Reasons to Keep Paddling

Jamie Mitchell talks environmentalism and the current state of professional big-wave surfing.

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If you’re making a list of the world’s best watermen, it’d better include Australian Jamie Mitchell. Not only is Mitchell a ten-time Molokai Challenge winner—the 32-mile channel crossing widely accepted as the world title of paddle racing—he’s a four-time Australian Waterman of the Year, multiple XXL Big Wave Award winner, and an accomplished bodysurfer, foil rider, and SUP racer. Whatever you might want to race at, he’ll win.

But as a kid, Mitchell could barely breathe. His asthma was so debilitating, he hardly socialized with other children. A doctor suggested he try swimming. “It’s good for the lungs.” So Mitchell started swimming, then junior lifeguarding, then paddling, and by seven years old, competitive paddle racing.

He entered his first Molokai Challenge as a team in 1999 at age 22, and continued racing solo the following year.  “I had a full-on plan for how I was going to win the race,” recalls Mitchell, “and everything went wrong for me. But that failure became the blueprint for how I won all the next ones.”

In 2011, after winning ten Molokai Challenges in a row, Mitchell eased back from paddling to focus on big-wave surfing, which had been in the background for over a decade. In the years to come, he’d win the big wave event at Nazaré, take 4th in the Eddie, and claim the XXL Overall Performance in 2017.  

More recently, Mitchell has applied his paddling skills to environmental action, leveraging his waterman’s reputation in an attempt to do some good in the world. In 2018, he became an outspoken voice on the controversial topic of aquaculture—lending his support to small, sustainable fish farming at a time when surf communities were protesting larger aquaculture companies. In late 2019, he paddled between the seven Channel Islands off the coast of California to raise awareness around the environmental work of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. 

We caught up with Mitchell at his home in Hawaii while he was still recovering from the five-day, 170-mile paddle.

“The wind chops were like ski moguls,” says Mitchell of this drop at Belharra, which was nominated for Wipeout of the Year. “Not making it is the most regret I have about any wave I’ve ever caught. And yes, I took a good thrashing.” Photograph by Timo Jarvinen.

NM You just paddled between 30- to 50-miles a day, five days in a row. Those are eight-hour paddle days. What’s going on in your head all that time?

JM I really just zone out. I go into robot mode and sort of hypnotize myself. It’s an interesting headspace to get into. I wasn’t thinking about anything.

NM Sharks?

JM That was definitely a concern out there. Knock on wood, but it’s sort of incredible that after all these years I’ve never really had an encounter. Actually I had one in Australia, where something tagged the back of my board, broke my rudder, and knocked me off. But I never saw it.

NM Is there something you learned from doing the Channel Islands paddle?

JM We all need to do better. I’m not some environmentalist. This is all really new to me. I’m just a waterman who wants to do better. I want my daughters and their kids to have the same opportunities in the ocean that I’ve had.

NM Is that why you entered the aquaculture discussion?

JM That was definitely a little controversial, but I’m really proud of it because it got me to where I am now. Whether or not people agree with it, I think that there’s a story to be told there.

NM And what story is that?

JM There’s a real shortage of fish. In San Francisco this year there were 100 dead whales that washed up. Apparently, that’s from malnutrition and not enough fish for the whales to eat. If you look at certain studies, if we keep overfishing there’s going to be no fish left in our lifetime. How are we going to get our protein? I eat meat. We know that one steak on your table takes something like 1,800 gallons of water to get there. That doesn’t seem sustainable. How are we going to feed the planet with protein if we continue overfishing?

NM What’s at the center of the debate?

JM The problem is that there are so many companies doing aquaculture the wrong way, it’s hard for the companies that are doing it the right way to get any credit. I went and visited places like Verlasso in Chile and Pacifico in Baja and saw how aquaculture could be done in very clean, sustainable ways. But, it’s just one of those complex and touchy subjects. 

NM Was it difficult taking a stance that was generally opposed by the surfing community?

JM It was controversial for sure, but anyone that knows me knows that I’m not selling out. I just want to be better. I want to be an example for my kids. My goal was just to get people talking about the good, the bad, and the ugly. The more it’s out in the open, the better it is for everyone. And I think it worked.

NM It sounds like you’re not 100 percent convinced of the side you took in the debate.

JM Time will tell. I’m not an expert on aquaculture. But you can be on the negative side, saying, “It’s all bad,” which probably 95 percent of it is. Or you can say, “Well, what about the people that are trying to do it the right way? How about working towards solutions?” So, would I take back last year? Hell no, because it’s gotten me to where I am right now, talking to you.

NM Do you have a particular takeaway from getting involved in the aquaculture debate?

JM I learned that whatever side you’re on, people are passionate. And that’s cool. For me, I always follow my gut feeling and go with my heart. I’ve never been one to hold back or be scared of a challenge. I think that we need sustainable solutions for our oceans and our fish, and it needs to be done the right way.

