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David And Goliath

by Tropicsurf Blog May 20, 2020

Kai, why do you surf?

For me, what’s incredible about it is that an ocean wave is the only kind of wave that we humans can act on. Like, there are sound waves and light waves and then there are ocean waves. I think there’s an energy transference going on there. They say that energy never dies, it just gets transferred to something else, and I notice that often when I come out of the water I’m just incredibly happy for no apparent reason. I think that nowadays we tend to look for a reason for feeling happy instead of just feeling it. As humans, that’s just the way we are. We try to quantify everything.

The negative ions that come out of the whitewater as it’s exploding all over you attach themselves to you and that’s what makes us happy. You don’t necessarily need to catch the wave of the day to be stoked. You can be stoked just being in the water feeling that energy. It’s up to you where you set your goals or boundaries. You can be out there and have a bad session and yet still absorb that energy that’s out there. I’ve had times where I’m healing my injuries and I’ll just go out and float around in the lineup just feeling the water, and I think that really helps. So for me, surfing is just one of the easiest ways to pursue happiness, to just feel happy for no apparent reason. I’m so goal-oriented with my sports, all my wave-riding activities, just knowing that there are no limits to how far you can go with each of them. I think there are some activities where you can reach a pinnacle and maybe lose inspiration, but as far as I’m concerned, with my wave- riding activities there’s no way that could ever happen.

I would always have something to strive for. Striving for something is what I live for. Progression, moving forwards. Being content doesn’t work for me, I lose interest. So as well as the happiness thing, surfing satisfies in me this human trait for progressing.

Making this look ridiculously easy.  Photo: Zac Noyle

That’s fascinating. I’ve never thought much about surfing and energy transference.

I’ve done a lot of Surfer’s Healing things. It’s a foundation that takes autistic kids and people into the water and allows them to surf, and it makes them so happy. They might be in pain physically and emotionally, but that kind of goes away. I think a lot of times our minds are moving so quickly doing so many things that our judgement and our natural instincts are clouded, whereas an autistic person doesn’t necessarily have the ability to focus on more than one thing at a time. That’s been my experience, anyway, and what I’ve noticed with these people is that they’ve expanded their more than normal people, because everything that comes out of the water, as opposed to those whose minds might be still back on land while their bodies are out at sea. With autistic people, they’ll be jumping around, kicking and screaming or whatever on land, because their mood swings are giant, but the moment they get into the water, instant calm. Instant happiness. They catch one puny little wave and they just light up. I’m sure it’s because they’re absorbing what’s going on in the water.

My worst nightmare is working in an office building and not being able to surf, or going to jail for something and not being able to surf. Even to get here (the Maldives) is 33 hours of flying – 33 hours of not being in the water! Of course, when you get someplace like this, it’s instantly worth it.

Always frothing. Photo Tom Servais

You strike me as someone who needs to plug in for that recharge on a daily basis, and of course not everyone can do that.

I know, and I count my blessings every day, being able not just to surf, but to surf the best waves in the world, like here in the Maldives, which should be on everyone’s bucket list because it potentially won’t be here forever with the rising oceans. And the other aspect about being here for this event is that I’m taking something positive from each of the other surfers here on a goals level, whether it’s a specific turn or a general approach.

We’ve been talking about the positive energy of surfing, but surfing is not always fun. Can you describe the times when it’s not fun for you, but you’re motivated to do it anyway?

For me surfing is only not fun when I haven’t quenched my thirst for whatever goal it is that I’m chasing after. That could be surfing a really crowded break with a bunch of people that aren’t allowing you to get the waves that allow you to perform. I want to get on that blank canvas, paint a track across it, then think about what I need to change on the paddle back out, then try to do that on the next wave. Sometimes that will happen because the waves just aren’t there, or sometimes it will be because there are 60 guys in the water who are incredible surfers. One way to catch waves is to be ultra-aggressive, but to me that goes against the spirit of riding waves.

Part of the reason I got into big wave surfing was that there are just way less people doing it, and I just loved being able to get into a wave that had so much potential, and not have anyone in my way in front of me, not have anyone battling me for it...just me and my goal and a blank canvas to go paint on! For me, frustration is two things: when I’m out in the water and I can’t accomplish what I want to, and when I’m surrounded by people in a crowded lineup where you have to fight to get a wave. That’s the negative side, but again, it’s really up to me to choose where to go surf, and yet sometimes wherever you go, you have to fight the battle.

You must have had your share of hold-downs and bad wipeouts, and that’s not fun, right?

Well, knock on wood, I’ve never once felt like I was going to drown on a big wave. My training is more than what most surfers do. I have this cross-pollination of sports that I go through, so that in the Hawaiian summer I’m training for endurance-type sports, channel crossings on open ocean swells and so on, so a minute underwater is kind of violent but not that much of a bummer. Actually the biggest bummer is getting hurt doing what you’re doing, and knowing it. That’s the pinnacle. I always feel like I’m going to break new boundaries, and my worst injuries have been when I’m on the cusp of doing something I could never have imagined myself doing. Even now I have never been able to cross this certain threshold where my training is coming to this apex, and it’s so intense that I have one bad wipeout and it falls apart and I get injured. Then I have to take two months out, and that takes away from two years of progress. A big wipeout of mine was paddling into Jaws and I did a big air-drop and I landed it, went to pull into the barrel and it was really windy and I hit a phantom chop, which is like a huge chop that you can’t see from the backside of it but you can see it from the front. My board slid out and I hit my shoulder, then I broke the board and the leash pulled the board back by the fin and cut my foot almost in half. It was right when I was starting to feel hyper-sharp, could do no wrong, then I got bit by the snake.

