Professional Surfer Kai Lenny on Routine, Fear and Big Waves

From Portugal's Nazaré to Maui's Jaws, big-wave surfing demands practice, skill, courage and camaraderie

Unlike any other professional sport, surf competitions, especially big-wave surf competitions, require a literal perfect storm of conditions. Swell height and intervals, wind speed and direction, tidal shifts and weather—they all must align for a contest to be greenlit. Once the call goes out, the cadre of invitees and alternates from all over the world board last-minute flights, scramble for rental cars and descend upon a locale. Video and photo crews, fans and sponsors arrive in droves.

Courtesy of Rémi Blanc/World Surf League/Hurley

In this case it’s Nazaré, an old fishing town with narrow cobblestone streets, a now-famous lighthouse and a praça de touros (bullfighting ring) around 80 miles north of Lisbon. Roughly 20 big wave surfers are in the back half of the waiting period for the Tudor Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge. During the portion of the contest (open from 15 November 2022 to 31 March 2023) that we attended, there had been few possibilities as the wind off the coast of Portugal was unrelenting.

Courtesy of Hurley

Born and raised on the island of Maui, one of the invited competitors, 30-year-old Kai Lenny is an eight-time Standup Paddleboard (SUP) champion and widely revered as a waterman—a high compliment and what many professional surfers, SUPers, big-wave entrants strive for. In 2021, he published a book, Big Wave Surfer: The Greatest Rides of Our Lives, which includes three hundred pages of stunning surf photography. Lenny (currently sponsored by Hurley, Tag Heuer, Red Bull, GoPro and Nike) continues to evolve the sport of big-wave surfing. Traditionally big-wave surfers focus nearly exclusively on making the wave: the attention to remaining atop a roughly 25-pound surfboard while vertically dropping down a bumpy wave face—as a mountain of water four stories high and whitewash that feels like a liquid brick wall chases you—is a tall order. Many onlookers fail to comprehend the feat or are stupefied that the surfers survive. In addition to successfully completing the rides, Lenny stands out as he surfs massive waves as if they were small(er).

After a morning spent on the water, Lenny spoke with us from Hawai’i about everything from his eye for surfboard shapes and design to his day-of contest routine.

Courtesy Hurley

How important is routine to you? 

The first thing I do when I wake up is check my Oura ring. My heart rate, the amount of times I woke up the previous night, which is obviously more now. I drink a ton of water. It’s the first thing that enters my stomach. And yes, routine is super-important. Sticking to that routine, even when there’s interruptions, has shown me just how important it is for me.

Walk us through that routine, specifically on a comp day.

After I drink a ton of water, I look at the buoy reports. The ones way out in the middle of the ocean so I have an idea of what’s coming. Swell height and interval and what that would translate to in terms of foot faces. I look at the forecast. It’s updated every six hours. Then I make a breakfast burrito. Three eggs, cheese, ketchup, tabasco, salsa. I watch videos of me the last time I surfed that spot. Nazaré. Pe‘ahi. [A big wave spot off the north coast of Maui also known as Jaws]. Then I stretch. Hip openers are really important. I duck walk by squatting, hips below my knees, and walking 12 steps forward and back. Loose hips allow me to get that energy into the board really fast. Then I shake for one minute. On my heels and bouncing. What that does is turn everything on in your body.

Courtesy of Laurent Masurel/World Surf League/Hurley

The Nazaré contest has had quite a history. During the first one in 2020, competitor Alex Botelho nearly drowned. The rescue effort was tremendous. Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira was also carried up the beach not breathing. Clearly you know the risks and the history; how does that factor into competition for you?

Eyes and ears up. Alex was down for eight minutes not breathing. When it’s pretty heavy, things go wrong really quickly. Often in big-wave surfing, the first person to save someone is another athlete… When everyone comes in alive and is stoked, that’s what matters. In big-wave surfing, the only time you win is when you are competing against yourself and Mother Nature. You perform your best when you are having a good time. That’s how you win.

And every big wave, just like every wave, is different. Jaws [a big-wave break in Peʻahi on the north shore of Maui] is the most perfect big wave there is, whereas Nazaré is riding a mountain with an avalanche coming down behind you. It’s survival versus high performance, which is why you need really heavy 20- to 25-pound boards. At Jaws, it’s more like 13- to 16-pound boards. At Nazaré, that weight is to keep you connected to the water when you’re hitting six foot chop coming up the face.

You work very closely with your shaper to optimize your equipment. Can you elaborate on that relationship?

After every single session we’re working on new equipment. Adding more foam, taking away foam. To always be performing at the highest level but also survive. Designs evolve so quickly. It’s a combination of the wave and my performance level and style. We weight the boards in the back; think of a Baja 1000 truck. It’s so you don’t lose control when you’re being towed by a jetski into a wave. It engages and reengages in the back. Fin design, the board rocker—we are constantly reworking. The higher performance, the less stable. I’m trying to find that line and I don’t think that will ever end.

Courtesy of Rémi Blanc/World Surf League/Hurley

As many have pointed out, you don’t just make the wave. You dance. How do you overcome the fear?

The way you overcome the fear factor, you focus less on what could happen and rather focus on what you want to do. You could die out there, but it’s about—on this next wave—you want to ride the barrel, for example. You break down that goal into a smaller and smaller goal. I want to catch a wave and do a fade. First step: you wait until sun is blocked by the lip. Boom, fade. You make it a digestible goal versus I want to go out there and be the best. Step by step, it’s little goals through the day that you can check off.

Hero image courtesy of Rémi Blanc/World Surf League/Hurley