Kai Lenny is killing it. In September he was named Male Paddler of the Year at the SUP Awards and won the sport's biggest race, the Battle of the Paddle. In October, he wrapped his third SUP surf World Title and second World Series Title. Yeah, 2013 wasn’t too bad. In fact, it was historic, as the Maui native laid down the best competitive season in the sport’s brief history. In this far-reaching interview, Lenny discusses his victories, his competition, slamming the door on his critics and the art of shaping, a craft which he's fully embraced.
What got you back on track in 2013?
The main difference for me between this year and last was that I had more confidence in my riding. And my boards were five times better than what I used last year. That definitely accentuated my surfing.
Who've you been working with, as far as equipment goes?
Actually, since Harold (Ige, Naish's head shaper) passed away, I took it upon myself, with Naish's blessing, to shape my own boards. The first board I hand-shaped I won the Sunset Pro on. When has that ever happened? It's a 7'4" x 26" x 3 ¾”. The magic board. The cool thing was we were able to put those into production and Naish sent me over four or five of that same shape and I took those around the world.
So you just kind of started shaping, or had you studied with someone?
Basically, before Harold passed away, we talked about him teaching me how to shape. It wasn't until after he passed that I was forced to really learn. Dave Kalama, a mentor and trainer of mine, gave me a lot of guidance. Amazing that I was able to gain knowledge from both of these legends.
You have a name for her yet?
Haven't really named it anything yet. I tried to think of something super badass instead of 'Old Magic Yellow.’ Dave made the name, 'Combo Plate' up because I was able to do combo moves on it.
Mentally, did anything change?
I don't know. I guess last year, for some reason, I'd get a little more nervous against certain guys. That just didn't happen this year. I was just surfing all year as if I was free surfing.
Who challenged you most?
Leco Salazar always has a deadly backhand, Sean (Poynter) can win a contest on any given day, Caio Vaz. Mostly, I found myself competing against the new school, my style. But it wasn't so much against them, I was always my own worst enemy, for sure, they were never the reason I wasn't winning. If I'm in a good head space I feel I can beat anybody on any given day and it was a good year that way.
So is everybody catching up?
It's a natural progression. Everyone is getting better, every year. It's insurmountable how much the level has risen and you have to change with the times. This year, I had the right boards and I was able to do things that other riders couldn't. It's hard to win three of four. Mentally, if you have all your training taken care of, all you have to do is take care of that moment. You're more focused on improving your surfing. With age as well, you become a better competitor. I made a huge step forward in competition.
How satisfying was your Battle of the Paddle win?
Last year, after I won the standup World Series and was second at the Battle, there was this weirdness floating around online like, "Is Kai really the world champion in racing? He hasn't won these other races, the World Series isn't the Battle of the Paddle." I really wanted to shut up all the haters that didn't consider me the world champion. I just wanted to win and I wanted to win decisively against the fastest guys in the sport. It's my biggest accomplishment because it's such a legendary race. It was one of the sweetest wins I could have had. Everyone was there and it was a clean race where nobody was really thrown off by conditions or anything.
So conditions, they were pretty intense for the World Series Final?
Turtle Bay was unreal. I was behind Connor (in the standings) and needed a miracle (to win the title). I had to win and Connor had to get fifth and who'd ever heard of Connor getting fifth? In the sprint final, the ocean produced these awesome waves: it was six-foot on sets. All the fastest guys sprinted off the line. I was pushing hard and I was going all out or keel over. I got into a buoy-to-buoy lead with two laps to go.
On the final lap, the biggest set of the day came in. The front wave was a six-foot closeout. I thought, 'I'm either gonna go on this and make it or eat it. If I eat it, I might as well fall on the first one.’ I took off and dropping in, it felt like Waimea Bay. It started barreling and I was scared I'd buckle the board. Even if I made the drop it was going to smash me, so I stepped off the side. I got pounded but the board didn't snap. I got up to see Casper (Steinfath) and Jake Jensen tomahawk down a wave. I got down and bear hugged my board. The whitewater barrel rolled me three times. I lost my paddle but the wave pushed me towards it. I got up and finished a board length ahead of Arthur Arutkin. Connor got caught in the mayhem and finished seventh so I won. Unreal.
Two World Series Titles and three World Tour surf titles. What's your analysis of the Waterman League tours as they stand?
Really, I'm so stoked we have a tour that's better than most established sports. We get to race in massive cities and this is just the beginning. It could always be better but in the early years of any tour, you have issues. The guys on the regular surfing world tour had it way worse than we had in the beginning. They didn't even get a trophy for the World Championship. This tour is in its infancy and it gets better each year and better organized. Hats off to Tristan Boxford for making it happen. Both the race and surf tour have created some amazing opportunities for us as athletes.
How's your winter shaping up?
I just shaped a brand new Jaws gun and, incredibly, it's one of the best boards I've ever used. I made it similar to a regular paddle-in gun. It's almost the same size as Chuck (Patterson's) lay-down, paddle-in gun. I can basically hold it under my arm. All my boards are pretty narrow—my race boards are 24-inches wide. This one I made 23. Narrower boards are that much faster with that much more control. It's mostly about control on big waves. You have that much less going through the water and there's less vibration. When you set the rail, there's that much less mass to push.
Jaws is my backyard and is my main focus. I was honored to get an alternate spot in the Eddie (Aikau Invitational) so I'll be on Oahu to surf Waimea, trying to earn a full invite. I've always wanted to surf Mavericks with Jamie Mitchell. I've always preferred Jaws to Mavericks. People have died there, Mavs is cold, sharky and foreboding, almost evil feeling. Jaws is colorful with warm water. At the same time, Mavs looks like so much fun. It's much glassier, an easier takeoff than the trade winds at Jaws.
2013 was stellar for you. Life is pretty good right now, eh?
Heck yeah, I just went SUPing with Tre Cool, the drummer from Green Day. This sport's for everyone: kids, grams and gramps and rockstars.
Photos by Darrell Wong, Jason Kenworthy, Will Taylor, Waterman League