Story by Jeff Mull
January 21, 2011. A thin, salty mist hangs over the lineup at a legendary surf break on Maui’s northern coast. From the cliff that stands vigil over the spot, spectators have gathered to watch surfers pit themselves against a wave so frightening that it’s been nicknamed “Jaws.” During the biggest winter swells, waves of thirty to sixty feet unload on the outer reef at Pe‘ahi, and whenever that happens, Jet Skis swarm through the lineup like bees around a hive. Most of the surfers in the water are tow-surfing—a dangerous dance where the rider is whipped into a wave by a Jet Ski. But not every surfer on this day has an attending Jet Ski: Huddled in a pack, a crew of paddle-in surfers is about to make history. For decades it was accepted that Jaws was too steep, too fast and too powerful to be surfed conventionally; paddling in would be suicide.
When a thirty-five-foot wall of water marches toward the lineup, the Jet Ski drivers hit the throttle, and tow ropes grow taut. By contrast the paddle surfers wait patiently, holding position. As the giant wave approaches and rears, one of them goes for it. Because he’s riding a traditional big-wave board, Ian Walsh doesn’t have the luxury of catching the wave long before it breaks, the way the tow surfers do. His timing must be perfect: If he’s too late the wave will pitch and he could die. As the wave crests, Walsh whips his board around and begins churning the water with the power of his own two arms. Then he pops to his feet and drops, through the chop and howling wind, down the face to the trough, and then he drives to the safety of the shoulder ahead of a blast of whitewash as tall as a house. Walsh has paddled into Jaws and in so doing helped open a new chapter in the already incredible story of big-wave surfing.