Departures: Billy Kemper’s Jaws Addiction

"I'm never comfortable in big waves. But I think that's the addiction I have: that feeling when you fight your fear and you basically overcome it."

Think of a guy who’s routinely defanged Jaws, and that’s Maui’s Billy Kemper. But think of the guy who inspired Kemper in waves of consequence, and the story runs deeper than the wins at Pe’ahi.

“My older brother [Eric Diaz] passed away when I was really young,” Kemper says. “He really attacked bigger waves, and I just wanted to be like him growing up. He was this bad-ass, raw, radical surfer. I looked up to him. He was my idol. I wanted to get barreled like he did, I wanted to do turns like he did. He made me want to surf big waves.”

His brother’s courage in big surf started an attraction that took hold of Kemper at a young age, as the Ho’okipa ratpack, including Billy, Albee Layer, Marlon Lewis, and Matt Meola, oriented their surfing lives around Jaws. One day, they snuck out after school without letting their parents know, and Kemper convinced his friends to tow him into 20-foot Jaws on his 9’9″ Matt Kinoshita-shaped gun. “That was our crew,” Kemper says. “Nothing was stopping us from that point on.”

Fast-forward to now: Kemper’s a two-time Pe’ahi Challenge winner, a globally-admired hellman, a small-wave standout, a devoted father and husband – much of that strength is grounded in the high-risk education that Jaws gives to those who invest fully in its lessons, even if you’re a seasoned vet, a class that Kemper has earned. For him, there’s no such thing as comfort at Jaws. It’s only when the sight beyond Kaupakulua Gulch – when that Pacific monster grins at the next N swell – is too alluring to pass up.

“I’m never comfortable in big waves. But I think that’s the addiction I have: that feeling when you fight your fear and you basically overcome it. It’s like a flow state where everything is in control without you really having control. It’s an addiction you can’t explain to anyone else.”