Like a champagne cork who can't hold on no more! Film: Dan Norkunas/Jon Spenser
Stuck Between The QS, A Day Job, And The Next Web Clip
Tanner Hendrickson is one fiery white boy.
Walking out of Kahului Airport into Maui’s hot Kona winds, I spotted a blonde, shirtless male in a mud-splattered Tacoma parked out front.
The mid-20s gent with HENDRICKSON tattooed down his right arm, shoulder muscles seasoned with a hundred friendly freckles, and Xanadus stacked high in his truck bed, was exactly the Haole-Hawaiian I had come here to meet.
“Is that the Tanner Hendrickson?” I said. “How’s it going man? You just coming from a surf?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “Surfed twice already!”
It was barely noon.
“We don’t like to waste Konas around here,” Tanner continued.
Kona winds are a Haiku boy's best friend.
The island of Maui comprises two volcanoes, with a valley in the middle that forms a massive wind tunnel. The eastern volcano, Haleakala, is a 10,000-foot shield volcano whose name translates to “House of the Sun”. The western part of the island holds Mauna Kahalawai, an eroded shield volcano commonly called the West Maui Mountains. Hawaiians also refer to this as hale mahina: House of the Moon.
Trade winds hail from the east-north-east and gain speed as they rip between the mountains. Also known as the Valley Isle, Maui is considered to have the strongest winds on the Hawaiian archipelago. This is why Maui’s most consistent surf break, Ho’okipa, which resides on the island’s northern coast and receives a constant barrage of side-onshore wind, has been a windsurfing hub for several decades.
But every once in a while, atmospheric pressures align and “Kona winds”, which hail from the south-southwest, blow side-offshore into Ho’okipa, turning the infamous lefthand air bowl into a classic right reef.
For more traditional surfers, Konas offer a smooth canvas for turns and the odd tube, while for Maui’s burgeoning youth, it provides righthand air sections galore.
For locals like Tanner, Albee Layer, Matt Meola, Kai Barger, and Imaikalani Devault these brief Kona periods provide much-needed respite from North Shore Maui’s perpetual onshores.
Which is why Tanner surfs at least three sessions on Kona days.
After scarfing lunch and laying down for a quick snooze, Tanner was back out at Ho’okipa, blasting fins skyward on his opening ride, holding a sharp rail where others would flutter.
For Tanner, each turn is like a cobra striking prey. He coils up, extends his body, then snaps at the lip with a devastating sting.
Look how the venom seeps from Tanner's fins.
Tanner was introduced to surfing by his father Greg at the age of two and was surfing (mostly) under his own power by five.
“My dad always pushed me to surf surf surf,” Tanner explained. “Even if I was like, “Dad, I wanna go in, I’m tired,’ he’d just be like, ‘Grab my leash! We’re going back out!’”
Growing up on Maui’s west coast, Tanner cut his teeth at a wave that is far superior to Ho’okipa: Honolua Bay.
Trades blow offshore at Honolua, causing Tanner to grow up with a different appreciation for Maui’s wind patterns than did his Kona-loving friends to the east. Another location-affected characteristic is Tanner’s surfing style, which because of the iconic wave he grew up surfing, took on more of a rail-leaning, lip-bashing bent than his air-focused friends on the North Shore.
While Albee and Meola practiced spins over at Ho’okipa, Tanner was busy hanging with Dad and trying to out-spray his big sister, Alana, at Honolua.
“I remember this one day me and Alana got filmed out at Honolua, and I thought I was ripping,” Tanner said. “I was acting all cocky when we came in, telling everybody how good I surfed. Then we went back and watched the clips, and she was throwing twice as much spray as me! I was always a tiny kid, and Alana was two years older than me, but I remember being sooo fucking pissed. I promised myself that I would surf as much as I could until I was better than her.”
The Gorilla Bowl at Honolua Bay – a small stretch of reef that produces bulbous double-up tubes – is Tanner's favorite place in the world.
Tanner moved to Maui’s North Shore at the age of 12 and started gaining influence from his cross-island peers. While Tanner could already turn with more speed and precision than surfers like Albee Layer and Matt Meola, they had a distinct advantage when it came to progressive surfing.