Another one was windsurfing, doing these giant jumps and getting to the point where I was so comfortable flying through the air without gravity, and I tore all the ligaments in my high ankle, and it was right when I was about to reach a comfort level that mentally I couldn’t imagine getting to, so now I’ve learned that when I’m getting close I back off a little. I kind of go conservative and nurse myself to that next level, and then when I get there I run with it. There’s always this threshold you have to cross over. Even in surfing doing airs it’s really easy to land just a little bit wrong and blow an ankle out. So now if the section doesn’t look good, I’m okay not going for it. For me that’s the worst part, getting taken out of the game.

The ocean can be humbling, frustrating, painful at times. I sometimes look at a football game, and when it’s over one side has won. That’s it. But in surfing there’s no upper limit to what you can achieve, so there’s this tension between striving and suffering setbacks.

I’m really curious to know what my transition will be when I get to the point where I’m not able to get any better. I’m always looking back like a month ago and comparing where I was then, and everything I’m doing now is better than it was then. I know that’s happening now, but I also know that there is a point when you can’t actually get any better. Things start to slow down, and you can’t help that.  At this point I’m probably maxed out on how much energy from the ocean I can hold. The cup is completely full in that department, so my main draw to go in the water now is to progress my ability.

Can you share one of your best memories of time in the ocean?

I have so many good memories of the time I spend in the water that trying to pick a favourite is like a blur. I could tell you one now, and then walk away and think of a better one. Okay, this goes for just about every big wave session, but one of my favourite moments is when I’m leaving Jaws right on dusk, riding on the back of the boat feeling the vibrations as you hit the swells, and your body is just so sore but you’re filled with contentment because you survived and you got the most incredible rides, rides that had you imagined them, you wouldn’t want to take them because they’re too scary. But that’s my favourite moment, just bumping along on the boat or the jet ski, and twisting around to take one last look at Jaws, and it seems that there’s always one wave just before dark that is gigantic, and remembering the rides you’ve had, because for me riding giant waves is potentially the pinnacle of performance. Bigger canvas, bigger ramp, bigger barrel. Riding big waves is not incremental. You can make massive leaps forward in just one session. So that’s why I love that 45-minute ride back to the harbor. It’s peace. You’re not thinking about the next swell, you’re savoring the moment of this one.

Poise and style under pressure are a trait of Kai's. Photo: Richard Hallman

In the Maldives, there's never a bad day when you can foil onshore winds with a hand-held inflatable wing

But can you imagine Kai's excess baggage bills?

I think you’ve answered where I was going next, which is what it’s like to feel completely alive, completely in your skin.

For me fully alive is when my survival instincts have to kick in. I think that’s why I’m drawn to big waves and also big air – like in kite-boarding or windsurfing, or even foiling – because there’s this moment of survival. On a big wave, the time I feel most alive is when I’m just about to the bottom of an 80-foot wave, and I go to bottom turn and see this immense wall. I know what’s about to happen next, which is a giant tube. And in that moment there are only two options: commitment to the barrel, or straightening out. If you straighten out you’re going to get pounded, which is good because you’re turning your back to it and you don’t see it, but then you get hit by it and you get demolished. On the other hand, there’s something truly scary about that second when you pull into a huge barrel. I always gasp for air as that happens, because it’s just so scary. But then when you’re locked into it, when you’ve done the hard part, there’s nothing more you can do, other than hold your line and commit as you’re wrapped in this vortex. Nothing else exists in that moment. Whatever is happening on land, any psychological blobs you might have, none of that exists. That’s when time slows down.

But it’s a slippery slope, this thing, because you have these crazy experiences but how do you back them up? You can’t always, and things can seem so boring, nothing satisfies you. That’s why in small waves I have to be so goal-oriented because that quenches the thirst just enough to survive. The thought of taking a vacation and going to some place like, say, Italy – and no offence to Italy – and just eating and cruising is my worst nightmare. Museums, walking, eating, all that stuff, oh my god! If that’s a vacation, I’ll never go on vacation again. For me a vacation is pushing myself in the ocean all day and sleeping 12 hours to recover.

Beating CT legends at their specialty in the Maldives was a big coincidence boost.  Photo: Zac Noyle

You just won Waterman of the Year, and I think we’re beginning to understand why you pursue so many different ocean disciplines.

