It’s not that Kai Lenny needs no introduction, it’s where do you start. Universally accepted as the greatest all-round surf sport athlete on the planet right now, his talent transcends normal human performance. He holds multiple world champion SUP titles, has won a professional big wave surfing contest and is a former kitesurfing wave world vice-champion, not to mention the unofficial king of surf foiling. But windsurfing was what started Kai’s watersports career and to this day he still remains true to his roots and, as anybody who has seen him sail, is still able to give the best in the world more than a run for their money. Gifted, smart and articulate, Kai is a sponsor’s dream and has a list of blue-chip companies who support his class act. John Carter sits down with the affable Hawaiian to learn more about the secrets behind his skills and success.
Words John Carter // Photos John Carter & Erik Aeder
JC: Where does windsurfing fit in with all the vast array of water sports you participate in?
KL: In the right conditions, windsurfing for me is still one of the most ultimate sports. You have the power of the wind and the power of the waves. In the past it has been shown that windsurfing allows athletes to ride the unrideable! Jaws was first ridden on a windsurfer at its biggest! When I go home to Maui and the conditions are firing, it is so hard for me to have to do another sport. When the conditions are great I love windsurfing, it is just a matter that I am busy with other commitments sometimes and I have other sports to squeeze in. I don’t get to compete in windsurfing as much as I would like to because of the foiling, surfing and SUP riding all on my agenda. But windsurfing is always going to be a big part of my life until the day I die! Especially with the foil now!
Before windsurfing was hard in certain places in the world where I travel, but with foiling you can go anywhere. Unfortunately I have dug myself into a bit of a hole regards the amount of equipment I travel with. Gosh, now I could bring one sail, like a 4.0m and on my windsurf foil I could literally get up in a few knots and have fun. At least go windsurfing. For me windsurfing is the ultimate form of sailing. I love sailing boats as well, I have a moth and have sailed through the Hawaiian Islands on catamarans. But without a doubt windsurfing is the pinnacle of the extreme side of sailing!
JC: How do you decide which sport you are going to do every day?
KL: The way I decide is obviously based on the conditions when I first wake up. In Hawaii we can forecast pretty accurately what is coming, but at the same time a lot changes. If it is looking like it is good for more than one sport I take other sets of equipment to the beach. If I head to the North Shore of Oahu I normally bring a set of windsurfing gear and some kites for instance. But then I also bring foil boards, surf and stand up paddle boards. I think I am my own worst enemy! Sometimes I pay more in baggage fees than the actual flight costs! If a competition is coming up I will focus on that. Sometimes I really have a phase on one particular sport for a period. If the windsurfing conditions are good for a week straight that will be my focus. Or if the surf is firing I will switch to that. The worst thing that happens to me is that I show up to the beach thinking it is going to go one way just with one piece of equipment and then I realize it is not good for that sport so I have to drive home and grab another board. Nowadays I have narrowed it down to always bringing all the equipment to the beach. It usually means there is no space in my car for anyone to come with me. It is normally completely full.
“ WINDSURFING FOR ME IS STILL ONE OF THE MOST ULTIMATE SPORTS.”
JC: How much of an influence was Robby Naish on your career?
KL: When I was nine years old I wrote Robby and the guys that run Naish a letter asking if I could be on the team. At that point I was really getting into windsurfing and I was lucky enough to be brought onto the team on a pretty low level. It was cool because here I was riding for somebody that I idolized. I grew up on Maui and just imagine the effect at a young age of watching the RIP movie and all of the PWA clips. They were always so good and I remember seeing Robby winning world titles on these movies, but then would see him in real life at the beach. There was a connection there by putting a face to the legend. I ended up riding for Naish for 16 years. It was an amazing relationship and definitely opened up opportunities in my career that would have taken a lot longer to achieve. The relationship with Naish was a very important part of my life. It was a good first quarter! Robby was a mentor to me absolutely. I would say that the position I am in now has definitely been lead based on the advice he has given myself and my mum and dad. He has helped me make the right moves and it has been nice to have somebody that has done it all advising you. There is confidence in whatever they say because they have been there and done that. A lot of times the unknown is the hardest part, not knowing how things are going to turn out. Aside from Robby, My Dad has also been a businessman and ran one of the most successful restaurants on Maui, Mamas Fish House, and my Mum is a doctor so they are also very smart people and have definitely gotten me to where I am at right now. They put me on the right path and having influencers like Robby was a positive thing when I was growing up.
