British expats on Maui, Robby Swift and Adam Lewis, flew the flag for UK windsurfing as they tackled the massive ‘Super Saturday’ swell at Jaws in January. From our March 2021 Issue of Windsurf they recount the highs and lows of the session.
Words– Robby Swift, Adam Lewis // Photos – Fred Pompermayer, Fish Bowl Diaries, Amanda Beenen Cantor
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We have had more Jaws swells this year than I can ever remember, and wind with all but one of them, so we have been up there every time. I felt like I improved my wave selection and positioning on the wave with every session. It was amazingly helpful to have so many sessions back to back. I tested fins, strap positions, mastfoot positions, sail sizes, everything you can think of and it was great to use the video from the other sessions as feedback to learn how deep to go on the wave, where you should do your turns etc., so I was actually feeling very confident for this swell.
Of course, with everyone hyping up the swell and the Surfline coverage etc., it did make me a little nervous and excited and I had a bit of trouble sleeping but not too bad. That morning though, seeing the waves stack up behind the houses on the beachfront in front of my house, it was already bigger than I have ever seen, since I have lived at my house here in Kuau at least. And we knew by the forecast that this was just the start of the swell and it would double in size and energy by the afternoon.
Sphincter sufficiently clenched, I went to Ricardo’s house and we riled each other up to the point that we were almost hoping someone would stop us and find something wrong with the jet ski and not let us launch at Maliko ha ha.
Leaving Maliko was challenging to say the least. We did meet with the DLNR (harbour patrol) and they did ask us about everything to do with our ski – safety equipment, licenses etc. Luckily, being the good boys that we are, we had everything (except licenses) but they accepted our assurances that we had just left them at home ehem. The swell surges were massive and there was almost mast high whitewater washing in and out of the gulch, closing out the whole width of the river mouth where the boat ramp was. We took our time though and waited for a gap and got out pretty much without incident.
We drove up slowly and carefully, arriving just in time to see Justine Dupont’s massive barrel and anchored the ski on the inside as we didn’t have a very long rope, so couldn’t put it too far out. Then a massive set came in and the surge of whitewater was so huge that the anchor sucked the ski completely under water. Ricardo was on the ski screaming “unclip us unclip us” and I simply couldn’t get the clip off. I was telling him to turn off the ski but it wasn’t even on. It just seemed like he was driving forward at 10 knots and was going to run me over but it was really just the current. It was a scary start.
After that, we found a decent anchor point and I just rigged up straight away. I thought I was literally going to poo myself if I sat any longer and just wanted to get it over with. I sailed out on a 4.7 and quickly caught my first wave. It was faster than any wave I have ever experienced in my life and super bumpy. I was happy to make it out alive. Then I was out the back talking to one of the tow teams and the whole horizon went black. They started up the skis to get out of there and I was kind of in a good position so I just said to myself “F*&% it”, pardon my French, and I took it. It was literally the biggest fastest scariest ride of my life. I just went straight and was so happy to make it out to the channel, I couldn’t believe it. I gybed out and looked behind to see Adam Warchol on the biggest cleanest bomb I have ever witnessed and was extremely jealous for all of about 3 seconds until I realized he was way too deep and the jealousy turned to fear for his life as he was swallowed whole by that monster. It put the fear of God into me, that’s for sure, and the rest of my session was scarred with that image.
I had some decent waves. Lots of them were choppy, but there were a few smooth ones and I got some nice turns on the biggest fastest waves of my life. It was nuts. Halfway through the session I changed down to 4.5 as it was so windy and that was better, but it was still blowing about 40 knots at the top of the wave since the wave was going so fast and the wind was offshore.
It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. Just for reference, for 3 hours my heart rate didn’t drop below 125. The average was 140 and max 182, an incredible adrenaline fuelled high. It’s hard to imagine anything else like it.
