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Paddling Pe'ahi: The New Benchmark for Big-Wave Surfers

It wasn't that long ago when paddling into Jaws was considered impossible. Conventional wisdom had it that the wave travelled too fast to catch by paddle power alone. (And c'mon, who can forget Hollywood's In God's Hands.) But since about 2011 a core group of big-wave chargers have committed their winters to scratching straight into the teeth of the deadly wave.

Shane Dorian, on home turf in a video by Dan Norkunas. Hawaiian Shane Dorian made regular appearances at Jaws last winter, and remains a standout every time the break comes to life. WSL

Pe'ahi's deep-water, triangular reef juts straight into the North Pacific and molds large winter swells into spinning, blue behemoths that reach upwards of 60 feet on the face. While most big-wave spots tend to peak and fade into deep water, Jaws carries its violent momentum down the whole length of the reef, and has become a recent focal point for the big-wave paddle-in movement.

40'-50' faces arrived Sunday, December 6, 2015 for the Big Wave Tour Pe'ahi Challenge at the infamous Pe'ahi break. Even miles away, Pe'ahi demands attention. WSL / Kirstin Scholtz

Last year, the WSL hosted the first-ever paddle-in event at the break: The Pe'ahi Challenge. The event marks the second stop on the WSL Big Wave Tour, and if conditions align this winter, the contest will run for the second time. Last year's inspiring paddle performances solidified Jaws' reputation as the pinnacle for big-wave surfing, as competitors literally put their lives on the line in some of the biggest waves ever witnessed in competition. Invitees are already preparing for another historic day of carnage, triumph, and camaraderie.

pe'ahi Challenge 5 Greg Long pulled into one of the heaviest waves of the contest last year and somehow came up unscathed. The Californian's commitment earned him a third-place result. WSL / Richard Hallman

But while Pe'ahi has been on the big-wave map for a few decades, from a paddle-in perspective, the growth curve is still steep. For years, jet skis were the only way surfers caught waves at Jaws. In the early 90s, a group of Hawaiian surfers collectively known as the "strapped crew" used Pe'ahi as a platform to push the boundaries of tow surfing. Surfers like Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox, Darrick Doerner, and Dave Kalama shocked the surfing world when footage and photos emerged of cartoon-sized figures on waves the size of apartment buildings. But between Pe'ahi's size, speed, and unforgiving trade winds, paddling seemed out of the question.

Pe'ahi Challenge 2 Paddling Jaws is all about commitment. Late takeoffs and strong winds often force surfers to airdrop into the bowl. WSL / Richard Hallman

It wasn't until 2010 when local Maui surfers Danilo Couto and Marcio Freire had some of the first successful paddle sessions at Jaws. Once news spread about Pe'ahi's paddle-in potential, it was game on. Now, big wave surfers from around the globe descend on Maui with their thickest guns to tackle Jaws the old-fashioned way, and big-wave icons including Shane Dorian and Greg Long continue to push the boundaries each winter.

Billy Kemper (HAW) during the Final at the first-ever Pe'ahi Challenge. Local knowledge is critical at Pe'ahi. Maui native Billy Kemper knew where to hide when the trades kicked in and took a well-deserved win in the 2015 Pe'ahi challenge. WSL / Kelly Cestari

But when Pe'ahi comes to life, local talent still steals the show, and for Maui standouts like Billy Kemper, Albee Layer, Kai Lenny, and the Walsh brothers, simply making the drop isn't enough anymore. Jaws is one of the few big-wave spots with a proper barrel, and when a set swings west, the local surfers have every intention of pulling in.

Pe'ahi Challenge Preview
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The Big Wave Tour event at Pe'ahi, Maui, could run anytime between now and Feb. 28, 2017. Are you ready?

Last year's Pe'ahi Challenge was no exception as Layer and Kemper adapted flawlessly to the howling Maui trades, each claiming a few truck-sized barrels on their way to respective first and second place finishes. With a solid swell already on the horizon, they will be gearing up for another big performance in their backyard.

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