Jaws: A Bite Out of History

Three surfers chronicle their encounters with one of the most infamous waves in the world — Jaws.

Laird Hamilton on Jaws, Maui
Laird Hamilton – Pe‘ahi, 2008

With all the particulars necessary to create this kind of wave it stands to reason that it is a rare occurrence, and indeed Jaws reaches absurd heights only a few times each year, typically between November and March. So now let’s say that you’re a human being who makes his way several miles east of Pāʻia Town on a rough-shod dirt road and arrives at a cliff on one of those very few days when Jaws rises from the deep — and decides to surf it.

Today Jaws is internationally notorious as one of the best places on earth for big wave surfing — if not the best, depending on who you ask. Athletes from all over the globe will literally drop what they’re doing and hop on the next plane to Maui when it’s predicted to go off. But as much renown as it enjoys at present, Jaws was relatively unoccupied and anonymous for decades.

“There was only a handful of people who knew about it because it was so off the beaten track,” says Pete Cabrinha, multi-water sports athlete and Jaws pioneer. “It was sort of mystical and people were like, I hear there is this big wave spot that, you know, has no access.

For years the only real landmark that signaled where to turn off the highway for the break was a dome-shaped house, (which also gave the locale its first nickname, “Domes”), and the only way to reach the rocky beach was to scrabble down a sketchy cliff with your board tucked tightly underneath your arm.

In 1975, three surfers who had heard about the secluded spot — John Lemus, John Potterick and John Robertson — decided to check it out. They made it down the cliff and into the water, but within minutes of beginning their session the sea went from manageable to insurmountable, and the surf began to rage with the unpredictability and ferocity of a shark attack. Thus, they re-christened it Jaws in deference to the movie of the same name.

Regardless of its enticing new nickname, Jaws remained largely vacant, save for a few hearty and hale windsurfers. “You were really roughing it back then,” says Robby Naish, 24-time world windsurfing world champion and the first athlete to surf Jaws on an SUP in 2000. “There were no helicopters, no Jet Skis, no impact vests or inflation vests — just a pair of board shorts and holding your breath.”

But in the 1990’s that would all change.



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