The Giant Slayers
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.
The physics of catching a wave is fairly straightforward: You paddle to match as best you can the speed of the wave. If you’re going fast enough, you’ll slide down the face as the wave picks you up. If you’re not, then the wave will just pass you by. But if that wave happens to be gigantic, it’ll take you with it and treat you like a dog’s chew toy. The bigger waves at Jaws travel at around twenty to thirty miles an hour—simply too fast, it was thought, for a surfer paddling under his own power to catch. But if that surfer were somehow able to gain enough speed, those giant waves would be makeable.
Beginning in the ’90s surfers looking to advance the frontiers in big-wave surfing began testing out new methods to get into the wave earlier and at higher velocity. Pioneers like Laird Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox tried a few different methods, like towing in behind a cumbersome Zodiac before eventually settling on the nimble Jet Ski. “The Strapped Crew,” as they came to be called (because their surfboards were equipped with foot straps), opened up a world of possibilities. One of them, Jaws, became the movement’s proving ground. The rest of the surfing world watched in awe as the “men who rode mountains” towed in to waves once considered offlimits. It wasn’t long before thirty-foot rides became the norm, driving tow surfers to seek out ever bigger and more challenging waves. Just last year in Portugal, Garrett McNamara towed into the tallest wave ever ridden—estimated around 100 feet.
Despite its achievements, tow surfing has its critics. Most surfers will tell you that simplicity is at the core of the sport’s beauty, and purists rankled at machineassisted wave-riding. Not only that, but tow surfing had become overused: By 2010 a growing consensus among some of the bigwave elite was there were too many tow surfers clogging lineups for waves that probably could be paddled. It was time to get back to basics.
In the winter of 2011 the first seeds of a paddling renaissance were sown. At Jaws paddle-in enthusiasts including Ian Walsh, Shane Dorian, Yuri Soledad, Mark Healey and the late Sion Milosky thought the unthinkable. To those who know Jaws it sounded psychotic, but for those with a desire to push the boundaries of paddle surfing, it was the obvious next step.
As a teenager Walsh was known for both his technical prowess in small waves and his courage in conditions that could crush bones. As he matured, his love affair with killer waves grew. Now 30, he’s consumed with testing his limits in waves of consequence. “Growing up on Maui, Jaws has always been a special place for me,” says Walsh. “Tow surfing really came together out there. For a long time, that was the only way anyone would really consider surfing it. But then, a few winters back, along with a few other Maui locals, we began to look at the wave with a new perspective. Under the right conditions, if the winds were just right, we thought we could paddle it. It seemed a little crazy, but we thought we could do it.” Today Walsh is considered one of the founders and helmsmen of the paddle-in renaissance.
After paddling into Jaws earlier in the winter of 2011, the paddlers reached a new peak on March 15. In a wind-swept lineup and forty-foot-plus sets, they stroked their way into some of the biggest waves ever paddled into. Word spread throughout the surf world, and a video of the session quickly went viral. Although it wasn’t the first time Jaws had been paddled, the ferocity of the waves the men surfed on that day sparked a new era in paddle-in surfing. They had raised the bar to a terrifying new level.
“It wasn’t like we went out there trying to do something really special,” says Walsh. “We just thought it would be fun to try and paddle in if we could line up a set. It’s not easy, but the feeling you get when you paddle into one is amazing. I can tow into ten or twelve waves that are all a huge rush, but the feeling I get when I paddle into just one or two is completely different. You might ride fewer waves, but I would gladly sit out there for eight hours to get just one chance to go on my own.”
Since that monumental session, big-wave paddle surfing has retaken the front seat from tow surfing. The new attitude among big-wave surfers seems to be that if it’s even remotely possible to paddle, you must. The Billabong Global XXL Big Wave Awards, an annual event that pays tribute to the year’s biggest rides, gave more weight to waves that had been paddled into than towed. That year the March 11 paddle sessions took top honors: Dorian won the Monster Paddle award for a fifty-seven-foot behemoth. He would also go on to win a Monster Tube award for the same wave, while Danilo Cuoto took the Ride of the Year award for his paddle-in wave at Jaws in January. “I’d say we’ve definitely seen a shift toward big-wave paddle surfing in the last few years,” says contest director Bill Sharp. “The XXL Awards are a pretty good indicator of that. We really try and act as a mirror to what’s going on in big-wave surflng, and I think that shift has really been reflected in the event.”
