From the Mag | Jaws of Progress
How Pe’ahi Performances Are Changing Big-Wave SUP
On January 15, 2016, an XXL swell piled into the reef at Pe’ahi, Maui’s classic big-wave spot also known as Jaws. It was among the first major pulses of the highly anticipated El Niño season to align with favorable local conditions and with it came an international mass of big-wave hellmen and women to the island’s north shore mecca. There, the elite crew waited at dawn—both sitting and standing—all poised for a chance to challenge the building swell.
Less than ten years ago standup paddleboards were absent in the lineup at Jaws, or any big-wave lineup for that matter. But on that clear winter day, between five and ten highly skilled paddlers hunted the heaving surf among a pack of 40-plus prone surfers.
“Standup paddlers are still way outnumbered out there,” says Maui-based photo maestro Erik Aeder, who’s been shooting Jaws every winter for its 24-year history as a big-wave arena. “But there are more guys than ever trying it now. They do great and their boards seem suited for it.”
Connor Baxter snagged the morning’s first ride on his 10’6” SUP, followed by fellow standup paddlers the likes of Kai Lenny, Zane Schweitzer, Mo Freitas, Keali’i Mamala and Nicole Pacelli. The swell grew throughout the day, stacking finely groomed skyscrapers four- then five- then six-stories high into the tropical air. Standup paddlers swapped waves with more of surfing’s most revered watermen, guys like Shane Dorian, Greg Long, Mark Healey and Albee Layer. That afternoon, Aaron Gold set a new record for the biggest wave ever traditionally paddled into at Jaws. Kai Lenny packed barrels and carved turns on his SUP unlike anyone had done before. As the El Niño prophecy began to self-fulfill, Pe’ahi showcased big-wave surfing’s most progressive tier of surfers and standup paddlers alike.
“I’m paddling out and lining up with some of these guys who are surfing legends I’ve looked up to my entire life,” Baxter says of his experiences at Jaws last winter. “To be able to standup out there and be accepted on that level is pretty amazing.”
Standup paddleboards are nothing new in big-wave surfing. Guys like Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama and Robby Naish have been stroking into Hawaiian giants standing up since the popular rebirth of the sport. Jeff Clark—who pioneered Northern California’s infamous Mavericks on a traditional surfboard in the early ‘90s—has since taken to standup paddling into lefts there (and the rights too), a feat few surfers attempt on any board. Tahitian Raimana Van Bastolaer, unanimously revered as the warden of Teahupo’o—one of the heaviest lefts in the world—has been showcasing his giant-slaying skills on a standup paddleboard since the craft showed up there. Today, the potential of the paddleboard as a tool of big-wave progress is abundantly clear. Just as the old guard pioneered, the new guard is progressing. Especially at Jaws.
“People get excited to see me paddle into big waves on (a SUP) because I usually get really good waves on it,” says 24-year-old Lenny, considered by his peers to be among the very best surfers at Jaws on any board. “It actually helps me get more waves out there.”
Lenny’s standup performances at Jaws and other big-wave spots are decidedly advanced. He employs the many advantages a SUP offers in large surf—paddle power, elevated vantage and paddle leverage—to perform critical maneuvers that continually reregister the precedent of progression.
“Kai was always good,” says another defining Pe’ahi surfer, Albee Layer. “From what he was doing in his first sessions to what he’s doing now—it’s incredible. He draws lines on his standup paddleboard that no one else can draw on any board.”
But when it comes to standup paddling, Lenny’s not just riding any board. Talent aside, his uncanny performances are also undoubtedly attributable to advances he’s making in his equipment.
“My first paddle-in Jaws experience was on a 9’8” by 28” wide SUP and it felt gigantic,” says Lenny. “Now I’m riding boards as small as 8’10” that are only 23” wide, smaller than 98 percent of the regular surfboards out there. I think in the future I’ll be riding it on an eight-foot board.”
By the standards of modern technology, paddling into a 40-foot face on an eight-foot board isn’t really considered possible lying down—although surfers like Layer are trying. The advantages of standing up enable Lenny and crew to perform progressive maneuvers with the aid of smaller equipment in these arenas. That, in essence, seems to be SUP’s destiny in the big-wave world.
“Standup paddling enables us to go bigger than we would traditional surfing,” says Baxter. “I feel like we can be a little safer about it too because we can be outside more and get a better visual of the wave. Having the extra leverage point of the paddle also really helps when you’re actually riding the wave.”
Between feats of physical prowess, the lineup at Jaws breeds advancement into surfing’s social side as well. In the face of such life-threatening waves, standup paddlers and traditional surfers coexist in equitable harmony.
“No matter what you’re riding, not everyone is always well-received in the lineup,” says Layer. “You need to be experienced and ready and in waves with so much consequence, a lot of guys just shouldn’t be out there. But guys like Kai and some of the other standup paddlers so obviously know what they’re doing that they’re absolutely accepted.”
And the performances are starting to show that. Fast-forward nearly a year from January’s Pe’ahi progression session and the historic season surrounding it and paddlers and surfers alike are preparing for another winter swell season. With technology and talent advancing at terminal velocity, there’s no telling what progressive boundaries will be surpassed by spring.