During a large swell that hit Maui’s famed big-wave surf break Pe’ahi, (better known to the casual surfer and traditional media as “Jaws”) on Jan. 22, 2015, it wasn’t the customary names in the big-wave surfing community who took the spotlight for catching the best waves of the day.
It wasn’t even the customary gender who stole the spotlight that day.
It was a relatively unknown local surfer named Paige Alms who stole the show that beautiful sunny morning (not only charging the set waves but perhaps catching the best wave of the day). Alms accomplished something never before documented at Pe’ahi, becoming the first woman ever to get barreled at one of the biggest waves in the world.
The incredible feat garnered considerable recognition for Alms, including being honored with an XXL Women’s Overall Performance Award and an ESPY nomination. Alms even gained the attention of an aspiring filmmaker named Devyn Bisson, who drew inspiration from Alms’ incredible big-wave accomplishments to produce a documentary about Alms called The Wave I Ride.
I caught up with Alms to discuss that historic day at Pe’ahi, the filming of the movie The Wave I Ride and what’s next for the big-wave surfer from the beautiful Hawaiian island of Maui.
I’m guessing you learned how to surf in Maui, but how did you make the transition to big waves?
I started surfing, I moved to Maui when I was nine.
I was born in Victoria, BC, Canada.
So, nine years old, you moved to Maui.
Yeah. So I moved to Maui when I was nine. My mom and I had been traveling around this area together for almost a year. I had a surf lesson here, and I just got kind of hooked on being in the water.
I’d always loved being in the ocean, but as soon as I found surfing I kind of found a new challenge and something that really sparked something in me, and I really liked being just kind of on my own out in the water and I always felt pretty comfortable. So surfing kind of came naturally for me, and growing up on Maui you’re at the beach all the time, and it’s just a matter of time before you’re surfing all the time.
So when I was 10, I guess that’s kind of when I officially started surfing nonstop and never really looked back. I was always into other sports, and playing soccer and kind of doing a little bit of everything. And then as soon as I turned, I think I was about 13, just got into high school, and then that’s kind of when I decided that surfing was my main focus. Kind of hard to do everything when surfing’s in your life, it’s always at the back of your mind, if you’re missing out on good waves or something. (laughs)
It’s an obsession. I’ve surfed for over 20 years of my life. I get it.
I think when I was 13, I won the US Nationals in California, and was just doing competitive surfing a lot, and then when I was 15 I had my first, like, real outer reef big-wave experience with my mentor and shaper at the time, and I’ve never really looked back since then. That’s kind of been my passion, and what I put all my focus on now is kind of just finding the peak moments of being in the ocean when waves are really big.
How did you step it up to suddenly surf these monstrous waves?
I don’t know, I think Maui’s a breeding ground for a lot of different sports. Especially water sports. But growing up here, like when I was a kid, it’s all about the tow-surfing, and the strapped crew, and watching all of those guys doing that, and I honestly never was like, “Oh, I really wanna do that,” until I was a teenager, and then I realized that I was always drawn to that and being out in big waves.
Some people panic and freak out, and I always kind of felt more calm in just knowing deep down that, I don’t know, I was meant to do that or that was kind of my calling and I really love it so, I don’t know, it was just kind of a natural progression.
We have a lot of different sort of waves here, and having Jaws in our background, it’s five minutes from my house, so it’s kind of hard not to get out there. (laughs)
Do you recall your first big wave? Greg Long has a roll in your new movie, The Wave I Ride, and the way he has described getting into big waves is it’s transitional. Incremental, with waves getting bigger and bigger. Is that how it was for you too? Was there a moment for you or was it a progression?
It’s definitely a progression. When I was 13, 14, 15, I was going over to Honolua Bay a lot when it was bigger, and I wouldn’t necessarily say they were big waves, but for a teenager at the time, when you’re surfing triple-overhead waves and being pretty confident out in the water, that was the step in the right direction.
And then, like I said, when I was 15 my mentor and shaper, Chris Vandervoort took me out to one of the outer reefs here and he was like, “You know, you’re ready for this, you’ll be fine,” and it was my first time ever on a big board. I think I was on a 9’0″ and I was paddling out, and the waves that we went to was a good 20-25 minute paddle out into the middle of the ocean.
