“Before it was Jaws we called it the Atom Blaster because it broke like an atomic bomb!”
Before anything, and more than thirty years before Laird Hamilton, Darrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox, proved there was a way of surfing Jaws, Gerry Lopez would go down through the pineapple fields there in Maui, sit on the Pe’ahi cliffs and watch this surreal big wave break half a mile out to sea.
In summer when it was flat, Lopez would crawl over the limu, or seaweed, covered rocks with his speargun and go chase lobsters out on the reef.
Surfing Jaws? No one thought it possible that, one day, there’d be an entire subculture of Jaws surfers, men and women who surf Jaws as their sole aim.
There were other names, too, before Jaws surfers became a thing: After a hippy built a dome-shaped house there the kids started calling it Domes.
But, after “watching countless waves and imagining them chewing us to bits” Lopez, who would become a Jaws surfers decades later, eventually gave it the name Jaws after the famous villain in the Bond movie “The Spy Who Loved Me.”
Jaws Surfing, how to see it
Well, first thing, if you want to see the best in the world surfing Jaws, those Jaws surfers with names that ring loud even among non-surfers, Kai Lenny, Shane Dorian, Billy Kemper, Nathan Florence, you’ll need to get on a plane to Maui.
And, second thing, you gotta know that it’s geographical name is Pe’ahi and, unless you can get on a boat or you’ve got the money to see Jaws from a helicopter, you’ll be watching from the Pe’ahi cliffs.
Access to see Jaws is via four-wheel-drive and you’ll find the turn off between mile marker #13 and #14 on Hana Highway, also known as Highway 36. The mile-and-a-half dirt road is graded enough you can get a regular car in, but if it’s raining or has been, the dirt turns into a slick of mud. Drive as far in as you feel safe, park to the side, and walk the rest of the way to see the world’s best surfing Jaws.
What is Jaws?
Jaws is a wild outer reef that is reserved only for big-wave experts experienced in Jaws surfing, and usually with back-up safety teams.
It only starts to break at twelve feet but at twenty-feet or five times overhead, “the spur-shaped lava reef is a half mile from shore, and the reef topography bends incoming waves into a classic ‘bowl’ shape, which in turn produces a cyclonic right-breaking tube that can spit and grind for up to 200 yards. The left at Jaws is also ridden (by Jaws surfers), but the shape is less predictable. Jaws is fronted by steep cliffs, adjacent to a grid of sugarcane fields.”
The funny thing about surfing Jaws is the wave can look glassy, but a fifty-footer generates its own offshore, adding to the east-south-east coming into the right, which is its own danger to Jaws surfing as the little-known Jaws surfer Jamie Mitchell discovered during a wild wipe-out while surfing Jaws.
“Surfing Jaws, I knew this was going to be the wave of my life or the wipeout of my life,” says Jaws surfer Jamie Mitchell. “I knew I wasn’t going to make it so I jumped to try and penetrate. But the wave was so big when I was falling my leash and my board yanked me… Impact was bad. My left side, my left neck and shoulder went numb instantly. They call it a stinger. When the wave sucked back over I went over the falls and then I don’t know if I blacked out quickly but I just remember I was on the bottom, on the rocks, on my back.”
Jaws surfers know a wipeout there demands a heavy price. Jamie loves to surf Jaws but he hit the bottom so hard surfing Jaws his wetsuit was ripped and his ass, legs and feet were cut. He pulled his inflatable vest but the downward pressure was so great nothing happened.
“I couldn’t do anything. I was at the mercy of this thing,” he says.
Surf Jaws? It’s a gamble.
Even his board was completely submerged.
Surviving Surfing Jaws
When he made it to the surface, almost on the rocks, Jamie swallowed a half-breath of air before a second wave hit him. Water safety patroller and Jaws surfer Abe Lerner got him on the rescue ski but Jamie couldn’t use his left arm. Dragged aboard, he was pulled off the back of the sled by his board hitting the water.
Jamie enjoyed another wave on the head before getting out the back and into the final ten minutes of is heat.
“But it was all over. I got a mild concussion. I was seeing stars and feeling wobbly, drunk, what a boxer feels after getting hit. I just had to survive.”
Afterwards, other Jaws surfers said it was lucky that when he took the wipeout as he had the tools, the training, the lungs to survive it.
