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.


Story by Catharine Lo  |  Photography by Patrick McFeeley

big wave surfingThe 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.

Archie Kalepa

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.

Kai Lenny

At the end of the 2008 winter season, Kai Lenny got the call. Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama were on the phone, inviting him to surf Jaws. Ride the mythic wave he’d been eyeing for years, escorted by his lifelong heroes? Even his parents couldn’t say no. In that session, Hamilton and Kalama introduced the young surfer to a new level of confidence and ability, as well as a waterman’s penchant for spontaneity. They made sure Kai’s initiation to his dream wave was one he wouldn’t forget—they towed him in on a notoriously unstable piece of equipment, a foilboard.

Surviving Pe‘ahi gave the seventeen-year-old surfer the confidence to face the heaving Tahitian break known as Teahupo‘o the following summer. Negotiating the crowded lineup, Kai was determined to catch a wave to himself as a big set approached. “I heard everyone hooting at me to go, so I turned around and paddled really hard. I stood up on the wave and I saw immediately that there was no way I would be able to make it. I straightened out—my goal was to outrun the wave and miss the mountain of water. Unfortunately, I didn’t outrun it. The lip of the wave hit me behind my shoulders and I felt my surfboard break under my feet. I was drilled underwater and I tried to hug my body but the wave was too powerful. It pulled my right arm back, and I felt the pain even more as I kept getting worked underwater. I was rag-dolled for a long time before I finally came to the surface and got a breath of air. I was a little freaked out, because I was dizzy and everything was blurry. The last thing I saw before I got clobbered by the next wave was half my board shooting out from underwater like a cannonball. That had to be the worst wipeout I ever had.”

Dave Kalama

If there is anyone who constantly validates his reputation as a true waterman, it is Dave Kalama. The big-wave specialist spends countless hours on the open ocean, riding pretty much anything that floats—canoe, sailboard, paddleboard, surfboard. His water time affords a wealth of experience, which paid off in what he describes as one of his most “do-or-die moments” ever:

“Laird [Hamilton] and I were together. It was a very large day, meaning sixty- to seventy-foot faces. It was my turn on the rope and he whipped me into this wave. We’d been pushing each other pretty hard, so my mindset was to try to get as deep as I could. I positioned myself in the most critical part of the wave. When I looked to the left, the wave had shifted. I realized I was in a serious situation—and at Pe‘ahi, putting yourself in a serious situation might mean life or death.

“I knew I needed to get as much speed as possible before dropping down, so I stayed at the top as long as I could. When I saw the wave start to break, this conversation began in my head. It was like the angel and the devil. The devil said, ‘Jump! You’re never going to make it!’ The angel said, ‘Hold your line! You can make it!’ This went on, back and forth, like five times.

“Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the lip just a few feet above my head, coming down like a semi truck, a guillotine. If that thing hits you, you’re done. It would have been 190 pounds of me versus the ocean. The situation is so intense that your mind can’t process the information fast enough. You just have to let go and let your instincts take over. Every ounce of experience, every minute of training I’ve had, all paid off in those few seconds. I dropped down, and the only way I was going to make it around the section was to fully commit and hold the line. I made it literally within a few feet of the lip hitting my head and got to the open face. Laird was right there to pick me up. It was total exhilaration. I told myself, ‘If I never ride another wave again, I’ll die a happy surfer.’”

Maria Souza

“The ocean is food for my soul,” says Maria Souza. “So big, so unpredictable, so powerful and yet so healing.” The Brazilian waterwoman’s passion has translated into some remarkable achievements: She and tow-in partner Andrea Moller were the first women to surf Pe‘ahi in 2006. They were also the first female team to standup paddle across the Moloka‘i Channel. Maria spends her time on land introducing others to Maui’s waters at her standup-paddling school. In spite of her all-around ability, she maintains a humble philosophy regarding ocean sports: You don’t have to be the best in any of them—“the best” is the person who has the most fun.

Late one afternoon in the winter of 2008/2009, Maria and Andrea took their ski to outer Spreckelsville to survey an unexpected rising swell. A massive set pushing fifteen-feet-Hawaiian appeared on the horizon, significantly bigger than they had expected. With nobody else out, they launched into what Maria describes as her “most soul session ever”:

“I wanted the second wave of the set, so Andrea pulled me in. It was a never-ending drop. The board caught the water like a sweet, magic flying carpet. Then I felt the rolling barrel starting to form, and the urge to accelerate. I pulled in. [The barrel] could easily have fit a bus. The image I have now from that huge tube is a like a screen saver that puts me to sleep everyday—much more incredible than the wipeout that followed. My small, humble board did not keep contact with the surface and speed of the wave. I had long hair then, and it was in a double braid held by a really tight elastic band. The band ripped off, leaving my hair like a thick spider web covering my face. I could not get air and was down for a long time. It also ripped my vest open and gave me sore muscles for a good month. But I caught a couple more, and Andrea got some beauties, too.”

Mark Angulo

Mark Angulo remembers eating breakfast at Charley’s after one of the first-ever tow-in sessions at Jaws and thinking, “Nobody in this restaurant has any clue that we just survived some of the most nutso stuff ever. Someone got barreled. Someone almost drowned. We just went to DEFCON 5.” The rush from a big-wave session is so incredible, he says, it’s like suffering post-traumatic stress disorder when it’s over.

A member of the Strapped crew that ushered in the tow-in revolution, and one of the most radical windsurfers on the planet, Mark has seen Jaws at its most glorious and most merciless. He recalls getting caught and duly pummeled in the impact zone one Christmas Day: “The whole lip came down and the thing just sucked me all the way to the bottom. It must have been thirty feet down—I could tell because my ears started to hurt. I had no floatation and no leash. I’m just getting tumbled and beat up, spun around end over end,” he describes. “Things start to slow down when you’re down there. You open your eyes and everything’s black, and you realize you gotta relax. It’s usually when you say a little prayer—‘Oh God, I’m sorry!’ When you get held down, ten seconds seems like an eternity. I looked for some light and headed in that direction. When I came up, my friend was there.”

In such situations, a reliable partner can be the difference between life and death. The Strapped guys, Mark says, were unconditionally committed. “At the end of the day, you had a group of guys you knew were willing to take it on the head just to give you another breath,” he says. “That’s a time that will never be replaced, all the experiences we had at giant Pe‘ahi and up and down the coast. You’d just be looking at your friend on the most giant, most perfect wave of all time. And then you’d go, ‘Did mine look like that? If mine looked like that, I gotta stop. That is too insane.’”

When they say . . . it means. . . .

Foilboard – A surfboard with a hydrofoil that lifts the board above the water’s surface; it’s intended to eliminate the negative effects of choppy conditions and enable surfers to ride open ocean swells that haven’t broken.

Going deep – Getting as close as possible to the pit, the most hollow section of a breaking wave

Section – A portion of a wave face divided by whitewater as the wave breaks

Dropping in / dropping down – Taking off on the face of a wave and maneuvering from its crest to its trough

Hawaiian-size scale – A wave-height standard based on a variety of attributes that local surfers use in gauging the size and power of a wave. Because it does not measure the face of a breaking wave, Hawaiian-size scale may be half the official wave-height report.


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