Ask any member of the big-wave elite, and they'll tell you that few people are poised to make a deeper impact on big-wave surfing than Kai Lenny. That's because the Maui-born charger grew up under the tutelage of heavy-water pioneers like Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, caught his first wave at Jaws at just 16 years old and has since painstakingly proven that he's one of the most skilled riders of oversized surf on any craft. When Lenny shows up at Jaws during an XXL swell today, it's like watching a military operation unfold, precisely planned and organized with water safety skis and a boat filled with cutting-edge big-wave equipment. But while Lenny's approach may seem incredibly sophisticated already, he talks about big-wave surfing today like a NASA pilot would have talked about space exploration in the 1960s—like we're just barely scratching the surface of what is possible. Listening to the way Lenny describes it, it's hard not to share his optimism for the bold big-wave future.
What can you tell me about the first session you had at Jaws?
It's funny, because one of my earliest memories is actually being on the cliff watching the waves at Jaws. But I didn't surf it till I was 16 years old, when I got a call from Laird and Dave offering to take me out there. That was before paddling was happening at Jaws, so it was only towing at that point, and I felt like you kind of needed permission from those guys to even go out there. So I was just so stoked to get the invite from those guys. That first day was about 12- to 15-foot Hawaiian, there wasn't a soul around, and we went hydrofoiling, of all things. That was back in the day when they were strapping in with snowboard boots and all the gear just felt so heavy and intimidating. As a small 16 year old, I felt like I'd probably get dismembered if I fell, but luckily I didn't fall on any of the waves they towed me into. The following winter, I went out there and towed in on an actual surfboard. Towing really gives you a sense of control and a good ski driver can put you in the best position for a wave pretty easily, so I felt like, "Wow, this isn't actually that crazy. I think I'm going to be able to get this place pretty dialed." Fast forward two winters when the paddle movement was starting up, then I realized, "Never mind, this is actually the scariest thing you could ever do." [Laughs.] Such an eye opener.
What was it like seeing that transition firsthand at the place that was really ground zero for the big-wave paddle-in resurgence?
Well, it was the beginning of something, so no one really knew how far people would push it, or what the possibilities really were. Guys like Shane Dorian and Ian Walsh were getting crazy waves, but it was clear the ceiling hadn't been reached in terms of what you could paddle. But those early sessions were wild. Especially since, compared to tow-in surfing, you just felt so vulnerable. The only way to catch a big wave paddling a place like Jaws is to put yourself in a position where you're just as likely to catch a wave as you are to get caught by one. It's a lot easier to get out of harm's way when you're towing, so there was a degree of comfort that just disappeared once I started paddling.
You've always been known as the guy who rides pretty much every kind of craft in the ocean. But do you put surfing first in your mind?
Surfing was definitely my first passion. I started when I was 4 years old and have surfed as much as I possibly could ever since. But my parents were avid windsurfers as well as surfers, and Laird and his friends were starting the whole hydrofoil and stand-up paddle stuff when I was a kid. So all of that definitely made an impression on me—I was emulating them, for sure. I feel really fortunate that my parents were friends with these innovators who got me into all these different
approaches to surfing. When you use different equipment out at Jaws, it feels like a different wave every time and you get so many different perspectives on it. Plus all of these disciplines have their ideal conditions, so if you can do them all, you can basically spend all your time in the water. I'm not sure if the surf culture in Maui was much different from other places when you were growing up, but in California stand-up paddling always had this stigma—it was pretty much the most uncool thing you could do in the eyes of core surfers.
Did you get any flack for riding those, or was it viewed differently in Maui?
No, that stigma was very much there. Compared to now, Maui was pretty gnarly for a grom when I was growing up. I'd surf Ho'okipa on my shortboard, then go to the other side of Ho'okipa and go windsurfing where all the windsurfers were, and I became such a target for grom hazing. It was so bad growing up, to the point where it was, like, mentally scarring [laughs.] Sometimes I'd get freaked out going to my home spot if I saw the local guys were out there. I did every single surf contest at Ho'okipa because I loved competing and I loved surfing so much. But because I did these other things, it felt like I was always an outsider, even though I was born and raised there. I mean, I was in daycare with Billy Kemper and the Walsh twins. I've known Ian Walsh and Albee Layer pretty much my whole life. But it really wasn't until I was about 18 years old and starting to establish myself paddling into big waves at Jaws that people really recognized me as a legit surfer. Before that, I just got rousted all the time. Guys would be like, "Where's your paddle? Forget your kite or something?" and just burn me on waves.
Do you think that pushed you, though?
Maybe the fact that you had to work harder for the same respect your peers were getting is what helped motivate you to get to the forefront. Totally. I mean, nothing should be handed out for free, and I think that experience growing up made me a better person and a better surfer. It gave me that extra fire to go deeper and get barreled and prove myself. When I was a kid and first saw Jaws break, I always wanted to be a big-wave surfer and follow in the footsteps of my mentors, and I set goals for myself. I wanted to be the best surfer out at Jaws, I wanted to catch the biggest waves, I wanted to be out there every single swell, I wanted to get on the Big Wave Tour and I wanted to be the Big Wave World Champion. I didn't tell anyone that; it was just for me to know what I was working toward. There were times when I didn't think any of that was possible, but when I hear my heroes like Shane Dorian, Ian Walsh and Greg Long say positive things about my surfing now, it feels so validating. I think when you stay true to yourself it works out in the end, but the road to get there can be pretty rough.
But it seems like people are a lot more open-minded about different approaches today, right?
I don't think a grom pursuing multiple disciplines in surfing now would get the same flack you did. Yeah, surfers are way more open-minded now about different ways of riding waves and enjoying the ocean. I've always believed that it's all about using the right equipment for the conditions. If the conditions are perfect for surfing, by all means go surfing. But we all know it's not like that all the time. Maui's a very windy place, so I just started taking advantage of the wind to do these other things that kept me in the ocean. But today, everyone is way more open to different approaches. It all comes back to the root of why we started surfing—to have fun in the ocean. Some of the best surfers in the world are getting into hydrofoil surfing because they realized they can go surfing with their friends at the worst wave with no one around and feel like they're scoring. It's cool to see that open-mindedness and how accepting everyone has become.
I think as soon as everyone saw John John Florence riding a hydrofoil, they thought, "Oh, I guess this is cool now." [Laughs.] How did you end up getting some of the best surfers in the world onboard with hydrofoil surfing?
I've actually known a lot of these guys for years just from surfing the North Shore in the winter. After foiling was reincarnated as this much more user-friendly thing where you could paddle in and didn't need snowboard boots, I was just like, "Hey, do you guys want to try this?" It was a flat day, and you're not doing much else at that point anyway. When they tried it, they loved the challenge, because no matter how good you are at surfing, foiling has its own learning curve. John John was having fun foiling in waves he probably wouldn't even grovel in on a surfboard.
Stay tuned for part 2.
This interview originally appeared in SURFER Magazine, Issue 59, Volume 2, subscribe here.
To watch “Kai Lenny’s Operation Jaws” click here.