Adventures / Surfing / Exclusive: Surfer Ian Walsh’s Historic Ride

Footage by Bo Bridges

Writer Mary Anne Potts

One day after school when Ian Walsh was 16 or 17 years old, he left his mom a yellow Post-it note saying he was going to one of the world’s most fearsome big-wave surf breaks, Pe’ahi or Jaws, with his neighbor, who happened to be pioneering surfer Luke Hargreaves. Fast forward 17 years and the Maui native just achieved legend status at his local wave on the World Surf League‘s Big Wave World Tour Pe’ahi Challenge last weekend.

We at Roam have come to know Ian pretty well. This fall, he joined Travis Rice, Graham Scott, and Amory Ross to sail from Tahiti to Hawaii for a live Roam adventure called “Lines to Hawaii.” The #lines2Hi team sailed via the Line Islands, located smack dab in the center of the Pacific, a place few humans will ever see let a lone surf. The crew did find some waves to surf, but nothing like the 40+-foot waves Ian would ride just a few weeks after returning. We’re pretty sure that when Ian crossed the equator at the dateline to achieve Golden Shellback status, he won good favor with Neptune, who then gave him the wave of his life last weekend at Pe’ahi. Here, Ian gives us an exclusive play-by-play of riding that epic wave.

When you see these waves stand up, your natural instinct tells your panic button: “Paddle out to the horizon! Get out of the way of this thing! It might break on you!”
— Ian Walsh

Roam: Tell us about your perfect-10 ride at Pe’ahi?

Ian Walsh: For that wave in particular, the wave before it was coming in, and it kind of was a little bit fatter, and not quite as big, and was going to move underneath me. I just had like a weird feeling that the next wave might have a lot more energy, and actually stand up, outside of where we were, and I’d have a window of opportunity to try to paddle into it.

So, I started to get over that first little incoming swell in the set. As soon as I hit the top of that, I could see the whole horizon starting to stand up, and the wave building, as it formed on the reef and how much it stretched out into the channel. I thought, “Time to activate! This wave looks like a really good opportunity. It looks like I might be very, very deep, but I think for how big it is, it might hold up on the reef.” At that point, I turned around and committed to paddling as hard as I could, and trying to give myself a chance at getting the wave.


ROAM: Exclusive: Surfer Ian Walsh’s Historic Ride
Ian Walsh surfs Pe'ahi, or Jaws, during the 2017 Big Wave Tour. Photo by Bo Bridges

Roam: How tall was that wave, if you had to guess?

Ian: I don’t know. I don’t even want to put a number on it at all. That’s one of the challenging things, though, because when you’re out there, you’re at sea level. You’re on a surfboard, maybe two feet out of the water, or three feet, if you’re sitting on it.

When you see these waves stand up, your natural instinct tells your panic button, “Paddle out to the horizon! Get out of the way of this thing! It might break on you!”

One of the hardest parts of surfing really big waves is staying in that dangerous area and riding the line of having the ability of catching the wave, but running the risk of having it break ten feet further out than you, and completely annihilating you all the way through the lineup. So, it’s a fine line.

Fortunately, my positioning and everything came together right there, and I got into the wave. And when I stood up, I could just see the wall starting to bend and stand up really, really far away. At that point, you’re processing what you think the wave is going to do, how fast it’s going to go. Do you think it’s going to barrel, do you think it’s going to chandelier? You’re reading the wave in milliseconds.

As I stood up, I could tell that the wall was really far, so it was going to take every bit of speed I had to even get down the line, to give myself a shot at making the wave. I got onto my toe edge, and just started to drive my board into the face of the wave, as hard as I could. Literally peeling my toes into the wax. I could feel as much projection as I could get out of the board and my fins, to get down the line.

A lot of times, when you get a barrel, you bleed off a little speed, or you’re positioning to time the rhythm of the wave, to be in the deepest part of it the whole way. And that wave was as fast as I could possibly go, just to get into the barrel. When I got into it, it just kept freight-training down the line.

It still took some adjustments and pumps to get more speed out of my board, and where I was on the wave, to actually make it. I think that’s why it was just so special for me, personally, because it’s rare to be able to go that fast. Sometimes you can outrun the wave. Sometimes the wave just vaporizes you, and outruns you. To have it kind of all come together at that speed, was really unique, and it was pretty special for me.

Any other time in my life, I have like 50 different things going on in my head, whether it’s bills or groceries, or I’ve got a big load of dirty laundry, or I’ve a hurt foot, or I’ve got to feed my goats.
— Ian Walsh

Roam: What do you see and hear, when you’re in that moment? Is it loud?