JC: How tough was the decision to leave Naish at the beginning of 2018?
KL: Leaving Naish was for sure one of the toughest decisions of my life. They were my probably my longest running sponsor. Sixteen years was a long relationship to stick with a brand. I had a personal relationship with Robby and it was almost a bittersweet moment when I left. I felt it was my time to move on and do some other things. It was time for me to start a new direction. I just really wanted to basically grow on my own again. I was almost leaving the nest in a way. Even though they are a great brand and I definitely feel like I gained a lot out of riding for them. It was a tough decision because it almost put our relationship personally in peril in a way, but it has not affected me whatsoever, I still hold Robby in high regard. He is the king of windsurfing still to me. It was just my time to spread my own wings.
JC: Now you have the choice of any equipment to ride?
KL: Part of the reason I left Naish was that I really wanted to ride custom equipment that is specific to what I want to do on the water. A lot of the sports I am doing right now require really specific boards. That is sort of how I felt with my riding. In order to achieve the level of riding that I want to, I feel I need to have boards that pretty much nobody else would want to ride or could ride. In regard to foils that will allow me to ride massive waves, or boards that will allow me to ride places like Jaws better. A lot of the equipment I need is at the extreme end of each sport. These boards are difficult to ride for most and have been geared towards me. Naish being a production based brand made it tough for them and myself and I just felt like I wanted to ride custom equipment. It is what it is. It has been really a lot of fun trying everything out there. I never rode anything but Naish until the start of 2018. To be able to try new boards has been very interesting. Just about all the brands in the industry all make amazing equipment. The trick as a rider is to find what works best for you as an individual. What works best for me is being able to pick and choose from the best of all the brands. A company may come up with an awesome new board for windsurfing or kitesurfing and now I can just go and use it. I can just try anything and if it feels good I can ride it. I may use it for a while when it is fresh but after a while I may want to try a different board with a different feeling. It makes going on the water really interesting.
I am very methodical on my equipment and I love testing new shapes. I not only love improving as an athlete but also trying to have the equipment grow with my progression as an athlete. I have been able to work with some really cool shapers and make specific custom equipment to suit my style. That is part of the reason why I have done some pretty fun things this year. With windsurfing I am lucky that a lot of the companies have given me equipment to use. I can just ride what I like and that element is also really interesting. What I noticed about riding the Duotone and Fanatic equipment was that it was so easy to nail goiters. In the onshore conditions I had to test the gear in, the equipment was insane. Jumping was so easy, I could see why Victor Fernandez is so in control in the air. The equipment is really great for those aspects. The Quattro and Goya equipment felt insane for all the wave riding that I have done. Which is no surprise when you look at Brawzhino, who is amazing in all conditions; he is one of the best, if not the best all-round windsurfer on the planet right now in wave riding. That equipment you could rip the waves like being on a surfboard almost. I also tried Prydes, which felt amazing too, thanks to the testing of Polakow and Robby Swift. I can’t say anything negative about anyone’s equipment, it is like in surfing when you go to a shaper to order a board, and every shaper is a good shaper. But each one has a different style and feeling, which is the element you go to them for. I usually try to rotate all the equipment to keep my riding interesting. I have been windsurfing quite a bit just out in front of my house. It has been pretty flat during our summer, but come this winter I am pretty excited to get into some thicker stuff!
“ THE TRICK AS A RIDER IS TO FIND WHAT WORKS BEST FOR YOU AS AN INDIVIDUAL.”
