The Broken Ground

An interview with Kohl Christensen

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“Since it opened up three years ago, there’s been a monumental swell every year on Tavarua,” says Christensen. “Whether or not that happens [historically], I don’t know.” Photo: Stu Gibson / A-Frame

After meeting TSJ profiler Dean LaTourrette on The Land, Kohl Christensen quickly departed from his North Shore farm for a kitesurfing trip in Chile. While he’s built a name on the inclination to paddle rather than tow or kitesurf big waves, his preferences don’t inhibit him. In fact, when he fielded our request for an interview to bring things current, he was still nursing jet-lag from a trip to Hangzhou, China, at a river wave that required some jet ski assist.

“I pretty much paddled through the whole tow movement,” he said early in the conversation—a reminder that those rare, un-paddle-able conditions are the exception, not the rule for Christensen. As big wave surfing refocuses its emphasis on paddling, he and a growing number of surfers are glad to see that jet skis have found an important place on the fringes. During the respite from his travels, he further discussed many of the topics touched on in his profile, among them, his endeavors to the North Shore’s outer reefs, paddle vs. tow, and his frequent pilgrimages to Chile, Mavericks, and Fiji.


Is tension between paddle and tow surfers real or over-hyped?

It depends on where you are in the world. In Hawaii we have a pretty clear rule that you can’t tow in where there are guys paddling. There were a good three or four winters there, maybe even longer, when we were battling it out with tow guys and tow guys were just whipping right through us. Right at the beginning of tow, a lot of people thought, “Oh, we’re towing. Fuck you guys.” Now it’s the opposite: “We’re paddling. You guys should go find another place.” So that’s what it’s become. But if you go to Tahiti—Teahupoo is a place where, once it gets to a certain size, you can keep paddling but people are going to tow through the lineup because there are some waves you can’t paddle into. There are advantages: some tow teams are willing and able to come rescue you. I think it’s gotten to the point where there’s a common understanding between tow and paddle—and paddle is on the leading edge right now.

Christensen’s first and only true tow in session in northern Chile. Photo: Alfredo Escobar

What’s brought on that change? Why’s paddling now on the leading edge?

The whole tow movement has kind of backed off because there’s just so much more satisfaction in paddling. We’re paddling into big waves now that, at the beginning of the XXL Awards, were just tow in. So the line between towing and paddling is pretty gray. We thought it was clear but guys are paddling into huge waves at Jaws now.

At the height of tow-surfing’s popularity, why did you stick to paddling?

When I grew up I didn’t have money for jet skis. I don’t know. I just never really got into it. I have a jet ski now but I use it primarily for safety. I’ll go fuck around and I’m not against towing because I know there’s going to be a day when I can’t paddle and I’ll want to be able to catch the largest wave that I possibly can whether it’s paddling or towing. I’m going to keep my options open there and not restrict myself and say, “Oh, I only paddle. I’m against tow-ins.” I think jet skis are an incredible tool. I think without them a lot of lives would have been lost and because of them a lot of lives are going to be saved. I’ll always try to paddle first, but if I’m super tired after paddling all day, and want to whip into a couple waves, I have no objection to that.

Do you find there are sessions when you’ve been sidelined or unable to catch waves paddling?

My first tow session was in Chile. It was definitely a wave I could not paddle. I tried to paddle out and I know what I can paddle. I’ve only had a few, maybe only that one tow session. I’ve whipped into a couple of waves at Teahupoo or whatever but I’ve never had a session where it was just tow. I do have a tow board and I want to be prepared because if it gets too big I want to be on point so I can tow into a huge wave. I think a lot more people look at it that way now. If it’s even questionable—paddle. But if I get older and one day I can’t paddle into these waves and want to go out with a buddy where no one is paddling and tow into some waves, that sounds like a good time. It’s like going to the dirt bike park on the weekend.

Where do you see the limits of paddle in surfing getting pushed most?

Well, since it opened up three years ago, there’s been a monumental swell every year on Tavarua. Whether or not that happens [historically], I don’t know. I’d never been there. It wasn’t on my radar because I didn’t have the money to go there or the sponsorship. It just wasn’t a place I had access to. But since it’s opened I’ve gotten some of the best waves of my life down there.

It’s the best wave in the world. Himalayas and the outer reefs in Hawaii can get really big and stuff but there’s nothing that has as perfect and long of a barrel at that size.

After the first year we were there, it was kind of a battle between tow and paddle. All the boatmen were used to having it to themselves. We showed up with our 9’8’’s and were like, “We’re here to paddle.” And they said, “We don’t know if you can paddle it.” They were towing through us the whole time and it was kind of a shit-show.

It took a couple of years for people to realize that Cloudbreak is a wave you can paddle when it’s massive. There were only a few that couldn’t be caught. Other than that, someone caught every set.

You’ve got what seems like a natural affinity for travel. What made you leave Hawaii at such a young age for extended periods?

I think it was a rebellion. I went to Punahou—where Obama went to high school. It’s one of the best high schools in the nation. I was burnt out. I felt like my education was good and I didn’t need to go to college. And I met this girl whose dad lived on Easter Island. I think that’s what spurred the trip. I went to Rapa Nui and ended up staying there for seven months. This was back in the ’90s, when it was pretty wild. Now there are a lot more rules. We’d go across the island with our boards on horses and camp in some places you’re not allowed to camp now.

How’d you end up with a horse?

The way I got the horse—this kid wanted a surfboard and offered me a horse. I thought that was a deal. I never had a horse. But it was kind of a love-hate relationship. I had to go to the other side of the island—10 miles away— and ended up having to drag it by its reins down the road because I didn’t know how to make it move once it got tired. By the time I got home, I was so pissed off I didn’t even want the fucking thing anymore. We ended up eating it [when I left]. It was kind of old. I never really got attached to it.

Do you enjoy traveling to the cold-water, big wave locations and how do they compare with surfing the outer reefs in Hawaii?

The wave at Mavericks is a lot heavier than the waves we have out here. It’s definitely one of the waves I fear the most. Last year I went for every big swell—five or six times. I can’t wait to get up there again. I love it. I have kind of a passion for it now, and want to get some good waves out there, especially with the advent of these [flotation] vests.

The critical conditions in which Christensen thrives come together only a handful of days. Each winter he maximizes each swell, circling the Pacific. Locales such as Mavericks are fixed targets on the hit list. Photo: Jason Murray / A-Frame

When did you first surf Mavericks?

My first time there [in 2007], me and Nathan [Fletcher] were surfing Phantoms the day before and he said, “Hey, Kohl, do you want to go to Mavericks?” I didn’t even have a wetsuit and it ended up that it was one of the biggest swells ever out there. We flew up on the overnight Hawaiian flight, got there late, and slept at Anthony Tashnick’s house in Santa Cruz. We got to Mavericks and it was totally socked in and foggy.

Everyone else was on skis. We were the only ones paddling. I never got to see the land from the water that whole trip. But there was one moment in the afternoon when we were starting to get cold, everyone stopped towing, and the sun kind of broke through for a little bit. We drifted into the lineup and each got a wave. I kind of got pounded at the end of mine. And Nate had a wave that he rode through. It was a session where we went out and paddled when it was all tow. It’s not like we caught the biggest waves by any means. It was right at that point, though, when people were trying to figure out when you can paddle and when you can tow.

Tucked away from the North Shore power grid, this short clip follows Christensen on The Land while he recounts being selected for the Eddie Aikau invitational at Waimea Bay as an unknown, unsponsored surfer, realizing his passion for riding big waves.