On Jan. 28 1998, when mammoth swells closed Oahu's North Shore beaches, Ken Bradshaw defiantly took his WaveRunner a few miles offshore to a reef where the biggest waves were breaking. IMAX was filming "Extreme" via helicopter, and he wanted to be in it.
Good move. That day Bradshaw rode a monster whose face was estimated at 85 feet, enabling him to set an unofficial record for the biggest wave ever surfed.
I'm not a surfer, but big waves intrigue me. To get a feel for Bradshaw's avocation, in December I traveled to Hawaii. There is no guarantee when big swells will come, but winter provides the best opportunity. I figured if I hung out on Oahu for a few weeks, I'd have a shot at seeing some action.
On Christmas morning, I got the call. A northwest swell had stormed in with wave faces of 40 feet. Could I get to Sunset Beach ASAP, Bradshaw wanted to know.
I canceled plans with friends in Honolulu to make the two-hour drive. I was about to get a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with waves the size of apartment buildings with a bona fide legend, and I didn't want to miss the opportunity.
As I arrived, Bradshaw was gassing up his WaveRunner (essentially a Jet Ski for two) to take us offshore to the biggest swells. To get a real sense of what he does, he said, we needed to meander on and around the monsters, at the same time watching surfers already out there attempting to ride them.
When I saw the 12-foot surf near shore, I was intimidated. Waves like that don't exist on the East Coast. Bradshaw laughed. He said what was waiting for us three-quarters of a mile out — what we couldn't see yet — would make these seem puny. But first we had to get there and through the rough chop, no easy task.
Donning a wet suit and life jacket, I helped Bradshaw wrestle the 1,000-lb craft into the water, then jumped on the back. Right off, we were rocked as the machine rode up, around, over and down the waves. I had no seat belt and was holding on solely via a plastic strap in front of me — as if riding a bucking bronco in the water.
Once we made it through, there was a respite. Swells tend to come in groups every few minutes, and we were between sets. While drifting, I asked Bradshaw what to expect. He told me to hang on as if my life depended on it and that if I did fall, to be prepared to hold my breath for at least a half minute.
Waves this large tend to churn fallen surfers as if in a washing machine, eventually spitting them out. Once the thing had had its way with me, he assured, he'd be waiting to pick me up. (Mental note: Do not fall off.)
Suddenly Bradshaw gestured at a set of rolling swells in the distance, silent, dark and ominous. In no time, the first one was upon us. We rode up the side and over the mountain of water, then watched from behind as it broke. The back of the thing was fascinating to observe, like the roof of a giant house stalking the shore. Easily 25 feet, Bradshaw screamed.
Lest I get complacent, he told me to look back out to sea. The next swell was rolling toward us, even darker and more massive. As it approached, it began to thunder and froth, and the more it did that, the more it jacked up. Evidently Bradshaw liked the looks of it because he pointed our craft directly into the largest part.
Just after we pulled in, Bradshaw turned off the engine. I held my breath — and held on for dear life. The three-story vertical drop, not unlike that of a roller coaster, was scary but fairly smooth.
When we hit bottom, though, the ride got rough. He switched the engine back on and gunned the throttle. I did all I could to keep my balance as we accelerated to more than 40 mph, zigging and zagging to outrun the snarling wall of whitewater.
We finally pulled up the side lip and stopped. We had just "surfed" a 30-foot face, Bradshaw said. He wanted to know what I thought. I was dumbfounded, speechless — and impressed.
Next we powered over to two renowned surfers, Troy Alotis and Kala Alexander, bobbing in the water. They were preparing to "tow in" to the giant swells.
What does that mean? Normally, just as a wave crests, a surfer paddles in, mounts his board and rides the face. But with waves higher than 60 feet, tow surfing is the only way to catch them as they move too fast for paddling.
Instead a surfer holds onto a rope and "water-skis" his board behind a WaveRunner. Once he's matched the wave's speed he pulls in, releases the rope and surfs.
Alotis, after calmly towing into a 40-foot bomb, artistically rode the face but nearly clipped the back of our craft as we struggled to get out of his way. Talk about a bird's-eye view. All said, we were out for a good 1 1/2 hours.
Later, back on shore, Bradshaw and I headed to the Turtle Bay Resort for a drink. We talked about his big "Big Wednesday" ride 15 years ago, Garrett McNamara's new official record of 78 feet (Bradshaw insists his wave was bigger) and how he makes a living.
Now 60, he designs surfboards, rents out North Shore properties he has purchased over the years and instructs the military in extreme water rescue. He also teaches surfing to the new generation.
For the record, he thinks he can go higher. Still in excellent shape, Bradshaw says bigger waves are out there. It's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. In a way, I understand.