Monster winter swell delights surfers

HANALEI — A mile offshore of Hanalei is a place called King’s Reef. It’s a place that demands respect.

“I believe it’s the biggest wave in the world — one of them,” said big-wave surfer and Kauai resident Clay Wolcott. “It’s a gnarly, gnarly place.”

King’s might break once or twice a year, and only during monster winter swells. Other years, it never sees white water.

On Wednesday, it and nearby Queen’s — another giant — broke in what was being described as perfect, epic conditions. And by mid-day, Black Pot Beach Park, at the mouth of the Hanalei River, was swarming with ecstatic, adrenaline-filled big-wave surfers.

“This is what we live for,” said Chilean pro surfer Rafael Tapia, who traveled to Kauai for the largest swell of the winter season.

Tapia is no stranger to massive walls of water.

“I look for the biggest waves in the world,” he said.

Just last month he was in Nazaré, Portugal surfing 60-footers. On that trip, he nearly drowned while trying to rescue his tow-in partner, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa.

King’s, however, topped them all. And by the look in Tapia’s eye, you could tell that Wednesday was a day he would not soon forget.

“Biggest wave I ever surfed in my life,” Tapia said. “For sure.”

Tapia was accompanied on his first ride out at King’s by Kauai surfers Wolcott and brothers Kaeo and Kaleo Lopez.

Kaeo said the outer reef breaks were “huge” Wednesday, from 60- to 100-foot faces.

“So far, biggest, best swell (of the season),” he said. “Conditions-wise, it’s unreal.”

When a winter well this large is approaching, Kaeo and his group prepare. They dust off special tow-in boards and make sure the jet skis are tuned up. And when the swell hits, they’re up early.

“Sometimes you can go, like, 10 years, for like a good, perfect — for all the elements to come together,” he said. “Surf. The wind.”

Asked about the best wave of the day, Kaeo said it belonged to “the guy having the most fun.” As for his own best wave Wednesday, he described it as “huge.”

“Maybe, like, bigger than this,” he said, pointing to the tops of the nearby palm trees. “Bigger than this whole tree line. Yea, bigger than that. Out on the third reef, King’s. And just giant. I don’t know how big. I was too concentrated on how to surf it.”

Wolcott, Kaeo’s long-time surfing buddy, didn’t downplay his friend’s catch one bit.

“This guy stepped up to a record-breaker,” he said of Kaeo. “Between 80 and 100 feet, guarantee … A monster. A mile or three-quarter mile ride. It was sick. Sick.”

And Wolcott didn’t let it go there. He made sure it was clear just how ridiculous Kaeo’s ride was.

“It was life and death, you could say. It was borderline,” he said. “You fall on that you’re in big trouble.”

Much like other monster days, Kaeo said Wednesday was both scary and exhilarating. Asked how his biggest wave compared to others he’s caught, Kaeo said it didn’t.

“It’s all its own,” he said.

King’s isn’t a place you just go tow into. It requires years of experience, a deep understanding of the ocean and special equipment. In the 15 years Wolcott’s been surfing it, he’s had only a handful of sessions.

Among those reportedly out in the lineup Wednesday at King’s was big-wave surfer and co-inventor of tow-in surfing, Laird Hamilton. And if the monster sets weren’t enough, Kaeo said Hamilton was getting towed in on a foil board.

Tapia said he considers himself lucky to be invited to this special place by Wolcott and the Lopez brothers, and has a deep respect for it and the island of Kauai. King’s, he said, is a break he’s been hoping to ride for years.

“It was perfect. Amazing conditions,” he said. “We’re just going to go back for more. Good friends. Local people. This is what we live for.”

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