Best Surfer In The World
The sport of surfing is largely subjective, every surfer has their preferred type of board and surfing style. So what does "the best" surfer in the world even mean"?
There are several possible answers. Is it the surfer with the smoothest style? The one with the most World Championship victories? The rider with the most progressive moves? Or, do we define the best by who is willing to take on the biggest waves in the world?
My article will give you the lowdown on some of the greatest surfers in all of these categories so you can make up your own mind from an informed position.
Who Are The Best Surfers In The World?
Best Competitive Surfers
Well this one's easy, in theory at least. American professional surfer Robert Kelly Slater (who goes by Kelly Slater) hails from Cocoa Beach, FL. He won his first world title in 1992, aged just 20, and has gone on to be World Champ 11 times so far (he's still competing).
To put this in context, one of professional surfing's other true greats, Mark Richards, was dominant in the late '70s and early '80s and secured 5 World Championships.
For a long time, it was believed no one would beat that record. No one other than Slater has.
So, Kelly Slater is hands down the most successful professional surfer ever to compete. His other life achievements have been equally impressive.
He starred in the famous series "Baywatch", has played guitar and ukulele with artists including Jack Johnson, Angus Stone, and Ben Harper (as well as forming a band with fellow surfers Rob Machado and Peter King), and appeared in his own computer game "Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer" in 2002.
In terms of contributions to surfing, Kelly's firm "Slater Designs" produces some of the best boards currently on the market. If that wasn't enough, he has revolutionized the world of wave pools, with the Kelly Slater Surf Ranch in Lemoore, CA. being the first artificial wave ever to be deemed worthy of hosting a World Surf League Championship Tour contest.
However, is the most successful surfer of all time necessarily the very best surfer in the world in terms of skill? Kelly Slater has had a few notable rivals over his years in professional surfing. One of these who often crops up in conversations about the greatest surfer ever is Andy Irons (often referred to simply as AI). Born in 1978, Phillip Andrew Irons began surfing in Kauai with his brother, Bruce, at an early age. After being spotted by a local brand they began to compete, winning age division events (Bruce more often than Andy).
However, it was Andy who would go on to be a dominant figure on what was the ASP World Tour at the time. World Champion in 3 consecutive years (2002-2004), he won a large number of contests in the process and even regularly outperformed one Mr. Robert Kelly Slater. Personal struggles eventually saw him withdraw from full-time competition, although he continued to win many of the individual contests he entered, racking up 20 top-tier wins in total and being inducted into the Surfing Hall of Fame in 2008. It is very possible that, if things had gone differently, he would have held the title of most successful World Championship surfer of all time instead of Kelly.
Sadly, Andy's life was cut short on November 2, 2010, at the age of 32. The surfing world was devastated at losing such a true talent. His former sponsor Billabong has dedicated the Billabong Pipe Masters contest, surfing's most prestigious event, to his memory. Meanwhile, Andy's family manages a foundation in his name to support young people struggling with mental health and addiction.
A New Crop
In recent years, a different style of surfer has begun to dominate the world ranking tables.
A large part of this is the emergence of progressive aerial maneuvers and their impact on the judges scoring.
Julian Wilson, from Australia's Sunshine Coast, was one of the first to really showcase these skills on the world tour, along with Jordy Smith from South Africa.
Neither of them has claimed world titles as yet, but those who followed in their footsteps are a different story.
John Alexander Florence, known as "John-John", was born in Honolulu in 1992 and started surfing at a young age.
He grew up in a house on the beach in front of Banzai Pipeline, one of the world's best barrelling waves, and was the youngest surfer ever to compete in the Vans Triple Crown, a series of three surfing competitions held at famous spots in Hawaii.
John John is known as much for his skills in big surf as for his explosive airs and powerful turns. This complete package has seen him achieve very high scores in waves of all sizes. John-John Florence has so far won two world titles, in 2016 and 2017, and could potentially have taken more if a run of injuries hadn't kept him out of competition at a few critical times.
At the same time as John John's rise through the world surfing ranks, another youngster was also being introduced to professional surfing. Gabriel Medina from Sao Paolo, Brazil, joined the ASP (now World Surf League) Championship Tour in 2011, aged just 17, after winning a string of events on the amateur circuit and the World Qualifying Series. He joined mid-year and managed to rack up two world tour event wins in his first season,
In 2014, Medina started the season in style, winning the prestigious Quicksilver Pro Gold Coast event in Australia. This started a roll that saw him crowned World Champion later that year, at just 20 years old. He took the world title again in 2018 and 2021, making him a three-time World Champion at last count, an honor he shares with surfing greats Andy Irons, Mick Fanning, and Tom Curren.
Women's professional surfing has gained recognition and status recently. In 2019 the WSL announced equal prize money for male and female athletes, so the best surfers in the world finally get the same pay. They were one of the first sporting bodies to do so.
In any discussion of the best female surfers, it's impossible to overlook the achievements of two ladies who dominated the sport through the '90s and '00s.
Lisa Andersen from the USA won ASP World Championships in four consecutive years, from 1994-1997, before being sidelined due to injury. In 1998 she was named Conde Nast Female Athlete of the Year.
Andersen was so influential in the sport that the current designs of women's surfwear largely originated with what she was telling her sponsor, Roxy, she'd feel most comfortable competing in. She changed the face of women's surfing and several future world champions.
