One wave can change your life. Just ask Billy Kemper. The Maui local and back-to-back Pe'ahi Challenge champ was awarded the Ride of the Year at the 2017 Big Wave awards on Saturday night in Huntington Beach, taking home $75K. With his Mom battling cancer and his second son on the way, the win couldn't have come at a better time. We caught up with Billy to chat about the most impactful 15 seconds of his life (So far).
First off, congrats! You finally took down Dorian. He's won Ride of the Year three out of the last four years, so I'm sure that makes this win extra-special. Before last night, how did you feel about your chances?
I thought my wave was the best paddle wave of the year, and just from the past, it seems like the biggest barrel ridden and made at Jaws is usually the Ride of the Year winner. That being said, I didn't know how they were going to judge mine against the others. Francisco [Porcella] towed his wave, and it was, like, a 100-foot wave, but Nazare and Jaws are two different animals. One is a perfect, big barrel, and the other is a huge mushburger. I had no control over the outcome — it was all up to the judges and how they were feeling, and I was hoping for the best. But, honestly, just to be nominated for Ride of the Year for the second time was a really big blessing. I was so pumped to be up there in front of all of my peers and all of the kids who look up to me.
In the last four years, the Ride of the Year has been a paddle wave at either Jaws or Puerto Escondido. It seems like they've gotten away from tow waves winning that category.
Yeah, and I think that's the right call. I was trying to relay this to my fiancée's family, and I was telling them the difference between towing and paddling is basically like putting a person running with their two feet in a race against someone driving in a car [Laughs]. The whole tow/paddle thing, they are two completely different sports. Give any average surfer a rope, and if they have the balls to go, anyone can whip into a wave. The paddle movement has us going back in time to the old days, and that's what it's all about: using your own two arms to try and tackle the biggest beast out there.
Especially for the Ride of the Year category. Because then you have Kai Lenny, and what he's doing on a tow board is an even different sport.
It’s really cool, the way Kai is approaching these waves. Albee and I had a lot of fun towing Jaws when we first started, and back then, we just wanted to do big hacks and backdoor peaks and draw different lines, and Kai's doing that on those big, windy days now. I'm just at a stage in my life where I don't have any desire to grab a rope.
Talk us through your Ride of the Year wave. It was in the final at the Peah'i Challenge. You got a 10 for it, and if you watch the footage closely, you actually double-arm-dragged to get into the barrel. What were you thinking?
It was the most meaningful wave I've ever paddled into, especially because the first half of that final, I was approaching it all wrong, and midway through, I was actually head-butting my board in frustration. I was so mad at myself. Those Jaws boards have about three layers of six-ounce glass, so it didn't feel too good [Laughs]. But after I did that, I settled down and told myself I only need to paddle for waves that are going to change my life, and approach it like a freesurf, where all I'm looking to do is get the biggest barrel out there. When that wave came, I knew it was the one. I could tell the angle was perfect.
Dropping in, the whole double-arm stall thing, I have no idea where that came from. I didn't even know I did it until I watched the footage. I was on a 10'4″, and I don't know how I did it. Even my trainer and coach, Kahea Hart, were both like, "We didn't practice that. We didn't train for that. Where did that even came from?" [Laughs] Instinct, I guess.
$25k for winning the event. $75k for Ride of the Year. That must've been the richest wave of your life, too.
Hands down. It's a great payday, but it's more so having that under my belt now. I just turned 27 years old, I have my second son on the way…it couldn't have been better timing. I've also been dealing with the hardest thing I've ever dealt with in my life, which is my Mom fighting cancer. The money and all that is a blessing at this time in my life, to help my Mom and to support my family. I'm super stoked on how the surf community has stepped in and has been so supportive toward my Mom. It truly means the world to me. And all the love and support that was given to me the other night at those awards left me in tears of joy. I've never felt so supported in my life. And the new venue, and what the WSL and Bill Sharp have done for the awards, is awesome.
I also want to say thanks to Mark Healey and Greg Long and some of the other surfers for rallying a couple years ago to get everyone to step up and pitch some more money to us surfers, because we're putting our lives on the line every year, and it means a lot to get the support from the companies and from the WSL. It's cool to see us rewarded with bigger paychecks. And every event the BWWT runs gets smoother and better each year, and I'm pumped to be a part of it.
Speaking of the BWWT, the waiting period for the new season just started. Is that going to be your focus for the rest of the year?
For sure. The world title is on my mind. But I actually ended up in the 60s on the ‘QS last year, so I'm going to do all of the Prime events [QS 10000s], and then I really want to win the Triple Crown. That's a huge goal of mine. So yeah, I'm going start a pretty solid training camp when I get home this week. I'm going be ready. I'm excited for the summer, the start of the Southern Hemisphere season, and I can't wait to go chase some more really, really big waves.