Riding Bombs and Missile Alerts

(Originally written January 2018) I barely have to look at my phone to see who is calling.  I’d been studying the weather maps and noticed a powerful and tight low pressure in the North Pacific.  “What do you think?” Martin Lenny asks me, “Is Peahi going to break on Saturday?” 

“Looks like the real deal,” I respond. “We’ll keep an eye on it and I’ll clear my schedule.”  Martin is Kai Lenny’s father who helps to organize the Peahi missions with me, of which there have been many, at least 60 in the last 7 years. As the week progresses, the entire North Pacific Ocean is occupied by 4 low pressure systems morphing into one amebic low. The swell is definitely ON.  Kai Lenny’s water safety support team for that weekend included legendary waterman Victor “Daddy” Lopez and Darrick “DD” Doerner.

(a note on the photos: we’re using some of our favorite Jaws photos from over the years to illustrate the story, unless otherwise credited, images are by Wade ‘Papa’ Smith)

Tom Servais captures the quiet scene at Jaws, March 16, 2014

In addition to the water safety team, I have three guests on the boat, two time big wave champ Grant “Twiggy” Baker, legendary cinematographer Mike Prickett along with his lifelike robotic camera, and Shaun Lopez toting his trusty Charlie Smith 11’ gun.

These Peahi surf missions with Kai’s water safety team have created a very tight bond among all members. Kai puts his life on the line charging Peahi on any water craft imaginable.  One swell Kai told us “I got pushed to the bottom and was in a squatting position standing on a giant boulder with the whole ocean pushing me down.”  To which Victor replied, “that’s Peahi letting you know she loves you!  I can’t count the amount of times I’ve scraped the bottom out there.”  Remarkable, given Peahi’s bottom is 30 ft deep, two atmospheres down.

Photo of Kai by Tom Servais

In the maelstrom saving Kai is Victor “Daddy” Lopez with a smile that’s larger than life.  Victor has saved so many surfers with his jet ski and has brought more than a handful of surfers to my boat to rest after some gnarly wipeouts. This guy is tough as nails and a true guardian angel to many surfers at Peahi.

The night before the swell we make a plan to meet at the harbor at 8 am.  Checking Buoy One as a final gauge on the swell we determine the swell won’t show until noon on the 14th and the north wind should get lighter later in the day.  Despite the later launch Mike Prickett shows up to my house at 6 am to begin setting up his camera.  It takes him 3.5 hrs to set it up.  In the meantime, Shaun Lopez and Twiggy put their boards on the boat as well.  ‘DD’ and ‘Daddy’ show up and bring their tow boards just in case the opportunity allows for them to tow.  The swell is small still, the camera guys have their torque wrenches clicking, Kai is chilling at his house as we already loaded his gear the night before.  There’s a familiarity to this routine and team, like drinking your cup of coffee in the morning, one cream one sugar.   

My wife Liz brews pot after pot of coffee for all the guests. In my driveway, Twiggy, DD, Daddy, Shawn, myself, and my deckhand Justin are laying out on board bags and yoga mats, stretching, telling jokes, and sharing old time stories.  What I love about this crew is their passion for surfing.  Daddy shares how he didn’t miss a major swell at Honolua Bay for 20 years.  My favorite story shared was how Shaun Lopez (Victor’s son) was called out of class for his dentist appointment. He was confused until he got into the VW van with Victor and Tom Parrish telling Shaun to “get in the car the Bay is firing!”

In the middle of our reminiscing, everyone’s phones started loudly buzzing. A warning had been sent to everyone’s phones to seek immediate shelter due to a  nuclear missile heading to Hawaii. (Kai made a video post about the event, click here to watch!) The first thought most of us had was to get to the harbor before it was closed by the authorities.  But we all agreed if it all comes to an end at least we were in good company.  However, we were all really bummed that we may not get to see Peahi break one more time before it all ended.  Fortunately, some idiot hit the wrong button and it was a false alarm. What a relief!  

Finally, we get to Peahi as the swell is building and the north wind is dying.  It’s got a weird vibe to the swell with steps or ribs on the take off and lots of surfers eating serious shit on the drops.  Kai and Twiggy bag a few great waves but both agree tomorrow is the day. The swell pulses some 60’ waves right before dark with Yuri Soledade streaking down the faces on his tow board.  The plan is to meet at 5 the next morning.

As we motor through Kahului harbor in the dark on the 15th I stop the boat to give the jet skis glow sticks and head lamps.  We notice the harbor smells like barf.  No joke!  Must be a sewage leak.  Were going to Peahi on a massive day and Twiggy is more concerned that we contact the authorities because he doesn’t want any one to get sick and die from the harbor water.  He was emphatic we call someone, but it was 5 am and people love surfing Kahului Harbor.  Everywhere has their risks.  We focus on big waves again and Twiggy says, “I get calm the night before big swells and sleep well. I love riding big waves!”  Kai, Daddy, DD, Ola, and Shaun follow the boat up on jet skis.   

