Surfing's beginning and end are in the storms out at sea. As the collective focus of the surf world narrows, spiraling toward a singular obsession with performance on a wave, the big blue ocean's role in the grand scheme of things is unjustly diminished. There's much more to it than a swell meeting a sandbar. Tracing surfing's lineage for perspective, we find our forefathers to be watermen who made their living by the sea, those who planted the seed from which this sport sprouted. While surfing's spotlight focuses on heat scores and hashtags, four young watermen are tapping into a connection with the ocean much deeper than the basic riding of waves. Don't get the wrong idea, as surfers, they all rip—it's just that they're fine with losing sight of the shoreline as well.
KAI LENNY isn't one for convention. Born into a family of watermen on Maui, his mother and father were as active in the ocean as were his extended family of "uncles," which include Laird Hamilton, Robby Naish, Dave Kalama, Buzzy Kerbox, and others. Despite this company—men who've built their careers dominating a single water sport—Kai's decided to perfect them all.
The inconsistent surf of Maui ranges from flat to 60-foot, and Lenny is always prepared for whatever shows up. His argument? "A waterman really has no reason not be in the water." He has a good point.
"What I learn in paddleboarding benefits my towing, what I learn in kitesurfing benefits my windsurfing, my stand-up paddling benefits my big-wave riding, and they all seem to benefit my surfing," says Lenny. "A waterman is someone who can do anything in the water at the highest level. Whether the waves are massive, it's windy, it's flat, it's onshore, above water, below water…I'm able to use all of the different sports to complement each other. I'm always chasing that feeling that surfing gives me, I'm just able to tap into it with different equipment in any conditions."
Lenny recently turned 20, and his precocious laundry list of accomplishments already includes two SUP World Titles, four career SUP World Tour contest victories, and a '09 Rookie of the Year award. He has six trips between Molokai and Oahu to his name, and at Jaws he once caught a separate wave paddling, towing, windsurfing, and kitesurfing over the course of a single day.
Growing up among Maui's elite watermen has kept Lenny humble and respectful. He's quick to attribute his success to these mentors, even if he remains stubborn when they advise him to focus on just one discipline. "I was told that I would have to choose one sport. They told me I couldn't do it all," said Lenny. "Well, I haven't had to choose yet."
JACK BARK speaks in lists, a lot. It's the only way to describe his oceanic itinerary. "My life is all about the ocean really," said Bark. "I'm in it every day, surfing when it's good, training during paddle season, diving and spear fishing when it's flat." By that description, Bark is the fast-paced, thin-framed definition of a waterman, but he feels he still has a ways to go.
"When I think of watermen, I think of Mark Healey, Shane Dorian, Keoni Watson, Jamie Mitchell, Kai Lenny," he says. "These are guys who charge huge waves, paddle Hawaiian channels, kitesurf, sail, paddle outrigger, fish, dive…they know that they can handle anything the ocean gives them. I get scared in the ocean a lot. I think I'm far from being a waterman."
But Bark is wrong. His name ranks in the company of those he acknowledged. Bark surfs, he paddles, he dives, he fishes with rod and spear. Since he was 8, his father, Joe, who is also a shaper, firefighter, freediver, spearfisher, surfer, paddler, husband, and harbor patrolman, has been taking Jack into the ocean. It began with tandem surfing, and then he made Jack a paddleboard. Neither of them have stopped since. The Bark name is widely known in the sport of paddleboarding; Joe Bark Paddleboards is a leading brand in ocean endurance sports. "When my dad was younger, he was the one winning all the races," said Jack. "And now, I just strive to be like him."
Last July, Jack Bark won the Molokai2Oahu 2012 Paddleboard Race Stock Division, recording a time just two minutes shy of the fastest time in the history of the race. At 18, he crossed the 32-mile channel between Molokai and Oahu in 5 hours, 28 minutes, and 16 seconds, and became the youngest paddler to ever win the stock division of the race. "It's my proudest achievement, no doubt," said Bark, reflecting on a career that has really just begun. He's still a Junior; it won't be the last race he wins.
