Why big wave surfer Sebastian Steudtner feels most at ‘peace’ at the mercy of Mother Nature

Why big wave surfer Sebastian Steudtner feels most at ‘peace’ at the mercy of Mother Nature
  • PublishedMay 4, 2024

As the swell begins to form and the crest starts soaring into the sky, surfer Sebastian Steudtner puts one hand back to feel the wall of energy rumbling behind him.

In just a matter of seconds, the giant wave starts to violently explode onto the shoreline, sending the 38-year-old racing through the chaos at speeds of almost 100 kilometers per hour (roughly 62 mph).

Set against these watery-monoliths of Mother Nature, Steudtner looks totally vulnerable, but it’s a brief moment in time when the surfer feels most at peace.

“It’s complete chaos and you would think, as an outsider, it’s terrifying,” the big wave surfer tells CNN Sport.

“It’s almost like a horrific experience, but it’s so peaceful to me. Everything becomes simple. Life in general, you know, you are consistently dealing with a hundred different things and fighting problems and challenges and you’re moving really quick.

“Being exposed to this radical, physical, ginormous energy, and being humbled by it makes me really peaceful.”

In these moments of serenity, Steudtner says he feels truly connected to nature, a part of one of the most powerful forces in the natural world.

At that moment, he feels no fear. Instead, he reaches a “flow state” where he doesn’t have to think, he just has to perform.

It’s a feeling he’s been chasing throughout his career as one of the most successful big wave surfers on the planet.

The German already holds the record for the biggest wave surfed, setting the standard in 2020 after riding a 26.21-meter (86-foot) wave.

He may now have broken his own record after surfing a monster wave in the famed surfing spot of Nazaré, Portugal. The huge wave was provisionally measured at 28.57 meters (93.72 feet), but needs official ratification before being considered a new world record.

But chasing records is very much secondary for the surfer who has dedicated his life to pushing both the limits of the sport and his body.

From Europe to Hawaii

Born in the middle of Germany, a long way from the ocean, Steudtner’s story is one of perseverance, underpinned by an unerring love of the water.

After getting his first taste of surfing while on holiday with his family at the age of nine, he fell in love with the sport. At 13, he told his parents he wanted to move to Hawaii to chase his dream of becoming a professional surfer. Three years later, he did just that.

“I found a mentor, a local native Hawaiian who took me into his family, kind of became my mentor,” Steudtner says.

“I learned the culture of surfing, the sport of surfing from the peers of the sport, from the people where the sport is from. That kind of started my journey and I just kept going and going.”

Steudtner, pictured here in 2016, has tried to use his talent to inspire others.

Steudtner, pictured here in 2016, has tried to use his talent to inspire others. Simon Hofmann/Getty Images

Big wave surfing is certainly not for everyone. It puts a person’s physical strength and mental fortitude to the test. The dangers are obvious and dealing with them takes years of experience.

Preparing for the worst-case scenario becomes an ominous part of daily life, and balancing the risk is a responsibility that might weigh heavy on some.

For Steudtner, though, it’s an environment he thrives in.

“Life’s a risk, right? The only thing that’s guaranteed is that we’re all going to die one day, so I believe taking risks is important,” Steudtner says, explaining his coping mechanisms.

“I’m not stupid. I’m not taking unnecessary risks. I would say I’m very calculated. Whenever I get scared and whenever I have fear of something risky that I’m doing, then I face it, I work my way through it, I take the responsibility for minimizing the risk.

“I spend more time on the preparation and getting ready for it than actually surfing the waves, but I think risk is necessary if you have dreams.”


After setting the record in 2020, Steudtner knew he could push his body even further and turned to science to improve both his and his equipment’s performance.

With the help of a team of experts, he set about collating data and improved the aerodynamics and water-repellent nature of his surfboard. He also changed the way he stood on the board to reduce drag when racing down the waves.

Now able to surf faster, Steudtner set about making sure he was safe to do so. Working alongside a military doctor from the German Navy, he developed new safety systems for the whole surfing community.

With no stone left unturned after years of work, Steudtner and his team were confident they could keep pushing the limits and may now have done so after a “special” day in February.

“We saw how stormy it was. It was kind of 50/50 if we were going to surf or not,” Steudtner says, recalling the day he might have broken his own world record.

“But as soon as we were out and in the ocean, and we saw the waves, Eric – my Big Wave partner who was driving the jet ski – and myself immediately went into hunting mode and it was on.”

Steudtner says he can still remember everything about the wave that could have set new standards for the sport.

He recalls it being “lumpy” and “hard to read” but looks back with immense pride knowing it was the result of such hard work from his entire team.

“For the first time, surfing the biggest waves in stormy conditions that were [previously] considered unsurfable. We made that possible and that, to me, is what’s special from that day,” he says.

Steudtner in Nazaré, Portugal, on December 14, 2018.

Steudtner in Nazaré, Portugal, on December 14, 2018. Stefan Matzke/sampics/Corbis Sport/Getty Images

Steudtner’s motivations to keep pushing the limits come from within, not born from accolades or praise from others.

He says he was born with an unfiltered love for adventure, and simply wouldn’t be fulfilled if he wasn’t fully pushing his body out into the depths of the natural world.

The former windsurfer has sought adrenaline from multiple sources, learning lessons from the art of boxing and the sport of downhill skiing.

But it’s surfing the biggest waves in the world which has most shaped his perspective on life.

“It’s the largest physical energy in the ocean which is about to explode on the shore, and I realize how small, little, insignificant and nothing we are as humans compared to nature,” Steudtner says.

“On the other hand, it’s me as this little insignificant human and I can perform. I can ride the wave the way I want to ride the wave. And that’s a very powerful feeling.”


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