Albee Layer is a kindergartener, sitting in a circle with his closest friends listening to stories of legendary wave riders past from a Hawaiian chief at the opening ceremony of the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau invitational.
The date is December 3, the place is Waimea Bay, and the 2016 invitees and alternates for The Eddie are sitting cross-legged at the end of their boards, which emanate like sun rays around the center of the circle where the chief and Clyde Aikau discuss the fury and passion behind massive waves. For some of the surfers — Grant “Twiggy” Baker, Ross Clarke-Jones, Jeremy Flores, and more — this ceremony is a known and loved annual tradition, but it’s Albee’s first invitation, his first day at the Eddie Aikau School of Legends.
He goes from laughing with his friends in the minutes before the ceremony starts to falling silent and watching the proceedings with respectful wonder. When the invitees are called up to receive leis and a trophy in recognition of their role in the event, his name is called first. When he goes back to his place in the circle, he sets the heavy trophy — a slab of sturdy wood with a silver surfboard emblazoned with a crest perched horizontally on top — on his board in front of him. After a couple minutes of gazing at it pensively, he starts tracing the edges of the crest with his pointer finger, his face content. He’s proud.
“I never thought in a million years that would happen,” Albee said after getting the call at his house on Maui. “I’ve never surfed this wave so I wasn’t sure if it would ever happen. But to get the call was amazing.”
The contest hasn’t run in six years due to waves not reaching the Hawaiian standard of 20 feet, but this being an El Niño year and with over a month left in the contest window, many are cautiously hopeful that this will be the year the Eddie comes back to life. As fate would have it, the Eddie was given the green light this week. As for Albee, he didn’t spend too much time thinking about the if’s, instead following sage advice he received as a teenager from Greg Long.
“There was a while there where I had no sponsors or anything right after I graduated high school, and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Albee said. “[Greg] gave me advice to not freak out about right now, not to worry about everything that’s happening right now and just relax. ‘Your life’s more than just a single day’ kind of a thing. I really took that to heart and didn’t give up on my dreams, and that ended up kind of working out.”
After the memorial paddle out in Eddie’s memory, Albee and fellow Maui chargers Ian Walsh, Kai Lenny, and Billy Kemper posed for a photo with their boards, which had been blessed with sacred tea leaves by the chief along with each of the surfers. Albee is the tallest of the group at 6’2”, but his board was easily a foot shorter than the guns to his left and right.
Albee Layer is an astronaut, pioneering new territory by taking notably short boards into monstrous swells. The two-toned custom 8’4” adorned with stickers from his sponsors that he chose for the Eddie was shaped by Sean Ordonez of SOS Shapes, which are the only boards Albee rides at Jaws.
The shortest board at the Todos Santos Challenge in January was 11 feet long, the kind of gun one would expect to need in order to get the speed to catch a rolling monster without a tow. The longest boards in Albee’s quiver are both 8’8” and are his rides of choice at Jaws alongside his 8’4”. He got a 10’3” SOS gun in 2012 that he decided to try on a particularly massive day at Jaws last week courtesy of El Niño. He snapped that board on his second wave of the day.
“It felt good when I was paddling and it was easier to catch waves, but I barely held on to the drop and fell on the bottom turn,” said the man who almost never falls and tries very hard to keep that record sterling. “Even if it didn’t break on that wave I was going to trade it in for the 8’8” — it’s a matter of getting up a little earlier with no control versus getting up a little later with more control.”
Albee took a 6’9” out at Pe’ahi a while back, “but it was only like 12 feet, it wasn’t real Jaws.” He said the 8’4” feels amazing and “when it’s glassy I’m going to ride that board as big as I possibly can.” His go-to’s when Pe’ahi is firing are the 8’8”s, which he rode during an epic session on January 28th that got a lot of media attention for, among other things, a massive air drop from Albee on a wave that easily and quickly rose to 50 feet.
“There’s no way I could’ve made that air drop on a ten foot board. It was barely doable on the 8’8”. That’s case-in-point for riding smaller boards — that’s exactly why I do it.”
Layer’s choice to downsize his big wave boards was noticed by Australia-to-Hawaii transplant Ben Wilkinson, who has long supported high performance big wave riding. He called Albee “one of the most talented bloke surfers” in a recent interview with The Inertia, calling him, John John Florence, and Matt Meola “freaks” and crediting them with the speedy progression in big wave surf style.
“I believe big wave surfing could progress so much further if everyone brought down their boards, but it’s hard because then you’ve got other guys out there on massive boards getting waves that you could be getting or should be getting,” Wilkinson said.
“For me it’s not about how many waves, but where you get them from and how it feels,” says Wilkinson. “Like if you get a big one from under the hook and you take off late and you put it all together and you make it, it feels so much better and means so much more than just getting a big wave, having a roll, and going on a big board to the shoulder. Some people are different, but for me thats what big wave surfing’s all about: surfing the wave, not just trying to get to safety on a big board.”
Albee is right there with Big Ben, firmly stating, “I absolutely think everyone should ride a small board,” but his belief comes from a stance of safety and courtesy in the line up.
