Billabong XXL

While surfers in the Northern Hemisphere await the arrival of El Niño-fueled big winter waves, there has been no shortage of massive swells around the world in the last six months.

Just last week, Shipstern Bluff - a notoriously shallow wave off the southern tip of Tasmania, Australia - produced some of the most spectacular rides of the year and triggered numerous entries into the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards.

Spawned by a massive storm in the Southern Ocean, the huge swell was challenged by a group of big wave chargers including Aussies Marti Paradisis and Karl Atkins, who used jet-powered watercraft to tow into the towering walls of water.

Visiting surfer James Hick - who hails from the unlikely hometown of Jersey, England - accomplished some of the day's most heart-stopping rides.

The devilish Tasmanian surf session also featured its share of spectacular wipeouts.  Despite the bone-jarring impacts, there were no serious injuries.

Several successfully completed waves are now candidates for the Billabong XXL Ride of the Year Award and its US$50,000 first prize.

The tenth annual Billabong XXL Awards take place in California next April, honoring the biggest and best rides of the previous twelve months, anywhere in the world, based on photographic evidence.

Other top rides to date include a huge paddle-in wave by Greg Long at Puerto Escondido, Mexico.  Long - from San Clemente, California - is no stranger to the XXL stage, having won the 2009 Ride of the Year Award last April.

Also topping the contenders for the Monster Paddle Award is South African Grant Baker, who stroked into an oversized peak at Dungeons, near Cape Town on the southern edge of the African continent.

Mark Mathews of Maroubra, New South Wales, crossed his home continent to score one of the year's roundest tube rides in Western Australia.  Both Baker and Mathews are previous XXL finalists.

This season has also seen some of the most spectacular rides ever turned in by female surfers.

Three-time Billabong Girls Best Performance winner Maya Gabeira of Brazil rode what may be the biggest wave ever by a woman at South Africa's Dungeons, and seven-time ASP world champ Layne Beachley was filmed emerging from one of the deepest tubes ever claimed by the fairer sex at Maroubra, near her home in Sydney, Australia.

Meanwhile, the strengthening El Niño weather condition bodes well for the North Pacific and Atlantic as surfers in Hawaii, California and Europe prepare for bigger-than-average storms and swells in the coming months.

The biggest waves recorded in the Pacific Ocean in modern times occurred during the last two major El Nino events in 1997-98 and 1982-83.

Surfers have until the end of winter on March 19, 2010, to qualify for the Billabong XXL Awards and its US$130,000 in prize money.

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