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Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Updated: December 27, 1:43 PM ET
High-stakes surfing

By Jake Howard

Punta Galea, located outside of Bilbao in the Spanish Basque Country, is the site of the Arnette Punta Galea Challenge, the BWWT's first-ever qualifying event.

If professional competitive surfing's big problem with breaking into the mainstream consciousness is the scoring system's lack of easily translatable tangibles -- longest ride, biggest wave, highest air, et al. -- then consider big-wave surfing the solution. Now into it's fourth year, the Big Wave World Tour (BWWT) continues to evolve and morph into something worth watching.

A risk to life and limb, the rugged man-vs-nature aspect of big-wave surfing unquestionably makes for good theater. Look no further than Greg Long's Dec. 21 wipeout at Cortes Bank to see how drastically one day in the water can move the needle. During the week leading up to Christmas the surf media had shifted into neutral. Joel Parkinson's world title was in the books, and most news outlets were in holiday mode. Then came Long and his posse of hellmen.

Tackling 50-foot faces 100 miles off the California coast set the scene. A near-death experience that involved a heroic jet ski rescue and a Coast Guard helo pick-up off the deck of a mega yacht named "Mr. Terrible" provided the drama. After aspirating salt water and blood, Long miraculously survived to spend Christmas with his family. Hollywood couldn't have written a more glorious script. The surf media picked up on it immediately, beaming it out across web sites and social media channels. Overnight Long's death-defying incident had been elevated to one of the stories of the year around the world ... during what is hands down the slowest time of year for surf news.

Thankfully Long survived to slide another day, but his incident is evidence that there's an audience out there for high-stakes surfing. BWWT organizers understand this, and to a point, are hoping to capitalize on it. "We are working on developing the Big Wave World Tour for international television and digital distribution, with expanded sponsorship opportunities for marketers who understand the power and appeal of big wave surfing," ascertains tour director Gary Linden. "The spectacle of big wave surfing combined with the fascinating stories about the surfers and the surf spots makes for compelling television that transcends typical surf event coverage and appeals to people whether they surf or not."

"We're looking forward to a big run of swells in the Northern Hemisphere," continues Linden. "On deck we have the Mavericks Invitational, The Nelscott Reef Big Wave Classic in Lincoln City, Oregon, and the Todos Santos Especial."

Punta Galea
Just because Punta Galea is a qualifying event doesn't mean it's any less hard to ride.

But one challenge tour organizers face right now is consolidating all of the other big-wave events under their umbrella. In August Brazil's Carlos Burle won the Billabong Pico Alto event in Peru, the first stop on the BWWT schedule. Other big-wave contests have just entered into their respective waiting periods. On the calendar this year include the Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational in Memory of Eddie Aikau and the Red Bull Jaws event on Maui. All contests are pending huge surf.

"Big waves, everybody understands what they are when they see them," says Don Meek, a former group publisher of Surfer and Surfing magazines who is currently lending Linden a hand. "There are a lot of challenges with a big wave world tour, but it also has a lot going for it. It makes sense to people, it's not just radom scores. A big wave is a big wave."

Change is coming for the BWWT. They've added a qualifying event to their schedule this year. The Arnette Punta Galea Challenge will take place at Punta Galea, Spain, and will add a much needed European element. "The importance of the qualifying series is monumental for the growth of the sport and culture, the two major goals of the BWWT," explains Linden.

Over the years the biggest obstacle the fledgling tour has had to contend with is the surf itself. Getting big, perfect days at enough spots to string together a tour is no easy feat. Last year only two of four events ran, which made the year more or a less a write off. Peter Mel was named the default champion. But with some early-season swells already hitting Hawaii, the West Coast and Europe, and a mild El Nino system lurking in the Pacific, January and February could prove to be pretty good.

"All eyes are fixed on the swell models and we are anxiously awaiting that perfect combination of 30-50 foot surf with clean conditions," says Linden.

Undoubtedly, so is the rest of the surfing world. It should be an interesting winter.