Big Waves, Epic Tales
Winter is when monster surf pummels Maui’s North Shore—and tempts extreme watermen and women to risk life and limb for the thrill of the ride.
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The ocean lets us know when it’s winter in Hawai‘i. Foamy whitewater transforms the seascape that invited summertime frolic not so long ago. We watch as massive storm waves that have traveled an inordinate distance across the Pacific make their first rendezvous with land, unleashing on Hawai‘i’s shallow reefs. A palpable charge—an unadulterated blitz of negative ions—permeates the air. It directs our attention to the sea, and in the hearts of devoted watermen, it awakens an irrepressible lust for surf.
In the early nineties, a group of extreme Maui surfers led by Laird Hamilton began using motorized personal watercraft (WaveRunners and Jet Skis) to propel each other into waves too big and too fast to catch by arm-paddling. Known as “the Strapped crew” (because of the foot straps on their boards), they pioneered the technique on Maui’s North Shore at an alluring but deadly wave called Pe‘ahi, from which surfers had, until then, kept a safe distance. The taming of the break—so treacherous that it earned the nickname “Jaws”—ushered in the era of tow-in surfing. As the sport opened up new frontiers, Pe‘ahi remained an object of big-wave obsession; each winter, it continues to validate its rank among the Everests of the sea.
Watching lifeguard Eddie Aikau in action at Waimea Bay as a kid inspired Archie Kalepa to adopt the same pursuits—saving lives and riding big waves. In October, following a summit with American Indian tribal leaders, Archie completed a 187-mile pilgrimage through the Grand Canyon on a standup paddleboard. The forty-six-year-old ocean-safety supervisor has surveyed diverse waters in many faraway places. But, he insists, “I can tell you firsthand there is no place like home.”
At 4 a.m. on December 13, 2004, Archie was driving to Maliko Gulch, on Maui’s North Shore, under a full moon. He arrived at the lookout spot where a group of tow-in veterans were surveying the waves. The buoys read twenty-seven feet, twenty-one seconds—“unheard-of, really big.” Archie and his tow-in partner, Buzzy Kerbox, launched from a friend’s backyard, negotiating the whitewater that was sweeping up to the lawn. They made it to Pe‘ahi to find thirty other skis in the water. “It was the biggest I have seen since I started surfing—it was seventy feet,” Archie describes. “This was the real deal.
“Buzzy and I watched it for about fifteen minutes to see what direction the swell was and how big it was—it was big. At that point I told Buzzy, ‘Give me the rope. If I watch it any longer, I might not want to go.’ We got set up and no one was towing. Everyone was just watching. My first wave was pretty big, maybe fifty feet. After that first wave, the jitters were gone, and Buzzy and I were feeling good. Some ten waves later, we were waiting deep, and this bomb came. I signaled to Buzzy, and he looked at me, and we both knew this was the one. Laird was going for the same wave, but when he saw how deep we were, he waved me on. As I dropped down this mountain, it seemed to get bigger. I faded deeper, then readjusted my line—I had only two choices: either straighten out or pull into this massive barrel. So I pulled in and had the ride of my life.”
That wave went on to be nominated in the “Biggest Wave” category at the Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards. The image of Archie—and of all these surfers—dwarfed by a colossal wall of water speaks in glaring superlatives, but in the end, words and photos can only say so much. The truth is, to adapt the surfer’s credo, only a big wave surfer knows the feeling.