Dubbed ‘Super Saturday’, January 16th 2021 saw one of the biggest swells in years rumble into Pe’ahi / ‘Jaws’, on Maui’s north shore. From our March 2020 issue we get the lowdown from the pros on the historic session that followed.
Words: Jason Polakow // Marcilio Browne // Ricardo Campello // Adam Warchol. Photos: Erik Aeder // Fred Pompermayer.
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There was a lot of hype about the swell and I was particularly excited, as I thought I could redeem myself from 4 years ago, when they called off the WSL pro surf event due to the size of the swell. I missed some of the biggest waves of my life that day and it still haunts me even now. The evening before I got all my gear mounted to the ski and made sure I had two sets of everything, just in case I wiped out. My main concern was my torn hamstring that I sustained about 3 days earlier tow surfing at Outer Sprecks. I wondered if it would be well enough to windsurf, but I was going no matter what. There was no way I was missing out.
The ride up was good and I could see some pretty big sets coming in at Ho’okipa, but it was not ridiculously big, so I assumed the swell was still building and the evening session was going to be some historical stuff. I took a 4.5 and 4.8, as well as an 86 and 90 litre board. They are both custom Jaws boards that are a little longer than my Ho’okipa boards. I like to use the Patagonia CO2 suit as it goes under your wetsuit. The others are over the top and I find they really restrict movement. To be honest my first wave was probably the best, but I had to share it with Kai. I actually got overpowered on that wave and my hamstring gave out and I had to let go. My gear flew into the channel but I was on the west bowl and took the second wave on the head. Not a good start, but I was happy my gear survived. From that point the rest of the day was a shit fight with all the tow team out there. I missed so many bomb waves that day as some of the tow teams would cut across you and push you off the wave. The law in Hawaii is they have to stay 300 feet away, but that never was the case. All of us almost got hit by skis that day. Some guys were respectful like Ian Walsh and Billy Kemper, but other guys were total dicks. I had a mixed day of bad luck and bad timing. I did see some of the other boys get some bombs that day, but I never got the huge bomb I was looking for. The biggest set of the day was actually around 12:30 p.m. and I saw Adam Warchol catch one from it and he had that insane wipeout. I had a front row seat as I was heading out and it was the biggest wipeout I have ever seen at Jaws period! After that set, there was never a wave as big and perfect as that. I had a lot of fun, but I am still looking for my biggest ride.
To be honest the ride home was disappointing for me. I wanted to catch a bomb set all day, but it just was not my day. I was so close, like years ago, but I could not make it happen. It made me even more determined to make it happen on the next one. Hopefully it won’t be another 4 years to wait!
This was probably the worst build up I have had to go up to Jaws ha ha. The week prior to this ‘Super Saturday’ we had 2 solid days at Jaws and both times I had bad wipeouts. The first day I tried an aerial and wiped out with a big free fall and whiplashed my head pretty hard. Then, only a couple of days after, still in the same week, we went again, and after a few waves I crashed coming down from a turn when my outside rail caught as I was going really fast. Then I catapulted, face-planted into the sail, my legs went over my head and it kind of cracked my neck and back; I still have a very sore neck from it. So only a day after that we had to go for the big day. I was very very sore, I had to see a physio and take a lot of Ibuprofens in order to be able to move my neck around. So when the day came I hadn’t had that great a sleep and was feeling pretty drained from the week.
This time we got up there from the harbour in Kahului; I didn’t even consider going from Maliko Gulch as it was so massive and I didn’t want to add that stress to the day. The ride up was rough but fun. We met up with Jason Polakow, Kevin Pritchard, Jake and Z Schettewi as we were passing Camp One and we all went up together. I used my Banzai 5.0 and standard Jaws board, 8’0” by 56 cm wide; I’ve had it for years and really trust it. This board is full concave from nose to tail, has about 88 litres and I rode it with the MFC KS model quad fins (14.5 cm and 9 cm). That day I lifted my boom a bit higher than usual, and also moved my mastfoot even further forward.
For safety, between Ricardo and Swifty and I we hired 2 jet skis to watch out for us so that we didn’t have to rely on anyone else. I was wearing an inflatable vest and on top of it had a flotation wetsuit too. I always like having that in case I can’t get to pull my vest.
As far as picking waves, it was tough. Definitely a very crowded day so I tried to not go on a lot of waves and wait my turn. I think I only had 5 or 6 waves all day. The first couple of waves I had were mellower, just trying to feel the speed and get a bit used to the day. After that I had a couple of cleaner faces that I tried a few top turns on. I wasn’t really looking for the very biggest ones, but instead the ones that had good size but also some more west on them as those seemed to hit the reef a little better, clearing the chop and easier to find the sweet spot to turn on.