Back in the lineups, more surfers are letting go of the tow-rope. Whenever conditions allow, they flock to Jaws to test their mettle. “Once we realized that under the right conditions we could paddle into Jaws, that was all we wanted to do,” says Walsh, cautioning that those conditions must be prime. “The most difficult part of paddling into Jaws isn’t the wave itself, but the wind. If it’s at all breezy it’ll create a chop that makes it a lot more difficult to surf, but if the winds are light it really opens up what’s possible.” Given that every ostensible limit in surfing seems destined to be broken, what exactly is possible? Even Walsh doesn’t know. “We’re definitely looking for that limit,” he says, “but I don’t think we’re anywhere near it yet.”
Finding a limit, though, means someone’s got to exceed it. Well before the waves arrived on New Year’s Eve 2012, surfers from across the world had congregated on Maui to prepare for what would be a day of days. The northwest swell that had been so trumpeted in the forecast had lived up to its potential, and there was barely a breath of wind. If ever there were a day to find a limit, this was it.
After hours of sitting in the lineup, 22- year-old Maui surfer Matt Meola had yet to catch the wave he’d been searching for. Then the horizon darkened as a fifty-footer churned straight toward him. Meola paddled his ten-foot board into position and began stroking toward the shore. As the wave reared, Meola jumped to his feet and deftly made his way down the wave’s colossal face. As he approached the trough, though, things got ugly: The wave broke and closed out ahead of him. Heading straight for that wall of whitewater, Meola had nowhere to go.
In what he compares to a violent car crash, the wave pushed him deep and thrashed him with such rage that he was forced to pull the cord on his inflatable vest. It wasn’t enough: Rather than floating to the surface, Meola continued to take a pounding. Just when he thought that he couldn’t make it another moment without air, he was pushed deeper. On the brink of losing consciousness, he surfaced—only to be greeted by another fifty-footer about to crash on his head. By the time a rescue Jet Ski got to him, Meola was slipping in and out of consciousness. But he was alive.
“I’ll never forget the beating I took on that wave,” he says. “When you’re surfing waves like that, you know death is a possibility, but when you come that close it shakes you. It’s made me question what we’re doing paddling into Jaws, for sure. But when the conditions get good again, I know that I can’t sit on the sideline. I’ll be out there.”
Not every surfer testing the limits is as lucky as Meola. On March 17, 2011, just days after that game-changing paddle session at Jaws, tragedy struck the big-wave world. While paddling in at a break known as Maverick’s in Northern California, Hawai‘i’s Sion Milosky, one of the sport’s most accomplished surfers and a major figure in the paddle movement, wiped out and drowned. Milosky was undeniably one of the most talented and conditioned athletes in the sport, and his death proved that in the realm of big-wave paddle surfing, tragedy is only a misstep away.
With the three-season-old paddle-in movement at Jaws now bona fide, some big-name companies are noticing. Last winter Red Bull announced Jaws: Paddle at Pe‘ahi, an invitation-only contest for twenty-one of the world’s best big-wave surfers. Like the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Big-Wave Invitational held at Waimea bay, Red Bull’s contest would run only in the right conditions: thirty- to fifty-foot surf and light winds. Those conditions failed to materialize last year, and the event didn’t run. But there’s always next year.
With Jaws serving as a litmus test, big-wave surfers across the world are looking at tow-surfing haunts with a new perspective. With the vanguard of big-wave surfers adopting the “if it’s possible, paddle” mentality, tow surfers may be relegated to the sidelines. Walsh is sure that tow surfing won’t completely disappear—there are certain conditions at waves like Teahupo‘o in Tahiti and Shipstern Bluff in Tasmania that even he believes can’t be paddled— but the paddle-in movement is here to stay.
There’s also the seemingly perennial question of what’s next for surfing as a whole. “Now that we’ve proven that it can be done, we’re rethinking a lot of things,” says Walsh. “Because we’re in uncharted territory, we’re still figuring out things, like how far we can take our equipment. But it seems like we’re reaching new ground every time there’s a huge swell. I don’t think that there’s an actual goal or size where we can look back and say, ‘Well, it looks like we did it. We surfed a wave that’s a certain height.’ It’s not about that. It’s about constantly testing the limits and seeing just how far we can push it … before we go over the edge.”