First light at Peahi doesn’t disappoint!  60-65’ faces, proper Jaws.  A tow board is given to Kai and he proceeds to get whipped into probably his biggest wave at Peahi ever.  Shaun gets whipped into a wave by DD that is massive as well.  On Kai’s next wave he pulls into a deep perfect barrel, I position the boat looking right into the barrel.  He’s traveling, traveling come on Kai!  Fuck, the wave chandeliers and catches Kai sending him skipping through the remainder of the barrel on his back.  Kai’s down, Daddy is on the rescue but Kai’s getting pushed farther to the left.  Tense moments but Kai is on the back of Victor’s ski and back in the line up.  Amazingly, he didn’t pull his vest.  Twiggy looks at me and says, “those waves were not paddleable.”   He then states,  “I am going to run rescue for awhile, bring me over to the extra ski.”

Kai, Yuri Soledade, Danilo Couto, and Shaun Lopez continue to exchange bomb after bomb.  Makua Rothman wants a tow bomb now too, after all he won the xxl biggest wave at Peahi in 2002-2003.   DD lends Makua his Gerry Lopez tow board, camouflage grey and black and proceeds to tow Makua into some large waves that he carves like he’s snowboarding.  Then just like a switch Mother Nature dials the swell down a little and more and more paddle guys make their way to the line up and Kai and Twiggy grab their paddle boards along with Makua.  

The early paddle days: Shane Dorian, Ian Walsh, Tyler Larronde by Wade Smith

Right off the bat, Twiggy catches a wave pulls in a barrel and almost makes it out.  Kai catches a few crazy waves as well.   Then the two surfers start to pay a price for charging so hard.  Kai breaks a board in half getting clamped in a barrel.  Twiggy’s leash snaps as well as Kai’s leash snapping on another wave as well.  Both guys boards head straight for the rocks.  Kai asks Victor, “take me to the rocks so I can swim through the shore break and grab my board”.  Just to get on shore, Kai has to swim through 12’ gnarly shore break, breaking size slippery boulders the size of cars.  Victor in the meantime is driving the Jetski over avalanches of white water waiting for Kai to swim his board off the rocks.  Kai finds his and Twiggy’s boards, trying to jump of the rocks with two boards under each arm.  However, he decides Twiggy’s board is buckled but the fins are still good no need to bring it to him and damage the fins on the rocks.  He then scrambles back up the rocks and places Twiggy’s board up high so Twiggy can grab the board and fins tomorrow.  Victor and Kai motor to the boat and drop of board #2 that is damaged.  The look on Daddy’s face is one of someone who just went to battle as the inside waves near the rocks can be just as treacherous as the main peak!

unknown rider , in the early paddle days / by Wade Smith

I’ve seen many of surfers come and go at Peahi.  I get a rare glimpse into the human spirit, seeing people that have almost died or had their bodies pushed both mentally and physically so far that they can only murmur “I’m so scared, I’m so scared”.  Some have had their ears so damaged from the violent underwater pressure that they can’t surf Peahi anymore.  To put oneself in this predicament without any sponsorship takes a special person.  Shaun Lopez caught the steepest wave that day he had ever caught at Peahi and one of the biggest waves of the day with his father looking on!  Almost stuffed the drop but pulled the whole wave off going left keeping his hair dry!  He and his father came back to the boat both grinning ear to ear.  Shaun says smiling “if you could bottle that feeling you’d make a fortune!”  Shaun is one of very few people that will ever have that feeling! 

Shaun Lopez on a recent wave at Peahi (February 20, 2020) Photo by: Fred Pompermayer
Keala Kennelly by Wade Smith

Catching all this action on camera is Mike Prickett, who is one of the toughest guys I have ever met.  He became paralyzed from the waist down saving someone’s life from 220ft deep on a dive during a commercial film shoot.  He has been sitting in my boat cabin since leaving the harbor in the dark, controlling and documenting all of the day’s events with his robotic camera.  Talk about making someone seasick!  Not Mike, he works through adversity to be successful and capture all the incredible moments.  

Photo by Tom Servais

2020 Update: As the years have passed I find myself taking my boat less and less to Peahi. As things got more crowded it got harder and harder to be safe and enjoy the show. However, the memories and comraderie of working as a team and seeing so many great surfers challenge themselves riding massive bombs will stay with me forever.

Dege O’Connell by Wade Smith

Written by Matt Smith

Published by Maui Fish Delivery

Introducing Maui Fish Delivery: Fish with a Purpose. Bringing Fresh Fish to the Residents of Maui.

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