Starting off the 2023 season with non-stop action, big wave surfing, hydrofoiling and SUP surfing has been epic at home on Maui. There is no place I’d rather be than here, especially during winter’s big wave season!
I set off on my journey into 2023 with my focus locked in on big wave riding at Pe’ahi, a.k.a Jaws, and training for the Backdoor Shootout surf competition at Pipeline on the island of Oahu. I was eager to defend my SUP surfing title. With the extended forecast for January looking to stack up some solid swells, big wave surfers from all around the world started to prepare for one of the larger swells we’ve seen this season in Hawai’i. After only a handful of “training days” in the 15 -18ft Hawaiian range towards the end of 2022/beginning of 2023, it was damn exciting to see the next forecasted swell reading 25 ft+ Hawaiian (50 ft+)!
As the swell approached, the Da Hui Backdoor Shootout was given the green light to run, and the SUP and Longboard divisions were first on the roster. I flew over to Oahu the night before the competition and stayed at Riggs Napoleon's house. I felt ready for the start of action. Competing in the invitational SUP division of the Shootout were high-octane athletes Kai Lenny, Riggs Napoleon, Bullet Obra, Zane Saenz, Tehotu Wong, Po’mai Hoapili, Kainoa Mcgee and myself.
The morning of the opening competition looked like an epic day with 3 - 6ft Hawaiian surf at Pipeline and Backdoor, with beautiful conditions. These were some of the best waves and conditions under which the SUP and Longboard divisions have been run over the years, and we were all stoked for action and sharing the lineup together. I was up in the first heat of the day as the swell began turning on for us and the competition started. Right away it seemed like Kai, Riggs, Bullet, Po’mai and I were sharing barrels all throughout the heat. In previous years, I’ve learned what the judges are looking for in this event, so my game plan was to get two solid scores under my belt by being barreled at Pipe left and then - hopefully - line up a Backdoor barrel. I was able to stick to my plan and was stoked to get some clean barrels on both the left and the right to start off my competition day.
When that first heat ended and I made it back to the beach, I noticed the Hawaiian Water Patrol Water Safety team performing a rescue. I learned shortly afterward that it was our friend and competitor from the heat, Bullet Obra, from the Big Island Of Hawai’i. Riggs and I ran over to get an update on Bullet’s condition, only to learn he had a serious head injury after impact against the reef on his last wave of the heat, where he packed a close-out barrel. He was unconscious in the water, but the Water Patrol was able to get to him and treat his wounds before the ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital. After we helped gather Bullet’s gear and helped him get set in the ambulance, it was almost time for the final heat. Riggs and I were stoked to get another session in for this 20-minute final.
Everyone was shaken from Bullet’s accident, but the event continued and the final round for SUP Surfing was on. Feeling the pressure to defend my title, I tried to surf smart and charge with optimal wave selection. One after another the boys and I were trading waves, first Riggs, then Kai and then Zane Saenz. Watching from out back of the wave, it was hard to tell how barreled everyone was getting! I had two clean exit barrels at Pipe left, but knew I had to get a solid right or a bigger and deeper left in order to stand a chance at winning.
Before the end of the heat, a right was coming in at Backdoor that Kai and I both were eyeing down. I was deeper and in position, but it was too late for Kai to back out, and as I grabbed my rail to pull into the barrel, I saw Kai’s board flying through the lip right over my head. It was an exciting exchange of waves to finish the heat, no doubt about it.
When the final scores and standings came in I was so stoked! I had defended my SUP Surfing title at the famed Da Hui Backdoor Shootout, one of the most prestigious events on Maui. As always, I am honored to have been invited to compete at Pipeline with a near empty lineup trading barrels with my friends for a chance to defend my title. The final placements are as follows:
Swell Continues ….
Next, within a period of seventy-two hours, “The Eddie” at Waimea was given the green light to run, but then it was called off the next day. The swell size had great potential but the wind was strong and not from the ideal direction. I headed back home to Maui to make a plan with my tow team which included my brother Matty Schweitzer and Austin Kalama. It was clear this next swell was gonna be big, but it was up in the air just how messy it would be with the forecasted north wind and north swell. So I packed the boat with my hydrofoil, tow boards, windsurf gear and paddle-in guns, because you never really know what the ocean will offer until you arrive in the lineup. Even then, conditions, wind direction and swell can change fast, so you need to be ready!
