Only the Lonely: Solo Surfing the Jaws Left with Will Skudin

Matt Rode

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Updated 1318d ago

As we are all aware, Jaws has been pumping this year, and the entire big wave contingent has been on hand to reap the benefits. Session after momentous session has gone down at Pe’ahi, making Maui the centre of the big wave world in the year of El Nino—and the crowds have reflected that.

Even small days are jam packed with chargers and would-be chargers looking to familiarize themselves with the best XXL barrel on the planet. But as John Severson once said, “Even in this crowded world, the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.” A couple of weeks ago, while the world turned its eyes en masse toward the spectacle of Waimea Bay and The Eddie, two men paddled out to surf Jaws alone—Albee Layer on the west bowl, and Will Skudin on the left.

Mr. Will Skudin. Pray for lefts.

Mr. Will Skudin. Pray for lefts.

© 2019 - Derek Dunfee

For Skudin, it was both a dream come true and the culmination of a year of hard work and harder travel. To paddle empty Jaws on one of the biggest days in history was the icing on the cake of a winter that has seen him surf nearly 20 XXL days in locations as far flung as Europe, the Caribbean, Hawaii, California, Baja, and the Pacific Northwest. Will has been traveling nearly full-time for the past four months, and has been a hard man to track down. But with the North Pacific finally taking a bit of a breather, we had a chance to sit down with him and pick his brain about the most active big wave winter ever.

Rumor has it that you scored an epic solo session at Jaws Left on the day of The Eddie. How was that?
That was one of those sessions that you can count on one hand. You can have a whole lifetime of surfing big waves and only have a couple of those days. Just being in the ocean when it’s that big is incredible. I teamed up with Curtis from Skull Base, and he was looking after me with the ski, and it was just the two of us. So I was out there by myself, but I wasn’t a reckless cowboy. I set up my safety beforehand, and we went through all the steps and planning.
All of the little factors worked out, and I was out there alone.
I was also prepared to tow. We saw how big the buoys were, and I have no desire to be reckless. I want to do things the right way. But I saw how clean it was, and saw a good wave from the channel. And it seems like the bigger it is at Jaws, there’s a ramp that lets you in before it jacks completely vertical. So if you have the right equipment…I’m not going to say it gets easy, but the bigger it gets, it does provide a bit of a runway.

But I just felt so connected with the ocean on that session. At first I was sort of thinking, “Why is no one here?” But then I just said a quick prayer, and I could tell that it was an opportunity to have the left to myself. It just so happened that a couple of the goofyfooters were towing their brothers or friends on the right. It was just sort of a luck thing, all of the little factors worked out, and I was out there alone. So I just tried to embrace it and enjoy my time with the ocean.

Most of the hype at Jaws goes to the right, since it is easier to photograph and offers the barrel. But some guys say that the left can actually provide a taller face, and there is some debate about which was bigger—Aaron’s right or Pedro’s left on that big day back in January. You obviously like the left—how do you compare the two waves?
Well, there are actually three waves at Jaws, in my mind. I’m not a local there, so this is just my opinion and experience. But there are three different waves. First, there is the west bowl. And in order to really surf that west bowl, you have to be on around a 9-foot board or smaller. And you have to take off under the lip like you would at Backdoor or Puerto, and knife it. And it’s definitely a wave where you are driving uphill to get into the barrel, and almost bottom turning in the barrel. So that wave is almost like a slab, like something you might surf in Ireland. Personally, I would love if that wave were a left (laughs). But it’s not, and on the backhand it’s pretty difficult to surf properly. Not to say that it’s impossible. I am sure someone will do it next year. But it’s not really my cup of tea.
It’s a 300-yard perfect peeling left, and you are going as fast as you can go on a surfboard. For me, it’s the ultimate wave.
Then there is the second wave, which is the outside right. And that’s where Dorian and Trevor and Greg Long and Ian Walsh all sit. And it’s the dream wave, sort of like the golden goose. You have the big drop, and then come off the bottom and take a high line through the west bowl. That wave can certainly be surfed on your backhand. Guys like Francisco and Tom Lowe and Healy are doing it. You have time to engage your rail line and set it up. But you are riding a bigger board, like in the 10-foot range, more than 3.5 inches thick. You need the paddle power to catch that wave.

And then there is the left. It sort of bends out to sea more, it doesn’t bend in, so you don’t really get that barrel. Although some of them do. I remember seeing old footage, and there have been some huge barrels out there on the left. But it bends out to sea and stands up a bit taller, and you really need a bigger board and a lot of volume to get over the hump out there. You are sitting 50 to 75 yards away from the right. And it’s just a beautiful wave. I’ve been surfing a lot of the outer reefs on Oahu for a long time, before we had skis and floatation and everything, and growing up I just loved those waves because they were giant, perfect lefts. And once I went to Jaws and got my first left out there, I realised that it’s a perfect wave. I mean, yes, at the end of the wave you are in a zone that is really sketchy, and you have to be prepared with safety and training if you get caught in that area. But it’s a 300-yard perfect peeling left, and you are going as fast as you can go on a surfboard. For me, it’s the ultimate wave.

© 2019 - Jimmy Hepp / WSL

You’ve had a busy winter. Run us through some of the highlights of your season.
It’s funny, because the highlights of the year for me weren’t necessarily my waves. Some of my brother’s and my friends’ waves…sometimes when you are surfing these waves, your rides sort of get blacked out, but you witness your friends’ and brother’s waves, and those are the ones that stay with you. So it’s kind of cool the way it works. But let me just think for a sec and try to remember a couple of the sessions.
I sort of got away with it, and then 30 minutes later the ocean put me back in check.
Before the El Nino winter even started, that May 3rd swell at Puerto Escondido was the biggest waves I’d ever seen, at the time. That was the biggest it ever gets there. I actually went down to Chile for that swell, but I didn’t get into the event. I was the 25th guy, so I missed it by one spot. So I was a bit bummed, because I really wanted to compete. But they say that things happen for a reason, and I actually would have never taken a 10'6 to Puerto Escondido, normally. But I had a big board for that Chile event, and since I didn’t get in I ended up leaving earlier than all the other guys, and my boards showed up earlier than everyone else. And as it turned out, that was the biggest swell we’ve ever seen for Puerto, and I had my 10'6 with me. So I was on the right equipment, and got out there first thing in the morning.

I remember sitting out there with Pedro and Twiggy, and we were the only guys out. And I just hung out for an hour and a half, dodging huge sets and trying to position. And I finally got a perfect one that came right to me, and I ended up riding it out. And then I paddled back out and actually ended up making it to the lineup, and I remember just being so stoked that I rode a wave out that day. And then 30 minutes later, that huge set cleaned us all up. So it was cool, because I sort of got away with it, and then 30 minutes later the ocean put me back in check. So that really summed up the big wave experience.

Then I had a day at Mullaghmore, and Frank Solomon got a wave that was so good. And I got a couple of waves that I was psyched on—it was an all-paddle session—but that one that Frank got was the highlight. He’s a good friend of mine, and that was one of those rides that stays with someone, it was just phenomenal.
There’s no safety zone, and you have to do everything perfectly or else you are going to die.

December 7 at Mavericks was crazy too, a nice reintroduction to Mavs for the year. I ended up getting five waves and made four of them. So that felt like a good warm up. And then a few days later I went down to Todos Santos for a big stormy swell that everyone thought was going to be blown out. But it ended up being clean and massive, like 40 to 50 foot faces, and it was just me and Jojo Roper on a ski. No photographers or anyone documenting anything. And that was just a reminder of why we do this, why we surf big waves. I mean, we knew no one was ever going to see footage of that session, but we were just doing it because we loved it. And I ended up paddling out on my own and Jojo watched over me, and I caught one of the biggest waves I’ve had at Todos for a long time. I remember the drop was so nuts, I almost disconnected from my board. And then I drove ski for Jojo and he got some. And then Gary Linden and his crew showed up, and there were just five of us out, and it was one of those magic sessions that helps you get back to the truth of big wave surfing.

Then I had that February 4th session at Mavericks, which was crazy. And the February 10th session at Jaws. And I actually ended up hitting bottom on both of those days. And I remember on February 11th, Jaws was still good, but I sat out that day, because my body and mind were pretty beat up. And even now, I am pretty mentally and physically exhausted from the year.

Skudin alongside Tom Lowe at Mavs.

Skudin alongside Tom Lowe at Mavs.

© 2019 - Fred Pompermayer / WSL

And then of course there was that huge Portugal swell at Nazare. I was super lucky that Garrett invited me over for the Red Chargers thing. I was stoked to be a part of that. And Nazare is a whole other devil. That wave is so much more powerful and so big, and so much heavier than anyone thinks. It’s hard to describe. It’s sort of funny how people think it’s not a powerful wave, because, to me, that’s the wave that will drown you. There’s no safety zone, and you have to do everything perfectly or else you are going to die. There aren’t a lot of waves like that. Here’s the difference: At Jaws or Todos or Mavericks, they are deep water reefs that sort of jack up, and the waves themselves don’t look that big when you first start paddling for them. So you are paddling for a lump of water, but it’s not that tall yet. And then, once you stand up, they jack up to twice the size of what you were paddling for.
You can position yourself correctly. But at Nazare, you are going to be fighting for your life at some point.
But at Nazare, it starts standing up way earlier. So the lump of water that you start to paddle for is as big or bigger than the wave you end up riding. So mentally, when you surf at Nazare, you are paddling for a 60-foot lump, and in your mind you think it’s going to jack up to 100 feet. And we aren’t used to that. So it’s like a mountain of water. And in order to position correctly at Nazare, you are going to have to let one of those waves land on your head at one point or another. So going into a session knowing that a 60- or 70-foot wave is going to break on your head…that’s where the nerves come into play. Because you know that all of your training is going to be utilised. At other waves, you can have perfect sessions and not have wipeouts and not get cleaned up. You can position yourself correctly. But at Nazare, you are going to be fighting for your life at some point. So it’s about trusting in your training. It’s the kind of wave where you take away the board, and find out what kind of a big wave surfer you really are, because at some point you are going to be swimming.

The crazy thing that people don’t realise about Nazare is that some waves don’t hit the sandbar correctly. And those are the ones that everyone talks shit about and writes off as not being heavy. But you can’t judge Nazare by the waves that don’t hit right, just like you can’t judge Mavericks by an insider. You have to look at the real ones that really stand up on the sandbar, because those are the nuts-est waves in the world.
It’s a team effort, which is what Garrett has set up over there. If you aren’t there to be a part of a team, then you aren’t welcome.
So that trip was crazy. On the 23rd, I ended up getting two waves, one left and one right. The right didn’t really hit the sandbar correctly, but the left did. But someone went right and they ended up shooting that and didn’t shoot the left, so I just have my mental images of the ride for memories. And I wasn’t super happy about the waves that I got, but after two I switched to the ski to drive safety. Because the cool thing about Nazare is that if you want to go there, you have to be a team player. I drove ski for 3.5 hours that day, doing rescues, pickups, grabbing boards from the beach. It wasn’t just about “Oh, here’s me surfing,” it’s a team effort, which is what Garrett has set up over there. If you aren’t there to be a part of a team, then you aren’t welcome. So I got to help my brother and friends. And driving a ski there is so much gnarlier than surfing, in my opinion.

Then the next day was just as big, and I knew I hadn’t gotten the waves I wanted the day before. So I tried to position myself inside, in a really aggressive spot. And that wave just came to me. My brother actually paddled for it and missed it, and I was inside of him and ended up paddling into what was the biggest wave of my life. And when surfing big waves, it’s sort of deceptive, because the ones that you straighten out on, you actually get to the bottom, so you can see how big they actually are. But the ones you make, you end up bottom turning mid-face and never really get to the bottom, so photos sometimes don’t really do it justice.

