Chatting big water with 2-time Pe’ahi Challenge winner Billy Kemper

Now that big-wave paddling has caught up to tow-in surfing, where can it go from here?

As Billy Kemper, 26, came careening down the face of a massive swell in the final of the Pe’ahi Challenge, he kept his center of gravity low.

He used the entire rail of his board and leaned into a nearly impossible turn, cutting into the face in the most critical section of the mountain of water.

Billy Kemper, 26, just won his second consecutive Pe'Ahi Challenge. Photo Courtesy of Heff/World Surf League.

Billy Kemper just won his second consecutive Pe’ahi Challenge. Photo: Courtesy of Heff/World Surf League

The barrel ride that followed was mind-blowing, earning him a perfect 10 and his second consecutive Pe’ahi Challenge title at the break also known as Jaws.

But it was the Maui native’s turn that enabled the deep barrel and the eventual win.

After tow-in surfing enabled big-wave riders to reach a new realm, the focus has been on riding those same giants without the ski assist. Most of Kemper’s career has coincided with a movement back toward paddle-in surfing.

Clearly, this guy is on the top of that game. And he just went from winning at Jaws on a 10-foot board to competing in the Hawaiian Pro at Haleiwa on a 6-foot stick.

As he now focuses on the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, we spoke with the Maui boy about the recent strides in navigating big water and where it can go from here.

Congrats on the big win. You must be getting a lot of attention from the sports world compared to other aspects of surfing.
Yeah. I think it really gets people’s attention.

If someone in the Midwest or anyone who doesn’t live by the ocean was flipping through the channels and they see the U.S. Open, they might flip right past it. They’ve seen those waves before.

But Jaws, even we’re impressed when it gets big, so it just captures the imagination.

Right. And now that we’ve seen the shift in big-wave riding go from tow-in back to paddle surfing, are you guys paddling into the same waves that you were towing into six years ago?
Yeah, you know, I think we hit that level. It’s crazy that we’re trying to get barreled on the biggest wave we can catch. But the lines we draw towing in, we’ll never be able to draw those lines paddling because you can’t get into an 80-foot wave at Jaws on a 6-foot board. It’s just not realistic.

So we’re on 9- and 10-foot boards and that’s going to slow you down from capitalizing on certain parts of the wave. But then again, it’s just you and Mother Nature. For me, paddling into a 40-footer or towing into an 80-footer is night and day in the adrenaline you get off of paddling.

Talk about that movement.
Right before I turned 20 is when I stopped towing and started paddling at Jaws. I look back at that and there were so many people who couldn’t surf a 2-foot wave averagely who were towing into 80-foot waves.

I’m not too into that. I put my life into surfing. We grew up competing when we were 5, 6, 7 years old. It took us so long to prepare to surf Jaws.

Straight up, 75 percent of the people out there aren’t ready. And they don’t know what can seriously happen. Everyone can do whatever they want, but I’m really stoked with where we’re at with paddle surfing.

Last year we saw Aaron Gold paddle into a wave that was an 80-foot face. I don’t know where anyone came up with that 60-foot measurement.

If he was on a little different equipment, he could have easily rode out of that wave. Someone’s going to get a wave like that and get barreled.

That’s one of my goals. I think it’s going to happen if we keep putting in our time.

Will tow-ins be irrelevant soon?
Jaws has never maxed out. We have yet to ever see it at a size where it’s just not rideable.

There are days that are super heavy and long interval that aren’t good for paddling just because a lot of opportunity is being missed. So I don’t blame those guys for wanting to jump on the ski.

I like watching it. To see Laird [Hamilton] out there whipping in when it’s 80 feet is still a beautiful sight.

I give huge amount of props to that whole strap crew -- Darrick Doerner, Dave Kalama, Victor Lopez, Laird Hamilton. I grew up watching those guys.

Those guys are my idols. I respect them more than anyone out there. I just get off on paddle surfing.

So tow-in had to happen to pioneer these venues and get to where you are with paddle surfing?
Yeah. One hundred percent.

It seems as if that level has been reached and the question is where can it possibly go from here.
I think more high performance. A lot of people think the boards are going to get way smaller. Yeah, the boards can get a little bit smaller, but also those days when it’s 60 to 80 feet, you’re going to need board to paddle in.

But I think a little shorter board, fins, equipment adjustment -- it’s going to create more high-performance surfing on bigger waves.

We have the athletes. Everyone has big enough balls to do it. We’re just kind of dialing in equipment.

Last year being El Nino, with Jaws being that massive that consistently, we got to fine-tune a lot. I don’t know about everyone else’s, but I’ve worked on some small touches. It feels good.

El Nino presented a ton of opportunity. But what are you anticipating now that it’s phased into a La Nina year? Obviously, the early season has been pumping.
I wasn’t expecting it to start like this. I’m over the moon that we’ve got the swell that we have.

I wouldn’t even mind if it went flat for a few weeks to give us a rest after last year and the start to this winter. [Laughs.] But this is what we train for and this is the best I’ve ever felt.

I don’t see it really slowing down. I’ve been looking at the maps the last couple of nights and noticed that the Northern Hemisphere has changed patterns and touched itself down a bit.

But that whole week at Mavericks before the Jaws event was just crazy. I haven’t seen anything like that in a while for Northern California.

I was bummed I didn’t get to go over there, but I made up for it at Jaws.

You just go with the flow. You have to be ready for any time, any place.

For me, paddling into a 40-footer or towing into an 80-footer is night and day in the adrenaline you get off of paddling. Photo Courtesy of Hallman/World Surf League.

“For me, paddling into a 40-footer or towing into an 80-footer is night and day in the adrenaline you get off of paddling.” Photo: Courtesy of Hallman/World Surf League

How big of a blow is it to big-wave surfing if we lose the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau?
The Eddie was my brother’s biggest goal in life before he passed away. It kind of moved into my vision.

I am still an alternate for that event.

A lot of the guys in there are the pioneers of paddle surfing and deserve every bit of it. But I feel my time will be close. I have heard positive things about the event being on this year.

I know they want to see people who perform out there. But every time Waimea is 20 foot, Jaws is 30 feet and spitting its brains out.

So, do I want to go straight with 100 surfers at Waimea or try to get the biggest barrel of my life? That’s why I haven’t been seen at Waimea all that often.

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