We Tagged Along for the Biggest Surf at Jaws in More Than a Decade

When a colossal swell hits Maui, big wave surfers heed the call.

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Jan 22 2016, 11:40pm

Photo by Tal Roberts

"Worst case scenario?" I ask professional surfer Mark Healey. We're sitting in our Airbnb rental in Haleiwa, just down the road from the Pipeline break, talking about the massive swell that's headed for Jaws tomorrow.

He takes a moment to ponder the question. The waves are forecast to be the biggest to hit the break in 15 years. I'm here to film a training video with Healey for his newest sponsor, Saxx Underwear. He's been anxious since my business partner and I arrived earlier in the week, and I sense his head is elsewhere.

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"Worse case scenario?" Healey repeats. "A lot of people have paddled into smaller swells out there. This one looks to be big."

He turns to me and grins.

"Well, someone could die out there."

My partner, Blake Kimmel, and I go into full audible mode: we bail on the training video, get the OK from Saxx, and plan to follow Healey to Jaws, where we'll find out what it's like when a professional big wave surfer heeds the call of a big day at a break ferocious enough to inspire its shark-attack name.

"Out there, in the ocean, you're interacting with one of the most powerful parts of nature since the beginning of time," says Healey. "Big wave surfing can be fun, but it's mostly a lonely endeavor. You're out there alone, and very nervous, and a little scared."

Healey, 34, is a North Shore native and started surfing when he was three years old. At 17, he turned pro and is now also sponsored as a spear fisherman and free diver. Most recently, he coordinated surf and water stunts in the Point Break remake. He'll be featured this spring in an Outside magazine story on his other job title: scientific shark tagger. Healey's life is a duality of two states: in the water and out of the water.

Mark Healey charging Jaws. Photo by Tal Roberts

The following morning, after a short flight from Healey's home in Oahu to Maui, we're at the Sporting Club of the Pacific, a local juice bar known for its white coffee, a shaken black coffee mixed with house-made coconut cream. Healey and his pal, fellow big wave surfer Billy Kemper, are talking about the swell. Another North Shore local, Kemper first towed into Jaws when he was 15. Last month, the 25-year-old won the Peʻahi Challenge there.

"The buoys are rising and falling out there," says Healey. Waves and swells are unpredictable, but today, he says, the weather and the wind and, well, everything is lining up.

"It's just starting to show at 8:44 AM," Healey reads to Kemper. "Game on. Today is going to be a good one!"

Lifeguard Kaleo Amadeo has seen waves like these before. He's been guarding nearby Maui beach for the past 23 years. Back in the 90s, Amadeo used to tow into the waves on jet skis. He says he's ridden some big waves on the outer reefs of Hawaii, but when it comes to Jaws, simply: it's heavy.

"It really packs a punch," Amadeo says. "It's like getting hit by a cement truck. Shit, man. The way the buoys are looking and these guys are here—they're the best of the best—it's going to be one of those historical days, size-wise. The size of that wave makes it spooky."

Waves the size of small Brooklyn buildings are common at Jaws, but this is no ordinary day. The impact zone is a washing machine that throws and slams surfers, boards and sometimes jet skis into the cliffed-out shore. Healey and many of the surfers out there practice breathing exercises before they enter the water, as a fall can sometimes keep them underwater for minutes.

Jaws is infamous for breaking biggest during the night. Surfers usually catch the tail end of a swell early the next morning. This monster, however, is arriving under a high sun. At 2 PM, the surfers tell me, it'll be at its most powerful.

Healey's buddy Marlon arrives at the juice bar picnic tables. He'll be manning the safety jet ski for Healey and Kemper today.

"It's going to be fucking huge," he says.

Bill Kemper at Jaws. Photo by Tal Roberts

The best and worst of Hawaii come together in Maliko Gulch, a jet ski launch area for the Jaws break. The surf-forecasting site Magicseaweed calls jet skiing out of the bay "a game of Russian Roulette" but even getting to the turbid inlet can be dicey. Crystal meth is a bit of an issue in Hawaii, and a number of its users tend to congregate near the launch ramp. You'll find athletes getting ready to show off their skills on one of surfing's biggest stages next to the local addicts.

On our walk from our rental Jeep to the ramp, a pitbull nearly rips our photographer Tal Roberts to pieces, while the dog's nearby tweaker-owner laughs from under his makeshift tent. Roberts later tells me he was ready to smash the dog with his camera rig in defense.

"They siphon gas out of our trucks while we're out there," Kemper says.

Pro surfer Francisco Porcella runs up the ramp holding two pieces of his broken board.

"I was just trying to ride one," he says, attempting to catch his breath. "The [wave] just collapsed. I tried to ride it out, it blew me off, I came up and my board was in half."

Porcella goes to his truck for a backup board. Breath caught, he sprints into the water and paddles back into the monster.

"Boards break out there like toothpicks," Kemper says.

Healey and Kemper reverse the truck down ramp and unload the jet ski. Healey, who's been calm all morning, lets out a massive scream.

"Whoooooooooooooo!" he yells. "It's on."

After a couple of high-fives and see-ya-laters, he blasts the jet ski between the first and second breaks of the Russian Roulette inlet. Kemper joins him, and they head for the monster, the massive wave that can make a man famous in minutes or swallow him into the throat of the sea, then spit him out, swallow him again, then spit him out, and so on. Jaws has disgusting table manners.

Aaron Gold, who may have ridden the largest wave ever paddled into last weekend at Jaws. Photo by Tal Roberts

From the pineapple-fielded bluffs above Jaws, I look for Healey and Kemper in the lineup. A man in a Cal State hat stumbles down the trail, beer in hand, looking for a place to sit. Pockets of photographers and filmers line the edge of the cliff with 600mm lenses. By my count, nine boats, 18 jet skis, hundreds of spectators, 25 to 30 surfers, three drones, and three helicopters occupy the land, sea, and air space around Jaws.

The spectator area is a Hawaiian hillbilly carnival filled with drug addicts, families, surf groms looking on with fear and ambition, media types—everyone trying to understand why a man or woman would put themselves in position to get thrown by a liquid god of a wave. The waves would wind up being nearly 40 feet tall that day.

The Cal State-hatted man looks to a nearby friend.

"I'd crap my pants if I was out there," he says.

"I've never surfed with shit in my wetsuit," replies his friend.

The waves build, then fall, crashing with a violence that mists saltwater over the onlookers. At the water's edge, a young surfer kneels below the cliffs. Board in his lap, he carefully looks into the mouth of the violence. Five minutes pass. Then ten minutes. He shifts his weight to his heels, inhales a deep breath, and walks into the water to surf Jaws.

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