JC: What is your ‘off water’ programme?
KL: My problem is that I don’t take enough rest. My coach Scott Sanchez, who has trained a number of world champions in windsurfing as well as skiing, has been working with me since I was twelve years old. The biggest thing he is drilling into me is to take a rest. I go to the gym three times a week with him and I work out for one hour. A lot of the workouts I do are water based. If the conditions are good on any given day I am going from one sport to another. I usually just have enough time to eat. When I am eating, it always has to be something to go! I just hate sitting down and waiting because watersports are not like tennis or basketball where the playing field stays the same. The sea, wind and waves are always changing. Usually then I get my food to go and I have such a fast metabolism that I can pretty much put anything into my body and it turns into straight energy. The hardest thing for me is to actually put on any weight or muscle because I am always burning through all of that. On my downtime to be honest I need to be completely cruising. My body is usually so fatigued and I end some days super tired so I need rest.
JC: Even though you obviously love all aspects of watersports, it seems like it is big waves that drives you the most?
KL: I just feel that in riding big waves there is still a lot of elements yet to be discovered. If I am honest I am horrified every time I head out to locations like Jaws, Nazare and Mavericks on huge days. It is weird because in big waves the times you go are so sporadic. There is no planning it, you can just wake up and it’s 50 feet! I sometimes think oh my goodness, what have I got myself into. Small waves are fine on whatever day, but big waves sometimes you feel in the zone and confident and some days you don’t. I feel like with human nature your life goes in waves. There are the ups and the downs and you just have to go with the ride of life. It is always the best feeling when you are on the up and feeling good about yourself on a big wave day. It is nice to feel like everything is coming together, good opportunities are coming your way, your physical state feels good also and your motivation is all coming to a peak. Then a swell hits at that same time. When I am in that zone I feel untouchable almost invincible or superhuman. On the other side of the coin it is tough to dig yourself out of a hole when you are feeling a bit down. You just have to ride those ups and downs. But it is tough on the days when you don’t feel the confidence to challenge yourself against a force that is really a wild beast. There is no stopping that force which is partially the challenge. I guess it is being adaptable and being able to turn on and turn off when you need to. When you have a reputation for going out in the big waves it’s like you have to be there; you don’t want to hear everybody going ‘where was Kai?’ I guess I have to go. I mean I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to. Big wave surfing was never part of my contracts. None of my deals have any big wave clauses. If I decide I don’t want to ever surf big waves again it is not in my contracts, although I guess my appeal would go down! It should not affect anything. Big waves have obviously grown into part of my brand as who I am so there is value to that, but there is nobody pressuring me to go. It is actually out of a pure love from my side. I have two sides where I am uber competitive and then the spiritual side about just wanting to go out and catch waves for the love and the soul of it. I don’t care if anybody sees me surf big waves or not. Whether there would be fifty photographers out there filming or nobody, I would probably still be there. I always have this fantasy of going back in time like 200 years and being able to surf Jaws with nobody around, just me and the wave. It seems like something that would be so pure. At the same time it is always nice to be able to come home and look at the photos and movie clips people have sent you. In a way those images allow me to relive the experience.
JC: Kai Lenny the brand seems to be a huge business now, how important is it to keep the media side of things in the limelight?
KL: In this day and age the media side is the most important aspect of being an extreme athlete. Having to keep up with social media, creating films and content in general to get yourself out there is a full time job in itself. That is why the sponsors sponsor me. So that their brands can be seen in hopefully the most positive light. Usually with all the brands that I am associated with, I associate myself with what I believe in. I would use their products regardless if I was sponsored or not. Hurley have always been my favourite clothing brand, Red Bull I use when I need that extra kick in the butt to push myself and TAG Heuer are the best sports watches. Vertra is the sunscreen I was using before I was sponsored by them because it lasts the longest in the water. Once you have a big brand sponsoring you it helps, everything snowballs from there. I also have had more opportunities with other brands, but sometimes the fit is not right. I don’t necessarily believe in the product so much. The GoPro for instance allows me to go out into a 50 foot Jaws wave and show my perspective, so that is amazing. Everyone else can see what I was seeing and that is the coolest thing. I am just grateful to have the brands that I have supporting me and the ultimate is to be able to have just enough money to be able to do whatever I want. It gets pretty expensive travelling around the globe with all this equipment. Last minute flights and stuff like that.
