Maui's monster surf break getting bigger by the day
By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau
PE'AHI, Maui At least once a week, a tourist wanders into the Maui Tropix surf shop in Pa'ia and asks for directions to the Jaws surf break.
Photo courtesy of MGM
The 20th James Bond movie, "Die Another Day," opens with shots of wave-riding on a 20-foot day at Jaws.
Photo courtesy of MGM
Six years ago, hardly anyone had heard of the monster swells that break off a lonesome stretch of Maui's northeast coast, below the 200-foot sea cliffs at Pe'ahi. A dozen years ago, only a few surfers had dared even try the waves there.
But like a storm-driven current rushing to shore, Jaws' reputation has grown to mythic proportions and will get a boost Friday when the newest James Bond movie, "Die Another Day," debuts with an opening sequence shot on 20-plus-foot waves there about a year ago.
Jaws or Pe'ahi, as many locals call it offers some of the largest surfable waves on earth. About a dozen times each winter, wave faces reach 40 to 60 feet and more from trough to peak, taller than a four- to five-story building.
Just a few years ago, waves of this size, volume, speed and power were out of reach of even the most accomplished big-wave surfers.
That changed with the advent of tow-in surfing, which allows surfers using specialized boards with foot straps to be towed by personal watercraft and launched into the pocket of these mountains at speeds exceeding 40 mph.
Whenever a storm pushes large swells toward Maui's north shore, a handful of highly skilled, extraordinarily fit watermen risk their lives in a dance with one of the most powerful forces of nature. The jolt of adrenaline leaves them craving more.
Jaws has been at the epicenter of the growth of tow-in surfing. And with its evocative name and charismatic cast of surfing regulars, the break has received more than its share of publicity over the last six years.
Some of the world's top tow-in surfers are preparing for the second World Tow-In Cup at Jaws, which takes place between Dec. 20 and the end of March, as conditions permit.
While the growing interest in Jaws has added to Maui's allure, not everyone is happy about the attention.
The Maui Pineapple Co., which farms pineapple above the surf break, installed a gate last week at a key vehicle access point in anticipation of the big-wave season.
Plantation manager Wesley Nohara said the company endured thousands of dollars in damage from people trying to find their way to shore near the surf break.
"When the surfing is happening, hundreds of cars go in, and they drive right through our fields,'' Nohara said.
Those living near Jaws put up with speeding, blasting stereos and cars parked in their yards when the waves are pumping.
Timothy Hurley The Honolulu Advertiser
Jaws, known to locals as Pe'ahi, breaks below 200-foot cliffs on Maui's north coast, where fans converge during big-wave season.
Timothy Hurley The Honolulu Advertiser
Jaws' history began in the early 1990s, when veteran surfers Buzzy Kerbox and Laird Hamilton were experimenting with tow-in surfing off the north shore of O'ahu. They heard that a few adventurous windsurfers were sailing large waves a few miles down the coast from Ho'okipa, and decided to give it a try.
"At first, it was just another spot for us,'' Kerbox recalled. "That first day (in 1993), it was 15 feet nothing huge but it was incredible for towing. It took us a season or two to realize this was it, a really great spot.''
A group of skilled watermen led by Hamilton began to develop the techniques and technology that would allow them to climb mountains of water as never before.
The excitement was first witnessed by a wide audience in a segment of the 1994 surf film "Endless Summer II." It was later featured in the 1998 surf action movie "In God's Hands.''
Meanwhile, the coffee table book "Jaws Maui'' appeared, featuring photos by Patrick McFeeley, including Hamilton riding a 40-foot wave on the cover. With 50,000 copies sold at last count, it may well be the best-selling surf coffee table book of all time.
A researcher at the University of Delaware studied the unusual underwater conditions that contribute to the large waves, and National Geographic published a cover story about it using a photo from "Jaws Maui.''
Charlie Lyon, who wrote the book with his wife, Leslie, said the magazine, which previously did not use images published elsewhere, chose the photo to boost sales and attract younger readers.
"We sold our book on the cover alone,'' Lyon said.
Jaws has since been featured in numerous commercials, videos and surf films and this week in "Die Another Day." The production reportedly waited weeks for the dramatic waves to appear, filming Hamilton with surfing pals Dave Kalama and Darrick Doerner riding in full wetsuits, with night-vision goggles and guns.
Eric Akiskalian, who runs Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Towsurfer.com, said interest in Jaws, which he called the heaviest wave in the world, and tow-in surfing is growing exponentially.
The Web site, which chronicles activities at breaks such as Jaws and Northern California's Mavericks, is a few months old and already getting 250,000 hits a week, Akiskalian said.
Traditional big-wave surfers who looked down on tow-in surfing a few years ago are joining in, he said.
For Maui surf promoter Rodney Kilborn, staging a contest at Pe'ahi is a dream come true. He first watched the break in the late 1970s.
"It was just amazing, just to hear the rumble of the surf," Kilborn said. "I knew this was such a special place."
Among the entrants in this year's World Tow-In Cup is Maui lifeguard Archie Kalepa, who describes the action at Jaws as "the ultimate natural drug.''
"Once you ride the wave, there isn't much more that can get you excited,'' he said.
And when the marine forecast calls for big surf, it's virtually impossible to sleep the night before.
"After you come in (from a surf session), you're on such a high. It's such an adrenaline rush," Kalepa said. "It doesn't sink in until hours later, and you realize what you did, and you just can't wait to get out there next time.''
Kalepa said surfing the ferocious curls at Jaws can mean life or death. Safety is key, he said, and Pe'ahi regulars practice it religiously. There have been those who got beaten up badly, he said, but no one has died yet.
"It's just a matter of time," Kalepa said. "...I don't want to even go there. But it will happen.''
Reach Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.