Standing in ankle-deep water on the newly formed sandbar in front of Rocky Rights, Trevor Carlson and I watch triple overhead sets unload a few feet in front of us, waiting for our opportunity. We have no boards, no floatation, not even swim fins—just confidence in our abilities, a pair of minor injuries, and a desire to get some exercise and spend some time in the water.
As we wade toward the doubled-up, closed-out impact zone, the first real set of the building swell feathers and then breaks on the second reef, an indication of 12-foot open ocean energy aimed straight at our heads. Trevor hesitates for a moment, turns to me, and says, “We are about to get pounded. What are we thinking?” Then he laughs and, without another thought, dives into the rip.
After 30 minutes of getting pinned to the bottom, battling currents, and body whomping mutant sand monsters, we make it to the channel at Pipeline. The lineup is full of bodyboards, the result of a wonky swell and the recently completed Mike Steward Invitational event. We swim around in the impact zone, dodging spongers and second reef double-ups until a lifeguard on a rescue board paddles out through the rip to save our dumb finless asses. But when he sees Trevor, he starts laughing. “Should’a known it was you, brah,” he says as he turns back towards shore without a second thought.
Carlson has had a coming-out year this season, chasing dozens of swells and packing barrels at every big wave spot on the Pacific Rim, despite being relatively unknown a year ago. But his chops in heavy water are nothing new. A swimmer and cross-country runner in high school, Trevor moved to Oahu at 18 and immediately blitzed the notoriously demanding lifeguard physical fitness tests. He spent the next five years guarding the island’s various beaches, including stints on the North Shore, where he now lives—a short drive from a dozen of the heaviest waves on the planet.
Trevor has been pushing himself in XXL surf for the past decade, but redoubled his focus five years ago and started looking beyond Oahu for a new level of challenge. Working closely with local shaper Drew Sparrow, Trevor dialed in his boards, then began toting them to the West Coast and Maui on his own dime, funding his pursuit through his new career as a roof salesman. Trevor’s only sponsor is his mother, who is on the cliff for every Pe’ahi swell and funds his safety team, ensuring that he always has someone on a ski keeping a close eye on him. Yet despite his conspicuous lack of corporate support, Trevor has traveled nearly non-stop this El Nino season, racking up more miles in the air and more sessions in XXL surf than just about anyone else.
This isn’t something that he wants to do for a season or two—Carlson intends to be surfing big waves for the next 20.
With over 30,000 miles logged since November and dozens of sessions in XXL waves ranging from tropical Puerto and Pe’ahi to frigid Nelscott, Mavs, and Todos Santos, you’d think that Trevor would have burned himself out months ago. But his approach to preparation is borderline OCD, and that preparedness is what helps him stay healthy and in fighting shape. And Trevor isn’t afraid to vocalise his concerns about other chargers who seem to be sending it without regard for their safety. This isn’t something that he wants to do for a season or two—Carlson intends to be surfing big waves for the next 20, and understands that a calculated, detail-oriented approach is the only way that is going to be sustainable.
Ironically, that calculated approach means that he is usually the first guy in the water on XXL mornings, and has resulted in an impressive tally of heavy water accomplishments, the biggest of which was a part-time berth on the Big Wave World Tour in 2015/16. The previous year, Trevor had entered the BWWT’s video wildcard event, and ended up winning entries into Pico Alto, Pe’ahi, Todos Santos, and Nelscott, as well as an alternate slot at the Punta Galea event.
Unfortunately for Trevor, only two of those events ran this season, so despite a 7th place finish at Pe’ahi, he narrowly missed out on a top 10 ranking and qualification for next year’s tour. But Carlson isn’t sweating the fact. Big wave surfing is something he loves, not something he does for a living, which is why he has spent the past five years chasing waves instead of a sponsor. Trevor is proof that hard work, commitment, and a calculated approach eventually pay dividends, and he knows that his big wave career—whether it is corporately or personally funded—is just getting started.
Trevor is proof that hard work, commitment, and a calculated approach eventually pay dividends.
With the El Nino winter winding down and the Southern Hemisphere season yet to kick into gear, Trevor is relaxing at home, but certainly not resting. While others might be tempted to let themselves go at the end of a non-stop winter, Carlson is sorting out his equipment, training every day, and prepping himself for another six months of non-stop travel.
