First Session: Jaws

Matt Rode

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Updated 38d ago

Our First Session series peels back the legend on the first surfers at various famous spots from across the globe. We've already covered Teahupoo, Waimea, Anchor Point, Cloudbreak, Bali, J-Bay, Puerto Escondido, Mundaka and Hossegor. Let us know in the comments if there is anywhere else you'd like us to shine a spotlight on.

The past two months have been crazy in the North Pacific, by anyone’s standards, and last weeks mega-swell at Jaws was the crescendo for this seven-week run. With the trades ripping and a 22-foot at 17-second swell buffeting the Hawaiian Islands, a hardcore crew of big wave maniacs put on a tow clinic at some of the biggest Jaws we’ve seen in years.

But lest we forget, towing huge Jaws is nothing new. In fact, Laird Hamilton and his crew were whipping into XXL monsters at Maui’s most famous reef decades ago. And as it turns out, guys were actually paddling Peahi long before that. With the North Pacific finally slowing down (relatively speaking) and giving us a chance to catch our breath, I thought I’d dive into the history of Jaws and try to find out when, exactly, the wave was pioneered.

Forecast: Jaws

Laird's been towing here since the early 90s. And even here, in 2014, it's easy to see how progression has moved on until now.

Peahi is technically a land area on the northern coast of Maui that extends from the northern slopes of Haleakala down to the bottom of Peahi gulch, where it meets the water. Located a few hundred meters offshore, the surf spot that has come to be known as Jaws breaks along a deep-water reef into a large, safe channel. According to local history, Maui surfers John Roberson, John Lemus, and John Potterick were quietly paddling the wave as early as 1975. They nicknamed the break Jaws after the popular movie that year, comparing the unpredictable nature of the quickly growing wave to the unpredictability of shark attack.

In the 1980s, a handful of windsurfers began accessing the break via nearby Ho’okipa, including Dave Kalama and Brett Lickle. Then, in the early 1990s, Kalama, Laird Hamilton, Derrick Doerner, and Buzzy Kerbox pioneered the sport of tow surfing at Jaws, spending the next few years riding the biggest waves on the planet with very little fanfare.

By the late 1990s, the Peahi tow scene had been widely publicised, both in the surf media and the mainstream media at large, effectively blowing the lid off of Jaws while also spreading the tow revolution internationally. For the next decade, jet ski-assisted surfing dominated the big wave scene, both on Maui and around the world. And you can read the impact that had on Laird, here (nearly cost him his marriage).

One of the best waves ever surfed at Jaws.

Big wave paddle surfing enjoyed a renaissance in the early 2000s, thanks in part to the performances of a new generation of chargers, including Greg Long, Grant “Twiggy” Baker, Shane Dorian, Nathan Fletcher, Kohl Christensen, and a dozen other international chargers. But Peahi was still considered a tow-only wave until 2007, when Yuri Soldade and Danilo Cuoto paddled a big day, proving what was possible under arm power alone. In 2012, an all-star crew showed up for a clean, huge swell at Peahi. In the course of one session, Long, Dorian, Twiggy, Christensen, Cuoto, Soldade, Fletcher, Carlos Burle, Dave Wassel, and Ian Walsh turned Jaws into a paddle wave, effectively relegating skis to the sidelines, where they were used for safety rather than access.

Over the past decade, the performance bar at Peahi has been elevated numerous times, with the barrel becoming the focus. While Aaron Gold’s world record 63-foot wave was paddled off the north peak, Albee Layer’s performance on the west bowl has become the stuff of legends, as have Billy Kemper’s consistent performances, both in and out of the jersey. Kemper and Ian Walsh forced us to reconsider what was possible by making incredibly deep foam ball rides through huge barrels, and Twiggy took things to the next level in the 2018 Jaws contest by packing—and almost making—an enormous double-up barrel on a 60-footer.

At the same time, tow surfing never completely went away, with jet skis dominating the lineup whenever the wind blew too strong to allow for safe paddle surfing—which happens pretty frequently on Maui. Kai Lenny has been the standout in that department over the past few years, translating his preternatural talent for paddle surfing into next-level performances on a tow board, complete with backflips and 360 chop hops. Meanwhile, as recently as last week, Justine Dupont elevated women’s tow surfing to previously unseen levels by navigating an impossibly deep barrel on the day from Saturday.

Where exactly surfing at Pe’ahi goes from here is yet to be seen. Widely considered the best XXL barrel on the planet, Jaws is ground zero for big wave progression, sharing that status with Maverick’s and Nazare. While the focus has returned to freesurfing with the recent cancellation of the Big Wave Tour, there is no shortage of talent in the water any time the reef near Paia turns on. Whether paddle or tow, the wave named for its unpredictability always seems to provide predictable spectacle, which is why Jaws will remain at the centre of big wave surfing for years to come.

Cover shot of Laird by Mike Neal