French waves

April 14, 2003

THERE'S REALLY nothing like the power of a big wave, all that water rising, cresting, crashing down and churning across dangerous shallows, like a building collapsing. The sound alone can be riveting, terrifying and unforgettable.

And among big-wave aficionados, certain beaches - particularly in Hawaii and California - are renowned for reliably producing these giant walls of water, swells 60 feet tall or more. As such, they are just about holy places, luring world-class surfers on high-risk quests that they tend to describe in spiritual terms.

It's also a passion that can bring fame and a big chunk of cash - via the Billabong-Surfline XXL Global Big Wave Awards that ended March 31. Whoever has ridden the biggest wave of the last year, established by video, rides away Friday with at least $60,000.

The last two years, the contest has been fittingly won on California waves. This year, the big-wave world believed it was over Nov. 26 at Maui's famed Peahi Reef - aka "Jaws" - where huge swells arose in what's considered one of the greatest days in surfing history. But last month, new entries turned up - from, of all places, southwestern France. And sure enough these photos show enormous water, the product of an Atlantic storm tracked for weeks by previously unheralded French surfers.

But hang on, those French waves may be bigger but they're not steep - having gentle slopes, not dangerously sharp troughs, from which wave heights are measured. For some surfers, it's enough of a sacrilege that these XXL waves arose in French waters. But they do seem awful, well, mushy. You know, more gnarlez than gnarly. And let's be honest, for better or worse, there are a lot of Americans unwilling to accord the French much of anything these days, let alone surfing's most macho crown.

Nonetheless, this contest now boils down to five finalists, two who rode the swells at France's Belharra Reef March 10 and three from "Jaws" Nov. 26. And the world of surfing faces an intriguing choice at once technical (How do you measure a wave without a defined trough?), diplomatic (French surfers?) and more or less religious.

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