Red Bull Jaws

At Treacherous Jaws, Experience Prevails over Youth

Ian Walsh at Jaws in 2012 Fred Pompermayer/Red Bull Media House

When just the right northerly swell combines with just the right atmospheric conditions and produces a day of monstrous 30-foot surf, the Red Bull Jaws: Paddle at Peahi event will be called on. And the 21 surfers that have been invited to the event will be ready with 10-foot big-wave guns under their arms.

But unlike the ASP World Tour -- where many of the competitors are well under 25 years old and most are under 30 -- the big wave arena is anything but a young man's game. Riding the most menacing waves in the Pacific takes years -- even decades -- of experience, which makes it more a game for salty old sea dogs rather than young pups.

"You need a really good understanding of the ocean and a lifetime of surfing. A lifetime of ocean knowledge is pretty much the key," explains Ian Walsh, the 29-year-old Hawaii native and mastermind behind Red Bull Jaws. Walsh has been surfing Jaws since he was 17. "You have to be able to anticipate and understand everything that's happening in milliseconds."


"Jaws is the premier big-wave spot in the world and has the potential to be bigger than anywhere and still rideable; that takes a certain amount of knowledge and experience," notes Red Bull Jaws contest director Mike Parsons.

Up until several years ago Jaws was considered by most to be too big to paddle into, and up until then just about any surfing that took place there was aided by the power of jet skis. These days, however, it's a brave new world. Paddling into waves under one's own strength has become the benchmark by which all heroic rides at Jaws are measured.

"The main difference is that when you're paddling you're sitting in harm's way, whereas when you're towing you're out the back and can move a lot quicker on the ski. When you're paddling at Jaws you're going to get caught inside, and that is the heaviest factor," explains Parsons. "I still think there are probably one or two days a year that it's too big to paddle."

"You have to be all in when it comes to riding big waves, it's not something that you can do half-assed. It takes time, dedication and a belief in what you're doing, which is something I think you mature into."

Look no further than the list of confirmed invitees to see the age factor in play. Dave Wassell is 39. Kala Alexander is 43. Jeff Rowley is 33. "You have to start by knowing your limits," explains Wassell, who grew up on the North Shore of Oahu. "Then you work past them. It doesn't come overnight."

Wassell has been a lifeguard at Pipeline for the better part of his life. He is an accomplished free diver and spear fisherman, which means he can hold his breath for minutes on end.

But maybe more importantly, when he's not confined to a lifeguard tower Wassell has made a point of traveling the world and stalking the biggest, meanest days of surf he can find. He cut his teeth at Waimea Bay and Oahu's outer reefs. He's undaunted by cold water, charging heavy days at Mavericks in Northern California; Cortes Bank, located 100 miles off the coast of California; and Isla Todos Santos in Mexico. And since there are really only a handful of exceptionally huge days a year, if that, this process has taken most of his adult life. 

nullShane Dorian, 40, scored a killer ride at Jaws in October/Mike Neal/Billabong XXL

"You just have to be dedicated, you have to put everything into it," says Wassell.

Parsons concurs: "You have to be all in when it comes to riding big waves, it's not something that you can do half-assed. It takes time, dedication and a belief in what you're doing, which is something I think you mature into."

Young or old, no matter who's riding Red Bull Jaws, Walsh has one goal in mind: "I want people to have a glimpse into what it is that's really happening out there. To me it's the greatest show on earth, seeing what my friends are doing in that lineup. If I can show people around the world what is actually happening in those sessions, what we're actually doing and how we're doing it, that's what I want people to take away from this."

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