Keala Kennelly: “It Swallowed Me Whole”

Kauaian charger talks massive Teahupoo tube

Keala Kennelly, going where no women have gone before. Photo: Thouard
Keala Kennelly, going where no women have gone before. Photo: Thouard

Fact: Keala Kennelly is one of the hardest charging and most determined female big-wave surfers to have ever lived. Even Slater said so. For over a decade she has consistently pushed the limits of what we thought was possible for a woman—or hell, anyone. And the thing is, she's not doing it for a paycheck. She doesn't have a crew of fellow hellmen (or women) chasing swells across the globe with her. She doesn't even have a consistent tow partner. She does it the scrappy way—by jumping on a plane, showing up at the biggest swells, and waiting for her turn to outdo everyone. Last week, she overcame lingering fears of the 2011 Teahupoo wave that nearly ripped her face off, and caught what's been called the heaviest wave ever ridden by a female.

Tell us about the day of the swell. What was it like at Teahupoo that morning? 

My flight got into Tahiti at 5AM the morning of the swell, and then it's a two-hour drive to the end of the road. I keep my tow board at my Tahitian family's house on the point, so I grabbed that and paddled out to the lineup in a kayak with all my gear and was able to get on a boat with Brent Bielmann. I spent the entire day all geared up waiting for a turn with the tow rope, but skis were limited and the sets were inconsistent so it was taking a long time for guys to get waves. I waited all day. Finally, at the end of the day, Raimana took a break and was nice enough to let me borrow his ski and driver.

Now the wave. How did you end up on that one? What was going through your mind?

I had been waiting all day, so by the time I actually got a chance to get a wave the wind had picked up and it wasn’t as clean. That was making me a bit nervous, but knew I wasn’t going to be happy if I watched all day and didn’t get a wave of my own. I passed on a much smaller one that had some chop on the face and when I saw that one standing up I knew it was going to be a bomb so I was like, “OK, this is it. This one is for you Salope”—Salope is a nickname I call a dear friend of mine that is battling Stage 4 cancer. I let go of the rope and I dropped down into it.

Walk us through the wave—and wipeout.

I had to come into it real straight-on because when it sucks below sea level it creates a trench that you don’t want to come at sideways. If you do, you can catch a rail. Once I got through that trench I bottom-turned up into the barrel and stuck my line. I was pretty determined to make it out of the barrel, but the wave turned mutant. The west bowl bent back at me at a 45-degree angle right as the bottom of the wave dropped out. It just swallowed me whole.

I got pinned on my back against the reef and was held there for a while. I came up and got a breath just in time to get the next wave on the head. It slammed me on the reef with so much force it blew my helmet off. The whole left side of my body hit really hard, and I felt like I broke my elbow and my hand. But after that wave I had so much adrenaline running through me, part of me wanted to go back out and get another one, but I was bleeding and in a lot of pain.

Kennelly, between a lip and a sharp place. Photo: Collins
Kennelly, between a lip and a sharp place. Photo: Collins

Did you have flashbacks of your gruesome 2011 wipeout?

I had a few during that beat down. I think about it every time I surf Teahupoo now because my accident happened on a small wave. That wave is so powerful from 2 to 20 feet. You are never really safe out there. There is always the possibility of something really bad happening. I was originally so traumatized from that horrific injury that it took me two years to go back to Tahiti after the accident. When I chased the “Code Red 2” swell in May 2013—the one where Koa Rothman caught his epic bomb—I knew if I waited another year I may never go back to Tahiti. The morning of that tow swell I saw Makua hit his face on the reef and it was a reminder of my injury and the very real consequences. But I dug deep and found a way to overcome the fear. That day, Kealii Mamala whipped me into the biggest, best barrel of my entire life. I came out after the spit. The whole channel exploded in cheers. To come back and get a wave like that after my injury was a huge personal triumph for me, and a defining moment of my life.

Now it seems like you’ve gone as heavy as you can go, right? What now? Will you always be on a mission to go bigger and deeper? 

Man, I don’t know. Every time I get a bomb that outdoes anything I’ve done previously I think to myself, "Yeah that’s it. I will never top that one.” But I’ve said that to myself a few times now, so who knows? I definitely don’t think I need to go deeper than that one. I was pretty deep. I would much prefer being a little less deep and actually making the wave and not getting the crap beat out of me!

Obviously you love the adrenaline rush, but what really compels you to keep pushing so hard? Do small waves even get you excited anymore?

Big-wave surfing has been a priority of mine since I left the Tour, but I still love surfing small waves. I just went on a trip with the “surf bunnies” [young, female pro surfers] in Indo and had a ball. But yes, there is a rush I get from surfing these kind of waves that I haven't been able to replicate doing anything else. It’s definitely not about proving anything. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to anyone—except for maybe myself, just to know what I’m capable of. And I certainly don’t do it for the money, because there is no money in women’s big-wave surfing!

Here’s an Instagram vid of Kennelly’s mammoth ‘Chopes drainer: