The Power of Peahi, Maui’s Jaw-Dropping Waves
Not all waves are created equal. Off the island's north shore, a cataclysmic force of nature and athleticism thunders into view.
Winter awakens a beast.
For a period of about 15 days a year, the surf break, Peahi, also nicknamed Jaws, reveals its unrest: monster waves between 40 and 60 feet—lashing its teeth at those who dare brush up against its pearly whites.
Through the fearful visual, there’s also a haunting reverence, recently evidenced in the adoption of its age-old Hawaiian place name by those who surf it, a conscious effort to draw a deeper connection to the ahupuaa (mountain-to-sea land division) it has been crashing up against for an eternity. Peahi, coincidentally, means “to wave, beckon,” a command only the world’s most elite big-wave surfers follow.
Beneath the surface, a 30-foot, cone-shaped ridge on the ocean floor, pointing northwest and seaward, is the unique geological feature that provides Peahi its raw, natural power.
“The whole story is that shape of the ridge,” says Pat Caldwell, a surf forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It allows for some of the best high-wave refraction to occur; or, in less scientific terms, when a wave experiences a change in ocean depth, it slows and bends toward shallower water. In Pe‘ahi’s case, the result is a classic, but devasting “bowl” wave that revs for up to 200 yards.
“Under a very large swell, that characteristic causes a wave to peak up, make a nice surfing wave and a blue-water exit which increases a surfer’s odds of living to tell the tale.”
Best-case scenarios aside, there’s no falling gracefully.
“I always kind of joke you never leave with your dignity here,” says Mark Healey, who’s been surfing Peahi since the early 2000s and coordinated the water stunts for the “Point Break” remake. The slightest imbalance and Peahi eats surfers up whole; if they’re lucky, even spits them back out. “It’ll take the best in the world and make them look like a toy. It’s got a violent beauty to it.”
Peahi’s legacy ripples far and wide. Well known to Maui’s surfers since the early-’90s, it was formally introduced to the world at large in a November 1998 National Geographic article. Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama, Buzzy Kerbox and Darrick Doerner tested the techniques behind tow-in surfing here, which changed the modern surf arena forever.
These days, a new generation of surfers charge Peahi, choosing to paddle in instead of being towed. Considered more dangerous, and arguably a more pure act of surfing, it’s inspired the Peahi Challenge, a big-wave surf contest now in its second year, where an enlightened era of surfing is being defined by a select few. Maui’s own Billy Kemper won first place at the inaugural event, making him a hometown hero.
Pushing one’s human limits at Peahi forms a profound bond with the break. Healey, drawn to the challenge, wonders, “How many billions of people have had the opportunity to live near the ocean, with the access to go out on a buoyant piece of material and try to be a part of some of the greatest energetic forces our planet has to offer?”
Under the mercy of Peahi, these surfers will continue searching for an answer, charging one extreme wave at a time.