R.E.S.P.E.C.T: The Battle for Jaws

Words: Josh Rakic
Photograph: Fred Pompermayer/Red Bull Content Pool

A Waikiki-level of congestion on Maui’s most famous wave and how to navigate it.

Before Laird Hamilton and the strap crew first dared tow into Jaws in the mid 1990s, Jason Polakow and windsurfers alike were already dropping into massive Peahi bombs. In the winter months it was considered far too big and unpredictable to surf. Then came Laird and his zodiac. Then Shane Dorian and a new wave of paddle-only big wave surfers. And more recently, a slew of kite surfers, stand up paddle boarders and yep, even skimboarders.

A bad day in the Jaws lineup is relative chaos. A good day? Like being stuck at a five-way LA intersection and the lights are out. And Polakow has witnessed it all. He’s a Maui local of some two decades and has his newly minted US Citizenship to prove it. Making Polakow an ideal choice to talk the progression of Jaws and it’s increasingly important pecking order.

THE RED BULLETIN: Jason, you’re Australian but have lived on Maui for some 20 years. What’s the attraction?

JASON POLAKOW: In a word? Jaws. One of the main reason I moved here was for Jaws. I really enjoy Peahi, just like everyone else here does. A lot of the big wave guys have moved to this island for that same reason, because of Jaws. And I stay here from November until the middle of March because I don’t want to miss out on many days. None if I can help it.

What makes Jaws so unique to all else?

Jaws is unique because it’s such a hollow and heavy wave compared to pretty much any other wave on the planet. It’s so hard to get a huge wave that still has that perfect cylinder, that pipe shape. There’s really nowhere else that really has that - not at that size anyway. Even when it’s bumpy and windy, when that wave hits the reef it just stretches out and gets super clean. That’s why you see surfers paddling out there even when it’s windy and choppy, because once that wave hits the inside it just pulls tight and is so clean. It’s such an amazing wave and provides such an amazing feeling that you just want to get more and more of it.

Windsurfers were actually the first to ride Jaws…

Yeah, Windsurfers were among the first people to start to ride Jaws in the early 1990s, even before the tow guys were towing in with their zodiacs. I’m stoked we had it to ourselves for so many years, but it’s cool to be able to share a wave with the paddle guys and watch them get barrelled. Then they’re stoked on us when we get a good bomb. But it’s starting to get pretty crowded out there. It’s gotten so popular so quick, that even on a small day these days there are 60 guys in the line up.

Surfers are territorial. Especially in Hawaii. How’s the pecking order work at Jaws?

There’s definitely a bit of a hierarchy to wave priority at Jaws. I know a lot of the surfers in the line up, guys like Shane Dorian and Ian Walsh, and most times the wind is pretty light at Peahi, so as a windsurfer I like to sit pretty close to the impact zone. But typically I tend to set myself up a little bit deeper than the surfers would line up because [windsurfers are] traveling a lot faster and can catch a lot more waves than them. And depending how strong the wind is, depends on how close I sit to the surfers. Sometimes I’ll sit right next to the paddle surfers and if there’s a really nice set coming through and I see them paddling, I’ll let the wave go. But once the surfers have had a couple good waves and it feels like my turn, then I’ll just go. And they do the same thing. They let me go when they’ve had a few good waves or can’t get onto one.

© Red Bull

But there’s more than just surfers and windsurfers to contend with these days…

There are paddle surfers out there, there are kite surfers and occasionally you even get stand up paddle guys and skimboarders being towed in. It gets very busy compared to when I first started surfing it back in the 1990s. But it’s all about respect. First, you’ve got to give the paddle-in surfers the respect they deserve because they’re not catching that many waves. I get along pretty well with everyone out there but it does get hectic.

What’s been the biggest disruption to the pecking order?

Kite surfers more so of late. I’ve kite surfed a few times and have lots of respect for those guys. Those guys rip and I’ve been really impressed by some of the guys out at Peahi who are getting super deep and doing really gnarly things. The thing with kite surfing is it’s really easy to get moving and move quickly. And like I’ve said, more often than not the wind is very light at Peahi. So the problem for us windsurfers is you’ve got these kite guys on the outside and flying around doing 20 knots, and we’re doing like 8 knots. So these guys can quite easily catch any wave they want. Which can become a problem with a select few when they catch a wave then go straight back out to the outside - remembering it’s like 20 minutes between bomb sets - and then the same guys who caught the last set will be on that same wave again. 

What are the consequences for wave hogs?

I’ll steer the guys and be like “come on”, then if it’s my turn I’ll drop in on the guy because that’s how the order works. You can’t just have the bomb wave on every set. So some stuff does go on in the water. Usually the kite guys are pretty respectful of me and guys like Shane and Ian, but some will just take wave after wave after wave and not realize they’re stopping anyone else from getting their fair go. I’m sure the surfers think the same of us - “these bloody windsurfers get everything”. So what the surfers think of us if we’re not respectful, we think of the kite guys when they’re not respectful. It’ll all about respect in the line up. But typically it tends to work for everyone. When kite guys see a windsurfer battling to get onto a wave, they’ll pull off and let us have it. Most of the time it works for everyone.

There’s been some online beef of late between windsurfers, surfers and kite surfers…

Sometimes you’ll see a shot on social media of a windsurfer dropping in on one of the kite guys, and the comment sections light up with rude remarks about the windsurfers from people who don’t understand the situation. They don’t realize that the kite surfer had three waves in a row… Kite guys have only been out for say three years now and at Jaws it’s usually the same guys. So it’s become a bit more friendly now. They know what to do out there now so this year should be a lot better for sure.

What’s the stupidest thing you’ve seen happen in the Jaws lineup?

This year actually, I was waiting my turn for a wave and when it finally came I dropped into it. Only at the same time there was a kite guy upwind of me who decided to jump on, then there was one jetski towing a surfer going left and another jetski towing a skimboarder going right. We’re all on this one wave and there was no way I was pulling off, I’d waited my turn. And keep in mind that jet skis aren’t allowed to tow at Jaws when there’s paddlers or windsurfers in the lineup. Typically that doesn’t worry me, but on this particular wave there are four people dropping in together and the skimboarder comes right down and bottom turns next to me - it was total chaos. Kinda cool to see a skimboarder out there. But it’s situations like that where I’d hold my ground. That’s how it works out there. It’s all about respect. And everyone deserves their turn.

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