Inside Surfing Peʻahi, Hawaiʻi’s Biggest Wave

surfing peahi
Image by John Hook.

Pe’ahi, also known as Jaws, is not for the faint of heart — the epic surf break is known for exceeding face heights of 70-plus feet. But for those who find the courage and strength, a sense of triumph and euphoria follow in their wake.

The swell was the biggest-hyped swell in ten years to come to Hawai‘i, and it was scheduled to arrive on the afternoon of January 16, 2021. The buoys were reading twenty-three feet at twenty seconds, meaning that this would be a day to remember and an opportunity to push boundaries. Even though it was right in the middle of a pandemic, people from all over the world were coming to the islands. It was going to be extremely crowded, large, very windy, and with a lot of uncertainty. 

kai lenny
From Maui, Hawai‘i, Kai Lenny is one of the most accomplished watermen in the world. Image by Brian Bielmann. Courtesy of Rizzoli.

That morning, when we arrived at Pe‘ahi, there were well over a hundred Jet Skis, twenty-five boats, and at least ten thousand people on the cliff. We were entering Thunderdome, and Jaws was the arena. As we arrived in the lineup, Shaun Walsh dropped into a seventy-foot wave, and the crowd was just going nuts. I was like, “Oh, my goodness. It’s on.” And it was just getting started—the swell was forecasted to only grow in size and velocity.

At first, my younger brother, Ridge, was uncertain about surfing. “I’ll just tow you; I don’t want the smoke,” he said. Up to this point, Ridge had never fallen out there, or never gotten really pounded. I told him, “Hey, dude, just go get a wave, and after you do, you’re going to feel so much better driving me. You’ll understand the waves better.” 

I always joke with Ridge that he’s a closet big-wave surfer. He doesn’t think of himself as one, but he just doesn’t know it yet. I think this was his coming-out day, where he realized he actually was.

So we’re out the back, waiting. It’s not crowded out there, but there’s a lot of people who aren’t normally out there. You have the top guys in the world—Ian Walsh, Shaun Walsh, Billy Kemper, Makua Rothman, and a couple others. But then there’s also these other teams that were just going on any set waves that come through, and the big sets took 45 minutes to arrive.

Image by John Hook.

In big-wave surfing, the etiquette is that you take turns. Whoever’s been waiting longest gets first pick. Whoever’s been waiting second longest gets second pick, and so on. But all of a sudden, I’m being hassled like I’ve never been hassled. It was a tough and disorderly crowd that day, unfortunately.

The set finally came, and we had been waiting on priority for forty-five minutes; I positioned us super deep to ensure no one would try and snake our wave. I was putting Ridge exactly where I wanted him, halfway down the wave behind the peak so that he would have options to go high on the face or drop low fast. Suddenly, a team comes from the channel and turns right around us; they’re trying to take the wave from us. I literally had to put my hand up and tell them to stop, because if they kept going, I would have been trapped on the wave with my brother, risking both of our lives.

The other team pulled back, and I ended up towing Ridge into the biggest wave of his life so far. Everyone wanted the tallest wave that day, because of world record this and world record that. But at the end of this day, when I look at all the photos, I think Ridge got maybe one of the tallest waves.

I was just so stoked for my brother. At the time, I couldn’t even tell how big the wave was because the plumes of spray were going so high, at least a couple hundred feet in the air. I couldn’t see anything as I chased after him behind the wave. A couple days later, we did a rough measurement of the wave and it came out to around seventy to seventy-five feet tall.  

‘Are the gods punishing me?’ I looked up to the sky and thought to myself. ‘Or is this a test?’ Then I get the strongest gut feeling, the most certain feeling I’ve had maybe ever.

Kai Lenny, big-wave surfer
Image by John Hook.

That day, my brother and I were connecting. We were doing something that we’d been practicing for our entire lives. It goes all the way back to when we were little kids, and we were inspired by surf videos of our heroes riding giant waves at Jaws. We would take our bike on the street, and we would tow each other in on a skateboard, using a bicycle to whip in down our neighborhood hill. We were imagining we were surfing Jaws—and now we really are. 

