Just before the start of the 2015 Pe‘ahi Challenge, the surfing competition at the monster-size Maui surf break also known as Jaws, Shane Dorian paddled into a mammoth wave and hopped to his feet at the top of its forty-foot peak.
Moments later his board broke free of the water and Dorian went into a free fall, a bad turn of events that onlookers had every right to believe was about to end terribly. With his toes barely touching the board and his arms flung over his head as he plummeted, he somehow remained centered. When the board reconnected with the wave’s face, Dorian was still on it, regaining control and riding the wave to completion. Witnesses were astonished.
The soft-spoken 44-year-old from Kailua-Kona did the same thing before the start of the Pe‘ahi Challenge in 2016, catching another pre-contest bomb that saw him sideslip, free fall, regain control and finish the wave—once again leaving witnesses slack-jawed. Neither ride counted in the contests, and he didn’t do particularly well in either event. In 2015 he finished in sixth place. In 2016 he didn’t even make it out of the first round. But for Dorian, trophies aren’t the point. Winning contests is great—and he’s won plenty—what matters more than anything is the personal experiences he has surfing.
“If I paddle out there and get an epic wave in the first fifteen minutes, I’m done for the day,” he says. “It’s so dangerous out there and the risks are so significant that if I get one really good wave, I’m good for the day—I’m good for the year, sometimes.”
That might seem like an odd attitude for someone who earns his living by surfing, but Dorian is forging his own way as a professional surfer, and it’s working out for him just fine. His big-wave exploits have won him numerous accolades and awards, including the Billabong Ride of the Year Award in both 2015 and 2016. With or without contest wins, he’s still regarded as one of the best big-wave riders in the world today.
Shane Patrick Dorian was born in 1972 in Kailua-Kona. His mother, a body-builder, and his father, a former Hollywood stunt double, ran a restaurant in Kona called Dorian’s. It was adjacent to Magic Sands Beach, a popular bodyboarding spot where the sand is scoured down to bare rock by winter waves, only to return again in the summer. Too young to work in the restaurant himself, Shane spent his days at the beach, surfing when there were waves and swimming, fishing and diving when there weren’t. That idyllic arrangement lasted until Dorian was twelve and his parents divorced.
But he kept on surfing, and after he turned fifteen he began spending half of the school year on O‘ahu’s North Shore, during the big-wave season. Surfing on the North Shore sharpened Dorian’s competitive skills, and soon he was part of the loose-knit group of young, dynamic surfers who emphasized aerial maneuvers and tail slides in what became known as surfing’s New School movement. The New Schoolers included the likes of Kelly Slater, still a close friend of Dorian. The approach translated nicely to the small, glassy, high-performance waves of Kailua-Kona, where Dorian surfed during the other half of the school year.
Dorian’s mother lived in Hōlualoa, the small upland town in the Kona Coffee Belt above Kailua-Kona—a short downhill drive to the beach. Hōlualoa is where Dorian and his wife, son and daughter reside today. He is a proud product of Hawai‘i Island, and while he’s seen the world through surfing, he’s an inveterate Big Islander. “There’s nowhere like the Big Island, and I think that’s because of the people and the culture,” he says. “You go down to the beach, and people are spending time with their kids, teaching them how to throw net [the traditional Hawaiian fishing method] and how to clean fish. The people here are open, they’re stoked. People tend to have time for you here.”
I meet Dorian at his spacious, airy house with views of the forest all around. Two spritely Pomeranians, Bear and Penny, scamper about the front porch. In the yard, the wooden quarter-pipe skateboarding ramp that Dorian’s ten-year-old son, Jackson, keeps in constant use sits under a canopy for protection from the afternoon rains. There’s a trampoline nearby, useful for mastering the finer points of aerial maneuvers. There’s also Dorian’s beloved four-wheel-drive Toyota Tundra for general transportation and surf trips, as well as a quad ATV for hunting trips.
Near the entrance to the property’s long driveway through the woods stands a cutout of a deer for target practice, as well as one tall tree displaying a dozen ram skulls. Dorian began bow hunting when he and his wife moved into this house in an effort to keep the wild pigs, which would dig up anything the couple planted, in check. Hunting soon became Dorian’s favorite hobby. He loves spending free time on multiday hunting and survival adventures in Colorado, Utah and throughout the Hawaiian Islands. While he sometimes hunts pigs, sheep and goats, he mostly goes after deer these days. “We don’t buy any red meat in my family, and we eat meat pretty consistently,” he says. “When we get low on meat, I go hunting.”
In addition to supplementing the Dorian clan’s diet with lots of lean, wild protein, Dorian’s bow hunting also benefits the environment. “All the introduced mammals in Hawai‘i are really hard on the native forest and our watersheds,” he says. “If you don’t hunt them, the population will double every three years.” And there’s a third reason Dorian is drawn into the forest with quiver and bow. “It’s very meditative,” he says. “I need bow hunting to keep me sane.” Some people surf after work to blow off steam, he says. But when you surf for a living, you need a different option. “For me it’s bowhunting,” he says.
