You’re probably thinking about the movie, but that’s not what I’m talking about. On the North Shore of Maui there is a world famous surf spot called Pe’ahi. It can claim some of the biggest waves ever surfed in the world. But beware, it’s also been known to chew up surfers and spit them out broken and damaged if they are not up to the challenge. Surfers call it Jaws. No surprise then that it’s the first place we went to after settling into our digs on Maui.
It’s not easy to get to Jaws. The shore is a tumble of threatening lava cliffs. Surfers must come to it from the ocean, on a boat or a jetski. To watch the surfers, spectators can go to a bluff at the end of a rugged 2.5km track. It’s gutted with potholes and channels and slices through wild sugar cane fields strewn with abandoned cars. It takes a high-clearance vehicle to tackle it and then, only on dry days. Rain turns the track to slick mud as slippery as ice.
It was a sunny, clear day, our second on Maui, when we went hunting for the track to Jaws. Undaunted by the warnings, we tried heading down in our rental Corolla but we didn’t get far. Faced with muddy potholes roughly the size of our entire car, we retreated. We parked the car and headed out on foot. But it wasn’t only the car that was uncooperative, so were our feet. Ken developed a blister and it forced us to abandon our plans. What a disappointment! The growl of the waves had just begun to reach us through the scrub, but on the first full day of our Hawaiian adventure, it would be foolhardy to risk going further.
That evening, we decided to give it another go. The next day, with better footwear, we were determined to get to the end. The weather was perfect: clear, sunny and cooler than the day before. The track seemed somehow shorter but just as muddy and rough. After about an hour, we arrived at a wide round clearing and, on the far side, a breathtaking view of the endless ocean. Big ocean swells had been forecasted, but would they be big enough to attract the surfers?
Serious big-wave surfers won’t bother with waves they find too tame. We peered over the edge. From our vantage point, it was hard to judge the size of the waves, they seemed big to our uninitiated eyes. We were in luck. One tow-team was out on the water: a jetski driver with a surfer hanging on to a towrope, along with a safety boat anchored a short distance off the breaking waves.
On a good day, the waves at Jaws roll in at high speed and with great power. The traditional paddle surfer cannot get up enough speed to catch such waves. In the mid-90s, a group of Maui surfers figured out that a Jet Ski could tow a surfer, like a water skier, and slingshot them into the wave. Thus began the era of tow-in surfing. Today, we were able to watch this technique in action. Even better, the surfer was using a truly revolutionary surfboard, one with a hydrofoil. When he skimmed down the wave, he was lifted into the air by the foil, gliding along about a meter over the surface of the water itself.
We watched for about an hour, we couldn’t get enough of the action. From time to time, the voices of the tow-team drifted up to us from the ocean below, excited after a particularly good wave. The surfer rode long waves that formed far off shore. Closing in on the rocky shore, he twirled around to climb over the lip of the wave at the last minute. A couple of times, he even did a 360 flip off the lip of the wave. With perfect timing, the Jet Ski driver swooped in to retrieve him before the next wave could slam down upon both of them. He then towed him back offshore to catch the next good wave. Truly awesome.
Eventually, the ocean seemed to lose its enthusiasm and the waves calmed. The tow-team called it a day and headed home. The nearest place to come ashore, 30km away.
We began our walk back along the rutted track. About halfway back, a local guy in a four-wheel drive Suzuki overtook us. Ya want a ride? he asked. Ken and I looked at each other – sure. It would be fun to sit in the open box in the back of the ATV while it muscled up the steep, rutted track. Our driver lives at the top of the track and has developed a little business shuttling curious visitors back and forth. He’s a low-key guy who told us his sparkling clean Suzuki is great fun in the mud of the backcountry trails.
What a kick-off to our trip!