The big wave season in Hawai’i had just begun. The conditions were perfect with clean and XXL surf. As I approached Pe'ahi, I couldn't help but feel a sense of excitement and anxiety as all my recent preparations both mentally and physically were about to be put to the test. The waves were solid, slow in between sets, but about as good as big wave surfing gets at this special place. I knew this was what I had come for, and I was determined to give it my all.
I paddled out to the North Peak, past everyone sitting on the inside west bowl to put myself in a position to catch only the bombs of the day. I picked my first wave, feeling the rush of adrenaline as I spun to go, and started paddling over the ledge. My board picked up speed and rode the wave all the way to the bottom to set up with a steep section in front of me. It was insane! I rode wave after wave, each one more thrilling than the last. The wind, water, and waves all seemed to be in perfect harmony that day. It’s not often you get conditions so pristine at Pe’ahi. We were all frothing!
As midday approached, I had already caught maybe five or six waves and, from reading the forecast, I knew that we’d be getting the peak of the swell between 1 and 3pm. I paddled even further out the back, positioning myself a good 50 -100 yards outside of the majority of the lineup. Just when I started to think I might be too far out, Shaun Lopez, who was the only other person waiting out the back with me, started scratching for the horizon. Now scratching for the horizon myself, and seeing the set of the day towering over me, I barely made it over the first wave. I free fell off the back of the wave from the speed of the swell passing underneath me, and was showered in a 100 foot curtain of spray that disrupted my vision enough to give me what felt like an eternity of anticipation for what lurked behind it.
After the spray dissipated, what I saw looming out there was the most beautiful monster of a wave I have ever seen up close and personal. It was huge. It had perfect shape. It was hard to look at because it was so large overhead and I knew I had to paddle straight into its jaws.
It was a serious situation but I also knew it was inescapable, a moment that requires a warrior to surrender. I thought briefly that I could fight through the wall of the wave, or maybe dive off under the lip as it threw over me, but that monster broke directly in front of me as I took one last breath and dove off my board to penetrate a few feet beneath the surface. The moments that followed were surreal. I was in a mental state of complete surrender as I got the rag doll beating of my life. I did what I knew to keep my limbs tight around me by grabbing the front of my vest and tucking my chin to chest. It’s moments like this that put all your training and preparations to the test. Maybe it’s the ability to slow down when all else is telling you to race. Maybe it’s knowing when to fight and when to surrender. Or maybe it’s about managing the calm on the inside during the turbulent storm outside.
Regardless, I pulled my vest cord and went on a wild ride. Even with a fully inflated vest, I was in and out of weightlessness, consumed by turbulence and the pressure from the ocean pulling me in every direction. Finally, I felt myself floating through the chaos, giving me a sense of direction and equilibrium again.
I breached the surface, fully inflated with air and facing toward land. As I turned around I had a brief moment to see the next one, big 50-foot white wash about to bulldoze me all over again. I took a breath, put one hand over my head to let safety teams know “I’m okay”, and turned back towards land like a sitting duck awaiting impact. This wave hit me aggressively and dragged me deep. I thought I was gonna hit the bottom and, regardless of my fully inflated vest, it wasn’t about to let me up. By the time I surfaced I was all the way on the inside, closer to the rocks than the lineup. I also realized my board was not connected to my leash anymore.
Matty managed to get me up on the ski and was surprised when I asked him to take me to my board on the rocks for retrieval. Most times, getting your board back off the rocks is almost more scary than surfing out there. To my surprise the board was still in one piece - destroyed but in one piece - and I was able to get it on to the boat safely. It seemed within ten minutes of this cleanup set that the whole ocean shifted. The wind turned on and the surface chop began building. My dad, who was my boat captain, was pretty stressed out with the whole situation, but Matty and I switched out boards and headed back out for a bad ass tow surf session to finish the day!