Once Ridge was done towing, I went out with my safety driver, Ola. After riding a few decent waves, I ended up going on this wave with a windsurfer, actually one of my buddies. We weren’t in sync and it caused me to lose focus and I fell. That was a little frustrating. Ola came in and scooped me up immediately; however, I couldn’t get my board in time and it got taken over the falls. We looped around and chased after the board, but we weren’t able to get within distance to grab it. My friend running rescue, Kolomona, nearly had it before having to let it go to escape the fast-approaching whitewater. I told Ola, “Okay, drop me off on the rocks, and then go out the back. I will paddle it back out.” The whitewater on the inside is probably twenty feet high, and it’s the gnarliest I’ve ever seen it in there. I have to get my board. Somehow, I navigate through it all and retrieve my board stuck between two rocks. I crawl up the rocks, paddle back out, duck-diving through whitewater; I knew if I got swept into the current, I was going to make it out no problem. 

“Where’s my Jet Ski? I don’t see my Jet Ski. Oh, no.” I look in, and my Jet Ski is on the rocks. “Not again. This is the second Jet Ski this season, and the third one I’ve ever had at Jaws in the last year and a half.” But in that moment, I can’t panic. I just have to try and save it, and I can’t risk dying in the process, or getting seriously injured like I have in the past. A Jet Ski picks me up and drops me back off onto the rocks. I race to get to my Jet Ski and come to find that somehow the lanyard key for the ignition switch is gone. 

I figured I would use my thumb and pointer finger to pull the little toggle up so that it would allow the engine to turn on. At this point, I’m basically teeter-tottering on one big rock with these twenty-foot waves breaking on the shore. A huge set comes in and picks up the Jet Ski, and in that moment, I pull the toggle with my fingers and I press start. The Jet Ski drives forward and I launch it off of the rocks. I thought to myself, “I’m going to make it.” But then this fifteen-foot closeout breaks in front of me. I go to turn, but the steering is broken. I’m going straight at it. “I am screwed right now. What am I going to do?” I jump and dive through the wave, and my Jet Ski goes back over the falls and onto the rocks. I swim back up onto the rocks and hop back onto the Jet Ski. Back to where we started, and now Ola and Shaun Lopez have arrived to help. 

surfing peahi
Lenny surfing with Ridge Lenny on Jet Ski. Image by Cody Lang. Courtesy of Rizzoli.

I could see giant waves exploding out the back; eventually that whitewater makes it to us. It is so big, it picks us all up and it takes us over this rocky knoll, probably fifteen feet high. Ola gets stuck under the Jet Ski, which slides over him, pinning him to the rocks, and Shaun is hanging off the sled on the back. The three of us, plus the Jet Ski, end up in the river and swept into the jungle. While this was unfolding, all these spectators were watching me getting just absolutely pummeled on these rocks. Cameras are out. I’m like, “Wow, this is embarrassing.” But at the same time, it didn’t affect me because I have to deal with what’s going on in this moment here. Fortunately, a couple of bystanders run down and help us hold the Jet Ski and keep it in one place while Ola, Shaun, and I figure out what to do next. 

We radio to our team on the boat to update them on our status. They radio the helicopter to see about a possible extraction off the rocks. The problem was there were way too many bystanders around to safely pick up the Jet Ski. So we did the next best thing: we picked up the Jet Ski, all eight of us, carrying it towards the base of the cliff. We end up hiding it behind a tree, knowing we’ll have to come back in two days when the swell comes down to airlift it out of there. 

“Are the gods punishing me?” I looked up to the sky and thought to myself. “Or is this a test?” Then I get the strongest gut feeling, the most certain feeling I’ve had maybe ever. I thought, “The gods are testing me right now. This is a test that I need to overcome.” I looked at my Jet Ski driver. I’m like, “You good?” I looked at Shaun Lopez, who was there helping us. I’m like, “Are you okay? Okay. Let’s swim off the rocks right now through this twenty-foot shorebreak on dry rock, and let’s go ride some eighty-foot waves.” And they all agreed. 

So we walked to the edge. We’re up in the bushes and waves are exploding. There’s a moment where the waves subside just enough. We sprint down the rocks. These boulders are rolling basically like bowling balls and we’re running on these rolling rocks. There’s a point where you’re totally committed. If you see a wave and you get scared, you can’t turn around. You would get destroyed, or one of those rocks would roll over your leg. So we basically just dove into the ocean and we swam through these breaking waves. A Jet Ski picks up Shaun first, because he’s farthest out, and Ola and I are swimming. I’m like, “We just got to get to the current.” Once we get into the current, we’ll get sucked out, and the Jet Ski will pick us up. I do one last look-back and I see my Jet Ski in the trees. But I have to cut myself off from that and just leave it there. 

peahi maui
The cliffside overlooking Pe‘ahi on Maui’s north shore. Image by John Hook.

