Nelscott Reef: an infamous big-wave surf spot breaking off the coast of Lincoln City, Oregon | Photo: The Find

Nelscott Reef is a surf break located half a mile (800 meters) off the coast of Lincoln City, Oregon, United States.

Oregon's ultimate big wave was named after the town's fourth district, and it is one of the most accessible extreme surfing arenas in the world.

Surfers launch right from Canyon Drive Park, and spectators can watch from the beach or on top of the cliffs in Lincoln City.

The Nelscott Reef structure can be observed at a depth of about 18 feet (5.4 meters).

With the right east wind and west swell, the waves will jack up to between 25 and 50 feet (7.6-15.2 meters), thanks to the magical power of the local underwater rock shelf.

Welcome to one of the most unpredictable waves on America's West Coast.

Nelscott Reef: a wave that is similar to its Northern California neighbor, Mavericks | Photo: The Find

History of the Surf Break

The Killamook - or Tillamook - Coast waves were first ridden in the 1960s.

Art Spencer was one of its pioneers. He and a tight crew of surf explorers initially welcomed outsiders with warmth and respect.

However, when the original variables changed around the early 1970s, they realized the precious treasure in their hands and made sure they would hold on to what they got.

"The guys that were really causing a lot of the problems, bad vibes and vandalism, were the guys who were surfing," noted Spencer.

John Forse was one of the first outside surfers to adventure into Nelscott Reef.

After spending his early surfing years in Steamer Lane, Northern California, Forse moved to Oregon and found uncrowded spots with quality waves.

"I really didn't expect to find the good surf that I've found since I've moved here," recalls Forse.

"The surfers here are different from Northern California, where you have a lot of competition. The surfers here are kind of naive."

In 1989, the California ex-pat spotted a 30-40-foot natural wonder breaking in the distance, but the first take on the wave only occurred in 1995.

After recovering from a traumatic shark attack at Gleneden Beach, the intrepid surfer and a friend got in a zodiac.

They explored the Siletz River and the Killamook Coast through the infamous reef in search of something special.

The ocean conditions were uninviting, with a 20-second period, 17-foot swell producing 35-foot-plus waves.

Moreover, the offshore winds were so strong that the surfers could not get down the face of the wave.

After taking off on a big wave, Forse was blown out the back and realized he was about to get pounded by another colossal mountain of water.

The duo survived the ordeal, returned to the zodiac, and rode home.

In 2002, John Forse invited Peter Mel and Adam Replogle to witness the wave's power in person.

"He came into my shop, and he was telling me about a wave that was, as he said, as gnarly and big as Mavericks," reveals Mel.

"And I was like, 'this guy's a kook. There's not another wave like that.' Then he brought in a video and showed me, and it was legit."

"Unfortunately, it took me ten years to get out there, but once I finally realized our first experience was unbelievable."

When the Santa Cruz duo arrived at the crime scene, they were mesmerized by Nelscott Reef's power and riding potential.

The waves were rising in the 40-50-foot range.

So, it was indeed a real big wave surf break, despite the cold winters, snowy mornings, and quietness of Lincoln City.

Nelscott Reef: a wave that can easily reach 50 foot | Photo: Nelscott Reef Tow In Classic

Getting the Nelscott Reef Tow In Classic Underway

Forse realized he had to put Oregon's gem on the surf radar. So, the inaugural Nelscott Reef Tow In Classic took place in 2005.

The historical big wave surfing event was made possible thanks to Forse, Mel, Repogle, and technical inputs from Garrett McNamara, Mike Parsons, and Chris Bertish.

At the time, there were many controversies - and localism - around the decision to run the contest on the Pacific Northwest surf break.

The event's first four years are documented in "The Find: Claiming Nelscott Reef," a movie directed by Erich Lyttle.

"I spent ten years trying to get locals involved, trying to get them to go out on a Wave Runner with me and towing into these waves, but nobody would have anything to do with it," explained Forse.

"Now, all of a sudden, there's people claiming because they happen to live in some kind of proximity to this wave, and it's theirs."

The first-ever contest had a three-month waiting period and 48-hour notice. Forse sold properties in Mexico to fund the event.

Zach and Jack Wormhoudt won the 2005 Nelscott Reef Tow In Classic.

