[This feature originally appeared in our June 2017 Issue, “Influencers,” on newsstands and available for download now.]
In mid-November, the day after Billy Kemper won the WSL's Peah'i Challenge, Kai Lenny posted a striking video clip on Instagram from a wind-torn day at the Maui big-wave break. On his 5’6″ tow board, Lenny was toying with Jaws as though it were Keramas, weaving up and down the 20-foot face before launching into an enormous frontside air on the end bowl of the monster wave. It was quite the departure from the previous day's contest, where competitors had scratched into the hulking peaks, pointing and shooting with 10-foot-plus surfboards. One approach resembled small-wave surfing on an oversized scale, while the other was more or less survival. Both looked amazing, but in vastly different ways.
"As a kid on Maui, my influences really shaped how I surfed and who I became," says Lenny when asked about the origins of his unique approach in big waves. "I was really close to guys like Robby Naish, Laird Hamilton, and Dave Kalama. The whole Strapped crew from back in the day were my uncles and mentors growing up. I've always enjoyed all sorts of surfing and watersports because that's what my heroes were doing and I wanted to be just like them. I'm always hanging out with renaissance men who take different approaches to the ocean."
Lenny has been surfing since he was four years old, but to him, surfing isn't limited to a certain type of craft. He's equally skilled on big-wave paddleboards, tow boards, shortboards, windsurf boards, kiteboards, SUPs, and hydrofoils. Now a multi-sport professional, Lenny has paddled the 32-mile Hawaiian interisland gauntlet from Molokai to Oahu four times, been a runner-up at the Kitesurf World Championships, competed on the Professional Windsurfing Association World Tour, won the SUP World Title six times, and is a perennial standout at Jaws, regardless of what he's riding.
"I'm a product of my environment, I guess," Lenny explains. "Maui goes from glassy to windy and small to giant so quick. So I'll start off the day stand-up paddling, then, before it gets too windy, I'll switch it up and paddle out for a surf. When the wind picks up, I'll windsurf; then, if it dies a little, I'll go out and kite. Ideally, I'll end the day by towing, because at that point it's nice to get a little mechanical assist."
And when it comes to mechanical assistance, Lenny is showing the world what is possible when taking on massive waves with a small board. While the paddle revolution has shown that waves like Jaws can be ridden without a Jet Ski assist, Lenny is proving that we're nowhere near the pinnacle of performance surfing in the 20-foot-plus range.
"I think the future of big-wave surfing is twofold: it's charging as hard as you can on a gun and putting yourself in crazy positions, and it's also playing with big waves a lot more while towing," says Lenny. "Having the confidence to go vertical, to hit the lip, to do double rotations in the air, and to get a 50-foot barrel—to me, that's the kind of surfing in big waves that will be winning the Ride of the Year award in the future. There is so much risk in putting yourself in position to go above the lip and land back in the transition on huge waves, and it's going to be really awe inspiring to see people do that."
While some purists may believe that big waves should be caught only under your own steam, and others think that tow surfing is the real frontier of big-wave performance, Lenny refuses to take sides. The way he sees it, there's no need for a paddle vs. tow debate. They can coexist.
"Maybe equipment will change and we can refine surfboards so that we can take off under the ledge at Mavericks or paddle in at Teahupoo when it gets over 8 feet, but we're not there yet. So until then, I want to be able to surf my best in everything from 2-foot to 25-foot, from Lower Trestles to Nazaré. But the most important thing, really, is just that I stay in the water."
[Featured Image: Kai Lenny, Photo by Heff]
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