Once I decided that I had ridden enough waves, I got a rush of happiness and tranquillity that I had survived. I sailed back to the ski and chatted with Ricardo and Braw about their waves. We were all buzzing and happy. We discussed catching some tow waves which in retrospect would have been awesome, but we were all just so happy to be safe on the ski that we ended up watching the tow guys for an hour and then headed back home. Returning to Maliko, the surges were double the size and it was the scariest thing we have ever done. The previous team to leave the water (Adam Lewis and Maxi his driver) had almost destroyed 2 skis on the derelict pier and had to tie their trailer and truck to the nearest tree with the tow rope from their ski so that it didn’t all get sucked into the water by the storm surge. They came running to us wide-eyed and made us hurry up and get out of there and luckily we got out before there was another set. The Porcella brothers wore that set on the head and barely made it back out to open ocean to then have another go at it coming in when it had calmed down.
It was a really incredible experience. I was so happy to have been here for all the other swells and feel somewhat comfortable with myself out there. I wanted to sail a little better and hopefully we will get another chance, but the whole atmosphere was awesome and it’s something I will never forget. The only other swell I have seen like that was in 2003 when I went there tow surfing with Ross Williams and saw some of the biggest lumps of ocean moving around I have ever witnessed. That time though, it was completely glassy and quite a different experience to the howling offshore winds we had this time round.
As a young avid windsurfer growing up in landlocked Somerset rabidly watching windsurf DVD after windsurfing DVD, riding a huge swell at Pe’ahi / Jaws was definitely not something that registered as even my most far-fetched dream. Fast forward 15 years and all of a sudden, I’ve found myself living up the road from the revered break. With one of the biggest swells in the last decade approaching, I can hear the sets detonating in the distance. It’s over 3 miles away, but the sound invades every corner of my bedroom as I desperately try to sleep on the night before this historic swell arrives. All of a sudden, a far-fetched dream seems very, very real.
Having surfed Jaws in 2019 on the Aloha Classic swell, l I had some idea what I was in for, but this swell was different. Right from the outset, it was something that you couldn’t escape. It was the talk of the island, every forecaster, and all over social media, it was everywhere. This constant buildup really upped the intensity of the swell. I feel lucky enough to be surrounded and immersed in the scene here and surfing and sailing waves of consequence is just something that everyone does on Maui. Braw, Riccardo, Morgan and I train and focus with bigger waves in mind. For the last few months, we’ve been doing wipeout and breath hold training with Sarah Hauser. It’s definitely something that is really nice to have in the back of your mind in times like this. It is in fairness also a lot easier to go down and do breath holds in a palm-ridden paradise beach in your board shorts than a freezing January windswept Cornish rock pool. Although at 2:30 a.m. on the morning of the swell, when you can feel and hear the waves exploding down the coast, my nerves were at an all time high; yes you guessed it, I hardly slept!
Sailing Jaws is more of a late morning affair, the trade winds don’t really kick in enough till at least around 11, so this leaves a lot of the morning for prepping gear to load onto the jet ski sled and make the treacherous escape out of Maliko Gulch, punching through the wind and chop up the coast to reach the break. I like to make sure I’ve got everything plus spares ready the day before, but leave a lot of the assembly and prep for the morning of the day. Personally, I find it so important to keep busy in the morning, testing inflation gear and checking ropes etc. Just waiting around the house until 11 or 12 is the fastest way to a nerve-ridden torturous morning and frankly there are only so many times you can go to the loo. In terms of prepping gear, as far as personal protection goes, I’ve got an impact suit and then a pull emergency vest, both are essential for a once in a decade swell. Gear wise, I pulled out a trusty 5.0 Super Star and a 4.7 Super Hero. I picked the Super Star in 5.0 to get the edge on planing and then the 4.7 for control. The board setup really surprised me, I thought I’d set everything up for control, but actually, after a bit of messing about I ended up with everything set for speed! I also chose a prototype 89 Mamba again, my best guess why this worked after some tuning is that this board has a lot of rail length, which is essential for the drive and speed you need. The swells move so fast that sometimes, even though you’re traveling as fast as you possibly can, you end up on the swell behind the one you’ve been trying to get as you just can’t get enough speed up.
