The movie stops. The lights go on. A woman enters the theater and explains that our tickets will be refunded. Assuming we survive tonight’s incoming tsunami.
Albee Layer sighs and trudges outside, where Maui is evacuating all low-lying areas. The film was Chasing Mavericks and Greg Long had just texted: “Let’s rock n roll.” Albee was looking forward to seeing his friend riding giants on the big screen. Greg once wrote Albee a big-wave letter of recommendation. Fellow lunatics in sane-person clothing.
Last time there was a tsunami warning here, Albee went surfing. Paddled right out as the ocean sucked dry and rode the surge back to shore. Stunts like this are the reason I’ve come here. This island’s always been a hotbed of talent, yet few have surpassed those fleeting claims of “next big thing.” Clay Marzo, Kai Barger, Dusty Payne, Hank Gaskell or Ian Walsh… where are they now? Evacuating their houses, perhaps.
Albee first shook our seismographs with his $100,000-winning Innersection edit. The three-minute video boasted unseen aerials, paddle-in Jaws and gutdropping slabwork. He set his contest trophies on fire and surged the shores of Web-surfing on every front. Kustom Air Strike invites. Punt of the Month entries. A Dane-mocking website (meolalayerproductions.com) and bi-monthly Web-series with fellow Innersection winner Matt Meola. It was enough to suggest guys like Albee might represent a new breed of virtual surf stars: discovered, covered and smothered entirely online.
But the Web is fickle and voracious. This very month Albee paddled into the wave of his life at Jaws and landed the first ever double alley-oop aerial. Both clips earned him a surge of online popularity, but already he feels the hype sucking back out to sea. What has he done for us lately?
“My dream growing up was to make great surf movies,” he says. “But I’m not sure all these little Web edits will stand the test of time. I worry about getting stuck on Maui and just fading away. This is a great place for surfers to end up doing nothing.”
Traffic is gridlocked. Full-scale evacuation, going nowhere. Nobody seems too stressed.
“We should get some gas,” he says. “That’s the first thing you do in a disaster here. Make sure your tank is full.”
Albee pumps gas and sends me into the mini-mart for supplies. I buy two bananas and a six-pack of beer. Not my first tsunami warning. Albee shakes his head when he sees my purchase, but says nothing. He drives the back roads out of town eating a banana.
“Let’s go to the beach,” he says. “We wouldn’t want to miss this tsunami.”
“Twenty minutes til impact,” the radio newscaster says. Twenty minutes left to live. “There’s nothing between Maui and the epicenter of the quake. Whatever’s headed this way,” says the radio, “we’ll be the first to know about it.”
Albee and I sit in his car and stare at the ocean. It’s dark and stormy. We probably won’t see a thing, but it’s exciting to imagine front row seats for the apocalypse. I open a beverage and press record.
Albee has webbed feet. He plays piano and showers three times a day. He doesn’t really like sports and has tattoos for fallen friends. His parents work as a paramedic and an ER nurse. They don’t worry about him surfing Jaws. In fact, they charge pretty hard themselves.
He’s always lived right here. Always been in the ocean. Always wanted to be a freesurfer, like Rasta, but he remembers being warned: “Hey, even Rasta won the pro juniors first.” So he surfed contests. He lined up trophies. He picked up sponsors. He got dropped by sponsors. Sponsored. Dropped. Sponsored. Dropped. He was the first surfer sponsored by Nike, and the first to quit the team. Claim to fame. “I’ve been dropped by more companies than anyone I know,” he says. “But I beat Nike to the punch.”
The week he won his Innersection $100k, he’d been applying for dishwashing jobs. He paid his debts and buried the rest in the yard to keep himself from buying a giant truck. He secretly craves a giant truck.
The fire chief comes on the radio. Fifteen minutes til impact. “We are pulling our people out of the danger zone,” the chief says. “We will not be able to assist you.” I ask Albee if he named the double alley-oop thing.
“Why would I name it?” he says, “It’s a double alley-oop so I call it a double alley-oop. That’d be like renaming the front flip or something.”
There’s a veiled barb to the comment. So sharp you might just miss it. That’s Albee’s twisted humor. Blunt and unfiltered. He’s made some un-friends with his public commentary, mocking overhyped surfers, underwhelming contests, poor fashion and ridiculous Web-edits. He makes no apology. “I don’t mean to be a dick,” he says. “I just happen to have an opinion.”
Five minutes til impact. “If you’re stuck in traffic,” Radio Guy says, “get out of your car and start running.”
We’re overlooking one of Albee’s favorite waves. Thick, shallow and rocky. Most people avoid it. They call it “an Albee Wave.” He’d be out there whether anyone was watching or not. But he also knows when there’s a job to do. We spent the day at a potential air-wave with photographers and fellow pros. Albee came up clip-less. And bitter. He skipped the second session and we drove around checking some Albee Waves.
We talk about how a single wave can change your life. And how you can’t have one without all the others. Albee’s a smart guy.
The wave he stomped the double alley-oop on (the Albee-Oop, some call it), that’s an Albee Wave, for sure. Hard to reach. Harder to surf. No one should go there. Albee went there seven times last summer. It’s a seven-mile hike across shadeless lava and 40-knot winds just to see if it’s breaking. Three of those trips proved surf-able, giving him about a dozen attempts at the maneuver. That’s how many it took.
Albee shows me the clip on his iPhone. On the radio, they’re counting down the seconds to impact. Five… four… three… two…
“This is not an exact science,” the news guy back-pedals. “And generally, it’s the third or fourth wave that we really need to worry about.”
