The day Bradshaw was whipping into 85-footers while Brock Little got stuck in traffic.
Ken Bradshaw gets towed into the wave that was, at the time, the largest wave ever surfed. Despite Bradshaw's vainglorious attitude after the event, it was very significant, and he does deserve the credit for that wave.
North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii, Wednesday, January 28, 1998 – Condition Black arrived on the North Shore, but it came with a bluebird day. Bright sunshine, light offshore trades, and a solid forty-foot of surf. There were some surfers around who were willing to give it a go, but there were a few problems associated with surf that big. The first obstruction was finding a place to launch. The Haleiwa Harbour was closed, so those surfers who managed to launch their skis went someplace else.
Phantoms, near Backyards, was the launch spot for those in the know, but the surfers who tried to launch at Haleiwa and were turned back, had no chance of getting back to Backyards, which was seven miles away at the other end of the North Shore. The traffic was so bad, with so many people watching the monstrous waves, that it was literally at a standstill at some view spots. If you know the Kam Highway, if the traffic is backed up, you're not going anywhere in a hurry. It's a single lane, and there's no shoulder for overtaking anywhere. The late Brock Little was one such surfer, stuck on the wrong side of the traffic at the wrong time, staring out at a 40ft swell he was desperate to ride.
Meanwhile, Bradshaw was out there with his tow partner Dan Moore, and as he says in a later interview, he was hungry. He wanted to snag the biggest wave. His time had come. Eight years earlier, at Waimea Bay during the Eddie Invitational, Bradshaw had pulled back on a monster, and Brock Little got it and rode it into immortality. He stood up and started the drop, hit a bump, and went skimming down the face. That photograph would soon be a poster on walls worldwide and became Little's defining moment in history; all on a wave that Bradshaw pulled back on. That must have grated on him.
Some general scenes from that day
There was another drama, though. At that stage, Ross Clark-Jones and Tony Ray were a tow team and were still good friends. They were out there, and RCJ had ridden four waves when Ray asked for the swap. Ross denied him, wanting one more. That was the wave that undid them, flinging Ross off his board and then mowing down Tony Ray on the ski. The fabled footage shows him fanging it but unable to outrun the beast. Ross and Tony drifted down the coast on their ski, until they were eventually rescued by Shaun Briley at Haleiwa Harbour. Quite a distance to drift on a 40-foot day!
Bradshaw's wave, however, was presumed to be the biggest wave ever ridden at the time. It was able to be discussed in such lofty terms partly because there is very little footage of it. Bill Ballard has some shaky footage of the wave that he shot from a rooftop on the beach at Log Cabins, but it is hazy, and most of the ride is obscured by the wave breaking in front of it.
There is a photo of Bradshaw that is often mistaken for the big one, but it was captured by photographer Hank, and it is of a smaller wave that Bradshaw caught that day, coming in at about 60-foot. When Bradshaw described the wave he caught, he said that it was definitely 10-foot bigger than the wave that Hank shot. By the time the spray settled, and people took stock of what had transpired, the wave had grown to 85-foot. That's the size that Bradshaw has stuck to since. At the time, it was the biggest wave ever ridden by a human, as Bradshaw was always keen to claim, and the footage by Ballard does show a colossal wave. Whether it was only 70 feet or maybe 75- foot, it still was an incredible wave and an astonishing achievement.
Many people have denigrated Bradshaw over the years for his brash approach, his huge neck, and his palpable hunger for fame. Still, he wasn't the only one who wanted to be famous. The late Mark Foo was totally into being famous for riding big waves and was always focusing attention on his own achievements as a self-proclaimed big wave legend. Similarly, the late Alec Cooke was another surfer who was unashamed in his self-flattery. Laird Hamilton is not the most humble of surfers either, and Garrett McNamara is not well known for being self-effacing. Even Kelly Slater seldom removes himself from the limelight. Many surfers, big-wave surfers and professional surfers alike do what they do because they need the gratification of constant applause. Today's voracious social media consumption also means that constant self-promotion and documentation of your feats is now a pre-requisite for maintaining a sponsorship contract and a career. If you don’t go Big on Instagram and Youtube then somebody else will.
Bradshaw is 68 years old, and although his big-wave mark has been surpassed, and no one really bothers with tow-surfing any more, for a while, he did hold a record that is well-deserving of recognition.