Stab Magazine | These Are The Most Common Mistakes Made In Big Surf

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These Are The Most Common Mistakes Made In Big Surf

A survival guide by Kai Lenny. 

style // May 5, 2017
Words by Morgan Williamson
Reading Time: 5 minutes

We can’t all relate to minute long, two wave hold downs or pushing eight-to-ten-foot-plus boards off of shelves at places like Jaws, Mavericks or Waimea. But, at some point, we’ve all faced waves beyond our comfort zone. Plus, one of surfing’s highest pleasures lies in unpredictability and learning from distressed situations. “I always liked what Greg Long said,” the talented Mr Lenny tells Stab. “Big waves are relative. That a 60-foot wave may give me the same feeling as a six-foot wave does to others.” Kai transcends nearly every derivative of surf craft, from SUP’s, foils, windsurfing, kiteboards, and is a valedictorian in all. Here the 24-year-old Maui resident provides how to survive the egg hunt and avoid the most common blunders in big wave surfing. 

Believing you’re about to drown. If you panic then all that urge to breathe becomes stronger. I try to zone out under water. An important thing to remember is to tuck your chin towards your chest, that will help close your airway and take energy away from having to physically deal with your mouth. It’s also important to visualise other things. Being held down can be so destructive and scary that if you think about what’s really happening to you it can give you a lot of anxiety. A lot of the reason guys are so good is because they can harness their mental state which allows them to make and survive the most deadly situations. 


Throughout my life chasing big waves, I’ve gotten to know myself better,” says Kai. “I’m close to my mid-20’s and big waves have served as a mentor for me, they’ve given me confidence in my ability and transparency in my life.”

Wishing you were elsewhere. If you get out somewhere and it feels like too much, or something you’re not ready for go watch for a bit. When surfing bigger waves, it’s always going to feel like a giant leap forward. It’s going to be scary and you have to understand what you’re about to put yourself through. I remember the jump from the Outer Reefs on Maui to Jaws being huge. You have to go through that shift. Pure and simple, you have to want it and have passion. That will send you over the ledge; that’s when you’ll feel the most alive. 

Not pulling or wearing a vest. Shane Dorian told me that he pulls his vest every single time he falls at Jaws because it’s not worth wasting the extra energy. In my case, I wear a pull vest at 12 feet or bigger. It just comes down to how much your life’s worth. I also trust that if my vest fails I’ll be able to get out of the situation. At Jaws I got so blown up that the pull pad shot inside my wetsuit, I ended up under water for a minute and took two waves on the head. It’s all about convenience, like why would you run up the stairs of the Empire State Building when you can take the elevator?

There are guys like Shane, and then there are guys like Aaron Gold, who didn’t even pull his vest when he fell on that 70 footer at Jaws. It looked like he was falling to his death. A couple months later, in Fiji, he fell on a 12 footer and passed out under water. If he had a pull vest on, he probably wouldn’t have. Modern technology makes you perform better and test new grounds. A 12 or a 30-foot wave can take you out of the picture.


“You can have so many different approaches,” Kai tells us. “Like Jamie Mitchell rides longer boards, at Jaws sometimes he’ll ride a 10’10. Then there are guys like Albee Layer who ride an 8’ board at Jaws. The bigger guys can get away with riding bigger boards because they have leverage on it. I’d rather be on a board that’s a little too small as opposed to too big. That way when I’m on the wave I can maneuver and be in a better spot for the wave that I want. I just want to find the ones that barrel.”

Riding a board that’s not dialed in. To a certain extent you’re only as good as the craft you’re riding. In big wave surfing, everything gets amplified and the faster you go the more prone you are to feeling the inconsistencies in your board. That day Aaron Gold caught his award-winning paddle wave at Jaws. I was sitting out there for a couple of hours. You know when after a while your wax starts to go bad? I was using a board that was too big and it wasn’t exactly what I liked. I dropped into this wave, ended up air dropping and when I landed it felt like my board just stopped. The combination of that plus having a slippery board sent me flying off the front and I end up getting flexed so hard and had 45-second hold down. In conditions of consequence, everything needs to feel right and comfortable. 

Not committing. You don’t catch big waves, big waves catch you. You have to be able to read waves from further out and know whether or not they can be caught and how much time you have to pull back. There is a point of no return. At Mavericks it’s a lot like that, if you’re going for a wave there you have to make it count. And if you’re going to pull back you can’t leave that decision to the last moment. You always need a plan A and B. A is to make it, B is to get out of there. But if you’re going to pull the trigger you’ll have to commit 100 percent. 

KAI BY ERIK AEDER20151206 IMG 0775

“Be tactical,” Mr Lenny advises. “Everyone at some point lets the emotions get the better of them. Like if you miss out on the best wave of your life, remember there’s always going to be another best wave of your life. It really comes down to having the proper mental state. It’s the equivalent of pulling back. When you start doing that you’re not in the right state of mind.”

Losing your confidence. In big waves, you have to trust in your ability to survive. When you’re confident everything becomes clear. When you get nervous that’s when you start making mistakes and end up in positions where things start to go wrong. I remember my first time paddling Jaws. There were only about five guys out, Shane Dorian and Ian Walsh being a few. It was the day that Shane paddled that wave that changed big wave surfing (in 2012). I was 17 and thinking, Oh my god, I just want to catch one wave and get out of here. I was so scared I was shaking on my board. Every time you push yourself you get this feeling of how you’re going to react and come back from it. You either let it take hold of you and stay shattered or you realise what you need to do and learn from it.

Being overzealous. At big wave spots, you have to be smarter than you would in normal surf, especially if it’s a place that you’re unfamiliar with, don’t go big right away. Figure out who the guys are, watch where they sit, how they approach and get a feel for the personality of the place. The first session is for testing the waters, the next session is when it all starts to click. Be respectful and try to stay out of the way. 

For more cheat codes on how to become a better surfer, head to the Hurley Surf Club. You can submit your clips and have them analysed by the likes of Mike Parsons, Shaun Ward, Barton Lynch and more, here.


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