By Taylor Paul
Photos by Bella Hunt
When one hero dies and another hits a milestone — in the same week, no less — nothing else seems to matter. We’re absorbed in the drama. Smiles. Cheers. Quivering jaws. Tears. We overlook events that on any other day would be the buzz of the surf world.
Such was the case early this month, when Kohl Christensen won the Nelscott Reef Big Wave Classic. It was an event with all the ingredients for a good story — “biggest ever” claims from locals, two-wave hold-downs, and a milestone in women’s big-wave surfing — and you hardly heard about it. It’s understandable; last week was a clusterf—ck. But now that the gale has settled to a breeze, it’s time we acknowledge an all-time event.
I called Kohl earlier this week and asked him to take me through his big win. Humble and gracious as ever, he agreed. Here is what he told me, as he drove back to his Kaukonahua farm, after a long day of installing solar panels:
I looked on the contest’s website a few weeks ago and I wasn’t on the list. So I called John Forse, the local event organizer, and he was like, “The list is full, but I’ll put you on the alternate list.”
Then that big swell came, and it was nuts. Everyone was like, “Where do we go? Do we go to Maverick’s or Oregon? Is it going to be too big in Oregon? What’s the weather going to be like?” You know how it is before a big swell; everyone wants to know what to do. But as soon as John gave the green light, I called him: “Well, how does it look? I heard it might be hard to get out there.” And he was like, “Yeah, you won’t be able to paddle out, but we’ll get you out there. It’s on.”
When we woke up there was a light haze, kind of like fog or mist that you know is going to burn off. It was a 10 o’clock start and [the temperature] was in the high 70s. I heard later on the radio that it was the warmest it’s been for that day in 30 years. It was just this magical day, offshore wind.
First heat, my first wave, I was out there riding one of Fletcher Chouinard’s new 10’ 6”s that we’ve been working on, and I got a big left and I guess I got some 10s on it. I don’t know. I’ve never gotten a 10 before. Then I caught a right, ate it, and broke the 10’6”. I got my backup board and went out again, and I got a nice right and got through that heat.
The tide was slowly dropping throughout the day, so it started to break all over the place, a little bit further out.
In the semis, [Anthony] Tashnick got a huge wave, made the drop, and I was right in front of it. I got a two-wave hold-down, sucked some air, and then got pulled back under. I broke my leash and lost my board. That actually happened twice during the contest. I went through three boards.
It was pretty serious. I would definitely call it a real challenging wave. I mean, it was 20 feet for sure. I don’t know, it was solid, man. I hate to call something bigger than it is, you know?
When I came in from the final, I started getting texts. I guess it came up on the website that I’d won. My girlfriend called and told me that I’d won and I didn’t even know yet. I was so stoked, but it was crossed emotions because we had just heard that Andy had passed away. Keali’i led us in a moment of silence. We were all just full of emotion.
The next day we went to the girl’s event to support them. It was pretty cool because it was the first time girls had surfed there. Waves were 12 to 15 feet, glassy — a way more manageable day. The girls all got two to three waves each. It was beautiful.
I’m back in Hawaii now, just doing solar, full bore. I came back, got off the plane and went straight to the roof and got to work.