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Surfing Into Jaws

Big kahuna Dave Kalama tells how he tamed Maui’s monster waves with motors, ropes, and adrenaline.

A few times each year, storm swells originating as far away as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands make their way to the Maui surf spot locals call Jaws. There, a barrier reef, just over a half mile [0.8 kilometer] off shore, sculpts the swells into 40- to 70-foot [12- to 21-meter] walls of water.

The waves’ speed—roughly 30 miles per hour [48 kilometers per hour]—and the rocky cove where it breaks make traditional, paddle-from-shore surfing impossible. So in 1992 surfer Dave Kalama, now 37, and friends found a novel approach to Jaws.

Drivers on personal watercraft tow their partners on short boards specially designed with straps, out to Jaws. As the driver overtakes a wave from behind, the surfer releases the towrope and rides down the front. Total surf time is nearly a minute—an eon compared to the typical 5- to 30-second rides of smaller waves.

In the July 2002 Adventure’s “The Joy of Fear,” Kalama recounts his hairiest fall on Jaws. Here, he talks about the brighter side of surfing tsunami-like waves.

—Nicole Davis

How did you end up in Maui?

In the mid-eighties, my parents flew me over to Kauai, where they were on vacation. The plane had to stop in Maui to let some passengers off.

At the time I was just getting into windsurfing, and just looking out the window and recognizing Hookipa, a very famous windsurfing beach, and seeing the flag at the airport flapping so hard from the wind—right there on the spot I knew, this is me, I’m moving to Maui. So I went home, finished the last bit of school, sold everything I had and moved over. I was 20.

I arrived in Maui July 2, 1985, 12:30 in the afternoon. I remember the day very well, because it was like a dream come true.

I wasn’t surfing big waves yet. I was an average surfer, nothing special. As a 20-year-old, I wasn’t at the level where I could have any realistic aspirations of making a living at surfing.

How did you get turned on to Jaws?

About a year after I moved to Maui, I heard from some friends about this wave up the coast. You had to walk through pineapple trees and bushes to get to the edge of the cliff, where you could see Jaws breaking below.

After windsurfing at Hookipa on a big day, we’d go up there and just watch Jaws to see what it was doing. It definitely had our interest, because it was big and it broke very well, and there was a wide-open channel, so it would be easy to get back to the peak of the wave, unlike most waves here on Maui.

When did you first windsurf Jaws?

I was windsurfing one day in 1988 out at Hookipa. I had been watching Jaws a few days prior, so I thought about sailing out there. On my first tack I saw one of my friends, Brett Lickle, and said, “Hey, I’m gonna go up to Jaws,” and he said, “Yeah, let’s go!”

We started sailing out and within a couple tacks, another one of our friends started sailing with us. It took us a couple hours to get there from Hookipa. When we got up there, it was just an awesome site. In retrospect, it was barely breaking 14 feet [4 meters], but at the time, that seemed fairly large.

We sailed it for about 45 minutes, and then Brett came really close to completely wiping out. That made everybody nervous so we split and headed back.

It was so hard to get up there—and it was intimidating, and I was so focused on my competitive windsurfing career that I put most of my effort into just riding Hookipa, where all the contests were. I didn’t go back until 1991.

I had seen the footage of some other windsurfers sailing it, and it motivated me to get back out there. I went a second time with more people, and it was a lot more fun and felt a lot safer.

How did you develop tow surfing?

Laird Hamilton, Darrick Doerner, and Buzzy Kerbox were using inflatable boats to tow each other into waves on conventional big wave surfing boards over on Oahu. At the same time, Brett Lickle, and Mark Angulo, and I were experimenting with foot straps on normal surfboards.

Laird and our buddies came back from Oahu and told us what they had done, and we showed them what we had been playing with, and we put the two together. We began tow surfing in the winter of 1992 with rubber boats with outboard motors.

What does it feel like to surf Jaws now?

It's sort of like jumping off a cliff—the longer you sit up there and contemplate whether or not to do it, the harder it becomes. I don't like to look at Jaws too much, or study it. I like to just take a quick look at the wave, get a quick assessment, and go.

When you let go of the rope and you drop in, you go in a warrior mode—you flex your muscles, you grit your teeth, you're ready for anything. I'm so focused I can't hear the wave when I'm riding it. It feels like riding in an elevator when the cables break—all of a sudden you're falling and screaming, and then the cable re-engages and you slow down and step off and try to recover from a heavy dose of adrenaline.

