When Maui’s preeminent big wave gets large, it does abnormal things. Mean things. Vicious things that threaten to tear surfer’s limbs from their bodies and send them to deep, dark places beneath the ocean. And on this day, Jaws got too big (and windy) for the WSL’s taste, as the organization decided to pull the plug on the men’s side of the Jaws Challenge after the swell grew dangerous in size. This following the women’s event in the morning, as the ladies continually threw themselves over the ledge in a two-heat contest where Keala Kennelly took home the title.
Like watching a violent NFL match up, there was a tinge of guilt viewing these gladiators from the computer screen as they tossed themselves over the edge of sanity, trying to make it to the bottom of 40-foot giants that rumbled towards Maui’s north shore. There was a possibility to make each wave. But at what cost?
Grant Baker made it to the bottom of a giant, pulled into a gaping barrel, then disappeared beneath the mayhem. He ended up on the medical boat after. Billy Kemper, who commentator Kaipo Guerrero correctly hyped as “Jaws’ winningest surfer,” was essentially knocked unconscious by the force of a wave he took in the opening heat and described the mayhem in an interview after: “That thing hit me like a train,” he said. “Underwater, it was really peaceful. I don’t really remember much. I just remember it being black and kinda fuzzy. (The ski driver) grabbed me by the back of my jersey…it is what it is. I got a lot of people watching over me. I feel safe. I feel confident.”
Kemper also said he wouldn’t be surprised if the XXL wave of the year is captured today after the contest was called off as big wave chargers were most assuredly set to go out with jet ski teams at the beck and call (watch the tow session, here).
But conditions like these aren’t just dangerous for competitors. They’re serious for everyone involved. “It just felt like the 20-second energy was overloading the reef,” said the WSL’s Big Wave commissioner, Mike Parsons. “We had our water patrol at max capacity. Every ski was on the inside. It was tough to keep track of every surfer to make sure they were coming up. I felt like it was getting too dangerous so we’re calling it off and we’ll try to do it in the morning.”
Kemper, Baker, and Alex Botelho all advanced out of the first round and into the semi-final when the contest resumes. And guilt or not, we’ll all be watching.