Seven Days With Maui’s Big Wave Revolutionists

AA5Q5491Photo: Brent Bielmann

Writers have it easy these days.

Need a story? No need to leave home. Just text, call, email or direct message to track down whoever you’re after. Real life interactions have become increasingly rare. A sign of the times, I suppose. But after tagging along with Seth Moniz’s Jaws success story, I spent a week on Maui with Albee Layer and his affable crew of envelope-pushing Valley Islanders, and was reminded of the benefit being embedded with your subjects. More depth, more substance, more insight. Here’s five things I learned on this trip.

ALBEE_Jaws_BrentBielmann0098 2AAlbee Layer. Photo: Brent Bielmann

A big-wave renaissance is in full swing and Jaws is the epicenter, with a rising crop of young surfers lining up to challenge it in new ways. Albee Layer. Kai Lenny. Tyler Larronde. Kai Barger. Joao Maffini. Francisco Porcella. Dege O’Connel. Paige Alms. They’re riding smaller boards, many crafted by local shaper Sean Ordonez (SOS shapes). Albee consistently rides an 8’8”. Tyler Larronde surfed the last swell with an 8’0”. Between every session, and there’ve been many this year, they are reviewing footage. Studying Dorian. Slow-moing failures twice as much as triumphs. They’re hunting the barrel, yes, but they also want to do turns and explore new lines. Albee wants to do airs. “It’s important to respect what’s been done before us,” he told me. “But in order to progress it’s also important to assume that even the greats can be wrong in ruling something impossible.”

Matt Meola pitches into the wind.Matt Meola. Photo: Brent Bielmann

They’re doing it in small waves, too. Just as they’ve lucked into living on an island with the best big wave in the world, they’ve got some of the best air waves, as well. Thanks mostly to the wind. “Obviously we weren’t the first people to realize the importance of wind for doing airs,” Albee said. “But I think we were the first crew to really take advantage of it.” Look no further than Albee’s 540 and Matt Meola’s spindle flip for proof. But even guys like Kai Barger, who Albee calls the most underrated aerialist in the world, are regularly landing flips. They think about progressing airs as much as big waves. Albee’s got a trick he’s working on that I’m sure he’ll land in 2016. I saw a couple of near makes. Another game changer is on the horizon.

albee&dege_jaws0052APhoto: Brent Bielmann

They are a part of a self-inflicted arms race. A major key to their progress is that they run in such a tight knit crew. They’re constantly together. Surfing. Playing Portuguese horseshoes and Settlers of Catan. Eating breakfast. Eating lunch. Eating dinner. Everywhere you go it’s like the set of Friends. Except with less girls. They’re supportive, but also check one another, creating that perfect environment where you want to beat your buddy to the next big move, but won’t get a big head when you pull it off. “I think the constant heckling keeps everyone in check,” Albee says. “Your ego can’t get too big in this group.”

ALBEE_Jaws_BrentBielmann0099AAlbee Layer. Photo: Brent Bielmann

Constant progression means frequent injury. During my time on Maui nearly everyone I hung out with — Albee, Meola, Dege, Larronde — was hurt. Only Tanner Hendrickson and Barger were in fighting shape. Physical therapists take note — there’s lots of work to be had on the Valley Isle.

Albee Layer

They’re overcoming an inferiority complex. “For a long time, we weren’t convinced that what was happening on Maui was as good as what was happening around the world,” Albee says. The Internet has helped shrink the world, however, and now they can see their clips matched against everyone else’s. And call it isolation or call it a lack of marketing reach, but the industry still isn’t knocking down the door to throw big money at these guys. Many do construction and make movies and manage real estate between sessions. But as we’ve seen with East Coast and Brazilian surfers for years — it’s those that have something to prove that usually rise to the top.