Ian Walsh might not remember all of the 40-foot-plus waves he’s made, but he vividly remembers the violent wipeouts. “A long time after the fall, you’re still thinking about it before you go to sleep,” he says.
As the eldest of four brothers—and an alpha dog in the tight and territorial big-wave community in Hawaii—Walsh feels a sense of responsibility to protect surfers from a similar fate. It’s why he’s emerged in the last few years as one of the pioneers in big-wave fitness and safety. In his new film, Distance Between Dreams, the Maui native chronicles last winter’s historic El Niño season, which regularly sent waves the size of five-story buildings to curl and batter against Maui’s North Shore. We also learn about Walsh’s evolution, from a hard-charging youngster to an innovator who’s enabling others to push their limits.
THE RED BULLETIN: Do you remember the first time you paddled into a big wave?
IAN WALSH: At a really young age, I started to tiptoe out there, wait on the side and try to catch a ride. When you’re 12 or 13 years old and you’re tiptoeing, it feels like the biggest day ever. You’re watching these older surfer guys catch phenomenal waves, and you’re trying to wrap your head around the ease and comfort of how they do it. You’re inching your way into the lineup, and there’s an ever-growing scare that the second or third wave is going to get bigger, pitch inside and break on you. That’s when I started to get the feeling that this is scary, but I like it. Everything ramped up in high school. One day I went out to Jaws [a big-wave surfing break in Maui], towed into a wave with my neighbor and that was pretty much it. That’s when the talons locked into my back. It was the fastest and biggest wave I’d ever caught, and I feel like I could’ve ridden it better.
How did you get over the fear?
Being so young, I didn’t know how to process that stuff. I thought, “It’s scary but I guess this is how it goes.” I always had this weird calming sense of being able to control my fear and not have a shaking, uncontrollable hand when I’m scared. Everything just seems to drift away.
Everything just “drifts away” when a massive wave is coming at you?
There’s an interesting point in the wave when the entire horizon stands up 50 or 60 feet: The wave turns into this deep-blue building-looking thing that’s marching toward you. Your instinct is to paddle toward it and get far enough out so that it won’t break on you. When you’re surfing those waves, in order to give yourself even a glimmer of a chance of catching it, you have to stay far enough inside [close to the lip] to where it looks like it might break on you. That’s when all of the thinking is happening. As soon as you see the wave, you’re reading what the wind is doing, what the wave is doing. As soon as you start committing and paddling, you’re locked into the wave and you feel the momentum shift. That’s when all the thought drifts away. That’s the moment I feel like chasing. I’m intently focused on what’s three feet in front of me. I’m processing everything as a feeling rather than a thought, and I’m adjusting to what’s happening. Surfing takes away any thoughts I have about laundry, grocery bills, etc. That’s what’s so unique on big waves in particular. As soon as you stand up and you’re into the wave, there’s no turning back.
You can’t talk about big waves without talking about the immense risk. Can you remember your first really bad wipeout?
There was one at Jaws when I was 20 years old, and it was the biggest day I’d ever surfed. It was January 10, 2004. The waves were consistently in the 60- to 70-foot range. I had a few good waves and I started to build more confidence. Then a wave came and I caught an edge. The board rolled over and I slowed to a stop at the very top of the wave. As I hit it, I almost tried to hop into the wave to gain momentum and that hung me at the top of a 60-foot wave. I had to fight my way back in. As I set my line and pulled into the pocket, the whole wave adjusted and started to clamp. I tried to adjust my angle to straighten out—try to outrun it landing on me—and it literally met me halfway. All of the force of the wave landed right on my chest and knocked the wind out of me. It broke both of the life jackets I had on, and I caught one of them in my arm. That’s when everything slowed down. I got picked up and it felt like a waterfall. It was real slow going over the falls. I luckily got a tiny breath as my head popped out going over the wave, and I landed and went into a really violent impact.
What is your mind going through at this point?
