Big Wave Surfer Kai Lenny on Risk, Fear, and Surfing 60-Foot Waves
A Q&A with the world-class surfer on his new book, "Big Wave Surfer," the best advice he's ever received and the worst wipeout he's ever taken at Jaws
The origins of big wave surfing date back to the 1940s and 1950s, to Hawaii, where the forefathers first envisioned and then surfed the massive waves at Pe’ahi, better known as Jaws. These swells form far to the north, in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. Traveling south through the Pacific, they're unbothered by landfall and pick up size and speed before they finally touch land in Maui. A big day at Jaws can reach anywhere from 30 to 80 feet, the size of a three-story building.
It was here where it all began for Kai Lenny, a professional surfer who has made it his mission to take big wave riding to the next level. Lenny has been surfing Jaws since he was 14 years old, learning how to ride giants under an esteemed faculty of mentors that included Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama, and Robby Naish.
Now, at 29-years-old, Lenny has amassed a shelf of awards that includes a world title in stand up paddling and, most recently, the WSL Big Wave Award for Performer of the Year.
Lenny's latest surfing endeavor is also sizeable: Big Wave Surfing: The Greatest Rides of Our Lives is a 304-page large-format photography book that encompasses his journey as a surfer and waterman, but also shares the stories of more than 30 of the world’s top surfers with images from 50 of the world's best photographers alive today. The project took over two years to complete, and wouldn’t have been possible without the collaborative effort of the very people within its pages.
We recenlty spoke with Lenny to get an in-depth account of his life, the new book, and why in the world anyone would risk their lives chasing the biggest, most dangerous waves on the planet.
What inspired you to create this book?
When I was a kid growing up, I tended to spend a lot of time with older people. These were my heroes, and lucky for me, they were friends with my parents. I would constantly be at dinner parties, and when I would have enough adult talk, I would sit on the couch where this book lied. It was a big wave book called Jaws full of random photos of big wave riding from the nineties. I always thought it would be cool to do a version among versions of that.
What about Big Wave Surfing draws you and others to dedicate their lives to chasing the world's largest swell?
A lot of people ask me why I do this, why I risk dying. It comes down to that proverb: what is a life worth living if you aren't risking anything? At the end of the day, we are all going to end up in the ground, so you might as well have fun along the way.
The point is, in big waves, there is this euphoric feeling you get. Nothing else exists at that moment, and you are so present. I don’t know if there are many people alive today that have truly lived in the present, and if they have, I'm not sure they can even remember what it was like, but big wave surfing is the perfect conduit to help you get into that moment because you are forced into that moment. It doesn't take you hours and hours to get your mind in the right space, you step into the cathedral, and there you are, put in the moment, and all you feel is happiness, gratitude, and purpose all at once for no reason.
"Once you know how to tap into [fear], you can use it to do things you never thought were possible."
Maybe it is the idea of living life in fear. Fear is a misunderstood emotion. It is the most powerful emotion, which is the hardest to control, but once you know how to tap into it, you can use it to do things you never thought were possible. There is this monster that you want to ride, and you ride it, while the wipeouts become lessons. But when you are inside a 50-60-foot wave at that moment, you truly know who you are.
What is one thing you hope readers can take away from your book?
I hope it serves as an inspiration to do whatever you love to do and not be afraid to take risks. As big wave surfers, we aren't afraid to take risks, and anyone that gets anywhere in life has to take risks. We all fail along the way, and those failures are our greatest lessons. In the book, there are a lot of stories that talk about the toughest hardship moments, but you get the feeling at the end of the story that it didn’t stop these people from persevering. You don't have to become a big wave surfer or a surfer at all, you can apply this to anything in your life.
Where do you see the sport of big wave surfing go from here?
It started with the revolution of tow-in surfing and the whole crew that I looked up to, the Strapped Crew that went to Jaws and proved that you could ride these big waves and survive. And then the paddle revolution happened around 2011 when Shane Dorian, Ian Walsh, and a few others proved you could paddle massive Jaws. The big wave guns changed forever, and the boards became four inches thick and 10 feet, six inches long.
I think we will start seeing boards and technology refined, and people will soon approach these massive waves on much smaller pieces of equipment while paddling. As far as tow-in surfing goes, you are going to see a lot more high-performance surfing like you would see someone like John John Florence do on a world tour event, but on giant waves with the help of foot straps and tow-in boards.
So many people are trying to push the limits of the sport, but big wave surfing has a lot to do with experience, and that is why some of the best big-wave riders are in their late thirties and early forties or late forties and early fifties. Experience, in a way, outweighs youth in big wave surfing...for now. I’ve been fortunate enough to watch the evolution of tow-in surfing to paddling, and it seems like there is a pattern where every 20 years something psycho happens, and I guess that would mean we have eight more years to figure out what’s next.
