Big Wave Surfing in Maui

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The ocean lets us know when it’s winter in Hawai‘i. Foamy whitewater transforms the seascape that invited summertime frolic not so long ago. We watch as massive storm waves that have traveled an inordinate distance across the Pacific make their first rendezvous with land, unleashing on Hawai‘i’s shallow reefs. A palpable charge—an unadulterated blitz of negative ions—permeates the air. It directs our attention to the sea, and in the hearts of devoted watermen, it awakens an irrepressible lust for surf.

In the early nineties, a group of extreme Maui surfers led by Laird Hamilton began using motorized personal watercraft (WaveRunners and Jet Skis) to propel each other into waves too big and too fast to catch by arm-paddling. Known as “the Strapped crew” (because of the foot straps on their boards), they pioneered the technique on Maui’s North Shore at an alluring but deadly wave called Pe‘ahi, from which surfers had, until then, kept a safe distance. The taming of the break—so treacherous that it earned the nickname “Jaws”—ushered in the era of tow-in surfing. As the sport opened up new frontiers, Pe‘ahi remained an object of big-wave obsession; each winter, it continues to validate its rank among the Everests of the sea.

Maria Souza

“The ocean is food for my soul,” says Maria Souza. “So big, so unpredictable, so powerful and yet so healing.” The Brazilian waterwoman’s passion has translated into some remarkable achievements: She and tow-in partner Andrea Moller were the first women to surf Pe‘ahi in 2006. They were also the first female team to standup paddle across the Moloka‘i Channel. Maria spends her time on land introducing others to Maui’s waters at her standup-paddling school. In spite of her all-around ability, she maintains a humble philosophy regarding ocean sports: You don’t have to be the best in any of them—“the best” is the person who has the most fun.

Late one afternoon in the winter of 2008/2009, Maria and Andrea took their ski to outer Spreckelsville to survey an unexpected rising swell. A massive set pushing fifteen-feet-Hawaiian appeared on the horizon, significantly bigger than they had expected. With nobody else out, they launched into what Maria describes as her “most soul session ever”:

“I wanted the second wave of the set, so Andrea pulled me in. It was a never-ending drop. The board caught the water like a sweet, magic flying carpet. Then I felt the rolling barrel starting to form, and the urge to accelerate. I pulled in. [The barrel] could easily have fit a bus. The image I have now from that huge tube is a like a screen saver that puts me to sleep everyday—much more incredible than the wipeout that followed. My small, humble board did not keep contact with the surface and speed of the wave. I had long hair then, and it was in a double braid held by a really tight elastic band. The band ripped off, leaving my hair like a thick spider web covering my face. I could not get air and was down for a long time. It also ripped my vest open and gave me sore muscles for a good month. But I caught a couple more, and Andrea got some beauties, too.”