Dusty Payne: "My Surfing Is Finally Back Where I Want It To Be" - Stab Mag
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Dusty Payne: “My Surfing Is Finally Back Where I Want It To Be”

Dinner and a film with the man who survived a 5-wave hold down.

Words by Michael Ciaramella

Dusty Payne once sat near the top of surfing’s cultural hierarchy. 

Both a CT surfer and a film star, Dusty’s career went supernova when he was hand-selected by the stars of Kai Neville’s Modern Collective to take the film’s sixth and final spot. He went on to earn one of the highest salaries in surfing, held an impermanent residence in the “Bruce room” of the Volcom Pipe House, and scored the ender clip of another Kai Neville feature film, Lost Atlas, a few years after his Mod Col debut.

Then came the accident. 

On a mid-sized Backdoor runner in January 2018, Dusty lost his edge on the drop, got sucked over the falls, and slammed into the reef head first. He broke his jaw, fractured his skull, and most pressingly, lost consciousness underwater. 

Dusty was underwater for five waves — over a minute — before the first responders came to his aid. Local surfers and lensmen, most notably Jimmy “Ulu Boi” Napeahi and Keoki Saguibo, rushed to Dusty when they saw his board bobbing on the inside and pulled him up by the leash, before bracing his neck and getting him to shore. Lifeguards took over from there, and Dusty was conscious by the time he was placed in the ambulance. 

The recovery process for traumatic head injuries varies greatly depending on the severity of the impact. For Dusty, it was a long and painful journey.

“2018… I pretty much just pretend that year didn’t happen,” Dusty says. “It was a total write-off. Whenever I would go outside, the light and sounds just messed me up so bad. I wasn’t sure I’d ever drive a car again, let alone surf.” 

Dusty spars with the Wilsons near the (original) peak of his powers.

But day after day, month after month, things improved. Dusty went from lying dizzily on his board in flat water, to riding knee-high waves, to being comfortable enough to surf Maui’s crown jewel and a spot that he routinely dominates, Honolua Bay. 

Now, some three-and-a-half years after the incident, Dusty still suffers from certain aspects of the injury (i.e. he’s deaf in his right ear) but feels that he’s finally surfing like himself again. 

“I honestly feel like I’m still getting better,” Dusty says. “Parts of my surfing now feel stronger than ever.”

Want proof? Check the video at the top of this page, from his recent trip to Indonesia.  

Riding a bone-white board, Dusty’s session at a not-to-be-named left is one of the dreamiest sequences we’ve seen. But what really grabbed our attention, and what always has about Dusty’s surfing, is his ability to fling his tail with both power and abandon, and somehow never lose his footing. The wafts at 0:54, 1:16, and 1:20 are reminiscent of the Lost Atlas days, when Dusty seemingly could not fall no matter how forcefully his fins were thrust into orbit. 

Yeah, that ender air still stands the test of time.

So, Dusty’s back to ripping again. That’s a great thing for him, and for all of us on the other side of the screen. But he’s also returned to a very different looking surf world. 

There’s no more Volcom on his nose, and marketing budgets seem to be getting slimmer and slimmer. 

Kai Neville got too good at making surfing films and was whisked away by big-budget commercial gigs (well, besides the one film he’s making for us). 

The WSL is still kicking, but at 32, Dusty would be competing against kids nearly half his age for a spot on tour. 

So, what’s a guy with boatloads of talent but no real place to use it, do?

“Even if surfing doesn’t pay the bills the way it used to, I’m still incredibly grateful for everything it gave me. I was able to sell my house last year, and I used that money to invest in more properties around Maui. My plan is to do some agricultural things and keep everything really natural, far from the big developments that seem to be popping up across the island.

“But honestly, I’m just happy to be surfing at any level again,” Dusty says. “I surf every day. It’s still my favorite thing in the world.”

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