By 2008, it was the only tow-in contest on the North American continent and Oregon's only professional surf event.

After conferring with big wave contest guru Gary Linden, and based on competitors' feedback and spectator enthusiasm, John Forse decided to integrate the paddle-in into future events.

Kealii Mamala went home with the win for the first-ever paddle-in contest at Nelscott Reef.

The contest unofficially marked the opening of the North Pacific big wave season.

Predicting a day in which the surf is large enough to hold the event with weather and wind conditions coinciding with that swell is extremely difficult.

However, operating in a three-month holding period, John Forse proved his local knowledge of the reef he pioneered with four years of perfect calls.

Nelscott Reef: a massive, fast and heavy wave that produces hollow barrels | Photo: Red Bull

Pioneering Changes in Big Wave Surfing

In 2009, in addition to the tow-in contest, the organizers also crowned the first Kingfish title to the individual scoring highest in both tow-in and paddle-in events.

"It's part of what makes Nelscott Reef such a unique wave," said John Forse.

"There are just not that many places on the planet that can accommodate paddle in and tow in at the same time."

In 2010, the Nelscott Reef Tow In Classic became a paddle-in-only event and crowned Kohl Christenson champion.

Keala Kennelly took the top honors in the inaugural women's exhibition competition.

The year 2013 featured the first physically challenged competitor, and one year later, the organization debuted the Nelscott Reef Uninvitational Pro-Am to showcase young guns and emerging talents.

In 2017, the competition became the first big wave event to include women, which helped pave the way for other big wave events to open their doors as well, including the World Surf League's Big Wave Tour.

"One of the biggest challenges we have is simply getting everyone out to the reef in a timely and safe manner," noted Eric Akiskalian, former big wave surfer and ocean safety expert.

"On big days, you can't paddle out through the pounding beach break. You need a PWC assist, and even then, it takes a lot of jockeying around on a ski to punch through a 20-foot beach break."

"Once out there, we operated on a man-on-man basis - one ski for each surfer in the water."

"We had some of the best watermen in the world operating the skis while constantly focusing on risk management and keeping everyone safe throughout the event."

Nelscott Reef: Oregon's shark-infested, cold water, big wave surfing break | Photo: The Find

Weather and Surroundings

Oregon is a cold, wet, wild coast defined by prominent headlands, river mouths, vast coastal dunes, mighty spits, and expansive beaches.

The water is cold, ranging from 46-52 °F (8-11 °C) in January to 55-64 °F (13-18 °C) in August.

The region is also home to great white sharks.

"The wind and rain are intense, and storms often generate swells so near to shore that it's hard to make it out through the short-period waves," notes Antony Colas, editor of "The World Stormrider Surf Guide."

Still, on a good day, surfing in Oregon can be as fun and rewarding as surfing anywhere in the world.

Near the mouth of the Columbia River, Highway 101 connects the historic town of Astoria with the broad, sandy beaches of North Oregon.

US Highway 101 stays close to the coast, leading into the surf hub of Lincoln City, with its surrounding beach breaks and reefs, including big wave spot Nelscott Reef.

Then, it winds down through lovely coastal geography past Boiler Bay, Otter Rock, and the extensive beaches at Agate, both great learning spots.

Nelscott Reef: the home of the original big wave contest run by John Forse | Photo: nelscottreef.com

The Wave

Nelscott Reef is a challenging wave offering plenty of opportunities.

When arriving at the beach, surfers are presented with a monstrous A-frame, offering both lefts and rights and occasional barrels.

The lineup is often infested with kelp, and the take-off zone requires previous study and careful analysis.

Great white sharks are also frequent swimmers, so surfing alone is incredibly dangerous.

The wave is fast and seldom reminds us of its neighbor, Mavericks, and its Hawaiian counterpart, Jaws/Peahi.

Depending on the speed, offshore wind can be a surfer's ally or enemy.

Light easterly winds combined with westerly groundswells will ensure optimal conditions, especially in January.

Nelscott Reef has several take-off zones - outside and inside - then a southern peak and the shore break.

Getting out can be extremely tricky. Jet skis and boats have to face mountains of whitewater, tacking back and forth.

Wipeouts can be massive, and closeouts are not that rare.

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