He was rushed to hospital by the great Maui waterman and Jaws surfer Kai Lenny after a wipeout during a twenty-foot day surfing Jaws.
“I got picked up and I fell through the barrel. I fell a lot longer than I thought,” said the Jaws surfer. “After the initial impact, I got sucked up and fell again. As I was falling, I was pulling my vest. I just fell a lot farther than I thought and my body was in a weird position. I just slammed on my back on the bottom of the barrel, which is just hard water. Right when I slammed, I just felt kind of a snap in my lower back, right on my spine.”
The History of Surfing Jaws
Before the Jaws surfers, there were the sailboarders, Jaws surfers, yeah, but a different medium.
“The early photos of Mark Angulo, his brother Josh, Rush Randall, Mike Waltz and some other Maui boys standing inside the Jaws tube were truly awesome,” says Gerry Lopez.
“That the tube was throwing out completely over their 15-foot mast and sail was even more spectacular. Once Laird saw those pictures of Jaws surfing, he knew he had found the perfect place to do his tow-in Jaws surfing.”
In 1992, the men whose names would soon become synonymous with surfing Jaws, Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox and Darrick Doerner, pioneered a dramatic new way of riding waves so big it was almost impossible to generate enough speed paddling to catch them with your own hands.
Using an inflatable boat and ski tow ropes the trio dragged each other into big waves at Sunset Beach, the technique later evolving and replacing the Zodiac with the faster and more manoeuvrable jetski.
“Laird, Dave Kalama, Darrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox were maestros (at surfing Jaws),” says Lopez of the pioneering Jaws surfers. “They had it dialled in and zipped those skis around like they were on a dance floor instead of a dangerous surf zone.”
Modern Jaws Surfing
Two decades later, paddle surfing or non-jet ski assisted entries into waves, had evolved to such a point that some of the best Jaws surfers started leaving their skis and boats in their garages and just…paddling.
Shane Dorian, Mark Healey, Kohl Christensen, Greg Long and Ian Walsh were already standouts among the Jaws surfers, but making the dangerous transition from power to hand was something else.
“It’s so raw,” Jaws surfer Mark Healey explained to Outside Mag of the difference between paddle and tow surfing Jaws. “It’s like working behind enemy lines versus firing a mortar from five miles away.”
Of course, then there’s Jaws surfers like Shane Dorian, cool as anything, who says to be a Jaws surfer ain’t that hard, “You really just need to the balls to paddle in, to surf Jaws.. To ride one well requires some serious skill but just to make it down the face, to surf Jaws, you don’t have to be a great surfer.”
There is a caveat to Jaws surfing, however, says Jaws surfer Dorian.
“When everything goes wrong surfing Jaws, it’s the shittiest feeling. You immediately go from this mode where you’re out there thinking, I’m going to charge, this is going to make my day, Why am I so fucking selfish? Why did I do this? Now I’m at the bottom of the ocean and about to drown.
“But you won’t drown. This is what you trained for. Remember that. Breath-holding training is important surfing Jaws. If you know you can handle two waves on the head surfing Jaws, you won’t punch that big red panic button lighting up in your head. At least not straight away.”
Jaws Surfing, Kings and Queens
Who are the best Jaws surfers in 2023 and moving beyond? There are, of course, the best known Jaws surfers, Kai Lenny for one.
Once, while surfing Jaws, his jetski was destroyed on the rocks and had to be retrieved by chopper.
“Surfing Jaws has consequences,” Jaws surfer Lenny said.
Maui’s Billy Kemper is rightly regarded as the best Jaws surfer, a four-times Jaws surfing contest winner and the 2017 big-wave world champ.
“I put blood, sweat and tears into it. It’s my pride and joy,” the Jaws surfer says.
During that same memorable speech in 2017, Jaws surfer Kemper said, “Everyone of these (Jaws surfers) are not just surfers. This is our livelihood out here. Yesterday was the most radical day of surfing competition in history. I’m glad I got to kick that day off, surf Jaws, and I’m glad I got to end this event.
What Other Pro Surfers Surf Jaws?
Jaws surfer Justine Dupont, from France, caught her dream wave there in 2022, only to be left dazed and coughing up blood.
“The conditions were really nice, without being too big and with little wind which is rare for Jaws,” recalled Jaws surfer Dupont. “When this wave came, I turned around and paddle hard, I shouted, I said to myself wow I’m there.