The most intense moment of the day was Adam Warchol’s wipeout. When that happened I had just finished rigging up and was sailing out for the very first time. Once I saw him coming down that wave it just looked ridiculous how big it was and how deep he was positioned. I instantly felt very scared for him. The couple of seconds after watching him go down like that was extremely nerve-wracking. I was just waiting for his head to pop up as all the skis raced that way. It was a big relief to see him moving around with an inflated vest on in all that whitewater. In my eyes that was one of the biggest waves of the day.
Coming back was nice. As soon as I finished sailing I packed up quick to try to beat the crowds at the harbour on the way back. It was such a beautiful sunset heading down the coast, watching massive lines of swell breaking as far as you could see. Once we passed by Maliko Gulch I was so relieved we chose to launch from Kahului. I don’t think I remember seeing a swell bigger than this one. Later on I got together with Swifty and Ricardo and we cleaned up the skis, had 2 or 3 beers and made a little BBQ with our friend Fernando. I was very relaxed that night but for some reason couldn’t sleep much. I went to bed around 11 p.m. and woke up at 5 a.m. It was very weird. I am still feeling pretty exhausted as we had 3 Jaws days in a week and it all felt very intense.
Luckily we had 3 swells before ‘Super Saturday’, not as big, but I gained much more confidence by sailing 3 times at Jaws in quick succession. I was still quite nervous though as everyone was saying it was going to be the biggest swell in a long time. I did sleep, but woke up earlier then usual thinking about it and preparing my mind for it.
Going to Jaws is a huge mission, you have to go prepared, make sure the jet ski is all functional and ready, make sure you don’t forget anything and it’s important to hire someone to rescue you and make sure they will be there to save you if you fall! So as you can imagine, every Jaws session can end up pretty expensive if you add up everything you need. You have to load all the gear on the ski with your partner, in my case Swifty, bringing all the gear necessary for the session. That means 1 boom, 2 masts and 2 sails and one board each, 2 extensions, 2 bases, water and some snacks and sandwiches. Then you fit everything on the ski and make sure it’s all super tight, otherwise you can lose everything on the way up there. Then it’s one of the hardest parts, launching the ski at Maliko Gulch. It’s basically a little bay that has a really old boat ramp that is very badly maintained and when the waves are big the whole bay closes out, so you really have to get the timing right and launch the ski as fast as possible after the set comes, but sometimes it takes you by surprise so you have to go over head-high waves with the jet ski, so not everyone really enjoys that ha ha. We do have the option to launch from Kahului harbour, which is much easier as there’s a proper boat ramp and no waves, but it’s much further away and you can lose 40 minutes or more. Plus you have to go against the wind and waves, which is not really fun on a jet ski! We preferred to take our chance and go from Maliko!
We usually use 4.7 or 5.0 sails at Jaws, very rarely 5.3 and 4.5, and for the big day I used a 5.0. Now I have a really good custom Naish board that Michi Schweiger made me which is amazing, it’s basically a windsurf big wave gun board. It’s longer – 8’0” and a bit narrower then a normal 88 litre wave board and it has a swallow tail. It’s a quad and it’s a really fast and stable board, which is what you need for monster waves. You go much faster at Jaws then you would go at Ho’okipa and sometimes on many waves there is just one big piece of chop that if you don’t have enough board length and grip to deal with it you can spin out and your session is done!
I was quite nervous to go, but I knew I had done everything for the mission, so I had to go unless there was no wind, which is what we were all praying for ha ha. We got there a little early to watch the guys surf and tow in and I let Swifty rig first so I could have a reference. He got his first bomb and then when I decided to go, Adam Warchol comes on the one behind, which to me was the biggest wave of the whole day at Jaws and also the best and got that massive wipeout. We couldn’t believe it, after that I stopped for a moment and said maybe I will just watch everyone ha ha! But I actually thought, the more I stay on the ski watching, the worse it’s going to be, because the swell wasn’t even at its peak yet. There was so much water moving when the sets came that our ski moved 10 metres but was still anchored
Anyway, I rigged up and got out, there were lots and lots of skis in the channel as well as boats and lots of cameras. It was hard to pick the right waves. There were quite a few guys towing in and we were quite upset because some of them just didn’t respect us. It was frustrating because wind has priority over smoke and some just didn’t care, and it was a day where you didn’t want to share a wave with anyone. At one point after I got my third wave I said to myself, I’m going to go back to the ski and stop. I’d caught 3 waves and the guys were not respecting us, so there was no point staying out and risking myself to get worked, but as soon as I thought that they decided to stop as it was super windy for them. So they let us sail for a bit and I was happy to grab a few more. So I caught a few ones and was happy with it and said to the boys I’m coming in. Let’s let the tow guys have some fun now so we don’t get into conflict and everyone is happy!
