Jaws or Nazare: Which big-wave surf break has it all?

Jaws in Maui and Nazare in Portugal are two surf breaks where the biggest waves in the world are ridden. They are both very different in almost every facet, except for the sheer magnitude of their waves.

We’ve pitted the two breaks against each other to see which has the legitimate mantle for the world’s premier big-wave surf break.


Aaron Gold at Jaws and a wave believed to be the biggest ever paddled. Photo WSL / Kuda Shots
Aaron Gold at Jaws and the wave believed to be the biggest ever paddled. Photo: Courtesy of Kuda Shots/WSL
Until the recent historic Jaws swell on Jan. 12, which saw Aaron Gold paddle into what many have called the biggest wave ever ridden, Nazare had the slight edge for wave size.

Garrett McNamara had towed into a record wave there in 2011 (registered by the Guinness World Record at 78 feet high), and in 2013, another wave of his was said to be near the 100-foot mark.

While measuring the exact size of a wave is an inexact science, most experts believe that the biggest waves ever ridden (all with PWC assistance) have occurred at Nazare.

Winner: Nazare

Gnarly Factor

“I’ve been scared out of my life at both breaks,” says Benjamin Sanchis, who won the XL Wipeout of the Year at Nazare in 2014 for the wave above.

“It’s almost impossible to say which is gnarlier. They both can kill you.”

Though Nazare has height, Jaws breaks with added width and volume.

RELATED: Artist surfs 20-foot wave while playing violin

“The thing about Jaws is that it breaks at 60 feet, and the funnels down the line for 300 yards,” Jaws local legend Ian Walsh tells GrindTV. “Making the drop is just the start of your problems.”

Countering that is the random, and therefore dangerous, beach break nature of Nazare. “You need a safety team at Nazare,” says Torsten Durkan, a Jaws local who recently spent a month surfing Nazare.

“At Jaws you have a channel and, in theory, a safe place. That doesn’t exist at a beachbreak.”

In 2013, Maya Gabeira experienced a near-death wipeout at Nazare, showing how gnarly the wave really is.

Winner: Nazare

Wows and Wipeouts

Up against the sheer perfection and clear blue waters of Maui is Nazare’s old-world charm. The giant waves break in front of the incredible vantage point of a 14th century fort. The incredible pyramid shape of the wave (caused by the offshore canyon) also adds a shock element.

However, it’s Jaws, and the ability to paddle the wave that has provided some of surfing’s most stunning moments in the last decade. It breaks like a normal wave, just at 20 times the height. The cartoonish blue perfection giving more wow (and more wipeouts) than any other wave on the planet.

Winner: Jaws


Ian Walsh first towed Jaws, but then lead the paddle in charge. Photo WSL
Ian Walsh first towed Jaws, but then lead the paddle in charge. Photo: Courtesy of WSL
This is an easy one. Jaws has been at the center of big-wave surfing for the last 20 years.

Initially, it was the local Maui windsurfers who revealed the scale of the wave’s potential, before Laird Hamilton, Darrick Doerner and friends perfected the art of tow surfing at the break throughout the late 1990s and 2000s.

However, by 2012, a group led by Ian Walsh and Shane Dorian started to paddle the wave and redefine what was possible (which continues to this day).

RELATED: Shane Dorian’s surfboard brought back to life after facing Jaws

Nazare is a much more recent big-wave phenomenon. While smaller waves at Nazare had been surfed for decades, the huge outside peaks were not thought to be rideable, until Garrett McNamara started surfing them in 2010.

Again, it was Shane Dorian who first paddled it at size in 2013, but this winter has been the first year that a group of surfers have dedicated themselves to catching waves without ski assistance.

Winner: Jaws

The Future

Shane Dorian paddles Nazare back in 2013. Photo Laurent Pujol
Shane Dorian paddles Nazare back in 2013. Photo: Courtesy of Laurent Pujol
“At Jaws what we were told was impossible, is now reality,” Shane Dorian told GrindTV. “It’s pretty exciting, although extremely risky. The commitment it takes to whip it and paddle a wave like this is next level.”

On the flipside, Dorian believes Nazare could provide the biggest wave ever paddled — at some stage.

“It’s early days at Nazare, but it has the potential to provide a wave as big as we have ever seen. I just hope I’m not the one in the spot to catch it when it comes through,” he said.

Winner: TBC

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