On the twentieth of August, 1980, renowned South Tyrolean high altitude mountaineer Reinhold Messner shocked the climbing world when he reached the 8,850-meter summit of Mt. Everest, solo, unaided and without bottled oxygen. With a single stroke, this feat of stamina, skill, and most crucially, imagination, made what the rest of the mountaineering world was doing, with their multi-member teams, months-long siege tactics, and oxygen tanks, seem pedestrian. By taking such a huge quantum leap, and doing it alone, Messner singlehandedly elevated the sport into another realm.
Hawaii’s Kai Lenny is our Reinhold Messner. One only has to watch the recently released footage of Lenny riding serious sized Peahi with the use of a hand-held “kitewing” to witness the same sort of paradigm-shifting display of strength, skill and imagination that renders the performances of his peers archaic by comparison, and should completely redefine the state of the art. But it probably won’t.
Exactly why it won’t is a question worth considering, seeing as it cuts to the heart of not only the accepted concept of surfing “performance”, but of the collective perception of what it means to be a surfer; what a surfer is, and what a surfer isn’t. First, however, consider what Lenny has done with his marriage of surf and wind sports, as applied to 20-foot-plus Peahi: he has taken surfing to another dimension, combining conventional displacement hull maneuvering with the new-found ability to harness the wind rushing up the face of the wave, and riding that invisible ‘wave’ as well. Kai Lenny, quite simply, has learned to surf like a pelican. A kinetic breakthrough that shatters any thoughts of incremental steps, instead representing the greatest leap in imagination the sport has ever seen. Consider that even the best of his peers at Peahi are still paddling into waves on ten-foot surfboards, their decks smeared with sticky wax. Bigger waves, maybe, and more critically positioned, certainly, but essentially in the exact same manner as their predecessors some 60 years ago.
Granted, Kai reached this point of progression standing on the shoulders of giants — in some cases almost literally. With mentors like Laird Hamilton and Robby Naish, among many others, Maui’s “Right Stuff” contingent, Lenny’s evolution was steeped in an environment of innovation that not only allowed freedom of expression, but actually encouraged it. That at age 28 he’s become the most talented multi-sport ocean athlete in the world is the result of being brought up believing that when it came to riding waves, there are no boundaries.
No boundaries, except those walls erected and actively maintained by the mainstream surfing industry and media, who have only recently acknowledged Kai Lenny’s level of performance — and reluctantly, at that. As evidenced by the label that’s so often used when describing Lenny, a term that, while it should be bestowed as surfing’s highest honor, has been used more commonly to marginalize those surfers whose breadth of skill and application doesn’t fit the narrow scope of traditional surf wear marketing campaigns: Waterman. Not “surfer”, not “great surfer”, not “the most progressive surfer in the world today”, but waterman. A designation that swerves so far from its original intent that it now somehow refers to a surfer who’s mastered so many wave-riding and ocean sport disciplines that their commitment to so-called “core” surfing is in question.
The irony is Peahi-sized, but the attitude is hardly new. I remember once, as editor at SURFER Magazine in 2000, I suggested producing a profile of Hawaii’s Dave Kalama. Both publisher and advertising director at the time asked me why. “Well, he’s one of the best big wave surfers in the world,” I told them. “A great longboarder, tandem surfer, an outrigger canoe surfer, paddleboard racer and sailboarding champion. That’s just for starters.” They looked at each other, and I think one actually rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, but we’re a surfing magazine,” they said. “You know, like, surfing.” And here Dave Kalama was, sponsored by Quiksilver, who at the time was making an attempt to commoditize the all-around waterman ethic for their senior [read: over 30] line of boardshorts. Unsuccessfully, as it turned out — and to no one’s surprise, seeing as how they couldn’t even get the guys they were paying to run their ads to support the concept.
The vibe hasn’t changed much since then. Even when they don’t say the word, it colors what they say, those observers of the sport who think the sun rises and sets on suitably myopic surfers who espouse the “one way or no way” policy of surfing involvement. It’s why, when describing Kai Lenny’s off-the-scale performance at giant Nazaré, one snarky Australian surf journalist dismissively referred to Lenny’s never-before-seen, never-before-even-considered aerial 360s as “chop hops.” Yeah, chop hops in 50-foot surf, while the same journo waits with bated breath for the next heat at four-foot Snapper Rocks, and the chance to watch “real” aerials being done in the whitewater at the end of otherwise uneventful rides.
Kai, of course, doesn’t give a shit. Or not much of one. Why should he? He’s the most imaginative, progressive big wave surfer since Laird Hamilton — even more so, maybe, as he dominates in full wetsuits at breaks like Maverick’s and Nazaré. Tow-in and paddling. He’s also a hot shortboarder, a world champion stand-up paddle racer and SUP surfer, a world champion kite surfer, world-class sailboarder, and foil board innovator. He’s got deep pocket sponsors galore, pumps out compelling clip after clip…and yet only now is being recognized as a surfer spelled with a capital “S.” As if, by dint of his most recent big wave performances, he’s being forgiven for all the other areas of expertise he’s mastered, all the other ways he rides waves; all the fun he’s been having while obviously not caring if people call him a waterman or not.
But some surfers and surf journos still will. I just saw a promo for the world professional tour that read: “The tour is made up of the most talented surfers on the planet and the surfing done in competition is the most high performance in the world.”
Yeah, and meanwhile Kai Lenny is surfing like a pelican in 25-foot Peahi.
For a collection of longer reads by Sam George go to samgeorgeworld.substack.com