NM Let’s talk about your transition to big waves.

JM It’s been a pretty awesome journey for me. I think my first full-time winter in Hawaii was 2004. I’d already won Molokai a couple times, and I decided I wanted to spend my winters here surfing more big waves. My last Molokai was 2011, and at that stage I knew I was done. I transitioned out of prone paddling into more stand-up races, and then I transitioned completely out of any paddling. My biggest goal was to get into The Eddie Aikau event. In 2009, I got myself on the alternate list. That was one of the happiest days of my life. Then I got to surf in the 2017 Eddie, which was one of the best days of my life.

NM Did you apply your competitive paddling background to your big-wave approach?

JM One hundred percent. Surfing is my second sport. I was always more of an athlete. I love training. I’m definitely not as talented as a lot of those guys on tour, so it’s been a real challenge for me just trying to catch up. Part of the reason I’ve been successful is my paddling and my understanding of the ocean.

NM What else from your paddling career applied to big waves?

JM Just little stuff like traveling on flights, using compression socks for circulation, what to drink, and proper nutrition. All that sort of stuff can help you to be your best when you arrive at a swell halfway around the world. But more than anything, just having mental toughness and not being scared or letting swells get the best of me. You can psych yourself out in big waves.

NM What are the most important elements of training for big waves?

JM Everyone needs different things. For big-wave training you need to be strong, but not too strong. You need to be flexible, but not too flexible. You also need to train your mind. You need to be calm. You need to be able to hold your breath. Then, there’s nutrition. There’s recovery, soreness, ice baths, massages, and all that stuff. Your body is a temple and what you do to it is what performance you’re going to get out of it.

It’s not just about money.  It’s about being sustainable. It’s about creating profiles  for the athletes and telling stories about these big-wave guys. There’s more to big waves than just surfing an event. And it’s got to still be going in ten years. I want to create  a path for the next generation so that they can have a career.

NM How does your paddle training compare to your big-wave training?

JM When I was training for Molokai, it was definitely more intense and time consuming. I was training at least twice a day, six days a week. Paddling. Swimming. Strength training. Now I have a family and more of my time is dedicated to them than training. I would say it’s more about diet, yoga, some swimming, and recovery, like sauna and massage. Being able to handle a bad situation is 90 percent mental, so being mentally ready is as important as anything.

NM How would describe the state of professional big-wave surfing today?

JM It’s unfortunate. The WSL is definitely going in another direction—more content driven. But when one door closes, another opens. Big-wave surfing has so much to give. Now that the WSL doesn’t have the tour, I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there. Anyone who’s watched a big-wave event understands that it’s the highest level of human performance mixed with the highest interactions with mother nature. Who doesn’t want to see human performance against mother nature?

NM What do you do in your role as a surfers’ rep on the WSL, especially now that there’s no tour there?

JM When I got the surfers’ rep role, I spoke to Ace Buchan, who is the rep for the WCT guys. He said, “Jamie, just try and leave the sport better than you go into it.” That was great advice. I’m at the end of my big-wave career. I’m not even actually on tour this year. But the next generation of big-wave surfers should have a path to a career. So that’s my goal: to leave big-wave surfing in a better place. Right now, it’s definitely not in a better place. But I’m a man of my word. So I’ve got a lot of work to do.

NM Was the newly formed Big Wave Surfing Association your idea?

JM Yeah. I created the BWSA. Basically, we’re just banded together now to make decisions as a group. We have 50 of the best big-wave surfers, men and women, that have signed a surfers’ agreement that allows us to negotiate on behalf of big-wave surfing. So now when we’re talking to people about it, they understand that we speak for the group of people that have signed the surfers’ agreement.

NM And what is it you guys want?

JM It’s not just about money. It’s about being sustainable. It’s about creating profiles for the athletes and telling stories about these big-wave guys. Who are they? Who are their families? What do they go through when they’re training? There’s more to big waves than just surfing an event. And it’s got to still be going in ten years. I want to create a path for the next generation so that they can have a career and some money.

NM Was being the greatest competitive paddler of all time a financially successful career?

JM I actually lost money. I won $30,000 over ten years for Molokai, and I spent probably $100,000 doing it. No, financially it was not a smart move. But I loved it. I’m grateful for the life that I’ve gotten to live and that I’m living now. And I think I’m more valuable right now to companies than I’ve ever been before. I’m just going to continue on my path, man. I’m happy. I’ve got a great family and a healthy family.

NM So, how do you keep the lights on these days?

JM I make some sponsorship money and have part ownership in JM Paddleboards, as well as some odd jobs here and there. 

NM What happens next?

JM I’m more fired up this year than I have been in a long time. I’m in great shape from paddling the Channel Islands. Obviously, I still hope that the Eddie will go at some stage. And, yeah man, I want to go get that perfect wave at Jaws and Maverick’s and anywhere else that pops up. I’m really looking for the wave of my life.

Illustration by Peter Strain.