Well, it goes back to the thing about always being fresh, and doing different things keeps me fresh. At the moment my shortboard surfing is at the forefront, and who knew that learning to do a carve like Joel Parkinson would take 10 years? And there are only so many single rotations you can do in surfing, but I come from sports where you can do 1200s, rotate four times. The sports I do complement each other, and they’re all spin-offs from traditional surfing, so what I learn from kite-boarding directly translates to my surfing, and what I learn from my surfing translates to my windsurfing. There’s a lot of cross-pollination and the end result of that is that I get better at all of them. Also, where I come from (Maui) is not great for surfing every day. It’s always surfable, but some days it’s just so much better for another sport. One of my driving forces is that I want to go fast, as fast as I can to feel the adrenalin.


I’m loving the way you express the philosophies behind the sports
you do. Is this something you’ve thought about a lot?

Well, these are the thoughts I have when I’m actually doing it – riding a big wave or getting airborne on a kite-board – or when I’m just talking to some one about
it. I feel that humanity’s greatest achievements are mostly the things that are right in front of everyone’s noses, but because they’re right there and so basic, you don’t always see them. The fact that all these ocean sports we’re talking about can’t happen without a human at the helm is pretty basic, but for me that’s a cause for celebration. When the body is the engine, you’re in line with nature.

So many surfers are stuck in the shortboard mentality – my five-eleven and that’s what I ride. Do you have any words of encouragement for those who might be thinking a little about taking a broader approach?

Yes. Expand your horizons. I always try not to let other people’s opinions or judgements sway me, to just keep an open mind. I find that the very best surfers are open to trying anything. They’re not basing their perspective on other people’s judgements. Of course I can understand if you’re a grom and you want to be the best surfer ever, you’ll be so focused on doing the shortboard thing, but don’t be so limited that you think, oh the surf’s not good so I can’t do anything today. Oh, it’s windy. Perfect. Oh, it’s glassy. Stoked! If you’ve got an open mind every day you’re going to score.

What’s the most important life lesson the ocean has taught you?

Possibly the most important is not to fight it. If you fight it, you’re never going to win. Trying to fight life, trying to fight getting older, you’re never going to win. It’s the same thing in the ocean. When I go into really gnarly conditions, whether it’s a storm with crazy wind, or giant surf, if I go with the flow of it, but I outsmart it...well, it’s the David and Goliath story. You can’t beat this powerful entity head on, but if I use my human intelligence to maneuver around it I can outsmart it. For example, I never try to fight against the whitewater, I just go with it. But at the same time, I’m aware of the reef being there and where the board is in relation to it, but I try to continue to ride underwater, and that’s how you avoid getting whiplash and other injuries. Another thing I’ve learnt is not trying to be someone you aren’t. Taking inspiration from someone is crucial because it helps you better yourself, but you have to accept who you are. The sooner you figure that out, especially if you’re a young kid, you’re gonna kill it, and everyone is going to want to be you!

Free-fall floater on a 70-footer.  Who does this? Photo: Richard Hallman

I like the David and Goliath analogy because we often expect big wave riders to be huge, muscular guys.

You look at a guy like Shane Dorian. He’s not huge. Some of the best big wave riders on the planet are also among the best small wave riders on the planet. Before I knew Shane I always thought of him as being six foot four. But the point is you don’t have to be giant to do giant things. The other advantage is that if you’re smaller the waves always look bigger. Also, I don’t feel like I’m special at all. The opportunities I’ve had have been special, but I sincerely feel that I’m just a normal person, and if I can do it, then anyone else can do it too, if they put their minds and hearts to it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you look like. You can have the ugliest car with the best engine in it.

What’s your advice for pushing through your comfort zone to ride bigger waves?

My first wave when I was four years old was barely a wave, maybe waist-high for a four-year-old, but it was scary. Then I remember when a six-foot wave was scary, when a twelve-foot wave seemed gigantic. My goal when I was a little kid was always to overcome those fears and ride bigger waves, so I’d ride six-foot waves until I felt comfortable, and then move up. But you always have to take a leap of faith, no matter what. I would say that the best increment to work on is moving up by say two feet each time, so move up from six to eight, and so on.

When I got older and started surfing the outer reefs, it was still the same approach. My goal might be to ride a wave with a 25-foot face, and I would focus on that until I got comfortable, then I’d take the next leap of faith. The biggest step was going from those outer reefs to Jaws, which was like zero to 100. There are only a few waves on the planet that have that raw power and size. But even there, the comfort level for me is that while I don’t want to wipeout on a wave like that, I know I’ll be okay if I do.

RP: Do you do fitness training?

I do but it’s mostly through the multi ocean sports that I do, which work out every part of my body. I also build my confidence for big waves by holding my breath underwater, breath training. We’re all physiologically capable of holding our breath for a minute under
a big wave. It’s just the mind that needs to be made comfortable. I go to the gym three times a week, mostly working on preventative injury stuff, muscle strength, flexibility and so on.

What’s your mindset when you’re paddling into a huge wave at Jaws? 

Some kind of spark just clicks deep within me, and I feel like, let’s go! My mind is super positive, not thinking about the consequences. You can’t manufacture that, it just clicks within you. There’s a great sense of freedom, even if there are 70 people in the water, in being one of five who really want the biggest waves. You paddle around and there’s a kind of swagger about it.

And when you take off, there’s no hesitation. That’s why I surf.


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