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.”