The Inertia

In a recent conversation with a non-surfing acquaintance I was asked, “How do you describe the difference between tow-in surfing and paddle-in surfing?”

“That’s easy,” I said. “One is all about performance, the other is all about proving something.”

Perfect examples of the distinction can be seen in two recent video releases, both documenting sessions at the same surf spot. The first is the latest installment of the Red Bull-produced series Life of Kai, chronicling, you guessed it, the life and times of Kai Lenny. This particular episode focusing on Lenny’s current free-thinking redefinition of what’s possible in giant waves like Maui’s Peahi. The second, shot mostly from the air by Tucker Wooding, documents an epic day at Peahi in early January, when a determined cadre of paddle-in surfers also redefined what was possible in giant waves like Peahi. How the two efforts differ bears examination, especially as today one of the remarkable applications of skill is regularly dismissed, while the other is widely revered. 

Let’s take Kai Lenny first. In this most recent episode, the focus is on his tow-in surfing at Peahi, and it’s almost bewildering to behold. Hand-drag stalls in the barrel, full-rail bottom-to-top turns and down carves throwing as much spray on one wave as an entire CT quarterfinal; mid-face cutbacks, fading into the curl, and s-turns into the pit. On one huge wave Lenny drops the rope, casually fades back to the apex of the peak, and then pulls off a front flip. That’s right, a flip. 

“He’s so far ahead of everyone towing,” says his brother Ridge, featured in the video as both ski driver and hot Peahi regular. “It’s crazy to see him trying to keep pushing further.”

By applying virtually every standard of contemporary high-performance surfing to giant surf, Lenny rides 50-foot waves the way most surfers would like to ride five-foot waves. Committed to progression, open-minded when it comes to equipment, imaginative in his approach; for Kai, picking up the rope is about performance, pure and simple.

The second video example is billed “Historic Paddle Session at Jaws” and features footage from the aforementioned day at Peahi in early January. Enjoying, if not epic sized, unusually pristine conditions, a crew of Peahi standouts including Albee Layer, Billy Kemper, Tyler Larronde, Torrey Meister, Nathan Florence and Kai Paula put on a five-times-overhead barrel-riding clinic, with perhaps more bowl section tubes completed than on any other day on record. Hence the “historic” bit. And yet, historic might also be applied in another way: every one of these surfers was riding a big, long, thick, heavy surfboard that, multiple fins, tweaked bottom curves and outlines notwithstanding, are fundamentally unchanged from those being ridden in big waves 40-plus years ago. What has evolved is the level of commitment surfers like these have exhibited in their concerted effort to prove that you can ride one of these big surfboards and successfully make big barrels. 

Big Wave Tow-in Surfing or Paddle-In? A Study In Performance vs. Proving It

Critical doesn’t begin to describe it. Photo: Life of Kai

So, what’s the difference between performing and proving? Like most endeavors, it’s all a matter of perspective. Albee Layer, when commenting on the extraordinary January session, asserted that riding in the barrel was now the standard of performance at Peahi, inferring that any other type of ride was pedestrian. As one of Maui’s Young Turks, that’s certainly his right. But try telling that to surfers like Laird Hamilton, Darrick Doerner and Brian Keaulana, who on tow boards were pulling into, and making, Peahi barrels back in the early 1990s. From their point of view, these gutsy young surfers on their big boards are just now catching up. Not progressing in relative terms, and certainly not when compared to advances in smaller wave performance, where maneuvers are king. But proving something by choosing to take the more difficult approach? Undoubtedly. Because this is where aesthetics come into play.

A comparison could be made with another “glide” sport: cross-country skiing. For more than a hundred years this particular discipline remained unchanged, the parallel skis, free-heel “kick and glide” technique embraced by recreational and competitive participants alike. In 1980, however, American ski racer Bill Koch began experimenting with a radical new technique, pushing his skis out and away from the diagonal track in a skating motion, significantly increasing his speed. Within two years Koch went from just hoping to make a podium someday to World Cup overall champion. Controversy followed in his new tracks; this wasn’t the way it had been done, said the purists, and damn the speed advantages. There was no official rule against “skating” — it was being resisted purely on aesthetic grounds. Successfully, as it turned out, with the Winter Olympics, for example, eventually establishing separate classes of competition, “classic” and “freestyle.”

Aesthetic lines have been drawn in big wave surfing, as well. Consider the tag of “cheating” that’s been pinned on tow surfing for decades. Layer straight-lines it through an inside section tube and it’s epic; Kai Lenny does a flip – a flip –on a 50-foot wave and it’s, “Well, yeah, but he towed in.” Why, this distinction? Because of the use of an accessory, the Jet Ski? But how is this any different than the myriad accoutrement employed by today’s paddle-in big wave riders, with their rescue teams, CO2 inflatable vests, heavy leashes, radio spotters and support boats in the channel. Are they cheating? 

No, the distinction is in the aesthetic. Big wave surfers on big boards can’t possibly match the new performance levels of Kai Lenny on a tow board (who, lest we forget, is also one of the world’s best big wave paddle surfers.) But they are proving that they’ve mastered at least one aspect of the high surf, high-performance push: pulling into a barrel. And doing it the old way, the “classic’ way, by paddling into the wave with their own two hands. 

I say it’s time to blur the distinction; to stop pigeonholing either approach as “classic” or “freestyle,” and embrace the entire spectrum of what is, without question, the most dynamic surfing being done today. Because when you consider the level of commitment, skill and daring on display from champions of both disciplines, it’s pretty clear that whether the goal is pure performance or not, none of them have anything left to prove. 


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