Recognizing this weakness in his approach, and carrying the same competitive spirit that propelled him past big sister Alana, Tanner forced himself to learn aerial grabs, tweaks, and rotations – one blown-out Ho’okipa session at a time.
Tanner’s surfing quickly became more explosive, leading him to success as an amateur and Jr. Pro competitor. Over his teenage years, Tanner secured multiple Hawaiian regional titles, often taking down the now-2x World Champion, John John Florence, in the process.
“Bra, I used to wax John between 13 and 16 years old!” Tanner laughs. “Then, ya know... he got pretty gnarly.”
At 18, Tanner was picked up by moto-turned-surf brand Fox, which provided him with a substantial paycheck every month.
Good while it lasted.
“When I was 18, I was the dumbest kid in the world. That’s a fact.” Tanner admitted. “I was making good money, but I didn’t put any of it away into my savings – I was just spending it all on surfing and having fun with my friends. I don’t regret it, because I’ll never forget about those awesome times, but I definitely was in la-la land.”
Tanner continued to grind along competitively, graduating from the Junior series to the QS, but as Fox started to pull its fangs out of the surfing world, Tanner was one of the first team riders to be let go.
Since he was 21, Tanner has been without a major sponsor.
“I’ve grown up a lot since that happened,” Tanner said.
He started working part-time as surf instructor, tree-trimmer, wood refurbisher, and other odd-jobber to fund his competitive pursuits.
“As much as losing Fox hurt me, it’s kind of been a blessing too. I never knew the value of a dollar before. I feel really proud to be able to support myself, and to feel like I’m earning my keep.
“Working also gave me a better perspective when going to events, because I realize how much better it is to be on the QS, than work all day. So even if I lose, it’s not the end of the world.”
Part of Tanner's growing-up process includes giving back. One of his favorite charity organizations is Operation Surf, which brings wounded veterans out of their element and into the surf. "I'm not political or anything," Tanner says, "but what these people sacrifice for our country... it's fucked up. I'm honored to help them enjoy a sport that's brought so much joy to my life."
While Tanner’s QS road has been a rocky one, he did win a 4-star in Mexico a few years back, and his biggest payday came from the 2015 U.S. Open.
In piddly H.B. conditions, Tanner infamously defeated the (by-a-mile) U.S. Open favorite Filipe Toledo in the semifinals. With Japan’s Hiroto Ohara being the last man between him and a cool $100k, Tanner surfed the final heat like it was his last.
After grinding his way to a 13-point heat total and the lead, Tanner counted down the minutes until victory would be his.
Meanwhile, sitting out the back with priority, Hiroto willed a south swell left right to him in the dying minutes, and banked three backside lippers and stuck a floater onto the sand.
Ohara scored a nine on that wave and walked away with a plus-sized check, after hilariously promising that he would “buy some cars” with his newfound wealth.
Tanner’s runner-up singlet from the Open still hangs in his one-bedroom apartment, next to a giant map of Maui and plethora of fishing gear.
“That was a bitter-sweet moment for sure,” Tanner explained. “It was my greatest competitive accomplishment, but I also lost, so… ahhh.”
The look of half-defeat.
Beyond the loss of that single event, Tanner has another reason to remember 2015 begrudgingly: that second-place at the Open drafted Tanner all the way up to 8th on the QS rankings, but shortly after the event he injured his groin, leaving him incapable of backing up that result with through the remainder of the season. He finished the year 30th on the QS – his best placing in eight years on the tour.
“You get kind of burned out when you love something so much, and you try to pursue it professionally, but you don’t reach the level of success you wanted,” Tanner said. “That’s why I try to mix my surfing with some more recreational shit, like fishing and, recently, hunting.”
Maui boasts a rich ecological environment, with a bounty of land-and-sea creatures ripe for the killing. Like many of his Hawaiian brethren, Tanner has taken to hunting his own protein by gun, rod, and spear. While he typically goes after fish, Tanner recently shot his first deer (which we feasted on in the form of venison burgers).
