"Guys had been paddling it for a while, but mainly the lefts, so we thought it might be worth a shot on the rights," Ian Walsh said, about the first time he paddle-surfed Pe'ahi back in 2011.
"When I would be out there towing I would notice little windows to paddle into a wave or two and it really got the wheels turning in my head. We were so caught up in the moment of what we were surfing that day that we weren't really thinking too much past it. Later we all just realized the potential and were excited to explore how far we could go with it."
That exploration process reached its zenith in the Semifinal of the Pe'ahi Challenge when Walsh rode one of the best waves in surfing history. Yet that wave, and Walsh's subsequent victory, can't be seen in isolation. Since the early days when Walsh and his mates first became serious about paddling Pe'ahi, few surfers have spent more time in the lineup than the 34-year-old, or done more to advance big-wave surfing at the location.
Walsh grew up just a few miles from the break, the eldest of four boys. His dad drove tractors on the nearby sugar cane farms and his mum is a school teacher. "I get my work ethic from my parents," Walsh said. "Dad started work at 4 a.m. and finished at 6 p.m. and he always finished what he started." Walsh was an A-grade student and graduated as valedictorian of King Kekaulike High School. A college education would have naturally followed, if it wasn't for his love and talent for surfing.
While he was tow-surfing Pe'ahi from the age of 15 and won a Billabong XXL Award there at just 18, such was his natural surfing talent he set his initial career goals on qualifying for the Championship Tour (CT). After a few years struggling with the grind and monotony of the Qualifying Series, however, the opportunity of a freesurfing career arose and he chose a different path.
That path has led him to be one of the most adventurous and well-traveled surfers on the planet. He has also added serious snowboarding and sailing to his passions, rounding out a life dedicated to pushing himself in a range of extreme conditions. His warm-up for the Pe'ahi Challenge, for example, was embarking on a 2,400 nautical mile sailing trip from Tahiti to Hawaii, searching for undiscovered waves as well as collecting water samples to test for microplastics.
Yet despite his ever-bulging CV, each winter Walsh would always return home to Maui and concentrate on the wave out in front of his house. The family's work ethic here too was apparent, with Walsh constantly refining his big-wave equipment and leading the charge in making water safety a priority at the break. He is a natural leader and his openness and generosity in sharing his knowledge, equipment and plenty of couch space has kept him in the vanguard of the Pe'ahi paddle in movement he helped start.
Of course this is all underpinned by his surfing at the wave. Every time Pe'ahi has broke Walsh has invariably been on one of the biggest sets of the day. So when that wave in the Semifinal came to him, he was more than ready. He'd been waiting a decade and no other surfer on the planet had the mix of experience, talent, knowledge and belief to make it count as he did.
Typically, Walsh too was happy to put that wave, and his win, in the context not of his own achievements, but of the sport to which he has dedicated his life. "It was fun to watch our sport progress in each heat as the waves got bigger and better," he said afterwards. "If feels just like those big free-surf days so I'm really honored and stoked." Just like his dad, he'd finished what he had started.