While premodern and early modern surfers were thrilled and in some cases attracted to riding bigger waves, big-wave surfing as a specialized branch of the sport is often said to have begun in the late 1930s. Honolulu teenagers John Kelly, Wally Froiseth, and Fran Heath invented the streamlined hot curl surfboard in mid-1937, which allowed them to hold a higher, more controlled line across the wave; a few months later the same group ventured to the west side of Oahu and discovered the beautifully formed waves of Makaha. A right-breaking wave, best in winter and easy riding up to 12 feet, Makaha turns into a fast, roaring, challenging wall at 15 feet or bigger. A 1953 Associated Press photograph of George Downing, Woodbridge "Woody" Brown, and Buzzy Trent angling across a sparkly 15-footer at Makaha was published in newspapers across America, and inspired a group of California surfers—including Fred Van Dyke and Peter Cole— to move to Hawaii and take up big-wave riding in earnest. Two years earlier, Downing had made himself a racy 10-foot balsa-core surfboard, with a raked stabilizing fin (the hot curl boards were finless and made primarily of redwood), and the control afforded by this new board allowed surfers like Downing and Californian Walter Hoffman to ride waves half again as big as those ridden in the late '40s. This type of long, narrow board, designed to provide enough paddling speed to catch bigger waves, was later nicknamed an "elephant gun" by Trent; surfers still call a paddle-powered big-wave board a gun. (Pat Curren of California would later become surfing's premier gun maker, followed by Hawaii's Dick Brewer.)
A new era in big-wave riding began in the mid-'50s, as surfers started making regular visits to Oahu's North Shore, a seven-mile rural stretch of coast filled with more than a dozen breaks offering consistently large winter surf; the shifty A-frame waves at Sunset Beach in particular became a big-wave mainstay. In 1957, California surfer Greg Noll led a group of riders out to Waimea Bay for the first time. Fourteen years earlier, high school surfer Dickie Cross of Waikiki had paddled out at Sunset, got caught outside on a fast-rising swell, and drowned while trying to paddle through the huge waves at Waimea; after the Noll-led breakthrough in 1957, the photogenic and centrally located Waimea quickly became the last word in big-wave riding, and remained so for nearly 35 years.
Big-wave surfing was a media sensation in the 1960s. Virtually all surf movies ended with a Waimea sequence—Hollywood chipped in with Ride the Wild Surf, also featuring a Waimea climax—and big-wave articles appeared in Life, Reader's Digest, and the Saturday Evening Post, with Waimea challengers likened to astronauts and bullfighters. Wave height measurement had meanwhile become somewhat arbitrary, as play-it-cool big-wave surfers nonchalantly identified 40-foot waves, as measured from trough to crest, as 25 or 30 feet. (There is no demarcation line between big-wave surfing and regular surfing, but it might be said that the former begins at about 15 or 18 feet. Big-wave riders, furthermore, spend most of their surfing time in waves under six feet, as suitable giant waves are rare; in a good season, a big-wave surfer might find about 20 days of 18-foot-or-bigger waves.) The '60s era of big-wave surfing peaked in 1969, as Noll dropped into a 35-footer at Makaha, and soon after gave the sport up. Giant waves never went entirely out of fashion, but the specialty fell out of style as the focus shifted to small-wave riding and the nascent professional competition scene.
Big-wave surfing returned to the fore during the winter of 1982–83, as Waimea had its most consistent season in more than 10 years. Surfer magazine encouraged the renaissance with articles like "Whatever Happened to Big-Wave Riding?" and three years later the Waimea-hosted Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau event—named after the bowlegged Hawaiian big-wave master who died in a 1978 boating accident—became the first contest designed specifically for big-wave surfing. The west coast of North America soon revealed itself as a big-wave source equal to that of Hawaii, first with the rediscovery of Todos Santos in Baja Mexico in the mid-'80s, a break that had been surfed as far back as the early '60s, followed in the early '90s by the exposure of a San Francisco–area spot called Maverick's. Both are right-breaking waves; both hit the 20-foot mark with equal or greater frequency than Waimea. Maverick's made international headlines in late 1994, when Hawaiian big-wave pro Mark Foo drowned there on his first visit. Many of the era's most famous big-wave riders had come to Maverick's that week, including Brock Little and Ken Bradshaw of Hawaii, and California's Mike Parsons, Peter Mel, Darryl "Flea" Virostko, and Richard Schmidt. Foo was the first big-wave specialist to die in the water; two years later fellow Hawaiian Todd Chesser died after getting caught inside a set of 25- footers on the North Shore.
