From big-wave gun to tow-board to foil to kite-board to windsurf to SUP — and beyond — Maui’s Kai Lenny has mastered every way of riding the ocean and is considered to be the greatest modern waterman of his time. He also travels, like, a TON, and knows the highs and lows of surf travel all too well. While home at the moment, he was gracious enough to speak with us about a fascinating life on the move, devoted to riding waves.
Thermal: So, Kai, a guy like you does a LOT of traveling, all over the world, all year long, for all the different ways you ride waves…What’s been a reoccurring takeaway for you, traveling the world to surf?
Kai Lenny: What I can say about water sports in general is that you often find that everyone sort of knows everyone. Maybe, that’s thanks to the Internet these days, but I’ve also always thought that the ocean connects everyone. When you think about the way oceans touch most coastlines on the Earth — we’re more connected than separated.
Of course, I'm in a fortunate position, where anywhere I go, people are super gracious and kind and want to help. But that, in turn, makes me want to be even more generous towards people, when I’m at home, you know what I mean? With traveling, you learn that strangers are way more willing to help than you'd imagine. I think that’s especially true within the surf communities, too, as well as other water sports. Most of the people you meet along the way or in the water are passionate about their thing like you, and are happy to help you out. There's people that go completely out of their way to help you and it's just really incredible. It’s kind of like, nowhere on earth do I feel like I'm really alone because there's a surfer or someone out there that might be a friend of a friend. It’s interesting how traveling around the world to surf can feel both so big and really tight-knit and small at the same time.
Totally. Talk to me about some of the less glamorous stuff you have to deal with while traveling. People might assume that guys like you see a swell and just hop on the private jet and get to “the spot” without a hitch…
Yeah, [laughs] No. I think the most stressful thing is you normally have zero prep time, right? Something pops up and you're on a flight that night, and you're really just taking any available seats. You might get lucky here and there, but for the most part you could be in the middle seat next to the toilet for 24 hours of travel, because you just literally had to get on whatever plane was there, as fast as possible for the swell window. Then, on top of that, you’re lugging, like, three to four massive board bags that weigh 50 pounds each, or more. You kind of just do whatever it takes to make it. You get used to not being super comfortable. Sometimes you miss flights and have to stay at the airport hotel… It's a headache for sure, but it adds to the whole experience because it's so dramatic. It’s a puzzle putting it all together.
You could probably use a handler, huh?
Yeah, but 99% of us don’t have a handler [laughs]. It's pretty interesting, because as a big-wave surfer in particular, a lot of times you are your own meteorologist to a certain extent. You look at the forecast and then you correlate it and then you look at buoy data; there's all these things, right? Then you're also booking all your stuff, asking questions along the way like, "Oh, do I have to rent a car, or do I have a place to stay when I get there? Do I have a Jet Ski?" Sometimes you might be traveling with other big-wave surfers, which is not unusual, but a lot of times you're coming from different parts of the world and linking up to the air. There are also those trips where the only person you can get to go is yourself.
Out of all these places you’ve gone to, was there ever a country or place you didn’t imagine you’d fall in love with like you did?
You know, I actually always have pretty high expectations for everywhere because I believe that everywhere in its own way is extremely unique and special. So, I kind of always lean on the fact that it's going to be great no matter what, but there are for sure places that will blow you away. I mean, there’s the obvious ones — if you go to Fiji, it's not even the people that surf, but just the Fijian people in general, that are so amazing. I’ve met Fijians that will remember your name after, like, 20 years of never seeing them. They’re incredible.
I don't know... everywhere is so special in its own way, and I've learned to really accept that. You meet people that live in a place with the worst conditions to surf, like, the worst waves ever — bad winds, cold, freezing — and they are psyching. Like in Germany or a more northern country, I mean. They make the most of conditions that you would never want to go in. It's hailing sideways and it's four degrees outside. And they're out for hours having the time of their lives. So, when I'm able to travel and experience these other places, it's like, "Oh, okay. Frick. I get it."
Is there anywhere else left on your bucket list that you've always wanted to go?
You know, I have never been to Iceland. Cold water doesn’t bother me whatsoever, so I’d really love to go to those Nordic countries and do what those guys have been doing with surfing under the Northern Lights. That seems really fun. But, I also think there's such a potential for waves in the continent of Africa. I really think Africa is like the final frontier in some ways for surfing. I think people like Grant “Twiggy” Baker and Greg Long and Ian Walsh and probably a few others know of a lot of crazy places over there, but don’t tell.
I just think of all the thousands of miles of coastline there and how it's probably firing every single day somewhere — and no one's even riding those waves. There might be some giant sharks or crocodiles in the lineup, I don't know. [laughs] But the point is, it's pretty remarkable.
I mean, even just thinking about big-wave surfing: there's no way that earth only has five of these big waves that are bigger than anywhere else. There has to be more spots. Nazare was only really discovered and surfed, like, 10 years ago?! And that’s just in Europe, hidden in plain sight. There's gotta be waves out there somewhere bigger than anything anyone's ever ridden. You just never know. That’s pretty much my fantasy; I'd like to believe that.