“We’ve got some of the cleanest proteins you can eat over here,” Tanner boasts. “It’d be stupid not to make the most of that by hunting and fishing around Maui. Also it’s just super fun.”
But Tanner’s holistic beliefs don’t stop there. He’s also a fitness aficionado, using yoga and cross-training to maintain his fibrous rig. He’s environmentally conscious, feeling an uncontrollable sense of guilt anytime he resorts to plastic water bottles, and extremely health-conscious, using organic vitamins, natural oils, and the occasional bong rip to keep his mind and body on an even keel. Oh, and he fucking loves avocados.
But don’t think for a second any of that makes Tanner soft.
This is what two avos and three sessions a day looks like in the physical form.
“Tanner has always been really fiery,” said childhood friend, Albee Layer. “He switched over to our school after having an altercation with some bodyboarder at his school on the West Side. Then when he came over to Haiku, that bodyboarder had a bunch of friends over here who confronted Tanner on his first day. He was just this little white kid getting hassled by all these Hawaiians, but he would never back dack down. It was pretty funny.”
I witnessed this fiery nature firsthand, surfing Honolua with Tanner.
About halfway through our session on a big, messy day at the Cave, Tanner took off deep on a Gorilla Bowl double-up. What comes next is said with twenty years of wave knowledge and a genuine appreciation for Tanner’s abilities: there was no way he was going to make this particular Honolua bomb.
Apparently some guy on the shoulder felt the same way, because as Tanner struggled to surpass the avalanche of whitewater, this punter spun around and dropped in.
What resulted was a situation every surfer has seen before. Tanner—being an immensely talented waverider and, perhaps more importantly, a local—was upset that he didn’t make the wave. And because someone took off down the line, Tanner felt justified in unleashing what should have been self-facing anger toward the shoulder-hopping scapegoat.
So Tanner snapped on the guy – paddled up to him, looked him in the eye, and asked him in unquotable diction who exactly he thought he was, burning a local like that.
Realizing he was never going to win this dispute, the guy quickly apologized and Tanner paddled back to the takeoff.
Thirty minutes later, after getting a few makes under his belt, Tanner paddled back up to guy and apologized for the blow-up. It was an overreaction, Tanner said. He didn’t mean to be that harsh.
They shook hands and chatted amicably throughout the rest of the session.
It’s worth nothing that this interaction might have ended differently back in the Fox sponsorship days, when Tanner’s understanding of the world was essentially surf, party, get paid(!).
But the hard-earned perspective of working for his food, rent, and ability to compete has done wonders to mature Tanner as a real-world human, while never detracting from his surfing abilities.
Like a cobra off the lip and a cat in the flats.
“My favorite thing about Tanner’s surfing,” said Albee Layer, “Is that he’s not bad at any type of wave. He can go out and get a clip in any conditions. Obviously, he’s amazing at Honolua. But he can also do a thousand Q-snaps if he has to. He’s super gnarly in the air. Even when Tanner went and surfed Jaws a few times, he did a great job out there.”
Is it possible that Tanner’s desire to do it all has hindered his ability to achieve in one particular area of the sport?
“Tough to say,” Albee continued. “That one year he did well on the QS, it seemed like he was super focused on that. And then if he really committed to the air thing, he could do some incredible stuff with that too. From a sponsorship standpoint, it seems like most guys have to choose one or the other, but he does both really well. It’s honestly tough to say.”
“I’m too competitive to ever pursue the air thing full-time,” Tanner noted. “And Jaws is just so scary [laughs]. I have so much respect for what Albee, Kai Lenny and all those guys do. Plus every time it’s good at Jaws, Honolua is pumping too, and that’s my favorite wave in the world.”
At the moment Tanner is surfing the QS part-time, picking the events that are financially viable and that he thinks he has a good shot of winning. While he hasn’t given up on his dream of becoming a CT competitor, he has started to consider the upside of eventually stepping away from the Qualifying Tour.
“Even when I’m not competing anymore, I’m still gonna be spending my money to go on surf trips with my friends,” Tanner said. “Now that I think of it, I can’t remember the last time I went on trip just for fun. Damn, I might have to do that soon.”