It can also be spiritual to be next to that much raw power and energy. A wave is essentially energy passing through the ocean until it breaks and disperses. To be that close to that much energy being released can be humbling.

Surfing Jaws can create some very strong bonds between people. We surf it together because we need to protect each other. The experience is so unique that sharing it with someone else creates a bond.

And at the end of a day of surfing Jaws, it's all smiles and laughs, and a huge feeling of accomplishment.

Your father, big wave surfer Ilima Kalama, said part of the appeal of big wave surfing is “the love of getting killed.” Do you agree?

I don’t necessarily think it’s literally the love of getting killed—but knowing that the sport is potentially deadly and still choosing to do it shows our love for it and depth of commitment to it.

How do you cope with fear?

I try not to give fear too much power or too much concern, because fear, in a physical sense, is a tightening up of the body and preparing itself for an impact or some type of attack. That’s exactly the opposite reaction you want to have, because you want your mind to stay supple and clear, so you can constantly monitor what’s coming at you and be able to react to it spontaneously.

The fear helps keep you sharp, helps you make good decisions. Without it, you probably wouldn’t be surfing for very long—you’d end up getting crunched.

In “The Joy of Fear” in the current Adventure, you recount a nearly deadly tow-surfing wipeout. How did you feel afterward?

The minute I came up and I was OK, I said to Brett Lickle, who was driving, “Get me back out there.” I needed to do it again, just to get through that fear.

You go through a traumatic experience like that and you either get scared away from ever riding again, or you get back on that horse and try and conquer your fear when you’re at your most vulnerable and scared.

I got back on that horse immediately. But my wipeout was solid confirmation that I needed flotation, so I started using a vest.

What are your responsibilities when you’re towing a surfer?

After you’ve towed the surfer into the wave you want to stay as close to the surfer as you possibly can. If you’re totally in front of the wave, you can’t see what the next one’s going to do. So usually I’ll race out to the shoulder so I can keep an eye on him. Meanwhile, I’m teetering on the crest so I can see what’s going on behind me.

If he does have a wipeout, I know how much time I have to go in and make a rescue. Typically you figure you’ve got about 20 to 25 seconds before the next wave comes.

I also pay attention to how the water’s flowing, so I can take a good guess at where he’s going to pop up. We all have a rescue sled on the back of our Jet Skis, so you can come along and pluck the guy out of the water real quick and throw him on the sled. I don’t have to come to a complete stop. We just grab arms, and when I hit the accelerator, the momentum swings him up onto the sled.

We’ve all learned some basic CPR and lifeguarding techniques—but I’ve never had to use CPR on anyone. That’s a good thing.

What kind of training do you do?

Well, if it’s too windy to surf in the morning, then I’ll usually go work out at the beach. I’ll run, do push-ups and sit-ups, and swim for about an hour.

Recently I did yoga at a Quicksilver training camp, and I’m going to continue with it. It made me realize how stiff I was, but it’s also really good for your balance and flexibility.

Are you competing now?

I was into competition with windsurfing when I was younger. Now, I can see that competition is a bit hollow. It’s so subjective. You go out surfing and wait for someone who can’t surf as well as you to tell you if you’re any good or not.

Competition can do a lot of good things for people. It can be a good motivator. But all in all, I’m a little over it.

What motivates you now?

Just riding, being good at it, and surviving.

Read more about Dave Kalama in “The Joy of Fear” in the July 2002 issue of Adventure.

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Surfer Dave Kalama
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“Knowing the sport is deadly and still choosing to do it shows our
love for it.”

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Dava Kalama

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Dave's Lessons

• Follow your gut:
Fear has taught me to trust my instincts. When I’m riding, I listen to my subconscious and let it take over in real critical situations.

• Beware an angry sea:
There are days when we’ve driven out and the wave looks angry, like it does not want to be ridden. I don’t go surfing on those days, and I like to believe I am saving my life when I make that decision.

• Use fear to motivate you to prepare:
I do a lot of running on the beach, push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and breath-holding exercises. I also do a lot of paddleboarding to strengthen my upper body, and I swim. It’s the fear of drowning that motivates me to prepare for that worst-case scenario.

—Jim Thornton

Related Web Sites

Jaws—The Science Behind the Waves
Check out the science behind the Maui wave phenomenon known as Jaws.

Mark Your Calendar: Oahu's North Shore Surf-Off
Quiksilver's annual surfing competition only takes place if the surf tops a boggling 20 feet [32 meters].

Destination Guide: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Plan a trip to this geological hot spot for two of the world's most active volcanoes, abundant wildlife, and scenic hikes through lava fields.

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