"Experience, in a way, outweighs youth in big wave surfing... for now."
Can you tell me about your most terrifying experience at Jaws? Any moments where you considered leaving big-wave surfing for good?
My first ever wipeout at Jaws, I remember being underwater. And in some way, accepting my fate. "Alright," I thought. "I guess I’m dying. I had a good life. It’s been 17 years of being alive, and everything will be fine." I had never experienced something so big and violent before. When I popped out the back, I remembered being so grateful. I was almost giddy and laughing.
That moment was a good lesson—from that point forward, I didn't look at things the same. I looked at all these experiences that were terrifying as major lessons. I never regret going through those experiences. I’ll never put myself in a position where I’m not willing to pay the consequences. I still find myself holding back in certain big wave moments, but I think as you get older and surf bigger waves, you gain enough to know the unknown. The unknown is the scariest, and now that you know what is scary, it is easier to process it all and stay calm.
What is the most significant piece of advice Laird Hamilton gave you while you were moving up in the sport and what advice would you give to others?
I remember Laird signed a poster for me for Riding Giants. Liard was superman to me. He was a God. I am who I am today because of the path that he and his friends had laid. What he wrote read, "You are your own best friend." And I think that means you have to be willing to, in life, take risks and be confident in yourself.
In big wave surfing terms, you have to be your best friend in moments when you are alone. I always thought that was a powerful piece of advice because there are moments when you are caught inside on a wave and while there are thousands of people on the cliffs watching, and helicopters buzzing, or jet skis racing, none of them can get to you. And at that moment, you are completely alone. You are on your own, and a lot of people hate being alone. Yet until you can learn to be comfortable being alone, you won’t conquer fear.
"You will never be the greatest at anything if all you seek is the end."
My advice if you are getting into big wave surfing or anything big in general: don’t be worried about rushing. The tendency nowadays is quick, quick, quick, do it fast. Take baby steps. That's how I got into big wave riding. It took me 13 years to remotely get confident to surf the way I surf now, and I still have a long way to go. Start at the bottom and do it cause you love it. Work your way up. Enjoy the journey, not the end. You will never be the greatest at anything if all you seek is the end. The journey is more important, do it for the right reasons. And most importantly, have fun.
Among the many contributors in the book, which is your favorite story and why?
All of them are great, but one that slipped in at the last minute was Peter Mel up at Mavericks. We had the book finished, but he ended up catching a wave at Maverick that won Ride of the Year this year. What is inspiring about it all is that he has had a surfing career, a family, and is 52 years old, yet he rode the single best wave of the year. He spent 30 years surfing Mavericks and never once got that wave. But he never gave up, and eventually, he had a one-in-a-billion wave come where he just so happened to be in the right place at the right time, having the skills, the knowledge, and experience to take off on it and ride a wave that has never been ridden like that before.
Who is pushing the limits in big wave surfing and is someone to keep an eye on as the sport progresses?
There are several people, but I would say someone like Lucas Chumbo. He is a Brazilian kid who is an absolute maniac, an incredibly talented tow-boarder, insane at paddle-in surfing, and borderline fearless who might have some mental issues because he is so psycho. He is also one of my best friends and the nicest guy on earth. And on the women's side, there’s Justine Dupont. She is French and stuck her teeth in the big wave realm at Nazaré. She has just started traveling the world and has probably gotten the single best wave ridden at Jaws by a female surfer this year.
Surfing can be seen as such an individual activity, but how does your team help? How many people are involved and how long does it take in order for you to get in the position of dropping into a monstrous wave?
I have a large team behind me, and it’s all by design. Being a pro surfer with the means to perform at the highest level, why not mitigate risk as much as possible? On a big day at Jaws, I will have my boat with all my equipment, a doctor on board, the ambulance on call, and a direct line to the helicopter at the airport just in case something terrible happens. You notify all those areas, and then you have two rescue jet skis and my principal jet ski that all serve as a safety net. I must be able to do what I do and push the limits knowing for sure that I’m coming back alive. Not everyone can have a flotilla of safety nets and the right people like I do. I figure if I’m going to do it, I'm going to do it at the absolute best I possibly can, the right way.
Now that your book has launched, what's next? Bigger waves and bigger books?
You know, I was thinking about that already. I think it’s time to start on the next book project. This next book might come out in 10 years, but hopefully from this point forward, it will document all of the amazing rides that my friends and I have and all the stories we collect along the way. I think it’s going to be exciting to see where we all go. It never felt like there was a right time to do a book because I feel like there’s so much life left to live so hopefully there can be the follow-up that will blow this one away.