The second fastest wave on the planet showed its teeth for this record-setting Code Red 2 swell on Maui. The legendary Ma’alaea wave a.k.a. “Freight Trains” awakened in July 2022 to surpass summer expectations for the first time in over seventeen years. This wave requires a myriad set of conditions that have to line up perfectly in order for Ma’alaea to produce the giant, racing barrels that make this the fastest right in the world. Surfers, windsurfers, paddle surfers and water lovers of all types either put themselves in the line of chaos of the heaving swell or stood on shore in awe, watching Hawaii’s best surfers make the most out of this startling, brutal and crazy fast wave. Here, waterman Zane Schweitzer takes us through the experience.
What many forecasters are calling a monumental ocean event ripped through the Pacific ocean in mid July, offering up some of the largest waves ever rode on south and west facing shores of Tahiti and Hawaii.
I personally have never seen a forecast reading 18 to 24 foot+ for south facing shores on Maui, and the direction was looking to be just right for the legendary Ma’alaea Freight Train break to light up for the first time in 30 years. Before this ocean swell hit Maui we saw it in both the action and chaos in Tahiti. Spectators on the islands witnessed waves washing through the shoreline and ransacking homes, while Big Wave surfers caught the biggest and most rugged waves ever seen on the outer reefs like Teahupoo. I knew we were gonna see something special, but really had no idea just how unique this swell would become.
On the morning of July 16th I was up early loading my truck for a full weekend of action with all my surf, windsurf, SUP and foil gear ready for whatever the ocean had in store. My game plan was to SUP surf in Lahaina until the powerful swell started to fill in more. However, to my surprise, when I arrived at my home break it was already close to double overhead in Lahaina!
One of my favorite spots to train on the SUP is Breakwall, just south of Lahaina Harbor. That day, it was cranking like I’d never seen it before and had transformed into what looked like an Indonesian-style hollow left. My 6’9” Starboard Spice was working very well, and this was a nice surprise as it was my first time surfing solid waves that were overhead using this board. I was stoked to score a few hours for the morning, and was already thinking about the potential at Keone’ō’io or the legendary and rare Ma’alaea.
“A 50-year swell on the fastest wave in the world! A day that goes down in the history of Maui.” –surf photographer Dayanidhi Das
Windsurfing Keone’ō’io with Jason Polokow and Robby Naish
On my way to the southside of Maui I got the report from fellow watermen Jason Polokow and Robby Naish, saying that windsurfing was all time at Keone’ō’io. So I decided to drive straight there and join them with my brother Matty. The drive over looked like an oceanic war zone. In some areas of Lahaina town and Kihei, coral, rocks and sand had been pushed into the streets by the surf, and waves were breaking over the highway in some spots. The anticipation of arriving at Keone’ō’io was high. As I rounded the corner on the rubble-strewn, rocky road, I could already feel the nuclear winds blowing at 30+ knots, and the waves were breaking so far out on the point and into the middle of the bay like I’ve never seen before!
I rigged up my smallest sail which was a Hot Sails Maui 3.7, along with my Jaws windsurf board shaped by Sean Ordonez, and was stoked to join the boys out on the water. The conditions were challenging, no doubt about it, as the wind was filled with holes and far offshore, but once I got into position on the outside, we were powered up at full speed. It felt so good to drop into solid, big surf riding port tack wave riding as I am a natural goofy footer and most sessions on Maui are starboard tack wave riding. I stayed for a good hour and a half, having such an epic time trading off waves with two windsurf legends and heroes of mine. We were all awed by the size and energy we were experiencing. A few waves peaked at 12-15’ Hawaiian, which is well over 30’ faces!
This swell was supposed to peak in the afternoon, and while we were out there we experienced some big pulses of sets. I took off on the second wave in a set. I had an easy takeoff and set up a few turns before the inside section started to build up. When it did, I felt like I should eject the sail and just pull into the barrel because I lost power in the wind and was racing down the line trying to keep my board speed up to get around the heavy, double mast, high section, but I just couldn’t get around it. With a last chance to control myself before surrendering to a pounding, I straightened out and waited for the right moment to eject as the coastline inside that section is unforgiving, to say the least, with jagged slabs of lava rock.
As soon as I fell, I knew my gear was destined for the rocks. Shortly after surfacing after the first wave, I looked up at the next one about to land on top of me. I thought for a moment I might end up against the rocks too! I managed to flow with the flushing water and rip current and swim for a good twenty minutes, escaping a few bombs as I stroked down the coast in search of an emergency exit and safe place to get back on land.
By the time I made it in through a sketchy little keyhole in the cliff and got back to my equipment, I was surprised to discover my board a good five feet up in the Kiawe tree, held there by a branch that punctured straight through the middle of the board. The waves and surges must have pushed it high over the rocks and up into the dry land forest of Kiawe trees.
To get in, I had to time myself between gnarly shorebreak against the rocks, and it took me a few attempts to get the board out from the tree and recover pieces of my equipment that had been torn to shreds. Everything but my universal and extension was destroyed. Fortunately, I was safe and would be able to get another session in before dark. Yess! Now, however, it was time for the long walk of shame back to the parking lot, over a half mile of treacherous and jagged lava rock coastline.
After getting everything packed up and leaving Keone’ō’io, my brother and I headed straight for Ma’alaea and felt we were timing it well. The peak of this monstrous swell was just hitting Maui by this time, which was around 4:30PM. When we got to Ma’alaea, it was quite the scene with over a hundred surfers out on the water and a massive peanut gallery of spectators along the coastline witnessing this legendary “Freight Train” of a wave screaming down the reef in a hollow and wide-throwing cylindrical cannonball. One look, and regardless of the crowded conditions, my brother and I were out there!
Ma’alaea: Freight Trains
After paddling out through the boat harbor and taking a long paddle around the reef and into the lineup, I could feel the energy on the water with ripping winds blowing hard offshore and lifting the ocean spray off the back of each wave thirty feet into the air. Hawaii’s best surfers and boogie boarders were out there on top of the world, getting some of the best barrels of their lives. On my second wave, I broke my board and in my mind paid my Ma’alaea “tax”. Without getting discouraged, I made it back to shore and ran the long lap back to my truck for a spare board that I was very grateful I had brought along, after having it repaired at the last minute the day prior. I got back out into the surging water and my brother and I surfed until dark, getting some of the longest right-hand barrels of our lives. Witnessing this wave from the water gives a completely different perspective, let alone the visual from inside of the racing barrel.
I now understood why so many old timers share legendary stories of this wave. Growing up on Maui, I almost brushed it off, having never seen it really turn on. But today, I can assure you, this wave and the legends behind it are no myth. Now I can say with confidence that this is one of my favorite waves in the world, despite being possibly one of the most fickle waves in the world!
The majority of the power and size of this swell lasted through the weekend. I milked it as long as possible, logging over sixteen hours of water time and finding the longest backside barrels of my life at Ma’alaea with a few other crazy sessions on the windsurfer and SUP in between.
“What a special swell. I have been dreaming about what this wave might look like with a serious amount of energy since I was ten years old. So many elements needed to line up for the Freight Train and she came ALIVE!” - Ian Walsh
Many people are saying that they have never before seen waves like this during summer in Hawai’i since Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Only a few have really experienced the full length barrel at Ma’alaea like we did that weekend. I am still completely awed by this ocean event and am so grateful to have been ready for it through regular training and preparation. Rare moments like these are the times and sessions my brother and I will share with our grandkids, speaking of legends and the great Ma’alaea wave. But who knows, maybe we are seeing a new cycle in the weather that will bring these spots to life more often.