Guns Over Skis
Oahu hellman Dave Wassel on the big wave paddle renaissance
When I decided to start interviewing people for the “Guns Over Skis” big wave paddle feature in the May issue, North Shore lifeguard and all around hellman Dave Wassel was my first call. He’s mostly chosen to forgo tow ins, and instead has been using just his own to arms to paddle in to gigantic waves throughout the years when jet skis ruled big wave surfing. Like most of the guys I talked to, he said plenty of interesting stuff that just couldn’t fit into the feature. Here’s part of our conversation, about a month after the now famous January 4, 2012 session at Peahi where he caught what’s likely going to be measured as one of the biggest paddle in waves ever ridden.
[I’ll also be posting interviews with Shane Dorian and Mark Healey in the coming days]—Casey Koteen
TransWorld SURF: You and a handful of others have been paddle surfing the outer reefs on Oahu for a while. The session a few years ago when Sion Milosky got that huge one at the big left out there was a turning point, yeah?
Dave Wassel: Yeah that place has been good for a long time. What really broke it open was Healey took a camera out there, two years ago on Christmas. That was the first time it’d pretty much ever been photographed, and it went straight to the cover of a mag. Last week when it broke, there were 73 guys out there paddling. I’ve never in my life seen more than six guys out there, in the last 15 years. That’s another big thing, is the fame and fortune that go along with the exposure.
With the paddle in resurgence, those waves that you guys have had mostly to yourselves are going to be packed.
Yeah, but whatever. That day we surfed Peahi in January there were 35 or so of the world’s best big wave surfers, it looked like every single guy who’s been on the Eddie list was out there, and when the sets came people didn’t know what to do. It was so big and so horrifying that it still has its own crowd control. People were jumping up and down on the cliff that morning saying, “Look at that set coming!” and I looked out and saw legitimate 30-foot sets, six waves. I was thinking somebody was going to die that day, I couldn’t believe people were excited.
Is the wave you caught that day the ceiling for paddling out there, or are waves bigger than that possible?
Oh yeah, bigger waves than that are definitely possible to be paddled into. It’s just being at the right time and the right place. That wave that Garrett [McNamara] got in Portugal, the one they’re claiming was 90 feet, he could’ve easily paddled into that thing. Watch the video, there are three waves behind it that had full kinks that would let you roll into it. Absolutely.
The possibilities are endless, it’s just a matter of the conditions. Like how the air guys want light onshore winds, that’s kinda what you want with big waves, too. If a wave is moving 35 miles per hour at you and the wind is going offshore it’s working against you. A light onshore wind gives you a little chip shot. At the right time and place, anything is possible. You could definitely ride a 100-foot wave, I’m convinced. We’ll be trying.
Where’s Laird gonna surf now that Peahi is all paddle power?
Well, he’s moving on in life. He set the bar though the late 90s at Peahi, but he’s still that guy and will come up with something. He’s like Shawn Briley, he’s been there and done that. But Dorian is the guy to knock off the pedestal now, and good luck on that. Laird who? Shane Dorian is the guy.
I’m amazed he hasn’t won the Eddie—it makes no sense. He’s got all the accomplishments under his belt. His first time ever paddling Peahi he broke the world record, 58 feet, shattered anything that was possible. First time out at Mavericks he got two barrels. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know how good Dorian is.
Speaking of Dorian, how much has the inflatable suit that he helped invent affected guys’ comfort levels?
It has affected people’s comfort levels, and the way people are looking at big waves. But the bottom line is, it’s not 100 percent failsafe. 95 percent of the guys out there that day [at Peahi] had one on. People were charging, but the big black ones, people were going, “Uh, you want it? You’re in the better spot, you go.” It’s not Pipeline where you’re trying your hardest to beat out your friends.
It’s also at an infantile stage. That same swell we chased to Mavericks I belly flopped on a 20-footer, and the rip chord detached and I couldn’t reach it. It’s held on to your chest by Velcro and two buttons, the force of the water detached it, but not enough force to deploy the CO2 canister. So when I reached for it, I couldn’t find it, it was probably moving 100 miles per hour behind my head somewhere. Not to mention your arms feel like they’re about to be ripped off your body anyhow. So it’s not 100 percent safe. It’s not like no matter what you’re going to be okay. It would’ve been a great time to pull it, but it wasn’t there. So you go back to the basics and try to stay calm.
Mentally it’s there for you, but physically it’s not always there for you. They made us sign waivers, this is not 100 percent, you could still die using this, you can’t sue us. It’s not like a Matel toy, it’s serious shit.
On that wave I caught at Peahi, I was holding on to the chord when I hit the flats. I grabbed it and was holding on to it just in case, and sure enough all of a sudden I was 40 feet down and my 10’6” was hitting me in the leg. The last time I surfed Peahi I caught one wave and spend a minute under water. Everything was black, I’d been there before, it’s really lonely and it really sucks. So on this one, I pulled so hard I actually broke the chord completely off the wetsuit. But it inflated and I raced to the surface and got out of the black, away from my 10’6” which was trying to break my femur. In a perfect world, it works great.
Have barriers been pushed the last few years?
Absolutely, but how much of the Jose Angel era wasn’t documented? Greg Noll, Jose Angel, those guys were surfing outer Log Cabins in the 1960s, but nobody took pictures of it. That place doesn’t break until it’s a legitimate 50-foot face. Their board hindered them, too. But with bigger, faster boards now, the boundaries are being pushed, but I’m curious as to what those guys did back then, it’s still mind boggling to me. We’re just bringing it to the public now.
It’s just a cycle, it might fade out. A couple people are going to die, and then people are going to back off, and a new yo-yo or whatever will pop up and people will go towards that, and then ten years down the line it’ll cycle back into big wave surfing again. But it’s always been cool, it’s not like we rediscovered the wheel, surfing big waves has always been cool. It’s that whole Hemmingway man-verses-nature thing that tests people’s mettle and what you have going on upstairs.