Professional surfing is hardly a stress-free occupation, and professional big-wave riding—with its life-or-death stakes —is especially anxiety provoking. A near-death experience at Mavericks, a giant surf spot in Northern California, so unnerved Dorian that he seriously considered retiring from the sport altogether in 2010. Instead he channeled his trauma into innovation.
The waves were monstrous on that February day, slamming into spectators on the cliffs and breaking bones of people who weren’t even there to surf. Dorian pulled into a thirty-foot barrel that never let him out. The wave pushed him deep into one of Mavericks’ notorious trenches, where an underwater waterfall effect can pin surfers to the bottom. Despite his years of experience and sizable lung capacity, Dorian nearly blacked out before the wave finally let him go. But just as he returned to the surface, another monster wave engulfed him, sending him back to the bottom for another long hold-down.
When Dorian surfaced he was dazed and half drowned. A lifeguard on a jet ski fished him out of the cauldron, and later that day he paddled back out and caught another wave. But the experience deeply rattled him, making him think about leaving the sport. He also started thinking about how to make it safer.
When he got home he contacted the wetsuit designer for one of his sponsors, Billabong, the Australian surfwear company. Big-wave surfers were just beginning to use flotation vests around this time for safety. Dorian had an idea for building the flotation device directly into his wetsuit. Through a collaboration with Billabong and a Canadian company called Mustang Survival, which builds marine and aerospace safety suits, Dorian came up with a wetsuit equipped with a built-in air bladder and CO2 canisters. With the pull of a cord, the bladder inflates on the surfer’s back and rockets him or her back to the surface.
“I think the inflatable vest has changed so much as far as the safety aspect and people coming home to their families at night after the swell,” Dorian says. “It’s so much safer now to surf big waves, and that’s enabled a lot more people to go surf big waves.”
Today there are many varieties of inflatable vests used by big-wave surfers, and it’s considered foolhardy if someone paddles out on a really big day without one. Despite this advancement, Dorian stresses the importance of understanding basic safety skills for all surfers, regardless of wave size. “Anyone who surfs should be doing CPR courses and learning how to save people’s lives, because it doesn’t take big waves to kill somebody,” he says. “As far as surfing big waves, you’re crazy if you paddle out without knowing the absolute basics and having a plan in case something goes wrong.”
With the sun hanging low in the sky above Kailua-Kona, Dorian climbs out of the water after a surf session at the local break known as Banyans. Jackson, his pint-size partner in crime, follows behind him, sun-bleached hair hanging in wet curls on the shoulders of his baggy wetsuit. When Dorian is home from chasing monster swells around the world, he picks up Jackson after school and heads straight to Banyans to surf.
A steady stream of locals pat Dorian on the shoulder and shake his hand with friendly greetings. Known throughout the wider surf world simply as Dorian, here he’s called Shane, or Shane-o, the nickname his mom gave him growing up. The kids call him Uncle Shane or just Jackson’s dad.
Dorian spent eleven years as a pro surfer on the World Championship Tour before retiring in 2003 to focus on riding big waves. When he was 22 years old and just three years into his career as a professional surfer, he felt compelled to give something back to his community. So he established a kids surfing contest at Banyans called the Shane Dorian Keiki Classic. The contest, which has run every year since 1995, is open to all surfers under the age of 18, as long as they maintain at least a 2.25 grade point average. The entry fee is a can of food for the local food bank. A nonprofit organization spun off from the contest holds fundraisers twice a year to benefit up-and-coming surf talent from Hawai‘i Island.
“We’ve sent dozens of kids over to nationals in California,” Dorian says. “We’ve sent kids to O‘ahu and on surf trips to Tahiti and to go look at colleges on the East Coast—all kinds of different things.”
After ten minutes ashore, Dorian’s own kid sprints up to him. “The waves are getting better,” Jackson says. “Can we go back out?” His dark brown eyes are wide open, as if he’s trying to will his father back into the waves on pure cuteness and stoke. “You can but I’m done, buddy,” Dorian says. He’s encouraging but firm. He knows that because Jackson is small for his age, it’s easy for other kids in a crowded lineup to block him from getting waves. But he also wants his son to gain confidence to paddle out without him. That, and he is hoping that by not getting back in the water, he will get them home sooner for the nightly routine of homework, dinner, bath time and bed.
There was a time when Jackson showed little interest in his father’s sport. He was devoted to skateboarding but he hardly cared about surfing. That has changed, and now he’s equally passionate about skateboarding and surfing. Dorian didn’t want to push his son to follow in his footsteps; he let him find his own way there. Now he can hardly keep him out of the water.
“I’m done, buddy,” Dorian says. Jackson looks at his father with understanding, takes a deep breath and says, “OK.” Then he grabs his board and heads back out into the waves for a second session by himself. His father watches from the rocks. The waves are getting better and there’s still some daylight left. The nightly routine will have to wait. HH