Having worked our way back up the coastline between Pipe and Rocky Point, I watch Trevor as he prepares to make his way across the maxed-out sandbar—his approach to a black diamond swim the same as his approach on land and in the lineup at Pe’ahi or Mavs or Waimea Bay. Treading water, he waits patiently, alert, confident, and tuned-in. Then, when the moment presents itself, he takes his opportunity. Head down, fully committed, he goes without hesitation—and he doesn’t look back.
It seems like you have been going non-stop this winter, Trevor. You want to talk us through your itinerary?
I’ve been chasing swells between Hawaii and the West Coast since mid-October. Since October 20, I have done 31 flights and something like 32,000+ miles. And before that I was at Teahupoo for a few months, Puerto Escondido for that massive swell, and the XXL awards in California. It’s been a pretty crazy year.
You chase it more than just about anyone. How did that all start?
I moved to Hawaii when I was 18, and spent the next five years lifeguarding. Then I did a year of EMT in California, and ended up quitting lifeguarding to be a paramedic. Then, with one year left in paramedic school, I just decided that wasn’t the path I wanted to follow. I ended up quitting paramedic school and looking for a sales job that would support my desire to chase big swells. I ended up developing a successful career as a roofing salesman, and have been funding my travels with that ever since.
For the past four years, Pe’ahi has been my sole focus in life.
With all of that travel, it would be easy to wear you down, both physically and mentally. How do you stay healthy?
The most important thing this year has been the way that I eat. During those weeks when I was going hard, if I ate anything that wasn't optimal, it would ruin me. When I was doing all of those flights, and sitting in those airports, and experiencing all of that stress, my food was the only thing that I could control. So I was really careful about what I ate, and kept up my yoga practice the entire time, and that really helped.
Speaking of yoga, you are pretty focused on your fitness and training. What does your training regime look like during the season, and how does it differ during the off-season?
When I am not chasing swells, my training is more like triathlon training—I am biking, running, and swimming. Then, during the surf season, I focus a lot more on paddling, bodysurfing, hiking, and yoga. I try to stay healthy between swells, then beef up on my cardio fitness during the offseason. But if we are lucky and the southern hemisphere pumps as hard as the north has, then there might not be an off-season.
It seems like you have been bouncing back and forth between Hawaii and the West Coast almost non-stop, but you seem to focus a lot of your energy on Pe’ahi, and I know your mom lives there on Maui as well. Is Pe’ahi your main focus, or was that just because it’s close to your home on the North Shore, and because they’ve had such an epic season?
For the past four years, Pe’ahi has been my sole focus in life. That’s what I dream about at night, what I focus on, what I obsess over. All the boards I get shaped, everything I do is geared towards Pe’ahi. Everything else is secondary.
But you have been traveling to other XXL spots as well. What wave has impressed you the most?
That’s a hard question, because every wave is impressive. Teahupoo, Mavericks, Puerto are all different waves, all terrifying and dangerous and rewarding. I love them all, so it would be hard to choose one. Every spot has a different personality, and there is something about that that I like. I feel like the greater variety of waves you can surf, the more you can expand your understanding of the ocean. When I started chasing big waves, I feel like my mind was opened a bit, and the experience of surfing different waves made it easier to adapt when I was in new lineups. I think that traveling has helped me progress in that way.
Now that the northern hemisphere season is winding down and the southern hemi will hopefully start lighting up soon, are there any waves in particular that you are planning to chase? Any new spots that you’d like to visit?
Well, I plan to go to Puerto for sure. But I’d also like to do some new trips. I think it would be fun to check out the point breaks in Mexico, and surf some fun, non-life threatening waves, because I haven’t really traveled for anything but big waves in the past five years. So that sounds like something I’d really enjoy. I also really want to go to Chile this year, and I want to go back to Fiji. But as far as big swells go, I definitely plan to go to Puerto and Teahupoo. And if I can make it to Ireland in the next couple of months, that would be great.
Well hopefully El Nino still has a bit of fuel in his tank, and the summer pumps as well. Thanks Trevor, good luck.