Kai Lenny: Interview by Ben Mondy from Tracks 550  

Jack of all trades, now master of one

Kai Lenny started surfing at four, windsurfing at six and SUPing at seven. Before he had turned 10, he had added kitesurfing, tow-in surfing and foilboarding to his growing collection of watersports. By the time he was 20, he had carved out a career as a professional waterman, winning multiple SUP world titles, a runner up in the Moloka’i-2-O’ahu paddleboard race and sponsorship and titles in windsurfing and kitesurfing.

It was perhaps due to this diversity that the surfing world didn’t take him seriously or give him the recognition he deserves. This year’s El Nino winter however has changed that. In the space of four months, and across 50 big wave sessions at Jaws, Mavericks and Waimea, Lenny has placed himself at the forefront of big wave surfing. In this, his first feature interview for a major surfing magazine, Tracks talks to Lenny about growing up at Jaws, his path to big wave stardom, and where the sport is headed.  


Tell us a bit about where you grew up?

I grew up 15 minutes from Jaws. You are a product of your environment and if you end up living so close to Mount Everest, at one point you are going to have to climb it.


What are your first memories of Jaws?

My earliest memories of life are of Jaws. I grew up knowing Laird and Dave Kalama and all these legends who surfed it in the early days. As soon as I learned to surf at four years old, I was dreaming about surfing Jaws.


How did you meet those guys?

Maui is such small microcosm of people doing the same sort of things you are bound to meet them at some stage. It is a place where so many watersports were invented and as I grew up watching these legends that did all the different waters sports. Plus my parents were the same. They were surfers first, but they windsurfed and kitesurfed, so I got in this relationship with the ocean that was different to many of my peers who I am surfing with now.

Because you excelled at windsurfing, kitesurfing and SUP, do you think you were slightly ignored for your surfing skills?

Well, my focus wasn’t on competitive shortboarding, although I have shortboarded every day of my life. To a certain extent I’ve been labelled a waterman, which is a term that gets thrown around pretty loosely these days, but the core of what I’ve always done has been surfing, and all the other sports are just spin offs. It’s surfing I love. I just love to ride waves, but living on Maui, with the wind we get, kites and sails are needed to do that a lot of the time. But weirdly those sports have been allowed me to gain a profile and now be recognised in surfing.

How long have you been surfing Jaws?

I’ve been surfing out at Jaws since I was 16, and I’m 23 now. I have spent a lot of time out there, doing all the sports, but with surfing I first started towing, then paddling when Shane first came over in 2010.


Given your knowledge of the wave, did the paddle-in revolution help you?

On one hand I knew the wave better than most guys who had surfed it, before I had even surfed it. I knew the place backwards. In truth though when paddling came around I was kinda bummed, because at that stage I hadn’t paddled anything over 12 feet.

So right when I was really comfortable getting towed out there thinking I was going to rip this place apart and on my track to be the best out there, the guys started paddling. I was like, ‘Freak, how I am going to be able to even surf it?’

So it was almost like starting again?

Yeah for sure, as a grom I was just shoulder hopping, but I kept taking baby steps and getting deeper and deeper with the ultimate goal of getting the biggest wave and biggest barrel that is possible out there.  And paddling out there has made me so much better as an athlete and so much more complete as a surfer. After surfing 30 foot Jaws, every other every wave seems fairly mellow.

For many though while your surfing at Jaws has been well documented, it was the Superbowl session at Mavericks this year that put you at the forefront of big wave surfing. Guys like Peter Mel and Albee Layer said you rode the best waves that day. 

Well, at a certain point in that session, the wind came up and the locals were like, ‘Wow it’s getting super gnarly right now.’ And us Maui surfers were like, ‘Are you kidding? This is glassy!’ Most of the time it’s 25 knots at Jaws with these huge bumps coming up the face. And I’d been lucky learning at Jaws. There you can’t do a bottom turn. You have to being going mid-face the entire way, and only when, or if, there is an open section you can open up. So it’s the hardest place to learn big wave surfing, but also the best place, because it sets you up for the big-wave spots around the world.


But on what was described at the best day in Maverick’s history, with the best big wave riders on the planet, you were a standout. Was there a self-realisation that you were climbing that pecking order?

I’d say I have a vision of how I want to surf giant waves, and it’s not necessarily competing against one guy or another, but the idea in my head is that it would be at the highest level. I am a long way from it, but I’m honoured to be considered a standout performer at Jaws or Mavericks.


Does your competitiveness, I mean you have won multiple world titles in other disciplines, kick in? 

Yeah oh for sure I’m competitive, but when I see Shane Dorian or Greg Long or Albee get a crazy wave, that just lights me up to get a better one. That’s just the truth of it. I don’t want to beat that guy, I just want to be on a wave ‘cause it looks so much fun.

But those guys, well Shane especially is in his 40s, few have your experience at such a young age. 

Right now my perspective is not to go out and have five years of going as big as I can. I’m giving myself 30 years to get to that level that matches my vision. Ever year, and every session I just aim to improve.


You did well in the Peahi Challenge, your first Big Wave event, does the competitive side of big wave surfing appeal to you?

Big wave surfing is the spiritual of my surfing, because it takes so much focus and for me it’s the purest way of living. I love competing, I’ve won seven world titles in SUP racing and now I’m at the point where the big wave events have come at the right time. My dream has always been to be in the Eddie, and then to win the Eddie.

If I could somehow I can work out how to get on the BWWT and go for a world title then I would love to do that, more so because it would just mean getting the experience at these incredible waves. And with a competitive jersey, you just go that bit harder and if I can apply my competitive prowess to my favourite acts of living, which is big wave surfing. And after this winter, I feel we’ve all pushed it forward.

How much was that El Nino winter a game changer?

The winter I feel like a different big wave surfer all together. Because I have surfed at least 20 times at Jaws, plus sessions at Waimea, Makaha and Mavericks, so I’ve had 50 big wave sessions. That’s the equivalent of three years of experience. It’s been like pushing the fast forward button.


What’s changed since the start of the winter?

I’m riding smaller boards, fluctuating between a 8’8” and a 9’4”. That means I’m taking off more under the ledge, and I have a better understanding of what waves will barrel. And now getting a barrel at Jaws is nothing crazy, you have to get a crazy, deep, long barrel. You need to get spat out of a monster for it to be noticed. 


And where’s it all headed?

You know me and Albee were watching these waves in that giant swell that were seven-second barrels. They were a little on the inside and really deep, but we were saying if you had the stones to sit in there, man, you would get the longest, biggest barrel anyone has ever seen. You’d have to put your life on the line, but one day that will be possible. I envisage us sitting on eight-foot boards and sitting in seven-second barrels and doing top turns. Big wave surfing is changing so much. We are going to be shortboarding 30 foot Jaws in the future.

It’s crazy to think that less than 10 years ago, Jaws was thought to be un-paddleable.

I think we are just at the beginning of changing the whole sport of surfing. The perspective and understanding you get from surfing a giant wave, the understanding of speed, power and flow, it will transcend the whole sport. How did I end up in this position of not only witnessing it, but participating in it? What a time to be alive on Maui. We have the most badass wave in our backyard and things that weren’t in the realm of possibility, are right here, right now.