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.
For part 1 of this interview, click here.
You obviously ride this stuff in big waves as well. How much prep goes into a big-wave session when you're bringing all this equipment and trying to be ready to paddle, tow or foil based on the conditions?
It's a tremendous amount of preparation. Because Jaws is in my backyard and it breaks so infrequently, anytime it does I feel like I've gotta take full advantage of the swell and spend as much time as I can out there riding whatever works best. I never want to look back and think that I could have done more, or regret not having the right equipment with me. For the last few years, my focus has been improving at traditional, prone paddle-in surfing. But I'm always bringing a tow board, a stand-up paddle board and a hydrofoil board, because the conditions at Jaws can change a ton in a day. It can go from light winds to so torn up you can't even paddle, and then that other equipment really comes in handy. Plus you need to have backup boards, because you end up breaking them. It literally takes a boat to carry all my stuff.
I do appreciate the approach of people who head out there with one board and one true intention: to get a big wave and try to get barreled. The less things you can have on your mind when you're surfing big waves, the better off you are. If you have a cluttered mind, you're your own worst enemy, and sometimes I do feel like the way I approach it is too much of a production. At Jaws, I have three jet skis: one for safety, one for backup safety and a third one for someone to use to shoot photos or video. But having water safety is the most important part, of course. There's no excuse for not having it, and there's obviously been some controversy around people showing up without it.
Yeah, it's been interesting following that debate, which seems more and more important due to how crowded it's gotten. Is it as Wild West out there as it seems?
Yeah, a lot of times guys show up last minute and just wing it as far as water safety goes. And it's getting really crowded—like Pipeline crowded—and when these guys fall and are nearly drowning, the water safety crews that are there aren't just going to let them drown. So they go in and save people, but it creates a really dangerous situation when there are so many surfers and so few hired water safety teams. I mean, I'm paying a bunch of money to make sure that I've got a water safety team looking out for me, and they end up rescuing other people who barely even say thank you to them—it's like they just expect it. It's just a respect thing. It's like, if you spend thousands of dollars flying across the planet to Maui for a swell, what's another $150 for these water safety guys? A little bit goes a long way for their gas and their time, and these guys might save your life. It's tough because it's the ocean, and everyone has the right to surf Jaws if they want to, but people should be responsible about it. It's funny, because I've actually seen some of those same guys at big-wave spots at other parts of the world, and they'll be vibing me, and I'm just like, "Didn't my ski pick you up at Jaws like three times last swell?" [Laughs.]
It's hard to believe how crowded such a dangerous wave can get. That must be especially strange for you, since you started surfing Jaws when only a few guys surfed it regularly.
Yeah, I remember the first time Shane Dorian came over to paddle Jaws. Back then it was him, Ian Walsh, Danilo Couto, Yuri Soledade, Sion Milosky, Mark Healey and that was pretty much it. The waves were massive and there was practically nobody out, and it was so cool to be there at the beginning of that era and to catch some waves before it got totally crowded. If it was that size today, there'd be 70 people out. It's a lot like Pipeline in the way that I'm more nervous about negotiating the crowd than the actual wave. And at Jaws it feels like that times 10. When you're trying to go for a 25-foot wave and there are guys bailing boards in front of you, it makes it really tricky.
In the last few years, it seems like the focus of most big-wave surfers has become Jaws. Is Jaws the pinnacle? Do you think there will ever be a more relevant big-wave break?
Jaws is the crown jewel of big-wave surfing. It's like supersized Backdoor. Where else could you drop in on a wave that has the shape of an absolutely perfect 6-footer, but it's actually 60 feet? So yeah, I'd say it's definitely the epicenter now and I'm not really surprised that it's attracted so many people. I'm sure there are waves that are as good if not better than Jaws, but we either haven't seen them on the right swell or we're just not even looking. I mean, look at Nazaré: it was right there, hidden in plain sight. The thing is that when there are massive swells, most people are going to the spots that they know will be good rather than seeking out new waves. But even if new big waves do get discovered, Jaws will still be the spot that all other big-wave breaks are measured by.
