Recent Nelscott Reef Pro event winner Emi Erickson only started surfing 10 years ago–which is surprising, considering she often paddles out at the world’s scariest breaks and is among the best big-wave chargers in the world. But considering big-wave surfing is in her blood (her dad is none other than Waimea hellman Roger Erickson), the 29-year-old North Shore resident seemed more or less destined for heavy waves. You’ve likely noticed Erickson at WSL big-wave events, flying down extra-large wave faces on a black-striped single fin (yes, just the one)–an equipment choice that has surprised many and is an ode to her roots. We recently caught up with Erickson to talk about history, how she feels about the outcome of the 2018 Jaws Challenge and how her recent win at Nelscott Reef has given her a boost in confidence moving forward.

Congrats on the Nelscott win! As I understand it, the event itself was quite different than a normal, WSL-sanctioned big-wave event in that there were no jerseys, heats or typical judges.
Yeah, it was more of a grassroots event–the community came together to support the event. The night before the event, there was a lot of organization still to be done, but we had a meeting with all the surfers and organizers and we all decided to split the prize money equally between ourselves. The next day, the women did an hour freesurf without the men and there were some photographers shooting and there was some drone footage. We all saw each other's waves and then at the end of the night, we got together to celebrate and took a little vote on who surfed the best and got the best waves.

So it was an athlete-voted win?
Yes, based on the experience of those who already know what big-wave surfing is and everyone who experienced it out there.

That's interesting–that must’ve felt like a stark contrast going from the WSL-sanctioned and judged Jaws event to something much more grassroots.
The thing with Jaws is that no one made a wave in the final except me. I think in a surf contest it's a little confusing if you don't complete a wave and still win first or second. So, yeah, I have a very different perspective on apparently surfing in general than those judges did. But I think it's interesting that the surfers take the vote because they all know what's going on. They all have experience, whereas I don't think all of the [WSL] judges are big-wave people. It's experience-based and it's really hard to understand if you don't do it. I'm not a ski jumper so I don't understand how to judge that [laughs.]

Had you been to Nelscott before the contest?
No, I hadn't and that was a big draw for me. I was looking forward to a new experience. I make that one of my priorities in life–to get to new spots and connect with more people. I liked the wave–we had great conditions and good weather. It was about 12 to 15 and rising when we were out there. Most of my experience is in warm water, so wearing a 5-mil wetsuit was a challenge.

I know you surf Waimea a lot. How does Nelscott compare?
Way different. Nelscott is an outer reef on a beachbreak. There's a right and a left and I haven't seen it proper 20 feet, but from what I can tell there can be long lefts and right. Seemed like the left was a little bit steeper, so I was having a lot of fun on that. My background in surfing is teaching myself how to surf maxing Sunset, so I love rights and big slopey turns.

That's how you got into big-wave surfing?
I came back to Hawaii when I was 17 or 18 and I boogie-boarded maxing Sunset for my first winter back and I didn't look at it as an impossible thing. I know some people have boundaries in their mind, which I just didn't have for some reason. The next winter, my dad had all these old boards under the house. He's a big-wave guy, waterman and lifeguard. I just took one out and three months later was air-dropping into waves, cracking a rib, breaking boards. It's all been crazy.

You've been known to ride single fins at Waimea and Jaws–did you ride a single fin at Nelscott?
I rode the same single-fin I rode at Jaws that I've had for 8 years because I'm the most comfortable on it. I know how it works and I know everything it does. I've surfed Mavs, giant Westside, outer reefs, giant North Shore–everywhere. I just like how it feels. Everyone makes a big deal about the single fin and I feel like my first competition at Jaws where I got hurt, I was listening to everyone telling me that I couldn't surf a single fin, I had to surf a quad. So I got the quad, surfed it that day at jaws and it was so windy and the quad kind of holds your tail up and [I got injured]. Maybe it was the idea of listening to what everyone else said. I'm not a big fan of that. I don't like being told what to do and I like to make my own decisions. I would say surfing big waves is 90 percent mental and it means a lot to trust your equipment. I know I can catch waves on it.

Emi Erikson at Sunset Beach. Photo by Sachi Cunningham.

Do you ride your dad’s old boards?
No, but this is very similar to what my dad used to ride. When Lyle [Carlson] and I shaped it, I brought an old board that my dad had shaped in the late ’80s. It was the old rhino chaser–single fin, beak nose, wide point forward, pin tail, the whole thing. So I brought that in and we took that idea and the product of that is that black-striped board that I ride.

Does your dad give you advice before events?
Not really. He just tells me to have fun and do my thing. I think he's surprised to see that I'm doing this and also relieved because it's a continuation of his own passion, which neither of us ever planned. I didn't start surfing until I was 19. Some things are just meant to be–that's what I've drawn from this whole decade.

The win must’ve been a boost of confidence going into the Mavs event if it runs.
Well, I really hope it does run. I'm happy to be healthy and still working on my knee [Erickson injured her knee during the 2017 Peahi Challenge]. It’s been a more long-lasting ordeal than most people realize and it's given me a lot of insight into how people deal with lifelong injuries like this. I have a lot more compassion for people who are challenged in a physical realm. It was good in the Nelscott event with a few of the girls like Nicole [Pacelli] and Raquel [Heckert] who don't get the spotlight as much. There's not that many of us so it's important to realize we all have strength and it's a lot stronger when we're together