Your heart rate is bouncing through your chin. You have no idea where the board is and you’re trying to block your head from any impact. Deep in the back of my mind, I knew that if I lost my life jacket and I blacked out, then I would have nothing to surface me so someone could find me. Getting punched in the stomach as hard as possible right before you dive into a pool makes it really uncomfortable to swim. I’m close to the surface, and in my head I know I need to get up or I’m not going to beat the next wave. If the next wave goes over me, this all resets and goes for another 20 to 30 seconds. And I don’t think I have another 10 seconds in me to keep holding my breath. Everything started to shut down in my body. My brain was still firing, but I learned much later that everything turns off in your body to conserve oxygen in your brain, because that’s the most important asset to your body. My fingertips started cramping and shutting down just prior to blacking out. And right when that happened, I surfaced. I waved away a jet ski, and then I rolled my head back under and a 50-foot wall of water hit me. I went through that all over again and then surfaced and got on a jet ski. Then all the blood rushed into my body to take away the cramping. As everything was starting to come back, I was sitting on the back of the jet ski. And that’s when I finally went lights out for a second. It was a really big wake-up call for me. I’d never been into something like that as a kid in the ocean. That was the first time I was like, “There’s no more just eating cereal the morning of and surfing for fun” if you want to surf these kinds of waves. You need to put some work into making sure that never ever happens again.
You’ve since done a lot of endurance and bike training, and worked on your breath-holding technique—going from being able to hold your breath from 45 seconds to more than five minutes. But can that really help in a violent wipeout?
I now have a really intricate understanding of what my body is going through. I know that as soon as I start having contractions or convulsions because of a lack of oxygen, I have a lot more left in my tank. I know what my body is going through when it’s put in these extreme cases. When you can slow your mind down, it can slow the rest of your body’s panic down. And the only way to slow your mind down is to understand what’s going on.
When it’s breaking, the wave off of Peahi on Maui’s North Shore forms a jaw-dropping barrel
A large underwater ridge juts out from the coastline on the North Shore of Maui and—several times a year—creates a monster. When storms lash Japan and the North Pacific, the waves generated travel across the ocean. Often, the first piece of land they hit is that ridge, 30 feet below the surface, right off of Maui. The depth changes abruptly, from 120 feet to 30 feet, according to a study by the University of Delaware. Waves that are large enough will bend right around the ridge, squeezing their energy inward and upward to create a peak. And that peak is the entry point into the wave for the surfers experienced and bold enough to tackle it.
A big portion of your film focuses on an epic winter at Jaws. Why was it important to you to capture that legendary wave?
I feel Jaws is the pinnacle of surfing big waves right now. There might be other waves in the world—and I have an undying desire to explore and find them—but right now there’s nothing bigger or badder. And it provides a way you can perform to the highest potential, and push yourself further than you would ever want to go. Every time you go out there there’s more to be done.
In the film, it’s clear you feel a responsibility for the surfers who flock to Jaws when a big swell hits.
Without the safety aspect, the progression of big-wave surfing doesn’t happen. It’s a key component to what we were doing.
At the end of the day, the goal isn’t to ride a wave; the goal is for everyone to come home. There is a real risk. A bad day isn’t missing a wave or breaking a board. On a bad day someone dies. We want to eliminate that happening to the best of our ability.
Can that responsibility be a burden?
It’s a lot to think about sometimes. Rather than just thinking about my boards, my equipment, my flotation vest and my nutrition, I’m thinking about what boat is the AED [defibrillator] going on, where is the immediate- response med kit going, how many guys are going to be out surfing with us and how many jet skis do we need. I’m thinking about having a contingency plan for every little scenario. Novak Djokovic is not thinking about anything but his racket, his shoes and his nutrition. He’s not thinking about his opponent or how he’s going to get him out in a heli-basket if he sprains his ankle.
With all this preparation, do you remember to just enjoy the surfing?
I can be juggling 10,000 balls in the air, but as soon as I get in the water, all of that goes away. That’s what surfing is for me. As long as I have the ability to surf, then I’m going to do it. This isn’t like the NFL, where you retire and then go coach a kids’ football team and never put the pads on again. I’ll be surfing until I’m in a wheelchair or I die. I truly love to do this.