When you think about it, even the best big-wave surfers might only get 10 or 20 seasons with their bodies and minds in the right place to chase huge waves at the highest level. Do you think a lot about how fleeting the pursuit of big waves really is?
Absolutely. That's why I get up before the sun when big swells come and make sure I'm there and ready as soon as it's surfable, and then I'll stay till it's too dark to surf in the evening. I don't want to miss an opportunity, because I know I don't have that much time on earth to do this. Even if I live a full life, I'm only going to have so many chances to surf waves of that magnitude, with that much power, and really feel that energy. But at the same time, I look at guys like Shane, who is old enough to be my dad and is still one of the best big-wave surfers in the world, and I realize that I'm only just getting started. I've got a lot of years of chasing waves and improving as a surfer to look forward to. That's why you've got to be calculated in big-wave surfing, because if you let yourself worry too much about how limited your opportunities are, you might take unnecessary chances. I'm gonna choose the right wave, approach it as smart as I can, but make the most of every opportunity I have. I'm in it for the long haul. I want to be doing this for 30 years.
It's interesting seeing the next generation of big-wave surfers starting to lead the charge. For the longest time, that top tier was mostly guys in their 30s and 40s. But now you, Albee Layer, Lucas Chumbo and these younger guys are at the forefront as well. Where do you think that youth movement in big-wave surfing came from?
I think that now more than ever, kids have so many examples of guys who are pushing the limits in big-wave surfing. But you see it in all forms of surfing: there are kids now who surf small waves better than John John did when he was their age, and John John was an absolute phenom. All these little kids can pull full rotation airs because the bar has just been raised to that point—the John Johns of the world have worn that path that these kids can now follow. In big-wave surfing, it's the same thing: the previous generation raised the level to where it is now, and hopefully my generation will raise that even higher, and so on. The beauty of big-wave surfing is that there really is no limit to what is possible—there's always going to be a bigger wave or a better way to approach it.
Where do you see big-wave surfing going in terms of what people ride? Do you think there's more to alternative craft like hydrofoil boards than we realize?
Absolutely. I've been testing foils for a bit, and I don't think what I'm riding is even close to how high-performance they could eventually become. Right now, we're probably riding the foil version of the big-wave guns that Greg Noll was riding at Waimea in the '60s, and eventually we'll be riding the foil version of what Shane Dorian rides now at Jaws. I think waves like Nazaré and Belharra that are massive and fast and hard to make on a traditional surfboard are going to become a lot easier to ride with foils. I think we'll be able to fade those peaks and then bottom turn up into the bowl going 65 miles an hour and have it feel as smooth as a powder day on a snowboard. I don't think foils will ever replace surfboards in big waves, but I do think that they'll play a larger role when the conditions are huge and windy and evil.
As far as traditional surfboards go, I think you can look at what Albee is doing out at Jaws on an 8’4″ and it's clear that guys are going to be able to push themselves on shorter boards in massive waves. Just like the evolution of boards and approaches that has happened at Pipe over the years, I wouldn't be surprised to see guys eventually riding sub-8-foot boards at Jaws, knifing drops under the lip and duckdiving waves because their boards are suddenly small enough to do that.
Well, that sounds terrifying.
[Laughs.] It does. Especially for me, since I'll probably be right there with them, just like, "Alright, I guess this is what we're doing now."
And that's the thing with big-wave surfing, right? It's ever evolving, and where you set goal posts now is not where they'll be tomorrow.
No way. It's like how I trained my whole life to start tow surfing Jaws as a teenager and finally got to a point where I'm like, "OK, I've got this!" Next thing I know, guys show up and start paddling in and my whole world gets flipped upside down. Back then, paddling Jaws at that size seemed crazier than taking a rocket to the moon. That's what the next phase will always feel like at first, until suddenly that's the new norm.
This interview originally appeared in SURFER Magazine, Issue 59, Volume 2, subscribe here.
To watch “Kai Lenny’s Operation Jaws” click here.