After the last Jaws swell, Albee couldn’t sleep for a week. We’re driving back to his house now, unimpressed by the tardy apocalypse. It’s too dark anyway. Albee wants to show me the footage.
He watches footage a lot. Web edits and live feeds. Whatever’s online, really. But the recent Jaws footage became an obsession. He couldn’t stop looking at it. Up til 1 and 2 A.M. every night. Over and over. Every clip. Every wave. Especially his wave. Especially Dorian’s wave. Obsessed.
“I caught the best wave of my life that day,” he says. “And it still wasn’t good enough.”
He shows me the clip. A late drop to a massive barrel. Way deep. He clears the first section then gets barreled again for the inside bowl, where a Jet Ski wake catches his rail. I’ve seen it before, of course. It was online moments after it happened, and later included the half-dozen Web edits to follow. And still the Internet claims it’s starving.
Then he shows me Dorian’s wave. He shows me again. And again. “That’s the best wave anyone’s ever ridden anywhere ever,” he says. “After seeing that, I didn’t feel as good about my own wave anymore.”
He flops down on the couch. Brooding. Plotting. Waiting. “After a good day at Jaws,” he says. “It’s hard to go try airs and stuff. It’s hard to go surf normal waves. Nothing compares. I’d quit surfing everything else just to keep surfing Jaws.”
He was pushed into his first wave by tow-surf pioneer Laird Hamilton. Just 2 years old. Laird said, “Gimme that kid.” He paddled him out, hauled him to his feet and then the whole lineup heard him giggle all the way to the beach. That was it.
Growing up, they’d dive the reef at Peahi and camp down on the boulders in the bay. Albee’s dad, Alfred Louis Layer III, tells me a story of climbing down there one morning to check on them, expecting to find shivering, soggy groms begging for donuts. Instead, they’ve got a fire going on the rocks and several fish already filleted and cooking. Meola’s coming out of the water with a fresh ahi on his dive spear.
Albee and Matt started towing Jaws together when they were just 15, getting barreled as anyone by their 18th birthdays. Last year they started paddling just to cut down the crowds. “That’s one way to get rid of people who shouldn’t be out there,” he says. “Make it a lot harder to do.”
It’s hard all right. Just getting out there is hazardous. Scaling the windy cliff with a 10-foot gun. Leaping from huge rolling boulders into overhead closeouts. The shifting lineup. The inshore boneyard. The insane, open ocean power of it all. Just thinking about an approaching swell is exhausting business. “It’s one of those places where it’s not if, it’s when,” he says. “You can definitely die out there. We should probably be training for that, but we’re not.”
Albee places his laptop on a stool in the center of the room and loads up streaming coverage of the almost-tsunami. Such a disappointing disaster. As they’re counting down the fifth non-wave, Albee begins snoring on the couch.
And then nothing happened. No tsunami. No apocalypse. The tide rose 17-inches in the harbor. A surge splashed over the Hookipa breakwall. And everyone returned home vowing to be better prepared next time.
We wake up before dawn and use the full tank of gas crossing the island to another Albee Wave. From land, it looks about 1-foot, but Albee paddles out to reveal a treacherous, overhead slab with swollen lips and a gurgling dry takeoff.
He’s all alone out there. Towering green cliffs in three directions. Warm, vibrant waters and endless blue sky. Mangos and coconuts falling to the ground. No snakes. No predators. No pollution. No worries. And no wonder pro surfers disappear on Maui. Pro surfing is hard compared to this. Forgive the wind and you’ll never leave. Albee’s getting barreled.
A mean closeout bounces him ass-down on the dry lava. Albee comes up nearly puking from the pain. He gags for a minute on the inside, then paddles back out for more. Another surfer joins him in the lineup, gets pitched with the lip and returns to shore gasping. Alone again, Albee snaps a board, swims in and grabs a freshie. This is war. This is redemption. This is vengeance for wasting his yesterday trying airs for the cameras when he should of been getting shacked for himself.
Albee’s best when he’s beaten. After losing his sponsors… after failing the first year of Innersection… after coming up short on the Kustom Airstrike trip… after losing another “Punt of the Month” to John John… after Dorian’s wave at Jaws… that’s when he’s deadly. He needs these little defeats. He uses them.
“All my best waves at Jaws have been the result of pulling back on the one before,” he says. “After that, I’m kicking myself so hard it doesn’t matter what comes through next, I’m going no matter what.”
A single wave can change your life, but it’s all of them together that really matter.
Does he plan on outdoing Dorian’s wave? Albee thinks long and hard about this one. Dorian’s not just his big-wave hero, he’s everyone’s big-wave hero.
“It took me a few days to come to terms with that wave,” he says. “Shane’s almost 20 years older than me and he just now caught that wave. To me, that’s the real achievement. If I can just keep progressing my surfing for another 20 years or so and not die doing it… maybe then I’ll catch one like that.”
El Niño is upon us. Jaws is his focus, but he’s also watching Maverick’s and Waimea. He’ll take to the air when the wind is right, and hunt the Albee Waves in between. He talks about the next “The Isle” episodes and a potential film project. After that, he’s thinking about giving contests another shot, and who knows, maybe the world tour. Bigger waves. Crazy airs. Thicker slabs. It’s all just a matter of pissing him off.
If the wave of your life fails to show up, then it’s time to hunt it down.
“We should go back and finish Chasing Mavericks,” he says. “Let’s rock ‘n’ roll.”—Nathan Myers