"I still want to win Molokai outright," said Bark. "I hope I can keep paddling and surfing and doing all these ocean activities until I die. I love being in the water. I think living without the ocean would kill me." It's not that Bark gets scared in the ocean, it's that he's afraid of ever having to live without it.
CHADD KONIG opened his cottage door to let in the morning light as waves lapped onto shore a hundred yards away. A supply of alternative craft leaned against his shelter—surfboards, paddleboards, alaias, boogie boards, and surf mats. He stretched tall and eyed the surf, listening to the ocean. "I wake to the sound, sight, and smell of her every morning," said Konig. "I swim in the shallows, free dive in the kelp beds, paddle on the surface, walk in the sands, and explore the northern coast for undiscovered nooks."
Konig sees his interactions in the ocean as a dialogue with nature. He believes that a waterman must be open to the teachings the ocean has to offer, but must also give back to that world through spirit, action, mind, and heart. It is this sentiment that inspires him in his seafaring ways.
For a surfer that dwells in the immaterial, he was quick to quantify why he feels so at home in the ocean. "Humans have the same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean," stated Konig. "Our body is between 60 to 70 percent water, depending on your age and health. Our blood is 92 percent water, and the brain and muscles are 75 percent water. That explains it, for me. In the ocean, I feel as though there is nothing to do or undo."
Konig doesn't flaunt trophies or accolades to qualify himself as a waterman, but he takes immense pride in considering himself a member of the water family. His passion for the sea is expressed outside of any competitive atmosphere; it dwells entirely in his intentionality in the water. Whether on a surfboard or a sailboat, his every action occurs within the consideration of its impact.
With his environmentalist brethren, Konig is most often found paddling, sailing, or protesting for various causes, recently completing the Transparentsea voyage to fight whaling and traveling 300 miles down the California coast to fight fracking. These efforts are his offering back to the ocean, as its loyal waterman. "Us surfers, we're folks who derive heaps of joy from the water," said Konig. "We are forever indebted to her. We must take care and give back in all ways."
JORDAN MERCER doesn't call herself "Magic." But everybody else does. "I compete in Iron Woman races, I surf, longboard, SUP, paddleboard, swim, rock run, snorkel, spear fish, scuba dive, paddle outrigger canoes, photograph, and tow surf. Any opportunity for trying something new, I will jump at the chance." The jury is still out on if she ever sleeps.
"My day-to-day revolves around an extensive training regime, rife with sacrifices, commitments, highs and lows," said Mercer. "Training four times a day, sure there are times in which I lack motivation. I just have to remind myself that the work and pain are well worth it for the result. The traveling opportunities, the prizes, the success, the kudos, and amazing people I am fortunate to meet are all incentives to continue pushing my limits."
"Magic" Mercer is a professional athlete, as much an Iron Woman as she is a waterwoman. She's currently on the Iron Woman Series Tour, chasing long-distance paddleboard contests around the world and alternating between land and water races. She too has crossed from Molokai to Oahu, setting a Women's Unlimited Paddleboard world record in the process. She backed that up by earning the title of Captain for the Australian Surf Life Saving team, then qualified as the youngest competitor for the Iron Woman Races at 16 and swam, biked, and ran her way to two podium finishes.
And still, her to-do list is longer than her résumé. She has multiple upcoming Iron Woman races on her radar, including defending her back-to-back Molokai2Oahu World Titles. In November, she'll race with Sally Fitzgibbons to form the first female team ever in the Mark Webber Adventure in Tasmania. She also wants to do some big-wave surfing.
So where does she get her energy, her inspiration? It's simple, for her. "I rely on the excitement, joy, love, and unpredictable experiences that the water continually provides me. It is where I feel most at peace, it is my stage to perform. In the ocean, I get to express myself and live a healthy, happy, unpredictable, and extreme life."
Also, she admitted it makes her feel like a mermaid.