27-year-old Maui native Albee Layer knows a thing or two about Jaws. "For us on Maui, Jaws has always been there and that kind of normalizes it just because you see it as a little kid," said Layer.
That normalization has paid off in his career. In 2015, his rookie year on the Big Wave Tour, Layer took 2nd place at the Pe'ahi Challenge. Subsequent years saw lesser finishes but in 2018 he came roaring back with a 3rd place finish at the Jaws Challenge in a high-stakes all Maui Final. One of the waves he caught during the waiting period -- he submitted as a 2019 Ride of the Year entry.
The wave in contention took place on the first day of the event window. The comp was on hold due to high winds with 25-to-40-foot faces. "They came and told us [the contest] was on hold and I was really mad ... because that's the conditions I live for."
The World Surf League: Can you walk us through the day you caught that huge barrel at Jaws?
Albee Layer: Yeah that was the day they ran the contest for a little bit, the Jaws event. So it's a little different I guess than a normal day. There's a contest and there are just that many more people around and all this extra stuff going on.
But I try to kind of keep my same typical preparation, hang at home and try not to overthink it too much just because it's a contest, [laughs]. I saw the forecast too and they were thinking it was gonna come up later in the day. From everything I saw I just knew it was going to be a really heavy day. It was really barreling and I hadn't seen a swell like that. I don't know, there was one during the El Nino year kind of like that. It's pretty rare.
So was that the biggest you've ever seen it?
I don't know. There will be days where the waves aren't necessarily as tall as other days, but it's way heavier. Like the day where Aaron Gold got that world record. I mean they're always heavy but compared to that day around The Eddie a couple of years ago or when they called off the contest, I think they were kind of heavier but maybe not as tall of waves. When you get that long 20-second period it gets really thick and just hollow and mean.
How would your preparation have differed if it wasn't a contest day?
I just would have gone down there first thing in the morning. Instead we kind of slept in for the Jaws day. I went down and I watched the beginning of the day and I caught a couple of the women's heats and it was just getting a little big for anyone. And they got caught by this one set and I was like, 'Oh I wonder if they're gonna call it off.'
I was watching with Shane Dorian and we saw a couple waves that went where no one was sitting that were some of the best waves I've ever seen out there and I said, "I want to get one of those." Like really hard to catch, barely surfable, but if you could do it they were as good as they get.
What were you thinking when you dropped in?
Well I sat in the channel and watched that first heat where Twiggy [Grant Baker] got his huge wave and Billy [Kemper] got those huge barrels but fell. It was almost impossible to take off on a wave without getting barreled because it was so big and hollow. I knew you had to go for the barrel if you were going to make a wave.
They came and told us it was on hold and I was really mad, like throwing a fit. Because that's the conditions I live for, where its west and barreling and a little wind isn't a bad thing in my opinion.
And then I actually paddled out and I was like, 'Ah this is totally ridable' and ended up getting caught inside and it was really embarrassing. I got washed all the way in [laughs] when I was supposedly trying to prove it was good [laughs]. So I just totally ate my words. Then they officially called it off and I paddled out there and sat and I was like, 'Ok I've really got to go get one now'.
That was my first wave and it just looked a little more approachable than the rest because a lot of them had that big step halfway down. And this one had it, but it was not too bad. So I knew I could make it over there and then I figured it was gonna bottom turn and you pretty much had to get somewhat barreled in every wave just to make it.
Were you expecting to come out of that one?
Yeah I could tell I was gonna not be super deep but deep enough to get barreled and once I made the bottom turn I kind of saw this section and I was like, 'Oh I'm in the perfect spot to get barreled and not too deep where I'm going to fall'. Because a lot of them, the foam ball was eating itself in the barrel so you couldn't get super deep on a lot of them. So I was like, 'Yeah I'm in the perfect spot'. I kind of threw my arms up and I almost fell. I threw my arms up because I got a chandelier...I was stoked.
What kind of equipment were you riding that day?
I was riding an 8'8. It's pretty much what I always ride. It was funny, I had a conversation with Shane about it before I paddled out. I was like, 'What should I ride', trying to ask him. And then I was like, 'You know what, if I can't catch the wave on my 8'8 I probably don't want to be riding it [laughs].' I don't need to catch a 100 foot wave and set a record. I just want a wave I know I can ride. And if I can't catch it on my 8'8 then there's a chance I'm probably gonna fall [laughs]. So I chose the small board because the waves were so steep that you were either in the spot or not. I don't think a foot on your board really made a big difference in paddling for it.
What's your mental preparation for going out in big waves?
It's actually getting way harder for me the older I get, you know? I'm only 27, it's just you understand more of the risk the longer you do it. So it makes it a bit harder. You've just got to prepare yourself for anything. I guess mentally it's just like, 'Oh I'm gonna be okay, I've done this for a long time.' I guess that's the only way to prepare, to just feel comfortable and normalize the abnormal.
It's not like you just did this overnight, you're working up towards it.
That's always tricky too, particularly on the first swell of the year. It is a lot harder to get in the headspace. Once you've done it once, literally once you've caught one wave for the year it's a lot easier to get everything going. But catching that first wave is really hard. That was definitely the scariest first wave of the year I've ever had, for sure.
What would a Ride of the Year Award mean to you?
It would be insanely special. I mean that's something I've tried for and I felt like I've gotten close to. It's been almost 10 years now since I have been surfing out there almost every swell I can and a couple other big waves around the world as well. It would be insane, I would love it. Especially because I'm going into surgery in a week here, I'm gonna be out for like six months. So it would be incredibly special if two months into the six-month recovery I won Ride of the Year. It could make the six months that I'm really dreading being out a lot easier.
What kind of surgery are you going in for?
I tore my labrums on both hips from a couple of big falls and just kind of wear and tear. It's mostly from trying airs probably. This whole year has been kind of hard for me. I actually got a concussion on the wave after that wave at Jaws and then a week later I got another concussion trying an air and broke my nose.
It's been an uphill battle. I'm going in for bone spurs on my femurs and then anchors in my labrum for a labrul repair. I'm really planning to come back better than I've been. But six months ... I've never taken a break that long, so it's a little bit of a head trip.