Right now I have been lucky enough to be working with ‘Poor Boyz Productions’ and Johnny DeCesare since I was eleven years old. Most recently I have been working with Ryan Johnson, a young cameraman from San Diego who is staying with me at my house. Our whole goal has been to film as much content as possible and create the highest quality media for me to post. I definitely enjoy being able to work with all different types of cameramen, everybody has their own eye and can capture differently. The hardest part sometimes is the sporadic nature of conditions. I often just want to go on the spur of the moment and a lot of times cameramen are busy with other shoots somewhere else in the world or have family obligations. Right now with Ryan we are ‘on’ at the drop of a hat. I really enjoy film making and I want to make visual stories that keep people entertained and inspired.
JC: What do you think of the level in windsurfing right now over in the Canary Islands?
KL: I have not been to Gran Canaria in a couple of years now, but I watch all the sports closely. It is all inspiring to me. Philip Koester is without doubt in my opinion the best jumper on port tack. He has so much control and goes so big for such a massive dude. Physically he is kind of the opposite of me. He is a really nice guy. I don’t ever get jealous by someone’s ability, I just get super inspired. I watch his videos and all the other best guys’ clips from Gran Canaria and it makes me want to windsurf so badly. I will just go out in front of the house and push myself. It is all inspiration and hard for me to balance every single sport because I don’t put all my time into just one.
Usually it is through competition that I make the biggest gains. For example, last time I did the Aloha Classic with the PWA, every heat I was doing I felt like I was getting better. There were a few things I was missing like having my goiters nailed down and having my wave 360’s dialled in. When it came to pure wave riding and tweaked airs I felt like I could go toe to toe with anybody, but by the end of the event I was starting to land the bigger moves more consistently. Those are the type of moves if you don’t do them all the time they get a little sticky. They are all about timing and muscle memory. When you get to sail or ride in any competition with the best guys it forces you to a higher level. I compete because I love competing and I want to win. I also compete because I get way better because of the situation. If I did not compete I honestly would be really bored. What is the motivation, it is nice having that little bit of fear! You worry about somebody that is as good as you or better. Maybe even a dark horse that could take you out. That is the same in big wave surfing as well. That fear of wanting to perform. In big waves if you don’t perform you are going to eat crap!
JC: Is your selling point the fact that you do so many sports?
KL: My selling point is that I do everything and do it very well. But at the same time I think I don’t look at them as separate sports anymore. I look at all the sports as disciplines of wave riding. My favourite thing in the world is to surf, which is to ride waves. And my favourite quote is from Brian Keaulana, the legendary waterman and lifeguard from Makaha on Oahu, Hawaii. He said ‘Don’t define me by the equipment I use, but how I use it!’ That just makes perfect sense. A carpenter would not walk into a job site with just a hammer. He needs nails, a saw and all these different things to build the house. For me the way I build the house in the ocean is based on the conditions. If it is windy I am going to take advantage of the wind. Why would I want to fight the wind? I am going to capture it with a sail or a kite. Or utilize a foil to cut through massive chop. That is my perspective. If everything ended tomorrow in terms of my sponsorships or the cash flow and I had to get a normal job, I would definitely work as hard as I could just so I could be able to surf and have the equipment I want. I have quite a bit of gear stored up already, but I have had to give boards back in the past, so I am rebuilding my quiver. I am just happy to be able to walk in my garage and see all the boards I own. I get annoyed that I can’t use them all at once. It is a good problem to have!
“ I LOOK AT ALL THE SPORTS AS DISCIPLINES OF WAVE RIDING.”