Pe‘ahi: Into the Jaws of Big Wave Surf

Party Wave
The legendary Pe‘ahi attracts surfers, whether they have boards, kites or sails.

In Hawaiian, “Pe‘ahi” literally means “to wave,” or “to beckon.” And this place definitely calls out to the bravehearted! Nicknamed “Jaws” due to its ferocity, Maui’s famous big wave surf spot has dazzled the world over for decades. As a surfer and Maui boy growing up on island, I have always dreamed of one day surfing  the big wave spot myself. As age and my sense of mortality set in, those dreams have long expired, but the allure of capturing its raw power and experiencing its behemoth energy remained.  Then came one Saturday in January…

Tracking the Swell

Backside Nug
The power of Pe‘ahi is simply breathtaking.

On the morning of January 22, 2022, my friend and fellow photographer Daniel Sullivan texted me saying… “Jaws? Looks big.” So, I drove to Ho’okipa to check the waves (something I do daily) and noticed right away that the outer reefs were enormous! I quickly checked the swell forecast and buoy models. It was big, like really big, reading 19 feet @ 18 seconds — a Waimea Bay-size swell —  but only the Hanalei Bay, Kaua‘i buoy was registering it. All other island buoys were out of commission.

That ginormous reading occurred at 1:45 a.m., and my estimation was that peak swell energy (lasting about 2 hours) wouldn’t arrive to Maui until 10-12 hours later. I thought to myself, “Maybe Jaws will be breaking later today??” However this was just a guess, a shot in the dark at best. 

Up in the Air, Fingers Crossed

I was willing to take the risk though. I texted and called Nick Moran, helicopter pilot and owner of Go Fly Maui LLC around 10 a.m.  He flies a radical open-door R44 chopper, and is an avid photographer himself. More than an hour passed before he responded by text, “I have an opening at noon. Wanna chance it…?” I said to myself, “Why the hell not?!” I called up Daniel and said, “Let’s go!” 

By 12:30 pm we were taking off, fingers crossed and cameras ready. The trades were blowing steadily, the heli was wizzing, bobbing and weaving over the coastline. I was hopeful the wind might create some mid-day rainbows off the mist from the waves. More importantly though, we need waves first! It takes about 10 minutes to fly to Jaws from the heliport, and a look at the turbulent ocean below had me hopeful. As we cruised over Maliko Gulch I could see a number of surfers, skis, kites and sails in the lineup. It was breaking and it was BIG! About 40 feet, I might say. I exhaled with relief. We were stoked! 

The Timing Aligns

Three's a Crowd
As they say, “Three’s a Crowd”…but what great company to keep!

This was my first experience shooting Jaws. I was nervous about my camera settings though, wanting to catch and freeze all the action, while also flying in a helicopter with moving subjects below us (waves and riders). I opted for a 1/2000 sec. shutter speed and shot away! Fortunately, it was very bright and I could get most of the wave and surfers in focus using a higher f/stop. The high noon sunlight and stiff trade winds were creating some insane rainbows too. Like 300 yard long unicorn manes flowing off the backs of these blue monsters. It was incredible! 

The Pros at Pe‘ahi

Kai Lenny 2
Big wave champ Kai Lenny on a monster wave.
Jesse Richman Rainbow
Pro kite surfer Jesse Richman amid barrels and rainbows.
Patri Kite Barrel
Pro kite surfer Patri McLaughlin gets it!!

We spent an hour and half flying around the lineup at Jaws. The swell was peaking right when we arrived. All of us witnessed professional board riders get insane waves. Expert waterman Kai Lenny was out, getting towed in, and spit out of rainbow barrels. So were pro kite surfers Jesse Richman, Patri McLaughlin and female sensation Olivia Jenkins. Each being propelled by the wind and charging every set wave. Jesse and Patri were getting barreled kite surfing; I didn’t even know one could do that

What a Swell Adventure!

Rainbow Sail
We got so lucky to capture the rainbows along with these talented pros at Pe‘ahi.

This series of photos are the best from the shoot. It took a lifetime of reading swell forecasts, wave knowledge and a bit of luck to score that day. Sometimes you just have to smile and be stoked on how it all went down!