Don't question the power of Nazare.

Don't question the power of Nazare.

© 2019 - Helio Antonio

I feel like that happens a lot at Nazare. But that wave just felt so big. And I ended up pulling up high, and tried to get up and out of it before it closed out, and I remember jumping up and into the lip, trying to get out of it. And I ended up getting sucked over the falls, so I guess I might as well have straightened out and it probably would have looked bigger. But that’s neither here nor there. I got pretty pounded, and the ski couldn’t find me, and I actually had to swim for 20 minutes and get myself to shore all by myself. That was one of the heaviest swims of my life. And that’s how gnarly it is out there, that the ski can’t even find you. So that was super humbling, and tested my training.

You have mentioned your brother Cliff a few times. I saw you out at Nelscott with him back in December. Do the two of you travel together often? And does having him in the water with you push you or give you added confidence?
Absolutely. My brother is three years older than me, but in big waves he is sort of like my younger brother, because I got into this before he did. And at first, I felt like, “Oh man, I have to travel with this guy?” I mean, I love him, but it was a little bit harder. But now, it has come to a point where I don’t even want to surf without him. First of all, he’s my brother. And second, when he is in the water, I know I am going to go home at the end of the day. Take away the skis and the floatation and the boards—Cliff is a human fish. He is a nationally ranked ocean swimmer, and basically has gills. It’s hard to explain exactly who he is as a waterman, but he is a beast in the ocean. I know I am safe with him in the water. And it’s such a pleasure to surf with him. You know, Cliff has two speeds—0 and 100. So if he’s going, he’s not scared. It’s scary how much he’s not scared. And he really pushes me as far as turning it on, because he’s going. And in Oregon, he was on fire. He went seven for seven.
To see him have a session like that was so rewarding as a brother—the best feeling ever.
Cliff was a New York surf champion when we were young, and is a phenomenal surfer and amazing waterman, and I’ve looked up to him for so many years. And he’s had a couple crazy wipeouts in his life. But in the big wave world, who hasn’t? But you could tell that he needed a session that really gave him the confidence that he deserved, and that Nelscott session was it. That was his day. No wave anyone caught that day could take away from Cliff’s session. And anytime you see a family member that happy, you can’t help but have a shit-eating grin on your face. He works so hard for our surf camp, and is the reason we have a successful business, and to see him have a session like that was so rewarding as a brother—the best feeling ever. Normally, you don’t really get that feeling unless you are on the waves yourself, but I felt like I had the best session of my life that day, just living through his session.

 Big brother Cliff fights through offshores at Nelscott Reef.

Big brother Cliff fights through offshores at Nelscott Reef.

© 2019 - Jon Monroe / WSL

Then on that January 27th session at Peahi, Cliff took off on what I think was one of the biggest waves paddled into this year. It was like 30 foot…I mean, I don’t even know how to measure waves anymore, but it was massive. He ended up making it to the bottom, and then it blew him up and he ended up breaking a rib. I was driving safety at the time, and it was just crazy to watch. But at the end of the year, I hope that wave holds some ground, because it was sick.

You also develop a brotherhood with the guys who risk their lives with you every day. Kealii Mamala has been an inspiration to me, and has been killing it this year at Pe’ahi and Mavericks. The way he surfs and draws his lines is pretty amazing, and I trust him with my life. So it’s been great to surf and run safety with him.

Kurt Rist is another guy from New York who has been having a great season. I towed him into a crazy one at The Yeti during that Oregon swell, and he showed up at Mavs on Feb 4 and got a wave, and went to Pe’ahi on Feb 10. He was at Puerto, he was at Nelscott, and surfed Todos that clean day that I didn’t get to be there. So it’s been great to see a close buddy from the Hamptons having a great El Nino year.

