Going Big

Author Ugo Corte explores the joy—and danger—of tackling monstrous waves

Standing upon the cliffs at Pe‘ahi on Maui’s North Shore and watching surfers drop into the world’s most monstrous wave is a surreal and humbling experience. Many bystanders surely wonder why these elite athletes willingly face grave injury and even death in their relentless pursuit of riding big waves.

Laird Hamilton towing in at Peʻahi. Photo by Sean M. Hower

The answer to that question, according to a new book by sociologist Ugo Corte, has much more to do with social psychology than it does with some kind of adrenaline-driven death wish. 

For his ethnography, Dangerous Fun: The Social Lives of Big Wave Surfers, Corte spent four winters in Hawai‘i interviewing 79 big wave surfers from all walks of life, took countless photographs and videos, conducted meticulous field notes, and even rode some big waves himself. We recently caught up with Corte to discuss some of the findings from his book. 

MauiTimes: What were your major goals in researching big wave surfers?

As a sociologist, I was interested in understanding the relationships among mentors and proteges, peers and rivals, and the social processes they entail, to understand how someone makes a dent in their field—in this case, the world of big wave surfing. I think this is the first book that addresses the following questions and their interconnections: How can we define fun? What is fun? And conversely, what is not fun? And why is fun fundamentally important for meaning, group cohesion, and creative action? Fun entails two basic elements. The first is joint hedonic satisfaction. The second is the delight in realizing oneself within the social, which promotes the binding of friendship groups.

German-born Sebastian Steudtner going left at Peʻahi. Photo by Sean M. Hower

MT: Given the dangers, how can big wave surfing be considered fun?

Big wave surfing is fun because it’s a highly dangerous pursuit leading to a very strong focus on the task at hand, and interdependence among participants. In essence, big wave surfers rely on each other for guidance in selecting waves, offering assistance to one another when something goes wrong, and perhaps most importantly, their ability to recall and narrate the feat when they’re done. Surfing smaller waves is all about pleasure, which is much more personal and usually fleeting. Surfing big waves is all about fun because sharing the experience with other participants is integral to the sport. In other words, big wave surfing is fun because it relies upon the complex and meaningful relationships these surfers form with one another and the ways in which they recall and relive the experiences together within their social circles back on land. 

MT: In the book, you discuss the day in 2011 where Shane Dorian famously paddled into a massive wave at Pe‘ahi instead of being towed in by jet ski. What was so pivotal about that moment in the history of big wave surfing?

Big wave surfers had been categorized as either tow-in surfers at waves like Pe’ahi, or paddle-in surfers at waves like Waimea Bay. That session changed the dynamic between the two types of surfers, while also igniting others’ interest in paddling Pe‘ahi and other waves. That session really established a new norm for big wave surfers: if one paddler is out surfing a big wave break, then jet skis should stay away. Dorian said the following about that particular day in Maui’s surfing history and the dynamic between the tow-in surfers and the paddle-in surfers: “That day changed it. For sure.”

MT: Any advice on how surfing can be more fun for all surfers and not just big wave surfers?

I respect that surfers are always going to protect the histories and hierarchies of certain surf spots. That is never going away. However, when we are willing to interact with one another out there, to cheer each other on and help each other get the best waves for our abilities and places in the pecking order, that social dynamic makes it a shared experience.  In turn, those social encounters make the experience far more fun for everyone involved. We should all be interacting with one another a bit more out in the water—respectfully, of course. 

To learn more about the fascinating social-psychology of the big wave surfing world, check out Dangerous Fun: The Social Lives of Big Wave Surfers.

Billy Kemperʻs big barrel at Peʻahi. Photo by Sean M. Hower

Beau Ewan