I think it wasn’t my best performance, but to windsurf the waves was quite hard, the wind was really light between the waves so you had to pump really hard and the direction was really west and most of the waves were barrelling. It was an amazing experience and a day I won’t forget.
I got onto my ski, sat down for 2 minutes and my friend, who is a kiter, asked me to help him launch his kite (which is another mission at Jaws), so I tied my rigged gear to the back of my ski and went to his ski to help him. As I’m midway inflating his kite, he tells me, “Hey Ricardo, your gear is lost and it’s almost on the rocks.” I’m like shit, I have to do something quick, otherwise I will lose my gear. So I tried to tie his kite the way it was to the back of his ski and swim to my gear. Luckily Brawzinho was on another ski nearby that had lost its anchor and gave me a quick ride to my gear. Then I saw my friend’s kite flying from the ski with the pump still stuck on it and I’m like, NOOOOOO, what a mission. So I took my gear a bit out, then grabbed the kite and then went back to get my kit again. Brawzinho grabbed my friend on the ski and picked him up with the kite and all its lines tangled and then I could finally derig my sail!
After that, we all said, we’ve made it boys, then I thought, no we haven’t. We now actually have probably the worst part of the mission, taking the ski out at Maliko with these huge sets! So we drove down, and on entering the bay we see one piece of Adam Lewis’s board floating. Uh-oh, something has happened; 30 metres in front we found another piece of his board. Now we were like darn, something really serious has happened, so we drove in and I dropped Robby and one friend that we gave a ride to from Pe’ahi and they went as quick as possible to get the trailer. While the sets were coming in, Adam and Maxi (his ski driver) and four friends told us to hurry up as they almost lost their two skis and a truck. They actually had to tie the car to a tree so the ocean wouldn’t take it and they lost Adam’s board putting the ski on the trailer when a huge set came and washed everything away. They said it was double overhead waves closing out the whole bay so we did everything as fast as we could and actually got lucky and nothing happened!
In the end we had a great day. It was adrenaline to the max, but that’s what I like ha ha! We were super tired, but overall was a really sick day and I probably got the best shots of my life! Now I’m even more confident at Jaws and it will be hard to beat that sized swell any time soon!
We first saw the forecast come up 10 days before, and it started looking bigger and bigger and more exciting the closer we got to that day. Three days before that swell, the forecast was looking really big. Everyone was saying that this is going to be the biggest swell in years. I’ve never seen such an insane forecast like that in my life, where the swell was marked in black on the map. I knew it was going to be gigantic and I was super excited, though worried about my foot because I cut it pretty bad on a coral reef while I was surfing the Tuesday before the swell, so I rested it because I wanted to be 100% for the ‘Super Saturday’. We went to Jaws on Thursday, but nothing went my way that day and I told myself after that session that Saturday was going to be the redemption day!
On Friday I prepared everything and made sure I was ready. As I was talking to my friends on Friday, I said it was going to be gigantic. I told them that someone for sure will catch the biggest wave ever at Jaws, and jokingly I literally said, “Maybe it could even be me?” I was nervous but ready at the same time on Friday evening. But, I have to say, I slept pretty well that night.
The transport to Jaws is always the most difficult task! Everyone wants to go and everyone has their own friends that have a jet ski or a boat. I contacted Jason Prior because I knew he was going. And he told me yes straight away!! I’m really grateful for all his support during that day and also after! So we left Kahului harbour at 10:00 a.m. with all the crew, a team of photographers and medical stuff that Andrea Moller organized (she was going on the jet ski next to the boat).
The ride was rough and difficult! It was already very windy and there was some big chop along the way. It probably took us around 1 hour 40 minutes to get to Pe’ahi.
Once we got there, it looked like an arena with spectators and gladiators, ha ha. There were a lot of boats and jet skis everywhere! I waited for around 10 minutes until I started rigging. There were some very big sets already but nothing gigantic yet. I went out just 5 minutes after Robby Swift, he was the first windsurfer out.
I took my 82 litre Quatro Pyramid production board and my 4.2 Goya. I choose an 18 cm central fin over my normal 17 cm. At Jaws you’re going so fast in every wave, and especially on a huge day like this, that you need to add some factors that will give you more control, like a bigger fin. As I went out, I probably wasn’t even 5 minutes in the lineup when I saw this massive set coming. Robby Swift went on the first wave of that set. The second wave was looking enormous, and as soon as I saw it, I thought it could be the wave of my life! I knew I was sitting very deep at that point, but I saw all the jet skis with the best surfers in the world also hunting for that wave, and when I saw that they gave it to me, I had to go. I couldn’t resist letting that wave get away from me!
