Story by Elliot Struck
Welcome to What (insert name) Thinks About Big Wave Surfing, an interview series that snapshots big wave surfing, like, right now. With the growing pop of #paddlevibes at places like Jaws, and quad-stack burgers being whipped (and nearly claiming lives) in Portugal, it sure feels like the world is particularly wild for big wave surfing right now. But it’s hardly a trend, and especially not for men like Shane Dorian, Hawaiian ex-world tour surfer turned renaissance man. Doz has done what few others have with such panache: He’s made his game more captivating as he’s gotten older. Ask any big wave surfer who their top three paddlers are and Shane’ll land in, or at the top of, that list every time. For such a powerful presence in the field of avalanches, Shane is wildly understated. However, if he’s gonna light up on anything, it’s towing big waves and, more particularly, the future, the etiquette and the status quo thereof. So, guess what Stab discussed with Mr Dorian?
Stab: Do you still have the urge to tow?
Shane: No, I have no urge at all to tow. There’s zero urge. I’ll f’sure jump on a rope if I’m at Chopes but I don’t look forward to it. I don’t go, “I can’t wait for the next tow swell at Chopes.” I used to, because it’s such a great wave, it’s the best tow wave in the world. But it’s just too crazy. I get anxiety. Teahupoo is a mess, man. I love it, I love the place, I love the people, but there’s so many crowds out there that I don’t even enjoy myself on those big days anymore. The last time I was there I just basically watched it. It was true carnage, a shit fight of jetskis. And every single person wants the big wave, there’s no men separated from the boys when you have jetskis.
Three years ago Jaws was a tow wave. Discuss. There’s two reasons for that. Number one, because we’re psyched on paddling it. But more importantly, it hasn’t gotten big in three years. We haven’t had one really big swell in three years. Anyone who thinks that they’re paddling Jaws really big right now, is tripping. They’re not even scratching the surface of how big Jaws gets. It goes to a whole other category. That’s probably the primary reason why there’s not tow surfers there. All the guys that are paddling Jaws are the guys who run Jaws now. The older crew there before are not really around too much these days. All the guys who are real locals at Jaws like to paddle it now. But when those waves are 70 to 80 feet on the face, we’ll see if guys are actually turning around, paddling and going. It’s easy to talk about before a swell comes. But it might really be a deer-in-the-headlight situations.
And have you been out on those big days? I’ve towed it as big as it gets. I haven’t paddled the biggest days – I mean, it was plenty big for me, but it wasn’t relatively big. On a scale of one to 10, the biggest it’s been paddled so far is probably a six. It’s paddleable at a 10, no doubt about it, but could and would are two different deals. You can f’sure paddle Jaws when it’s the biggest it ever gets. I just don’t know if anyone’s actually gonna have the nerve to do it. You can chit chat all you want about it but when there’s an 80 foot double up coming in and all you’ve got is your bare hands, it’s totally different.
Are there still guys towing when you’re out at Jaws? No, those guys are totally clipped. And, it wouldn’t have been any fun to tow that day. It wouldn’t have been challenging in the least to tow it. Not a satisfying tow session, even if you got the biggest wave of the day. Not one person caught one of the bigger waves that day, but when you’re paddling it’s a totally different game. It’s way more challenging. It’s another ball game. What doesn’t even get your blood rushing when you’re tow surfing, is absolutely terrifying when you’re on a 10’6″ and try to turn around and paddle.
Tell me about the dropping number of spots we’d previously have called tow waves. It’s dropping f’sure. People’s capacity is going up, the performance bar and people’s threshold for paddling is going up with each swell. Their technical ability is going up, equipment is getting better and more advanced. People are paddling big waves much more often. What you’re seeing is less and less tow surfing by the top guys. It’s interesting to see how widespread it’s become, and to see the way the media’s handled it: It’s actually kinda cool that people are ‘getting’ it, that paddling into a big wave is so technical and so much more difficult than towing into a big wave. I thought that would get lost on people.
Has tow become its own sport like windsurfing or SUPing? Kinda irrelevant to surfing? It’s not even the same sport. If you look at the waves at Nazare that everyone’s towing into, there’s literally no technical ability. You’re literally just going straight. There’s not really any adjustments being made that require technical ability. You just need to be willing to go on a big wave. There’s hundreds of thousands of people that have the technical ability to be towed into a giant wave at Nazare. Hundreds. Of. Thousands. But if you took all those people and told them to paddle out at Nazare on one of those big days, and see how many people actually catch a set wave, you whittle those hundreds of thousands down to a handful. That’s all the difference in the world. Not to take anything away from guys who are towing Nazare. It’s a really rad tow wave, and I’m sure those guys are having a fun time.
It almost seems like tow surfing’s become the beginner’s entry to riding big waves. Teahupoo, and Shipsterns and The Right, those are sick tow waves. Super technical. And you wouldn’t wanna take just any beginner out there, even though it looks like people are sometimes. It’s funny when you watch the XXL Wipeout Of The Year, it literally looks like they’ve taken someone who’s never surfed before and put them in straps and whipped them into The Right or whatever. It looks like they took someone off the street and said, “Just hold onto the rope.” It’s so good. It’s epic for entertainment value. But there’s a total disconnect between that and what your normal, everyday average surfer surfs. Or even from guys who paddle big waves. It’s like, two totally different things.
If Carlos Burle had paddled that wave at Nazare, how would the reception have been different? Fuck, how cool would that have been? It is super easy to talk about that stuff on the phone and be like, “Yeah, it would’ve been totally rad to paddle it,” but it’s a totally different story when you’re out. Being in the right place for that… He lets go of the rope and it doesn’t break for like, 20 seconds. It just looms at that same steepness for 20 seconds. Imagine trying to be in the right place for that wave to break. You don’t get to chose when to paddle. You’re a sitting duck, trying to get in position. You could try to paddle 50 swells there and not even catch a wave.
With all the crazy paddle limits being pushed, and the ASP absorbing the BWWT, it feels like big wave surfing is kinda hotter than ever right now. In the last few years there’s been a lot going on with big waves. It’s definitely mainstream news. When Garret McNamara’s on CNN and Anderson Cooper and all around the world… there’s definite interest in huge waves, because the average non-surfer is not going to appreciate the technical ability of Dane Reynolds doing a giant air reverse. There’s no difference to them between Dane Reynolds’ air reverse and some little kid’s air reverse. But everyone on Earth has a fear of drowning and can relate to how scary and powerful the ocean is. So when you see someone on a huge wave, the fear is relatable. I think that’s why it has such a big impact on non-surfers.
Where’s it headed? I think we’ll see a lot of the younger guys start stepping up, the younger crew at Mavericks, the younger crew at places like Dungeons and Jaws. There’s that whole Jaws crew like Albee Layer and his crew. I think those young guys will step up. It’s their time now. I think the older generation is f’sure active and surfing really well. But big wave surfing is a young man’s game.
For more photos of the Big Wednesday session from 808photo.me, click here.