Interview By Stuart Cornuelle
Photos By Daniel Russo
Most months, the SURFING reader — if he or she is a connoisseur — will recognize a familiar pro surfer on our cover. The sticker placement alone is usually a dead giveaway. For that surfer, the cover means incentive checks and a major career milestone — but Honolulu’s Mike Pietsch, 31, who graces the front of our 2010 Hawaii Issue, is not a pro; he is probably not familiar; he has no stickers to place. Instead, he has a day job and a wife, Malia, with whom he regularly tows into waves like the one you see here. Mike has styles for miles in small surf, a very friendly demeanor, and puts a face to the concept of “underground.” We’re proud to have him up front this month.
SURFING Magazine: Set the scene for us, if you will. How’d you end up on this wave?
Mike Pietsch: It was Christmas, so we were opening presents and stuff. Usually I’m kind of flipping out because I’m missing a swell, but this was Christmas with the family, and anyway I figured I could get out there by 10 or 11 o’clock and sort of get my own present, you know?
We got out there at around 10:00, and the waves were good. The goal was to paddle for a couple of hours and then go tow with Malia at another reef, so she was out there on the ski. I paddled over and [Mark] Healey was like, “Ho, it’s a family affair today, huh?”
Does your wife always come out with you when it’s 30 feet?
We’ll tow together sometimes, but even on the paddle days she’ll come out on the ski and cruise. Or I’ll paddle in the morning and then we’ll meet up afterwards to go tow — that’s our regular plan. But this has been more of a paddle winter.
Is this something she got into because of you?
No, she was surfing big waves before I met her, doing tow-ins with her brother and surfing other big waves on the North Shore.
What were you riding on this day?
Well, it’s been such a good winter, with back to back to back good swells, so I’ve broken tons of boards. I’ve broken nine boards, and five of them have been over 9’6”. How’s that? You break a big board maybe once a winter, but to break five is ridiculous.
So I was on a borrowed 9’6” that was really chippy, with light glass, and I would have rather been on a bigger board. I just figured I’d sit inside everyone and catch a smaller one. I paddled a little bit in from them and over some, and then that wave came and did a bit of a double-up. Healey tried to paddle for it but he was too far out, and I was in a really good spot.
And the drop…
I started stroking into it and got to my feet, and I kind of got held up. You can see in one of those shots that, after I stand upright, I have to crouch down and lean over my front foot in order to drive down into the wave. So I kind of ended up being later than I wanted to. It was one of those where you feel weightless and think your board is going to go airborne, and it did for a split second, but then it landed perfectly and the inside of my rail grabbed, and I just started diving.
Was that the biggest one you caught that day?
Yes, that was by far the biggest one that day.
And it just happened that [SURFING Senior Photographer] Daniel Russo was out there shooting the other guys.
Yeah, Russo was just out there shooting the boys — Healey, Sion Milosky and Nathan Fletcher.
You’re not any kind of pro, right? You don’t make money from surfing in any way?
Nah, no money from surfing. My goal has always been just to be out there when it’s good — so I never did the contest thing growing up, because I always wanted to surf different spots and big waves, and I just never got into the idea of being a pro surfer.
What’s your real job?
I run a restaurant with my sisters called Wahoo’s [Mike brought the popular Mexican franchise to Hawaii], and then I also work with my dad and uncles at a title escrow company.
Does your schedule allow you to surf?
It allows me to maneuver and try to be there when the waves are big. When my dad asked me to come and work for him, I kind of told him, “When the buoys are 20 feet at 20 seconds, I’m not going to be here.” And it’s usually rare that that happens, but this winter it seems like it’s been every week: 20 feet at 20 seconds. Hard to work. [Laughs]
But you grew up and live in Town, so were you always making the commute out to the North Shore during winter?
Yep. Mike Stewart is my cousin, and about 10 years ago I called him up and said, you know, “Mike, I want to get into big waves.” I was probably 19 or 20.
The next time it got big was on Christmas, so on Christmas morning — Mike was living out in the Country — he told me to come on out. Ever since then we’ve had this relationship where he’s helped me figure out the Outer Reefs, how to surf Second Reef Pipeline, what swells are good; he’s helped me out a lot.
Do you surf Pipe a lot?
I’ll pretty much only surf it when it’s maxing out on First Reef, or when it’s Second Reef Pipe. It’s just so crowded on those 6- to 8-foot days that I’d rather avoid it and surf other spots.
Like what other spots? If you can say?
Umm…I surf Jocko’s a lot, and otherwise really focus on the Outer Reefs.
Have you ever had a photo run in a surf magazine before this?
I’ve had some shots run in local magazines like FreeSurf and Heavywater, but that’s about it.
So are you looking to pick up a sponsor now? Maybe a shaper to replace some of your broken boards?
[Laughs] Yeah, that’d be ideal. That’d be a big help.
Watch the Trailer HERE