When Jaws gets big, ominous shadows are cast over the reef and everything else . . . gets really small.
When Jaws gets big, says veteran big-wave surfer Charlie Walker, "It can hold you down beyond what you're capable of surviving."
Waimea Bay, on Oahu's infamous North Shore, has always been known as Hawaii's most notorious big-wave break.
But now there is Jaws, a remote break on Maui that is slightly bigger, much hollower and more walled up--and potentially much deadlier--than Waimea.
"Nobody goes there but us," says Darrick Doerner, 39, who with more than a hint of territorialism is referring to his small group of expert surfers who are pioneering the new and dangerous sport of power surfing, not only at Jaws but at other such mountainous outer-reef breaks, which until recently had been considered unsurfable.
Situated in deeper water than the inshore reefs, the outer reefs are the first obstacle for the massive swells generated by storms in the North Pacific. The speed of the swells, which are moving too fast to paddle into, creates massive peaks as they squeeze up against the reefs.
Using Jet Skis, or similar personal watercraft, the surfers have solved the access problem, and with tow-ropes they have discovered a way to catch the waves. The pilot of the craft tows the surfer into the face of the developing peak, then speeds out of harm's way before the wave breaks and monitors the ride, ready to race in and pick up the surfer if he wipes out or gets caught inside.
Using custom boards, much shorter and narrower than the traditional big-wave "guns," at about 7 1/2 feet long and 16 inches wide, weighted with lead and fitted with foot straps, the surfers have figured out how, in most cases, to avoid skipping down faces of skyscraper-size waves and being hurled over the falls and buried alive by a ton of whitewater.
"We call it power surfing," Doerner says. "Surfing is surfing, but you can't jump on a freight train with a bicycle. The machine is the power that puts us into these waves."
And, using vast knowledge of the dynamics of island surf, gained from years of experience surfing big waves and rescuing others in deadly rips and thunderous impact zones, they have managed to stay alive.
"We're either out there having fun or maybe we're running from the tiger," says Doerner, who has 20 years' experience as a North Shore lifeguard. "You have to draw the line at what you do. We all want to see our lives grow a little longer."
Doerner last winter caused the surfing world's collective jaw to drop when he became the first to duck into a cavernous, grinding tube at Jaws--and got spit out still standing and able to talk about it.
"It was . . . the most perfect day we've had at Jaws," he recalls, as vividly as though it were yesterday. "Barrels. Big barrels. Four- or five-story barrels. And I just saw an opportunity that my 35 years of surfing allowed me to see and I pulled in. Laird [Hamilton, his tow-in partner] and I had been ripping Jaws for a few years, but that day we cut the yellow ribbon and took this to a new level."
And what a monster Doerner, Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox, the pioneers, and their power-surfing companions have created.
Tow-in surfing, as it is also called, has become the rage in Hawaii. Anyone with access to a jet-powered vessel and surfboard can do it.
Or, as Walker says, "The sport does invite the rich-kook guy to do it. If he's got money, all he needs is the machine, someone to drive it and he can go out there and try it. But if he gets into trouble, he can't call his mother over to help him. He's on his own."
Tow-in surfing is appealing to older surfers as well, those who no longer have the stamina to paddle out in big waves and no longer wish to compete against younger, more aggressive surfers on crowded inshore breaks.