You had a wildcard into the Todos event this year. Is qualifying for the Big Wave World Tour a major goal?
Well, after that Puerto session in May…I’m not sure if this is true, but I heard I was the only guy to ride a wave out that day. So after the summer was over and I was done working at Skudin Surf, it was in my head that this was El Nino, and this was the year that I could really go for the XXL Performance Award. That’s been something I’ve always wanted—I’ve looked up to the guys who have won it. And this year the guy who gets it earns a spot in all of the big wave world tour events. And I feel like if I could just have one year where I am on tour full-time, and have a legitimate chance at being world champion, that’s all any of us could ask for. So that’s my goal.

 Man-handling a Todos drop.

Man-handling a Todos drop.

© 2019 - Richard Hallman / WSL

The qualification process for the BWWT is a bit convoluted, and the full-time roster for the 2016/17 season has a number of new faces who basically qualified on the merits of their wild card performances at Peahi. When only a few events run each year, it definitely gives a chance to the wildcards, whereas a season where all seven events were run would give the full-time guys on tour a better chance of requalifying. Do you think that the current BWWT structure is appropriate, or are there ways that it could be improved?
I’ll just say that if we had El Nino every year, it would be a dream come true. I mean, think about it: It’s the hardest sport in the world to score contestable conditions for. I’ve traveled across the world and gotten skunked, even with reports that tell me it’s going to be firing. So to set up events with webcasts and judges and all of this stuff, on 24 hours notice… Everyone can sit back and say, “They could have done this, they should have done that,” but think about the sport itself and what they are trying to do. I have to hand it to them.
Trying to have an organised event in a sport that is inherently disorganised is a really difficult task.
They ran a bunch of events this year, and it’s not as easy as everyone thinks it is. I think they are doing a helluva job. And it’s hard, because you need to run hour-long heats to make the contest fair. So that limits how many guys you can have on tour. There are 200 big wave surfers right now who want to be in these events, and it’s really competitive. And I think that in life, some people have to pave the road, and other people get to drive on it. And right now I think the paving is being done, and I think they are doing a helluva job, and that it will get better and better each year. And will I still be a part of it when the process has finally been perfected? Maybe not. But at least I get to be part of the years when we are developing things. So I feel like people give these guys a lot of flack, but they work their asses off. Trying to have an organised event in a sport that is inherently disorganised is a really difficult task.

What do you have in store for the southern hemisphere winter? Anywhere in particular that you will be focused on?
To be honest, I just hope Ireland gets good. I hope that the North Atlantic really starts going. I mean, I love Puerto, but I’m set up in Ireland, and have a lot of good friends and equipment there. I was actually banking on an Ireland season at the beginning of the year, but El Nino had different plans, and I had to start chasing it. So I hope that we get a late season push for Ireland, like a good spring season for Europe before the southern hemi turns on.

Poised among the power of Puerto.

Poised among the power of Puerto.

© 2019 - Danny Ecker

What tools do you use to forecast the swells that you chase?
I sort of take the Magicseaweed and Surfline reports and match them against my account. I had a few other tools that I have dumped this year, as they haven’t been as reliable as I’d hoped. But those three are the tools I’ve stuck with.

Is there anything else you want to add to wrap up this El Nino winter for us?
Well, the WSL season is over, which is actually kind of cool, so we can focus on family and business and things like that. But I just wanted to say that my heat in the contest at Todos…that was the best heat I’ve ever lost. I had a blast, and I hope I get another chance to surf that event again, because that’s the wave that I’ve spent the most time on. And I was obviously hoping to do better in that event, but I had a really good heat, and I am happy with how I surfed. There was just that set right before the horn, and I didn’t get it. And that’s how it goes sometimes.

Finally, I just want to say that my girlfriend has been really supportive of me this entire season, every step of the way. And it was a battle for her. El Nino pretty much took over my life, and everything else took a back seat. But she was just so strong, and helped me mentally and physically, supporting me from session to session. She knew how important this year was for me, and put herself second to El Nino. And I just really appreciate her support.

Thanks Will. We’ll see you out there.