Ian Walsh: That’s a really good question. For me, what I see is what I’m anticipating the wave to do, and I’m like feeling it a lot. Like if the wave is going to breathe, before it breathes, it will get a little bit tighter, so you need to be a little bit higher. Then, it will breathe, and it will open up, and you’ll have more room. You have to time that exact millisecond, to get a pump in, or to get your board higher, if it’s going to breathe again. It has like this backdraft, it will suck back into the barrel, before it spits. So, you’re kind of bracing against the pressure pulling you back, and knowing that after it pulls back, it’s going to shove you forward really hard, so adjusting for the momentum shift in the air.

And the sound is completely gone, for me. I don’t know if that’s for everybody who surfs. But it has been for me, my entire life. I don’t really notice any sounds. It’s like silent. It’s probably the quietest time in my entire life, is when you’re actually in the barrel, or on a big wave.

The only thing I can really correlate that to, is that all of your other senses are so heightened and turned on, that you’re not really using, maybe, the sense of sound as much, or hearing. It is oddly, really, really quiet to me.

Roam: Sounds like the surfing flow state! How much time are we talking about here from the moment when you start paddling really hard, to when you go through all of this intuition and judgment, to ride the wave?

Ian Walsh: As soon as you commit to the wave, it’s almost like things start to slow down. And then, as you stand up, they slow down a little bit more. Everything is happening at a much faster pace, than when you’re surfing just a regular fun-sized wave. Everything is compounded, and happening way, way faster, because of the speed and the energy, and the size of the wave.

But when you’re actually in the moment, I feel like things slow down a little bit, and you notice these minute details that are really essential. For me, it’s focusing on what’s in front of me, and where the bumps are, and where I might be able to place a bottom turn, and the best place to do that, to get the most speed out of my board, and projection down the line.

I don’t know how long the time is, really. Everything happens pretty fast, and it’s in like fragments of time. You’re focused on the drop, and then the next thing you know, you’re focused on a bottom turn, or angling your board, and knifing into the face as hard as you can.

And then, if you get into the barrel, you’re fortunate enough to actually get into the barrel, then you’re really focused on that. The only thing in your entire life, in that moment, that matters, are the subtle adjustments you need to make, to make the wave.

I think that, for me, that’s what’s so special about surfing these types of waves. I can’t speak for every other surfer, but I know a lot of my peers probably feel this way, too. It’s the only time in my entire life, where like everything is quiet, and you’re not thinking about anything else, except for what’s right in front of you, and what’s under your feet, what you’re feeling.

Any other time in my life, I have like 50 different things going on in my head, whether it’s bills or groceries, or I’ve got a big load of dirty laundry, or I’ve a hurt foot, or I’ve got to feed my goats. All of these different things that you’re always thinking about, and juggling around in your head.

In those moments on the wave, there’s no thought in your head, aside from processing what the wave is doing, and what you’re feeling, on the surfboard.

Roam: You have goats? We’ll cover that in the next interview. When did you first ride Jaws?

Ian Walsh: The first time I surfed Jaws, I think I was 16 or 17, with a neighbor of mine named Luke Hargreaves, actually. I had always had this fascination with waves of all kinds. Obviously, it’s consumed my entire life, but I was always fascinated when Jaws would get really big. We have a few other waves on Maui, where I grew up, that get phenomenal on the same exact days.

And when I was young, I was kind of like “Why do these guys always go out there?” It looks big, and it’s super scary. But there’s these other world-class waves here, that light up on the same swell. And after that day I went with him, I got out there, and I went on one wave. And it immediately just changed for me, and I understood why people would be out there, every single swell.

Because as soon as I kicked out of the wave, I was like “I could have been deeper! Maybe I could have got in the pocket, on that wave! Oh, if I went on the second wave, it was bigger! I should have rode that wave different!”

I started to process and analyze everything. After a couple more waves, I came in, and that’s when the talons were just in my back, locked in. I knew that I didn’t ever want to really miss a big swell out there, ever again.

I was fascinated with learning as much as I could, about the lineup, the way the currents were, the winds, the tides, the bottom, and just everything that revolves around what makes that wave so special.

Roam: That’s very young. Did you tell your mom you were going there?

Ian Walsh: I actually didn’t. I got home from school early that day, and I just left a little note on her door. I just left a little note that said I went out to Jaws with our neighbor, Luke, on this little yellow post-it note, plugged into the door, by the door handle.

I think she kept that note for a long time. I don’t know if she still has it. I think she came home and was a little nervous, but it’s all good. I came home before the street lights came on, which was her rule back then, so it was good.

Roam: Your mom is a saint.

