Adventures / Surfing / The Impact Zone: What It Takes to Photograph Huge Waves

Pea’hi, also known as Jaws, is the fearsome wave break on Maui’s North Shore. Photographer Bo Bridges took us into the water last week to watch the bold men and women give it their all for the WSL Pea’hi Challenge. Who showed up? Everyone. Including our own Ian Walsh, reigning champion of the challenge. This year on day one, dangerous conditions (i.e. crazy howling wind) made the waves too big, so administrators added a second day. You can tell from the images below that Mother Nature was calling the shots. “It was sketchy with side shore crazy winds,” says Bo.

Here Bo tells us why the conditions were so challenging and what it takes to get the shot, even at Jaws.

If the surfers didn’t have a perfect paddle approach, the wind would get up under their surfboards and annihilate.
— Bo Bridges

What was so challenging about this year’s comp—for the surfers and for you shooting in the water?

Bo Bridges: The weather conditions! Every year is difficult for surfers and those of us covering an event like this. Especially for those that don’t live local. There’s no time to plan. Once the competition gets green lit, you have 48 hours or less to get your ticket and get there.

The waves were big. I’ve seen it bigger, but I haven’t seen that many surfers try to paddle- in with wind like that. It was driving up the face with a vengeance. If the surfers didn’t have a perfect paddle approach, the wind would get up under their surfboards and annihilate.

What was it like to be in the channel?

Bo Bridges: Being in the channel that close to the action is a chance of a lifetime. But trying to capture the images and video isn’t easy. Every wave is unique, and it’s difficult to shoot video and hold camera steady—and then try to decide if you want stills or motion.

Down low in the water, you are like the surfers. You’re always looking to the horizon for a set wave but you can’t really see them coming till they are right there. So you always have to be ready. There was more West in this swell which kept everyone on their toes for a wide west bowl set. The wind blew so hard it created rain storms after every set wave came through that blew directly back at us in the channel.

Were you dodging those storms?

Bo Bridges: The first morning we did dodge a rain storm. We thought we saw a water spout at one point off in the distance. We went out to sea and came back in instead of taking the direct route. Figured we’d try to go around instead of through.

This time around, I used a garbage bag and a sham—wow!
— Bo Bridges

What time did you get on the water?

Bo Bridges: I was at the harbor at 5:30 a.m. both days. We typically leave the harbor while it’s still dark. Little sketchy b/c the channel is so narrow and there’s a lot of huge logs/trees floating around.

When are the waves their largest?

Bo Bridges: That all depends. I think this swell peaked while everyone was sleeping Monday night/ Tuesday morning.

What special gear do you use to protect your camera and your body?

Bo Bridges: I use the Aquatech water housings. But this time around, I used a garbage bag and a sham—wow! Also had a wet dry bag so i could quickly store my camera if a larger wave was going to bounce us. I had a great Jetski driver but we had to sit wide and definitely missed a couple of the inside barrels due to the wild weather. Probably would’ve been a safer bet to shoot from the cliff this day. I usually wear a long sleeve rash guard and a hat. I bring water/food and lots of sunblock. You are basically working off a small rocking seat all day.

The stakes are high for everyone. Do the people shooting ever get hurt?

Bo Bridges: I’m sure they do. Obviously we TRY to stay out of the impact zone. Accidents / incidents happen quick and unexpected. You always have to be paying attention. It’s usually the smaller things like moving a surfboard and the wind catches it or you get fingers or toes crushed between boats/jetskis and sunburn is a major concern.

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