T.S. Eliot said, “This is the way the world ends — not with a bang but a whimper.” Twenty-two-year-old Kai Barger’s year began a little something like this. Until it banged. After pingponging across the globe chasing six-stars and coming up short, his luck transformed. He peeled off his jersey, took a trip to Mexico and scored huge beachbreak barrels. Two weeks later, bombing Teahupo’o. And two weeks after that, back home on Maui, he popped his paddle-in cherry at massive Jaws. Kai recounts this reckoning session, exalts his new hero and gives us his theory on taking 25-footers on the head. First rule of the theory: no whimpering.
KAI: I’ve had a grand total of two sessions out at Jaws. [laughs] The first time I surfed there, I towed it and it was like the biggest day in the last 10 years and it scared the shit out of me. It has to be gnarlier than any wave in the whole world. I really feel like someone is going to drown; I don’t know how everybody keeps surviving. Just the other day was my second time I’ve been out there and my first time I ever paddled. But the whole element of paddling made me feel more comfortable because towing was a whole different trip. When we paddled out, it wasn’t too big, but then the swell peaked. It caught me by surprise and I thought I was going to die.
Tom [Dosland] and I were watching everyone from the cliff and we knew we had to paddle out because we both live right there and we didn’t want to look like pussies in our own backyard. Tom was telling me, “Ah, it’s minor, it’s minor.” Neither of us had vests, but he had two big boards and we convinced each other that it was OK. So we paddled out with the plan to just try and catch a couple and play it safe. I’m so stoked that we did, but when we came in we were both like, “Let’s never go out there without vests again!”
I think it was at, like, 6 o’clock or something real late in the afternoon when there was a big set that came in. Everyone but me made it under the first one — which landed on my head. I didn’t know what to do and I took off my leash before the wave hit, which I now know was a bad idea. I was in neck-level water, screaming at the guys on Jet Skis in the channel to save me if I was drowning and then I just sat there and watched the biggest wave I’ve ever seen coming down on my head. Then I had a little moment where my life flashed before my eyes. [laughs]
I didn’t dive down because I have a theory about getting pounded in big waves and diving down isn’t a part of it. The way I see it, three things are going to happen: You can get blown in, blown up or blown down. And you never want to get blown down. The farther you swim down, the better chance that you’re going to get blown into the reef. So my theory is that if you stay at the surface, and it breaks anywhere in front of you, then there’s a chance the whitewater is just going to blow you into the air. Which is what happened to me. I did a big 360-cartwheel before I got pounded, got a full extra breath of air and I avoided the initial impact.
Since that Jaws session, Shane Dorian has become my new hero. I got to witness what he did that evening and the next day and he basically broke every historical milestone in surfing as far as big waves go. Just to be able to surf with him, he paddles up to each and every guy and stokes everyone out like you wouldn’t believe. Everyone out there was just amazed because he’s coming back out and congratulating us for our little waves we were catching on the inside. [laughs] But he was making us feel good about it and I almost felt like he was stoked that we were out there with him.
After that session everyone was so exhausted that we just sat there like marshmallows for a week. The amount of adrenaline that your body produces while being out there, and just being scared to death, can make you immobile for a week. There’s a rumor going ‘round that I was drunk. But I wasn’t. Just a little hungover from the night before — I did have quite a few beers. And I didn’t have a life vest. So, yeah, maybe more unprepared is what you’d call it. [laughs] But you’ll definitely see me out there again this winter, with a vest. I can’t wait.