Shawn Dollar Interview

Santa Cruz's big-wave star on fear, family, and why his world record wave at Cortes almost never happened

For Shawn Dollar, big-wave surfing's biggest night was also worth his biggest paycheck of the year. Photo: Glaser

Shawn Dollar took home two XXL Awards on Friday for the world-record setting 61-foot wave he paddled into at Cortes Bank back in December. It’s the second time in three years that he’s owned the benchmark for the largest paddle-in wave ever caught. Dollar won the XXL Monster Paddle award in 2010 for his then-world-record 55-footer at Mavericks, and he’s been a quiet member of the elite big-wave scene since.

The 32-year-old Santa Cruz native still surfs Pleasure Point everyday, the spot where he first tasted big surf as a teenager. Dollar, a 2004 graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, spent time during college honing his heavywater skills at Central Coast mysto reefs as a precursor to the main stage at Mavericks. Now back in Santa Cruz, he’s raising a family and working as a sales rep for Reef. He’s also still surfing with his dad, who watched his son catch his first wave at Cowell’s a quarter century ago, then beamed with pride on Friday night as he watched him earn the biggest prize in big-wave surfing.

I spoke with Dollar on the Monday after his big weekend to ask him about his experience surfing Mavericks, his Cortes session, and what winning XXL Awards means to him.

When did you start surfing Mavericks? How was your first session?
It was 2006, and I was working for Skindog (Ken Collins). I was his board caddie in the Mavericks contest, and that was the year Twiggy won. The waves were just so good. I'd always wanted to surf Mavericks but to tell you the truth I was scared to death. During the contest intermission Skinny paddled up to me and gave me a board and was like, "You said you were a big-wave surfer, you said you could surf big waves, go catch one." So I paddled over and caught five or six waves during the intermission. And I was hooked. Ever since that day I've been back to Mavericks each time it's breaking. I just needed something to get me over the fear. I don't think I ever would've driven up there on my own. That wave is so intimidating. Being right there in a suit and hearing Skindog say "do it." That's what it took.

Tell me about that first wave:
I just paddled, I closed my eyes, and--you know, you just get so vertical out there--I thought, I'm either gonna make it or I'm gonna eat shit. I made it, and couldn't believe I made the drop. I couldn't believe that that's actually how it's done out there.

So do you train to surf big waves now?
I've been training pretty seriously this year, going to a gym here in town, doing Crossfit. This is the first year I've really taken it seriously and it's made a huge difference. I'm much more prepared.

How did you end up getting invited to Cortes for that session?
Pete Mel had organized the trip and he had a lot of Quiksilver guys on the boat. At the last minute, Zach Wormhoudt couldn't go. And Pete really needed somebody to bring a jet ski and help with water safety, and that's why I was asked to go. Pete knows me and trusts me, and he asked me to go and he asked me to bring my ski. I was super fortunate, because my trip was paid for. It was kind of a fluke, really. I didn't have much of a desire to go to Cortes, that wave is so terrifying. And I have a job. I'm not running around chasing swells like a lot of these guys are able to, and I wouldn't have been there if it wasn't for Pete calling me. I mean, that was Wormhoudt's spot.

I watched the video of your ride. It looks like you're not going to make it past a few sections on that wave.
Most big waves are just a drop, but that wave--well, it was a hell of a drop--but it was crazier down the line. I can't believe I made it through all those sections, to tell you the truth, especially that one where I came up high, and kinda got a barrel and then drove through a massive amount of chop. How I didn't pearl or stick right there I don't know, but I remember it as clear as day, thinking, "do not go over the handlebars right now. Please."

Shawn Dollar on the biggest wave of 2013 at Cortes Bank, worth a clean $35K. Photo: Keith

How many waves did you catch that day?
That was it. I broke my V-1 (big-wave flotation wetsuit) at the end--pulled the rip cord right out of it. I jumped on a ski after that and did water rescues. I was the guy who pulled Garrett McNamara out of the water [after his infamous drop-in on the wave that nearly killed Greg Long], and that was the end of the session.

How often do you actually have to pull the cord on the V-1?
I try not to do it that much. But it seems like it happens now about every session. If I'm in a bad wipeout I've found that you're better off pulling it in a preventative measure and getting up to the surface rather than having two-wave hold downs. Last year I had so many hold downs when I didn't pull the cord, but you're better off just getting out of there.

Does knowing you can win money and XXL awards cross your mind when you're out in huge surf?
That definitely crosses your mind, but it's more of a second thought. For me, I surf big waves 'cause I love it. When I paddled into that wave all I was thinking was "I know I can catch one of these monsters." But after I rode it, I was like, "that's an XXL contender." But I'm not driven to get on that podium. There's so many other things that have happened in my life, I'm really content to just enjoy my surfing without being obsessed with having to catch huge waves. I've found my love for it, and just do it 'cause I love it. And if I catch a big one, I catch a big one, and if I don't I'm OK going in.

Did you go to Cortes because you knew you could win an XXL award?
No, I went for the experience. Yes, you can get an XXL there for sure, but I went because my friends were going, Pete, and those guys, and I knew that they needed help, and that I could be there for my friends with my ski. And that helped to not put pressure on myself to catch a wave. I went with the mindset that if I catch a wave I'm stoked and if I don't catch a wave I'm fine. But I wanted to make sure that I was there with my ski, performing water safety, and that I was there to help.

Did you get rolled during that session?
Yeah, before I caught my wave, I paddled for one that I basically caught, but a huge chunk was coming up the face and I got blown out the back, and I was in the impact zone for a long time. It was super terrifying.

What were you riding that day?
A 10'6" JS.

What was the XXL Awards night like?
It was more overwhelming [than 2010]. This one was more emotional because I never thought I'd be back up there again. The prestige of winning the biggest wave award and getting the world record again was such a big deal, I was surprised by how emotional I got at the whole experience. I flew my whole family down there. I can easily say it was the best night of my life.

If you don't win that $35 grand from the XXL, do you earn any money from surfing at all last year?
I got money from the Final at Mavs, and from winning the XXL. But I don't get paid to surf.

Are you hoping that winning these XXL awards will springboard you into getting a sponsorship?
I would hope so. I'm doing it and I love it regardless of whether I'm getting paid, and I'd love to represent some people who want me as a team rider. But the last couple years I've just kind of kept my head down and worked hard at my job as a sales rep with Reef, and been happy with that. I have a great job and I'm taking it one step at a time.

Have you been invited to participate in the Big Wave World Tour events?
I've been asked to go to some of them, like at Nelscott Reef in Oregon, but I haven't been able to do any of the South American events. It gets really difficult for me to commit to stuff like that with my current job. I have to focus my attention on the area around here. I really want to get down there at some point to do the Chile and Peru events. Maybe next year.

Are you married?
Yep, with a two-year-old son.

How often do you think about him during a two wave hold-down?
Every time. That's why I caught my one wave at Cortes, and was like, "I'm done." I didn't even surf the next day. It's not about catching the biggest wave; it's about coming in safely now.

So what's this week been like for you back home?
People are pretty damn pysched in town. Everywhere I go people are just so pumped for me. But you know, 9 a.m. today, I'm back in my office, back at work just trying to get caught up. I'm trying to get life back to normal because it doesn't stop. But man, it's so rad how stoked Santa Cruz is for me.