I get back to the boat and the waves were just bombing; I had just lost an hour of my time getting destroyed emotionally, physically, and spiritually on the rocks. But then everyone asks me on the boat, “Okay, are you done?” I said, “No. Get me my board. I’m going back out there.” This is where my brother really rises to the occasion. Ridge looks at me and says, “I’ll take you out there. I’m going to get you the best waves I can possibly get you.” And I’m thinking, “This is the moment.” That day, Ridge operated the Jet Ski with more confidence than I’ve ever witnessed from him. He rose to the occasion like no one else. 

We have maybe two hours left of sunlight now. “Ridge, let’s just wait for the biggest one.” 

A huge set comes. He ends up towing me into this first wave. It was a giant wave, and it was really critical and really unpredictable. I get a long barrel, come out, and I do a big backside 360 kick-out. I’m like, “Okay. That was heavy.” I didn’t think it could get heavier, but I knew that it wasn’t the biggest wave that could be caught, because the waves after that wave were gigantic. 

Then this monster emerges out of the ocean. It was by far the most western set of the day; it was literally almost coming from the mountains. In that moment, I knew: “This is the test. I have passed all the other tests, but now the gods are going to reward me. And it’s up to me to take this opportunity and get the best ride I’ve ever gotten.” Ridge looked back at me, and I just see his eyes wide. Later Ridge told me, “Kai, your eyes were so wide. It was like you knew what you were getting towed into before you let go of the rope.” 

peahi surfing
Ian Walsh at Pe‘ahi. Image by Shane Grace. Courtesy of Rizzoli.

As I let go, my heart sinks. I think I’m too deep. I take a three-second inhale and a three-second exhale just to calm myself, and I do a long bottom-turn. All of a sudden, as I’m bottom-turning, the lip pitches over and it’s by far the biggest—maybe not the deepest barrel I’d ever been in, but the biggest barrel. The lip line, it almost looked like the back of a dragon that was going through the air. It was wafting, curving around the lip, and sucking in like a cannon. I’m watching this lip, and it almost looks like the flames coming out of a dragon’s mouth. I could feel spray hitting my face, but I’m in this cave. It feels like it’s 40 feet in circumference around me. 

Then the wave starts slabbing, and it has a kink in the middle. I have to go really high on the wave, and as I drop back in, I’m dropping straight out of the barrel, going over the ledge. I might not come out…but I do, and then I realize that my ride isn’t over; I still have so much wave left. 

I have so much speed, it slingshots me into a top-turn that felt like something I would normally do on an eight-foot wave. The sensation was so great, I try to do something I haven’t tried before: a double backside rotation, a 720. I didn’t make it, and I fell with such incredible speed. It was just an explosion of water, knocking the wind out of me. But at that point I was in the safe zone, and I just saw my brother in the mist emerge. He’s just grinning ear to ear, and his eyes are huge. He says, “I cannot believe you made that. I thought you were gone.” 

kai lenny peahi
Image by John Hook.

I hop on the Ski, and it’s sunset. The light is shining through the mountains. I could see my boat and my entire family is there, with all of my friends. They’re just screaming; some of them are crying. And they’re like, “That was the biggest barrel we had ever seen of you, or of anybody. That was the craziest thing.” They were just so stoked. They knew what we had gone through to get to that point. To be rewarded by the universe, the gods, whatever deity you believe in— it was surreal. All of a sudden there was just this tension that just got released in the air. I could really feel it around me—the energy, the ocean, myself. 

It just felt like, “Okay, this was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had in big-wave surfing.” It forced my brother to rise to the occasion and become the big-wave surfer we all knew he was. He not only rode a 75-foot wave, but he was able to drive a Jet Ski as good as anyone on the planet, putting me on one of the best waves I’ve ever ridden out there. It was euphoric, and I’ll never forget it. It was a culmination of our entire lives for that special moment.

This article is excerpted from “Big Wave Surfer: The Greatest Rides of Our Lives,” by Kai Lenny, edited by Don Vu with Beau Flemister, published by Rizzoli. Flemister is a longtime contributor to this magazine and author of the novel “In the Seat of Stranger’s Car.”