“A fraction of seconds later I took a coconut tree on the face ( @coconut_willie). The fins went over my foot and I felt right on the impact of the lip. Like 4 years ago I saw a lot of stars again.
“I was in pain everywhere, but I really wanted to take advantage of the conditions (to surf Jaws) which were magnificent so I went back to the peak telling myself that I was fine. After 1 hour I still couldn’t see well, I wanted to vomit, I had a headache and I was coughing up blood. End of session.”
“It was like a 40-foot back or maybe bigger,” Baby’s dad, Kaleo Roberson said of his Jaws surfing son.
“I just saw this barrel coming and I knew I was like okay, here we go. I was like, this is gonna’ be the best wave of my life,” the Jaws surfing kid said.
After wiping out and being rescued by another Jaws legend Billy Kemper, Baby said, “The feeling like when I popped up is like a feeling like I’ve never had before. I just felt so alive and it was gnarly.”
There was much controversy following the crowning of the women’s big-wave world title in 2018, however, when Kauai’s Keala Kennelly, a long-time Jaws surfer, was crowned champ.
The world championship was decided after one event, the Women’s Jaws Challenge, and that Kennelly won the event and the title despite not making a takeoff on her two waves.
“It’s an embarrassment,” said Matt Warshaw. “Not for Jaws surfer Keala, but the WSL. On the WSL’s master list of embarrassments, though, it’s not even in the top 10…A one-event world title (even if it is to surf Jaws) lowers the odds that the champ is legit. A tour is the way to go, but all that does is bump the odds that the champ is deserving.”
“It’s one of the most extreme things I’ve ever seen,” Nic von Rupp, a professional big-wave surfer, told the New York Times. “It’s so extreme (surfing Jaws as a bodysurfer) is like hanging from the wing of an airplane while everyone is sitting inside.”
Jaws surfer Lattanzi told the Times of surfing Jaws, “I love the adrenaline, I love this feeling of being surrounded by water and finding the biggest barrels and pushing my limits. I’m chasing adrenaline for sure.”
Matt Warshaws, who is never going to surf Jaws but is in thrall to the Jaws surfing spot, says of Lattanzi, “It looks so much scarier, not having a board, but if you’re a strong swimmer, and have fins on, and know the lineup and have a high degree of big-wave knowledge, you’re better off than being on a board with no fins.”
And, Albee Layer of course, as well-known for his tell-it-like-it-is spirit as much as his big-wave and small-wave prowess.
Jaws Surf Report
Catching Jaws surfing in all its glory is a rare enough event that if you want to become a Jaws surfer, just surf Jaws once yourself or see a little Jaws surfing, you’ll want to know where to find the best Jaws surf report.
All of ‘em offer varying degrees of the same story, the same meteorological data, but with different platforms for surfing Jaws. But click on any if you want a definitive Jaws surf report.
Jaws surf cams
Know before you go, as they say, although on a big swell, the sort that fills YouTube clips and movies and online news reports of stars surfing Jaws, you’ll wanna know the day before.
Still, if you can’t be there or wanna make a late charge to the cliffs, you’ll want to jump on the Jaws surf cams. But! And, yeah, it’s quite a but, there ain’t no Jaws surf cams.
Jaws surf cams don’t exist, yet. The closest thing you’ll find to Jaws surf cameras is on Instagram, where all the Jaws surfers use their phones as Jaws surf cameras.
There must be Jaws surf cameras somewhere, no? Atop a pole on the cliffs? Jaws surf cameras attached to…boats? Jetskis?
Nope, no Jaws surf cameras.. Read the reports, make your own call.
Jaws surf lessons
Is this joke, the reader asks? An unscrupulous operator offering Jaws surf lessons? There are plenty of surf schools on Maui, yeah, it’s that sorta place, a dreamy paradise with water so warm you’ll still be sweating after you dive in, but Jaws surf lessons? Don’t even think about it. If you need Jaws surf lessons, you ain’t ready to surf Jaws.
But, let’s say Jaws surf lessons is your thing. You want to be a Jaws surfer. You’re ready, or at least you think you’re ready, to surf Jaws. You study the Jaws surf cameras, you comb the internet for Jaws surf shops, Jaws surf camps etc.
Let’s ask Jaws surfer Shane Dorian for a little Jaws surf lesson, on how to get yourself aboard the holy grail of Jaws surfing, a real-life twenty-foot wave.