That moment when I was dropping in on that wave was the most incredible, magical and wonderful experience I’ve ever had!! The adrenaline rush, the feeling of riding that monster with the whole scenario I had in front of me, with so many jet skis and boats sitting in the channel, looking at my ride, was just something I can’t explain! That feeling of the huge power of Mother Nature on my back, the speed that I had and the shape of that beautiful wave, was the biggest joy I’ve ever experienced!!
As I was going down, I looked above me and will never forget what I saw. It was terrifying, magical and unique at the same time! I saw this huge lip coming at me, it was like, WOW!!
As soon as I felt the lip coming down on me (it was probably my instinct telling me that) I bailed, as I wanted to stay as far away as possible from those windsurfing footstraps! Probably 1 second later and I would’ve lost my legs, ha ha. Just as I bailed, the wave took me with a violence that I’ve never felt before. I went over the falls inside that huge barrel and didn’t have a chance to take a breath at any point, and what was happening under that wave is impossible to explain or compare to anything. I was just pulled in all directions, and for a very long time. This is the moment when I felt helpless, and I knew the only way to survive was staying calm. I had already learnt that way before. Surfing helped me a lot with getting that confidence and I also did a freediving course before coming to Maui and I was doing breath hold training during my time on Maui. I pulled my vest, but honestly when it’s that big you have to wait anyways for the wave to stop pounding you!
So I was under the wave for a very long time, and as soon as I popped up, I had probably around 4-5 seconds until I went under the second wave, which was massive as well! Before I took that wave on the head, I deflated my vest, because you need to dive under the wave at least a little so the wave doesn’t hit you with 100% of her power. That wave took me very deep and I was again for a very long time underwater. I inflated the vest again and just when I made it to the surface, I saw the giant whitewater of the third wave coming at me, and that wave dragged me super deep. I was feeling so much pain in my head and my ears, and I thought for a moment, my eardrums would pop from the pressure. When I came to the surface, Kurtis Chong Kee picked me up, which I’m very grateful for! After that, the first thing I asked Kurtis (which I feel bad about) was if he could take me to my equipment. I was hoping that maybe I would be able to sail still, but my equipment ended up straight on the rocks. Well my board did, I don’t know what happened the rest, I guess it went down to the bottom of the ocean!
Many people don’t realize that actually the wipeout from the first wave was not the worse, but rather the whole situation with the first wave and all the waves after that I took on the head. I want to make it clear that I was as prepared as I possibly could be for a wipeout like that! I stayed super calm during all this uncomfortable time underwater. Also people may not be aware about all the processes that I was involved in on those waves. Inflating the vest under the wave, deflating it before the next one, inflating it again, and deflating it before the third one. These are all things that you have to do and be super relaxed and calm while you’re doing them. I survived that wipeout because I was prepared for a situation like this!!
Once I got back on the boat, everyone was happy to see me alive! Everyone in the lineup was telling me that they thought I was dead. Afterwards, I heard there had been 12 jet skis coming at me after that third wave. I was sad that I couldn’t catch a coupe of waves more, but I was super happy when everyone told me that the wave I caught was the biggest wave overall that day! All the windsurfers were still rigging in the channel when they saw my wave. Jason Polakow was cheering and telling me that I already had set the bar very high for the rest of the day, ha ha.
There were amazing rides all day long and we came back at dark. It was unbelievable seeing waves breaking miles away from shore when we were passing the outer reefs! It was incredible to see what Mother Nature is really capable of.
I came back home late, but I was only thinking about the next day, as it was supposed to be epic for surfing. I didn’t sleep well that night, I was probably too tired and there was water coming out of my nose all night, ha ha. I slept around 3 hours and I woke up super early at 4:30 a.m. I was ready to have another epic day at Pe’ahi even though I was super tired! I managed to find a ride from a very nice family who drove me all the way to the cliffs. I jumped from the rocks and I went surfing for 6 hours.
The wave I caught on that Saturday session was just the most amazing and wonderful moment I will have in my mind for the rest of my life. There is no comparison to any other day or wave I have had. Jason Prior already told me on the boat that the wave I caught will go down in history and will be shown all around the world. I’m very grateful for all the people that helped me and for all the messages!! I received a lot of love after that wave, but also a little bit of hate, but it really marked a point in my life, the beginning of something beautiful.