf League Big Wave Awards.
This year was no different (except for the fact that we’ve just come out of the most active El Nino season in history), and the world’s best were up to their XXL shenanigans last night until the wee hours of the morning.
After nabbing an XXL entry back in 2014, I’ve had tickets to the gala for the past few years, but always found reason to avoid going—a swell, a trip, a weekend of training in the mountains. But this year, with a bunch of friends nominated for wins and gearing up for a trip right after the gala, I figured I might as well go—and what a year to attend!
Aaron Gold set a record with the biggest paddle wave in history (63 feet at Jaws on Maui), Niccolo Porcella defied death with the worst faceplant we’ve ever seen at Teahupoo (winning best wipeout), Keala Kennelly was the first woman to win an open category with her best barrel award (first woman to even be nominated for an open category, in fact), and Shane Dorian made it back-to-back sweeps of the big-dollar prizes, winning both ride of the year and overall performer for the second year in a row.
But the highlight of the night belonged, as it always does, to big wave legend and surfing icon Greg Noll. “Da Bull” took to the podium to announce the winner of the biggest tow-in wave, and in his speech mentioned that he’d been asked to keep things a bit more wholesome and family-friendly this year. He then launched into a lecture about taking care of your health when you are young, and shared a story about an old friend of his who recently had to go into the hospital for throat surgery.
For the first and only time of the night, the entire venue went silent as Greg talked about how worried they were for his friend, and how he’d waited nervously to get a call after the surgery. He explained that when that call finally came, it was a nurse from the hospital wanting to let him know that his buddy was alright—and that what they’d thought was cancer was really just a hairball that Greg’s friend had accumulated from years of sharing “oral pleasantries” with dozens of women (although Noll used decidedly less wholesome language when telling the story).
By the time he’d nailed the punch line, the silence in the venue had turned to uproarious laughter—but Da Bull wasn’t finished. He said his friend called him a month later to tell him that he was embarrassed because the whole town knew what had happened, but that, on the plus side, his phone was ringing off the hook with calls from attractive women.
The moral of the story, Greg explained, was that if everyone there at the XXL Awards wanted their phones to blow up with calls from attractive women—well, then they knew what to do.
So much for the pomp and circumstance of the “Oscars of big wave surfing!” But then again, that’s par for the course in the wave riding community. While other sports are golf clapping their way through doping scandals and gambling controversies, we’re rolling on the floor as 80-year-old legends introduce record-breaking rides with dirty jokes.
Here’s hoping that the culture of big wave surfing never changes—and that I get my invite again next year. In fact, I reckon it’s time to hit the road and hunt down another XXL entry. Next stop: Chile. Bring on the summertime south swells.
Rad's top 10 action sports, adventure events and music festivals in 2019 and 2020