Oh, you’re scared.
That’s the same reason to paddle into a six-foot wave when you’re used to four-foot waves. We’re surfers, right. We all want to get better and push onto the next level. We all want to experience something new and something different. And for those that are into that, maybe you, paddling into a 20-foot wave at Jaws surfing spot is about as challenging and exhilarating as it gets.
Wait, what’s that about dying? Yeah, that is the big elephant in the room. But more people die in little waves than big waves. I know, it ain’t much comfort. But when you get in the ocean that’s part of the deal. The bigger it is, the more the chances go up. But, listen: even the craziest big-wave surfer has more of a chance of dying in a car crash en route to wherever than from having the air squeezed out of him.
Anyway, let’s do this thing. First up, the chances of all the ingredients coming together to actually paddle into a 20-footer at Jaws surfing spot is low. Everything has to be right. The waves have to turn on.
You can’t be sick, you can’t be out of shape, and your boards have to be ready to go. So you gotta be patient.
Butterflies? Yeah, I get ’em too. Serious butterflies. From the moment I see a potential swell on the map to packing my boards I get butterflies.
And if it’s extraordinary swell, like at Jaws surfing spot,, I get a genuine fear. But all that nervousness, all that fear, goes away when you get into the lineup. And it should for you, too. If it doesn’t, if you’re hesitating or overcome by nervousness, maybe it just ain’t your day.
But then again maybe you just need a push in the right direction. I calm myself by thinking about what a special day this is; that it may not be like this again for years. I try and get myself into a mental state where I want to push myself.
So what does a 20-foot wave look like? It looks scary as shit.
There’s a huge difference between a 15-foot wave and a 20-foot wave. It’s not just a difference of five feet. It’s bigger, it’s thicker, it’s more dangerous (sorry!). There’s a huge separation of people who surf 20-feet and those who surf 15 feet. Twenty feet is where it gets really, really serious.
Now let’s paddle in. If you’re in the right spot, whip it around, put your head down and go. You can’t hesitate. Head down and totally commit.
Do I hesitate sometimes? Of courses. I hesitate all the time. Sometimes for good reason, sometimes it’s a big mistake, sometimes it’s genuinely out of fear.
It’s part of the deal. I’ve looked at a lot of good waves and not gone. My general theory is that there’s no wave worth killing yourself for.
Once you’re at the point of no return, your tail is lifting and your about to drive down the face, everything, all that nervousness disappears. Sure, you’re hyper-aware of making a mistake but, in the moment, you’re focussed and completely in the zone. You think of nothing and, instead, you’re relying on all your past experiences to get you through.
When everything goes right at Jaws surfing spot, it’s like you pulled off the impossible. Because everything in the universe has to align for you to get this ride that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
And there should only be a handful of these in any surfers’ life, waves that you truly remember. That feeling is rare and elusive as hell. It’s a mix of pure elation and accomplishment.
When everything goes wrong at Jaws surfing spot,, it’s the shittiest feeling. You immediately go from this mode where you’re out there thinking, I’m going to charge, this is going to make my day,
Why and I so fucking selfish? Why did I do this? Now I’m at the bottom of the ocean and about to drown.
But you won’t drown. This is what you trained for. Remember that.
Breath-holding training is important here. If you know you can handle two waves on the head, you won’t punch that big red panic button lighting up in your head. At least not straight away.
And here’s something you may not have thought about: the comedown after such a tremendous event at somewhere like Jaws surfing spot.
It’s almost like postpartum depression. You have this crazy euphoric moment when it’s happening where you’re on this razor’s edge and you feel like you’ve reached the absolute pinnacle of your life but then…almost in slow motion… it starts to fade as you reach the channel.
Even though you just rode the wave of your life at Jaws surfing spot and you knew it and felt it while you were riding, it evaporates as you flick off and becomes, immediately, past tense.
It’s such an emotional swing! You’re definitely not high forever.
Jaws surf shops
So, let’s just say you got the chops to surf Jaws, you want to be one of the elite crew of Jaws surfers surfing Jaws, but you need a bar of wax or an inflatable vest.
Where are the Jaws surf shops?
You wouldn’t call ‘em Jaws Surf Shops per se, it’s still a drive to Jaws, but close enough that you won’t be ruined if the airline loses your bag.