Surf Star

Riding High

NAZARE, PORTUGAL - DECEMBER 16: German big wave surfer Sebastian Steudtner poses for a photo on December 16, 2015 in Nazare, Portugal. (Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)
German big wave surfer Sebastian Steudtner in Nazaré, Portugal, where he picked up a coverted Biggest Wave Award in 2015.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    With world records being set in Europe, big wave surfing is gaining in popularity on the continent, helping to attract big name sponsors.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Sebastian Steudtner won the XXL Biggest Wave Award in 2010, and again in 2015, this time with a 21.6-meter wave off the Portuguese coast.
    • The current world record was set by Garrett McNamara in 2013 with a 24-meter wave.
    • Mr. Steudtner has attracted sponsorship from Mercedes Benz.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

There is a photograph of Sebastian Steudtner in which he appears as a tiny figure gliding along a monster wave, chased by an avalanche of white water. What does he sense in that moment, of the calamity poised above him? “Nothing,” he says. “I just see what’s in front of me. I’m only aware of what’s behind me when the crest of the waves breaks and the surf sweeps me off my board.”

Mr. Steudtner, 31, is a somewhat unlikely surf star. Born and raised in the southern German city of Nuremberg, hundreds of miles from the sea, his drive to face the fury of the ocean has carried him to surf stardom and two XXL Biggest Wave Awards, via windsurfing in Hawaii and a tough few years building swimming pools to fund his passion for the open water.

These days, he’s not an easy man to catch up with. Mostly he’s off chasing storms. But with a Mercedes sponsorship deal and the need to support his passion with a public profile, today he’s on the North Sea island of Sylt, the northernmost point of his homeland, filming a promotional video.

The sea here is calm and still. You get the feeling the big wave pro would rather be somewhere else. Big wave surfers don’t pick up awards at conventional sports events. You can’t schedule a wave – you have to hunt it down.

“If you’re hoping for big waves, you’re hoping for a storm,” Mr. Steudtner says. “Big waves are born far out at sea. We see storms ten days before their effects hit the coast and follow them online — at what angle the swell will hit reefs and sandbanks. The bigger the wave, the harder they are to predict because the parameters change faster.”

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