Now my gear is prepped, it’s time to pack and launch the ski. Maliko Gulch is an infamous little boat ramp a few miles west of Jaws. A lot of the jetty has been washed away by years of winter swells, but the boat ramp remains. To say it’s a sketchy launch on bigger swells is an understatement, the bay closes out, and on both sides of the bay are monster heaving slabs that create spitting barrels closing out onto gnarly rocks. It’s an intimidating launch to say the least. Timing is everything, getting the ski in the water as the last wave of the set passes the ramp, you’ve got to get the sled and jet ski in the water as quickly as possible, then spin the ski, jump on and face the next set of whitewater steaming into the cove. Landing is another story! The ride up to Jaws is about 20 minutes on a jet ski, punching into the wind it feels a lot longer, but part of me really loves it. You have to head pretty far out just to be on the safe side with a rising swell, but skipping between those massive moving mountains despite the onslaught of spray and chop you can’t help but smile and soak it all in.
On these big swells, and even in the middle of a global pandemic, people travel from all over the world for Pe’ahi and its carnage. Boats and jet skis litter the channel with water rising and falling as colossal waves unload metres away. We arrive and a massive set explodes across the reef and one of the things that sticks out to me immediately is the thickness of this swell. The way the wave is pulling water off the reef and throwing was more reminiscent of a slab than a big wave. The roundness of the tube and the thickness of the lip is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and sitting on the ski right in that moment I definitely considered the consequences of going down in that impact zone and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t suddenly pretty scared. Almost at this moment, I see Robby Swift on a monster, the first wave of the day, it’s huge, but he really looks at home expertly navigating the wave before he kicks out into the channel. Behind him is young Adam Warchol, he’s on a monster, but sitting really deep in the lineup and still fading as he drops down. The sheer size of the wave means it seems to take forever just to get to the bottom. But as he does we all realize he’s far too deep, at the bottom of the wave he can’t escape and the viciousness of the explosion is incredible, gasps and screams come from the channel, the rig seems to just evaporate on contact with the lip and eventually he pops up after what must have been the worst beating of his life. Seeing him still alive, I hurry to rig, desperate to try and sneak a couple in before it becomes overrun with tow teams. I rig the 5.0, I’m not taking any chances at missing any waves.
It’s a tricky launch at the start, as I pick my way through all the skis and boats I feel the nerves in my legs and I’m pretty wobbly at the start. The safety gear (vest and padded suit) feels cumbersome, but as I get a gust further out, the gear starts to accelerate and the familiar power and feel of the sail puts me at ease. I head upwind as much as I can, far out to wait for the next set. My timing seems to work and I’m the furthest out as a set looms on the horizon. I gybe quickly so as not to lose speed and start heading in on the swell in front of the one I really want. The swell moves so fast that even flat out in the deeper water you can’t keep up with them, only when it slows closer to the reef is there a chance to stay on these monsters. By now the first swell has passed under me and I’m on the one I want, it’s huge and I can see the solid line of swell seem to go on forever down the coast. Going as fast as I can to stay on the swell, dodging jet skis towing, I line myself up to where I want to be and the bottom of the wave seems to drop away as the swell starts to rise and throw. I can honestly say this is the fastest I have ever gone on a windsurf board or any board ever. Looking up at the lip feathering and looming it seems in slow motion and it’s so far away and above me, it doesn’t even seem to make sense in my brain. I get to the bottom set my rail and drive, just wanting to make it to the channel. As I kick out it’s hard to describe the feeling – pure elation, joy? I don’t know, but I know I want another! With all the tow guys out there and everyone sailing, it’s a pretty tough crowd. I managed to sneak about 4 or 5 waves in total that day. It doesn’t seem like much, but trust me, with everyone out there looking for the wave of their life, sneaking a couple of set waves in is seriously no mean feat!
There is nothing like sitting on that channel or even bobbing around in your impact suit out there, watching those sets, it’s simply incredible. The whole experience is hard to describe – humbling, beautiful, and truly awesome. It’s hard to beat having survived the session sat on a jet ski metres from Pe’ahi with all your mates, watching some of the best surfers in the world do their thing. Sitting there in the evening light, watching it all, soaking in the moment is something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. With the light fading it’s time for the leisurely cruise downwind back to Maliko for what turned out to be the most daunting part of the whole day, but that’s a story for another time, involving the bay closing out, jet ski failure, the truck nearly washing away and Morgan Noireaux and I tying a double jet ski trailer to a tree, but I need a beer or two to talk about that!