Lisa Andersen's withdrawal from competition paved the way for the longest run of world title victories in history (either men's or women's). Layne Collette Beachley was crowned as the women's World Champion surfer six years in a row, from 1998-2003, later taking the seventh title in 2006. Layne was so dominant in women's surfing at that time that she was given a wildcard entry into a men's top-tier competition in Newcastle, Australia in 2004.
The only other woman (so far) to reach the 7 world title mark came hot on Beachley's heels. The year after Layne's final title saw fellow Australian Stephanie Gilmore kick off a run of four World Championships, to which she added wins in 2012, 2014, and 2018. Her first title was especially impressive, coming in her rookie year on tour.
Gilmore is widely regarded as having the single most impressive competitive record in women's surfing history, being regularly compared to Kelly Slater in the men's division. What makes her achievements stand out from her predecessors is the quality of competition she has been up against throughout her career.
One of the best surfers Steph has had to contend with is Hawaiian Carissa Moore, a worthy contender for the world's greatest surfer in her own right. Whilst Gilmore has won her titles by showcasing style and grace on the wave, Moore brings a more powerful and almost aggressive approach with lots of progression and even some impressive airs.
Carissa Moore won her first World Championship title in 2011, winning again in 2013, 2015, 2019, and 2021. The latest of these came under a new format, with the inclusion of a World Final event. If five world titles weren't impressive enough, Carissa recently became the first-ever Olympic surfing gold medalist in women's surfing, securing a place in the history books. As current raining World and Olympic champion, a double no one else has held, her reputation as one of the world's best surfers is very well earned indeed.
Best Progressive Freesurfers
In surfing competitions, you only have a limited time and number of opportunities to catch a wave and build a score.
Sometimes, it's better to stick to your tried and tested moves than to take the risk on something more spectacular.
In free surfing, however, it doesn't matter if it takes 100 attempts to land that new air you've been trying. A professional surfer who goes down the free surfing route is usually paid based on photos and video clips where surfing style, expression, and progression are more valuable than consistently completing every ride.
Many professional surfers who compete on the World Championship Tour are also famous for their free surfing skills, which in turn feed their competitive successes.
John John Florence, Gabriel Medina, Julian Wilson, and Jordy Smith have all stunned audiences with their video edits over the last few years, showcasing new moves such as the backside rodeo air, sushi roll, and club sandwich, well before these had been seen in competition.
However, there are also a few notable free surfers whose success has not necessarily transferred into competitive results. Californian Dane Reynolds is probably the best known of these. Since 2008 his high-risk, explosive style has been wowing surf audiences all over the world. Many surfers will back Dane as being the single most skilled surfer in the world, despite his radical "all-or-nothing" approach and aversion to crowds, interviews, and the limelight not being well suited to WCT competitive surfing. If you want to check out his skills for yourself, the movies "Lost Atlas", "Castles in the Sky", and "Modern Collective" are great introductions.
Other notable performers within the free surfing world have come to the fore recently, with Australian Noa Deane (featured in Volcom's "Head Noise") and Hawaiian Albee Layer (see "View from a Blue Moon") being regularly named in the same breath as Dane.
Best Big Wave Surfers
Big wave surfing was born in the 1940s, with icons like Greg Knoll and his surfing partner Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana performing death-defying feats within the next decade which made the surf world pay attention to what was possible. With improvements in equipment and forecasting, big wave surfing continued to bloom throughout the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st.
One of the most notable and arguably best big wave surfers in the world is Laird Hamilton, who has surfed many of the biggest waves in the world. The Maui local is known not just for his surfing skills in truly enormous waves but also for driving the progression of the sport, being heavily involved in the development of new technology such as "tow-in" boards.
These allow surfers to be dragged into huge waves by a jetski, giving access to conditions too big and fast-moving for a traditional paddle-in approach.
If your idea of the best big wave surfer is about catching the biggest wave, things get a little more complicated. At the time of writing, the Guinness World Record for the largest wave ever surfed (Men's category) is currently held by Brazilian Rodrigo Xoxa at 80ft. However, several unofficial attempts since appear to be bigger, and there are currently two rides awaiting official adjudication in an attempt to set world records for surfing 100ft+ waves. One of these was in 2020 by an 18-year old Portuguese surfer called António (Tony) Laureano (initially measured at 101.4ft), and the other by legendary Hawaiian waterman Makuakai Rothman earlier this year (2021) at the infamous Jaws surf break (estimated 100ft).
In the female category, the standard of women's big wave surfing has improved immensely in recent years. Maya Gabeira of Brazil (the current World Record holder with a 73.5ft wave), Paige Alms of Canada, and Hawaiian Keala Kennely are leading the charge, quite literally, in waves every bit as impressive as those their male counterparts are taking on.
Kennely has looked especially impressive in giant Tahitian barrels over the past few years. In 2016 she won the Pure Scot Barrel award at the World Surf League Big Wave Awards for an absolute monster tube whilst competing against a field of male surfers. She could well have gone on to win the event itself, but was injured late in the heat and had to watch the final round, for which she had easily qualified, from a hospital bed.
There have been so many incredibly gifted surfers over the years, and the standard just keeps going up. It's relatively easy to identify a shortlist of the best surfers in the world but narrowing it down to a single champion remains a matter of personal opinion. I'm sure surfers and surfing fans will enjoy debating the topic for many years to come.