This time of year, Billy Kemper scales mountains after outpacing them. The Maui native called me in the middle of a trip to Canada’s Whistler, on an annual snowboard vacation with Mark Healey. Kemper spoke while a sky the color of milk and news of fresh snow teased the forecast. Highest on his priority list was spending time with his wife and kids, most recently a newborn son. But three restless months in the big-wave world had worn on him. El Niño gifted Pe’ahi with massive swell and, until this year, unprecedented coverage. Fantastic if, like Kemper, you topped the podium at Jaws in an event that drew attention from the likes of CBS. Tiring if, like Kemper, your connection to Jaws is less tied to images of its power than conjoined to them, and you’re expected to perform every time the trade winds blow and the West Bowl flares. At Whistler, he doesn’t feel any pressure, he said. He doesn’t have to please anyone.
Kemper will soon return to Pe’ahi, his work regimen back to full as big-wave riding continues a year of wonder, gossip, and publicity. It’s the ideal time to talk with a man who understands mountains of the aquatic kind, even when he unwinds at those on land. As snow fell outside a Whistler lodge, he opened up about his Jaws brotherhood, the big waves that made him, and the waves he’d prescribe for the aspiring charger.
Was Jaws the pinnacle you always wanted to reach growing up?
After the Pe’ahi Challenge, a lot of people have asked me what it's like surfing there knowing it's in my backyard. They'd ask me, “When you were a kid, did you know you were going to surf out there?” It’s like a kid in California growing up with a family taking him to a Lakers game or a Dodgers game in some nosebleed seats, saying "I want to be Kobe Bryant" or "I want to be a pitcher for the Dodgers someday." I was that kid, siting on the cliff at Jaws watching Derrick Doerner and Laird and Dave Kalama and these guys, and I said "Dad, Mom, I want to be them. I want to do that." And of course they said, "No way, these guys are the best in the world at what they do. No way are you going to do that." And I kept that dream alive and said, essentially, "Yeah, whatever." Next thing I know, I'm 15 years old, I'm hanging out after school with Albee, Matt Meola, and Marlon Lewis – We were best friends growing up – and we took two jet-skis between the four of us out to Jaws one afternoon. It was such a memorable wave that day. We didn’t tell our parents for the longest time, but eventually, we admitted, "We towed into Jaws today." And they were just tripping.
From that day forward, it was Game On. There's never been a slight look at turning back and not going out there. We've all kind of parted our ways and are doing our own thing. Albee and I are still keeping that Jaws dream alive. We pour blood, sweat, and tears for that place. Matt has obviously taken aerial surfing to a whole new realm, as far as spins and technicality of landings. Marlon Lewis – people probably don't know too much about him, but he's one of the most underrated surfers around, and that kid out there is so talented, and one of the best drivers I've ever seen, because he knows the wave so well. Me and Albee are still battling it out, like at the Pe'ahi Challenge. It's cool about me and him, because we're really competitive, and we're both regular-foots, so as we grew up together, if he was going to get barreled, then I was going to get barreled. We looked out for each other, but we also drove each other. I don't think I'd be where I am today without him pushing me to be my best. It's cool that we're still doing the same thing. It was almost scary. Like, Did we know this was going to happen?
Jaws is hands-down number one. Everyone has their own feelings about waves around the world. But I don't think there’s a wave that can match what Jaws does. It's kind of the peak, like the phenom of big-wave surfing. It's hard to explain. You want to go big and better yourself and push the limits of your life and capitalize on the biggest waves ever ridden – and not only the biggest, but the quality of the waves for paddle surfing is far beyond other big waves. At Jaws, it's one wave where your commitment level is everything. If you hesitate and you're not 150% committed, don't even bother. You're just wasting your time.
What were the bigger waves you honed your skills on growing up?
I know it's not the biggest wave, but my mom moved to Oahu when I was 8 years old, and I lived right at Sunset Point, and I grew up surfing Sunset. I've had a pretty good luck with surfing events out there. It's not the biggest, but it set my foundation for how I approach bigger waves and how to ride bigger boards, and how to be comfortable in open-ocean surf. At Sunset, it's not like surfing a 10-ft wave in Indo. A 10-foot wave is really hard to ride and approach compared to a lot of waves, It's been a big part of my career, getting my surfing in bigger waves to a much more comfortable place.
Was Mavericks in the picture?
I went over to Mavericks for the last two winters, and I think this year I got it as good as the conditions get. I went over there with Mark Healey and Albee and Kai Lenny, and it was insane. That wave is insane. It's perfect. It's also a little easier to approach than a wave like Jaws because it's a tighter peak and you can ride a smaller board and sit under it on that ledge. I'm really attached to that wave. I have my eye on it every swell.
What big wave’s always on your radar that most people wouldn’t immediately expect?
I went to Pascuales this last year and probably had four days of the best surf I've ever seen in my life. It was 15-20 feet, and it was firing on all cylinders. I went with Koa Rothman and Koa Smith, and we got the best waves of our life all day long. It didn't even feel real. On the fourth day, we didn't even know what to do – we just got so barreled. We were thinking, What do we do now?
And the crowd factor, for one, was huge. You go to Puerto and there's 100 guys. At Pascuales, we were some of the only guys; there were two other teams and us. It's such a giant beach. I'd be getting barreled a mile away from Koa on the best surf of my life, and I'd say, "Holy Shit, I just got the best wave ever!" And then he'd say the same thing. Really? You're that far away and you got a good one? I didn't grow up surfing beach breaks. I grew up on Maui, so Pascuales is a lot different from anything I'm used to. Anything that takes you out of your element is beneficial.
If you were to give a recommendation for the young kid like you who sat on the cliffs at Pe’ahi and thought, I want to be that guy. What would be a good wave to study, prep for, and train on so they can work up the ladder?
I feel like Waimea is a really good place for that, but the crowd factor now makes it ridiculous. On a day with conditions like The Eddie, I'm sure the crowds wouldn't have been so bad, but on your average 15-foot days, you get 100 guys out there who can barely stand up on a surfboard. There's so much history and respect for Waimea that everyone wants to be a part of it, which I completely understand. But if I was training someone and coached a kid, it would be hard to tell him to practice at Waimea because of the danger with all the kooks. It's scary. But at the same time, when the wave is 6-8 feet, it's really open-ocean and you get the feeling of a big wave. At Pinballs, growing up, I'd go out on 8-foot boards or 7-foot boards I'd borrow from Makua and Mason and John John and my friends, and we’d go surf Pinballs. It's a good wave that you can work your way up on. Jaws, you can't really do that. It breaks when it's 15 feet, but anything under 12 feet, it's not really anything. It's all or nothing at Jaws. But when you surf Waimea, you can surf 3 feet up to 25 feet, which is super cool. You can warm up at Pinballs with 8 feet, and then 12 feet, and then 15 feet, and pretty soon, you're ready for a 20-foot day.