Big-wave performance improved slowly but steadily from the '40s to the early '90s, with riders occasionally able to ease into a long, attenuated turn, and on rare occasion ride inside the tube. But the big-wave ceiling had been stuck at 30 feet since the late '50s, as a paddling takeoff, even under ideal conditions, struggled to gain enough speed to overcome the rapid trough-to-crest current generated by the moving swell. Big-wave surfing's quantum leap took place in the early '90s, as Hawaiian surfers Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox, and Darrick Doerner began using a motor-assisted tow entry—first from behind an inflatable boat, then a personal watercraft—to give them a running start. Tow-in surfing allowed surfers to easily break the 30-foot barrier, and 50-footers were being ridden by the end of the decade. The miniaturized tow-in boards, moreover, allowed surfers to perform on huge waves in similar fashion to the way they rode eight- or 10-foot waves—tuberiding included. Jaws, a wind-whipped break on Maui, then used exclusively by tow-in surfers, was added to the big-wave register, while Jaws regular Laird Hamilton became the sport's dominant figure. Once again big-wave riding caught the eye of the mainstream media, generating articles in Rolling Stone, Outside, National Geographic, and the New York Times, and featured in documentaries on MTV and PBS. In God's Hands, another Hollywood big-wave movie, was released in 1998; Maverick's: The Story of Big-Wave Surfing was published in 2000. Big-wave surf videos were produced by the dozens, including Wake Up Call (1995), Condition Black (1998), Monstrosity (1999), and Whipped! (2001). Big-wave contests were held at Maverick's, Waimea, and Todos Santos, as well as in Peru (at a Sunset-like break in Lima called Pico Alto) and South Africa (at a Maverick's-like Cape Town break called Dungeons). The 1998 K2 Big-Wave Challenge initiated a different kind of competition in which the riders submit a photograph of themselves to a panel of judges, who then measure the wave height and declare a winner. The Tow-In World Cup, the first tow-in big-wave contest, was held at Jaws in early 2002. The Billabong Odyssey, a three-year big-wave project launched in 2001, billed itself as "the search for the 100-foot wave." Odyssey team member and four-time world champion Layne Beachley of Australia had meanwhile been recognized as the first hardcore female big-wave surfer; Brazil's Maya Gabeira and Kauai's Keala Kennelly picked up the mantle from Beachley shortly thereafter. Also in the early 2000s, Billabong began sponsoring the XXL Awards, a series of honors that included "Biggest Wave of the Year," "Tube of the Year," and "Monster Paddle of the Year."
Yet by the 2010s, paddling into big waves had made an inspiring comeback among a young vanguard of hard charging surfers. Led by Californians Greg and Rusty Long, and Hawaiians Shane Dorian and Mark Healey, big-wave riders largely began to shun tow-in surfing unless it was absolutely necessary. New safety technology, including buoyant vests, some with inflatable air bladders that could shoot the wearer to the surface, and breathable air canisters became regular parts of the big-wave surfer's survival tool kit. Heavywater breaks like Maui's Jaws—just a few years prior dominated by tow-teams and thought to be completely beyond the paddling realm—became testing grounds for new theories about just how big of a wave could be caught with the surfer's bare hands. "It’s the simple idea that paddle surfing is the ultimate challenge,” Long explained to the New York Times in 2011. "Anybody with any decent surfing skill can grab a rope and tow into a large wave."