Ian Walsh: Yeah, she’s solid. She’s had to deal with four pretty wild sons. She’s done an incredible, incredible job, as has my dad. They’ve been really supportive of all of us kind of chasing our passions, whether it involves danger and injuries, or not. They’ve been amazing.

Roam: Would you say that this weekend’s ride was one of the best of your life?

Ian Walsh: Yeah. I mean, to me, just riding that wave, that definitely feels like one of the best waves I’ve ever ridden, and maybe ever will ride. I’m just really grateful that I had an opportunity to even just catch the wave. I’ve spent years and years and years surfing Jaws, and seeing a few waves like that, here and there. You just visualize riding one of those waves, so many times over. And to actually have an opportunity to catch one, and get into the barrel on it, and have the wave cooperate, and everything come together, I’m really grateful for that. I just feel really fortunate that all of those hard days led to a really, really fun day.

Roam: That’s awesome. You spend three weeks sailing across from Tahiti to Hawaii for the #Lines2Hawaii voyage. Conventional wisdom would say that surfing little tiny waves in the middle of the Pacific was perhaps not adequate training for what was coming up next. Do you think that doing that an exploratory voyage with Travis and crew had any positive impact on setting you up for this win?

Ian Walsh: I honestly do. I think that doing that trip with Travis and Amo and Graham, through the Pacific, did have some sort of an impact on this. Granted, I wasn’t in the gym, and I wasn’t at home, tuning up all of my gear. I was on that boat, just firing through the Pacific, when we got good winds.

It was a different opportunity for me, and it gave me a chance to actually slow down, and just focus on what we were doing right there. I read a few really good books, and learned a lot.

Roam: Kind of like a little bit of a recharge, before charging into training. What did you do, when you got back, to get race ready, or competition ready?

Ian Walsh: As soon as I got home, I was basically straight into a routine here, that I’ve had for the last few years, with a trainer named Samantha Campbell, in a facility called Deep Relief. I just kind of get into the gym, and start to build for this block of training I was doing. This is actually kind of in the middle of our window for training. I still have another four weeks to go.

I felt really, really good, and relatively rested, and plenty fit for the two days of surf. So, it was a well-orchestrated plan, I guess. I was just kind of hanging on and listening.

Roam: Do you do like cardio, and strength-training, and maybe breath training?

Ian: Yeah. In that, there’s a ton of cardio, some strength, a ton of mobility, and a ton of agility, which are probably my two main focuses, I guess. And a lot of surfing, and just kind of making sure your muscles are firing, testing those.

And the workouts you’re doing are actually functional workouts. I’m not just doing a workout to be the strongest person in the world. I’m doing them for what I want my body to be able to do and feel. That’s probably the most part. Yeah, lots of biking, a little bit of running at altitude, and lots of gym time, a ton of surfing, and some breath-hold work.

Roam: So, you run at altitude in Hawaii, like up in mountains, or what do you do?

Ian: Yeah. Maui, the Haleakala summit here, where I live, is 10,080 feet. So, we’ll go up to the last three miles and run uphill, or we’ll do trail runs. And that actually felt really good for me. Or I’ll take my bike up there, and I’ll cycle in the altitude, and kind of monitor where my heart rate is, how my breathing is working, how much oxygen intake is going, and just kind of pay attention to how my body feels. And it definitely sharpens you up, for when you’re down at sea level, and you’re in a high impact situation.

Roam: That sounds like fun cross-training. Back to Lines2Hi, what’s the difference is between a regular shellback and a golden shellback, which you are.

Ian: The difference between a regular shellback and a golden shellback is a very unique one. A shellback is something that only happens when you cross the equator, as a sailor, your first time. You can only do it once.

So, it’s a really, really special thing for all sailors, and was very special for me, when I was with Travis, Amo and Graham, on our Lines2HI trip. I crossed the equator for the first time, and I conveniently did it exactly where the date line was. And when you cross the equator and the date line at the same exact time, then you are a golden shellback, and that was pretty special to me.

And it was fun. The guys made it a pretty big deal, and we had some fun with it. Amo has crossed the equator, I think that was his 13th time, and you only get to cross the equator once, your first time, as anything else you do, for the first time.

So, it is where you cross the equator makes you a golden shellback, or a regular shellback. And I’m happy I’m in that small little club now. Hopefully, I can do it a lot more.

Roam: Awesome. Do you think being a golden shellback is why you got the win, this weekend?

Ian Walsh: It could be! I had to give a little gift to Neptune, and I ate some rancid old fish Travis caught, and left in the bottom of our fridge. And maybe my little gaggy gift back to Neptune was enough for him to send me good waves, a couple of days ago.

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