It was pretty spooky, you go through the sharkiest waters I think we have on Maui. I think that was just the initial step of actually being thrown into riding a big board, and being out there, and having to just really be in tune with the ocean. I kind of got into tow surfing two years later, and going up to Jaws and the whole towing thing was so much fun. You’re having fun all day long, right?
And then a few years after that, everyone started paddling at Jaws and that was kind of the next step for me. I had a few big-wave sessions before that paddling, but that was definitely like, “Hey, all my friends are doing it,” and I didn’t want to be left behind, and I felt like all the people that I’d been pushed by and all my peers that I was growing up with were out there so I was instantly motivated to get some boards and give it a go.
I have nothing but the utmost respect for big-wave surfers. In my opinion, I do think there has to be a certain screw loose in your head to be a big-wave surfer. As much talent as you need, you’re facing death pretty much every time you’re doing it. Would you agree with that? Is there a part of you that you think is kind of a bit crazier than the average human being or do you think I’m wrong?
I think you definitely have to have a little bit of something. It’s not for everyone, or else everyone would be out there doing it.
But I think it’s also not just necessarily being a little bit crazy; it’s kind of being able to truly trust in yourself and I think a lot of people struggle with that. And that’s, for me, something that I find when I’m truly in tune with my body and what I’m doing and being out in the ocean and being in tune with Mother Nature. When I have that 100 percent trust, I don’t know, you feel more alive then and you get the best waves that you’ll ever catch when you really have that confidence, you know?
So I think for me, I just find that in the big-wave group and community and family, there’s a lot of people that are absolutely nuts, and then there’s a lot of people that are a little nuts and just a little more calculated and just really believe in themselves.
The sport’s evolved certainly from what it used to be because now there are inflatable vests, and you can strategize more, and you can play it right. What is your workout regimen? How do you train and prepare to surf big waves?
Two of my good friends own a gym about 10 minutes from my house, and I work with a trainer here. We go off of what we’re supposed to be doing, and what my work schedule’s like, and we just set our training schedule in between that.
In the summer and the winter things are a lot different because right now we’re going into summer, and I’m going to be traveling a lot and I’m going to be home for a couple of weeks, so it’s just trying to keep that steady fitness level and feeling good and not getting sore and stiff and just trying to keep it going. And then there’s the build-up in the fall of trying to get your strength and your cardio and everything, and basically just getting your mind right and prepared for the winter.
But, I spend a lot of time in the gym, I do a lot of surfing; I think staying in the water is the best thing for you. As a surfer, the more time in the water the better, obviously. And then of course the breath-hold stuff, and underwater training, but I don’t do that religiously. In moments, and definitely more in the summer, when it’s flat and it allows us to do that.
How did your new movie, The Wave I Ride, come about and what’s the story?
To summarize and not babble on, Devyn Bisson, who’s the director of the movie, read an article in Surfer Mag called “Boys’ Club” and it was a half-page article on women in big-wave surfing. It was half a page. And she took something from one of my quotes and it sparked something in her. She was searching to do a project on women in ocean sports, not necessarily surfing, and she wanted to do it on a character. And she wrote me a message on Facebook. I had never met her before.
A couple days later, we were on the phone. And I think it was a month later she was out here shooting, and that was all with the intention of doing a 10-12 minute short documentary. And they did a Crowdfunding Kickstarter to raise the money to come out here with the intentions of doing that, and came out for 10 days and we filmed every day, all day.
And halfway through that process she was like, “Hey I think this is going to turn into more of like a 30 minute thing,” and I’m like, “Wow, oh my God, 30 minutes on myself? That’s kind of intense.” And then from that it turned into becoming a feature film, and she spent over a year editing and working on the movie and all with not very much financial help. She was just doing it out of her own, it was her project. I just happened to be the person she was doing the project on. I really had nothing to do with it. I had no decision-making. There were a couple things at the end, really minor edits, but I honestly didn’t even see the movie until it was 98 percent done.
So I had a lot of trust in her. We’ve become really good friends. She’s an amazing, strong woman and did an amazing job. And basically just the message of the movie is, it’s kind of showing my life, obviously, it’s a documentary on me but kind of leaving the message with people to go out there and find their wave. The movie’s called The Wave I Ride and I think that kind of can be left with anyone on what their wave is. And mine right now is big-wave surfing, and I think it’s just supposed to inspire you and, yeah, I think you’ll like it if you haven’t seen it yet. (laughs)
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