“Too many people are out there that are not that talented riding huge boards to catch waves they can’t surf,” Layer said, explaining that people will drop in and take waves that ultimately get wasted because they can’t control a board of that size. “You see Shane Dorian on a 10’6” — he’s this tiny little dude but he can turn a 10’6” better than anyone. But certain people just take off and hold on for dear life, which isn’t a smart or safe way to surf Jaws. [Bigger boards] are keeping them in the capability of catching waves that are out of their league.”
So how long until we start seeing aerials on big waves? Is Albee the Neil Armstrong of that giant leap for surfing? He’s definitely thought about it and is motivated to try it every time he lands a little hop while charging down a Jaws face.
“I’m sure some ten-year-old kid somewhere is watching footage of us surfing Jaws right now and thinking of ways to do it. It would have to be such a Hail Mary and so high risk, but it is possible,” he said. “It will be done eventually, it’s just a matter of time. It could be five years or it could be 30. A big straight air would be the only thing you could actually do but you’d have to ride a board small enough to land it.The 8’4” almost felt possible but I need a little more control. It’s not far off.”
Layer said his 8’4” SOS has allowed him and Kai Lenny to start interjecting turns “that don’t look like novelty turns” on big waves in the past year.
“It opened up a whole new way of how to surf the wave,” he said. “It almost felt like tow-in surfing because it draws out a really long line. That’s my newest goal. I’m always trying to get barreled, but if I’m not getting barreled not to just stand there.”
Albee used Instagram to publicly denounced the WSL’s judgement call to not score barrels as high as larger waves simply ridden in the Pe’ahi Challenge (“like a preteen,” he caveats). The historic inaugural paddle-in big wave contest was green lit on the day of the Eddie ceremony and ran three days later.
“[Albee’s 8’8”] is way, way smaller than anyone else because he does take off under the lip,” said Ben Wilkinson. “Some people say, ‘Oh, he just surfs the West Bowl, whatever,’ but he can surf anywhere. He just chooses to surf that part because he wants to get barreled. He doesn’t want to play games — he just wants to take off and get barreled.”
Albee Layer is one of the long-bearded senseis of the Pe’ahi lineup, offering sage advice that could easily be followed by a “surf wax on, wax off” exercise. His deep well of information is built on years of experience at Maui’s known and secret spots, especially the death-defying crown jewel of Haiku, where he first surfed the smaller inside section at the age of 12, according to his dad, Al. Al is a jolly mustachioed EMT who explained his son’s nickname: “I’m Al A, so he’s Al B”.
Al the Younger held a spontaneous seminar ahead of the first round of the Pe’ahi Challenge on December 6 as one of his competitors asked, “Where are the rocks, Albee?” and a small crowd gathered around him as he calmly explained precisely what lies beneath the turbulent surface. Then he stood quietly on the cliff oblivious to the production and crowds around him, arms crossed and staring at the waves as they began their sizeable growth, which over the day would reach upwards of 40 feet. His lips were pursed, his eyes narrow, and his stare was hundreds of yards away, already paddling into barrels.
Looking at the frothy 20-foot early offerings before his first heat on that morning at Pe’ahi, the Hawaiian crinkled his nose and said, “It looks…shitty.” Not big enough, not clean enough — this man had barrels to catch, because that’s what he does at Jaws, and because he had to back up the message he’d delivered to the WSL via Instagram the night before.
Albee found the tube he was seeking in the contest’s second Semifinal heat. While cruising under the lip in a cavern the size of a house, he celebrated by laughing, flipping the helicopter camera the double bird, and pounding his chest as he came flying out with the spit.
In the VIP tower, Albee’s family cheered alongside friends and neighbors who had grown up with him, including Matt Meola. As the final heat entered its last five minutes, the ocean went quiet. Billy was ahead of Albee, and it became clear that Kemper would come out on top as Albee’s chances of seeing a rideable wave before the hooter grew slim. Al continued to speak to his son quietly in a deep baritone, as if he was in the same room — “Go on, Albee…get it, Albee…” — even as people began to leave the lookout cliff in droves, hoping to avoid traffic once the obvious winner was formally announced. When that moment came, the whole room cheered, applauded, and celebrated together: two Haiku boys had taken the top spots at the first-ever paddle-in contest at Jaws, life was just as it should be.
But Albee wasn’t coming in. Every other competitor in the final had already reached the rocks at the mouth of the Pe’ahi Gulch, the judges were finalizing their paperwork, and the broadcast crew was diving into the Post Show. And there was Albee, rising and falling on the rolling mountains of water, staring patiently at the horizon.
His closest friends still lingered in the VIP lounge, pondering the situation: was he just supremely pissed off? Was he a little too overwhelmed by emotion to face a crowd? Then they all remembered how Albee thinks, and agreed on what they knew to be true: Albee was waiting for his wave, the wave that would’ve won him the contest had it arrived in time, and he wasn’t coming in until he got it.
Albee floated offshore for almost ten minutes until a set rolled in. His friends started to cheer as Albee was lifted to the crest of a rising monster and he started to paddle. He dropped perfectly into another giant barrel and disappeared behind the curtain. His friends on shore began to hoot. Then the wave seemed to shut down suddenly, and everyone’s excitement came to a halt.
When Layer burst through the white water still standing tall on his board, the cheers from his posse were so thunderous that the judges and commentators all suddenly realized that they’d missed something big. It was a barely-witnessed miracle that Albee had probably executed at Pe’ahi more times than he can count. The few who did see it are the people who matter most to him.