Two weeks ago, a paddle session went down at Jaws in Hawaii that re-defined how we look at big-wave surfing. Jetskis as rescue tools, not wave-entry tools. Hawaiian Ian Walsh was front and centre. Having grown up with surfing’s most famous big-wave thunderdome in his backyard, Ian has a taste for avalanches that very few do. So three days ago when Jaws wasn’t big enough to warrant a proper session (just a measly 15 foot), Ian scooped a blowup hotdog from a marine store and took to the outer reef like it was Ehukai shorebreak. Stab wished to know more.
Stab: How did we get here, Mr Walsh?
Ian: It was sporadic, but it’s also been a long time coming. I’ve had jetskis for a few years and on flat days or when I was injured, I’d inflate this big donut with my brothers and all my friends, and go tow the flat water. It was always in the back of my mind that you could ride a wave on one of those things and it’d be pretty fun. So two days ago, I was looking at the waves at 6.30am and it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for swell-wise, and a big lightbulb went off in my head. I was like, oh my gosh, if there’s no-one out there, I’m gonna go buy a huge, inflatable something and get my brothers and go out there. I went to Costco but they only carry inflatables in summer. I went to Sports Authority and they only had inflatable rowboats, which I was about to get until I called this marine store and they told me they had this huge hotdog. I was like, fuck, that’ll do. Along with an inflatable donut.
At what point do you go, ok, it’s only 15 feet today, I’m just gonna take out my blowup doggie? It was scarier than I thought it’d be. It wasn’t the biggest Jaws but in my head I had it like, ok I’ll get into the wave, get down to the flats, it’ll break behind me and just push me until I fall off. But when I got to the top of the wave, you’re so vulnerable and you have no control whatsoever over what happens. It seemed like as soon as I’d get into the wave, the hotdog would start trying to turn sideways. Every wave that I fell on, I was right in line with the lip. The falls are awkward, it’s a crapshoot. We’re not out there trying to get hurt, we just didn’t think it all the way through.
Did you wear a vest? I’ve been working on this tow vest and I just kinda wanted to try it and see what it did, but I got the vest ripped off of me, twice. But I haven’t worn one in so long, ’cause every swell for the last coupla years, we seem to be paddling.
So, you don’t wear a vest when you paddle? Well when I paddled I had that Billabong V1 suit. It’s like a short john but it has floatation in the back and my thighs. That’s basically just in case you get knocked out and can’t pull your cord, then at least maybe your body will surface and someone can find you… it’s better than nothing.
Ok, for a normal Jaws paddle session, you’re on your Chris Christenson 10’6″x 21″x 3’3/4″ quad, with your inflatable Billabong suit that has built-in floaties. How’s that compare to looking down the face of a wave on blow-up hotdog in only a tow vest? When I actually got up on the top, I was scared again, like heart in throat. On a surfboard I feel like I’m way more in control of what’s gonna happen to me. On the doggie, I got a very quick reality check that I had no control over what happens.
Ok for an average surfer like me, that’s a big fucking wave. Have you reached a point where you’re so desensitised to these kinda waves that you need to get your kicks by stepping outta your comfort zone in weird ways? I don’t think so. No matter what, when you’re at the top of a really big wave, you still get all that adrenaline and fear of the unknown. I’m definitely not desensitised. If I fall on an blowup toy on a 12 or 15 foot wave, hopefully it’s not gonna be as bad as some of the other waves I have fallen on. But the feeling’s still there, and that’s what we constantly chase. It’s the same thing as being 13 and you first start to overstep your boundaries. Like, being out at Honolua Bay when I was 13 and being like, oh I dunno if I can get this six foot wave! It’s that, on another level. – Elliot Struck