Six years ago, when that famous wave broke on the Third Ledge at Cloudbreak—tearing down reef, tearing through time, majestically unridden, surfers scrambling for their lives—there was one question left hanging in the air like sea mist. As the last wave washed through the lagoon and slunk back into the ocean, the water still hissing, chunks of coral sinking back to the ocean floor and heartbeats returning to safe levels, everyone who witnessed it had one thought. If Cloudbreak ever did that again, could it even be ridden?
Six years ago, Kohl Christensen had paddled for that wave.
“I think at that time in my life I was pissed I didn’t get it,” he remembers. “I honestly thought I had a chance.” The reality, though, was that no one had a chance. The wave had broken on Cloudbreak’s mystical Third Ledge, and by the time it reached Kohl and the rest of the pack it had drawn all the water off the reef, moving more like a tsunami surge than an ocean swell but somehow still maintaining perfect form. It was mesmerising. It resembled a wormhole into another dimension. No one would or could catch it, not Kohl, not anyone. Kelly Slater was waxing up in the boat when the wave hit. He put his board down and grabbed a beer instead. That wave wasn’t meant to be ridden.
Kohl has traveled to Fiji and surfed every landmark Cloudbreak swell in the past decade, but it’s the one wave he didn’t catch that has kept the Hawaiian awake at night ever since, somewhere between regret and relief. “It reeled off, but the real wave was a hundred yards deeper. That whole wall is feeling the bend in the reef and stretching out. Where I am is right at the bend in the reef, the worst place to get it. But if you could somehow get in up the reef …” He’s still thinking about it as we speak. Kohl’s a frontiersman and the Third Ledge represents a big frontier.
“I had in my mind the future and who knows what could be ridden out there. But I just didn’t see an entry point up there, and I’m thinking if it happens again I’m going to try and paddle it, but if the conditions aren’t optimal and I’m not feeling it, I could tow one. How rad would it be just to ride one?”
In May of 2018, Kohl traveled to Chile to run a Big Wave Risk Assessment Group training course at Punta de Lobos with good friends Ramón Navarro and Greg Long, working with a new generation of Chilean big-wave surfers. He’d only been in Chile for five days though when the forecast for Fiji firmed up.
“The whole time I was hoping it happened,” he says, “but I was also hoping it didn’t happen.” Not only was Kohl in Chile, and not only did he have the training course to run, but he also had his wife and 14-month-old baby with him. “We were checking it on every update, looking for everything wrong we could find with it, nitpicking it to death looking for anything for it not to happen because we had this plan, but in the end we couldn’t find anything wrong with it. And there were two swells. There was the Friday swell, and there was an even bigger swell on Sunday.”
In the end, Greg “took one for the team”, running the course himself and cutting Kohl and Ramón free. The pair have chased swells together for years; Ramón had been there in Fiji six years ago and caught one of the waves of the day, so he needed little encouragement to return. Kohl’s boards were back home in Hawai’i and he arranged for them to be flown to Fiji, but while packing Ramón’s boards they discussed whether or not to take Ramón’s tow-in board.
“It’s all been about paddling for so long now,” says Kohl, “but we said, “Look, if the conditions are big and weird let’s just bring the tow board because I don’t want one of those waves to go unridden again. I couldn’t stand to see another picture of us paddling over one of those again. It had been killing me for years.”
The Friday swell was a warm up. It was a building swell with a light crew. They surfed with Australians Dan Ross and Laurie Towner, and just before dark there were 15-foot sets starting to sweep in from the South Pacific. The Sunday swell, if the charts held true, would be 10 feet bigger again, and potentially the biggest anyone had seen at Cloudbreak. The swell was so serious that local surfer Uri Kurop pulled together a safety detail that featured three dedicated rescue skis, three experienced drivers, a doctor in the channel and an evacuation protocol. “From the safety point of view,” says Kohl, “we set the gold standard.”
The Sunday morning dawned big, but the swell had arrived with howling winds and rain. Nobody was surfing, it was too wild to paddle, and the only way to assess whether it was surfable or not was to take the jet ski out and tow. “I said to Ramón, ‘Let’s just get out there now and get a couple on the tow board.’ It felt like it was the right thing for me to do, because I was still thinking the whole time about the waves we missed that day. We had to tow. I don’t think it could be any other way, because I knew the wave I wanted.”
By midmorning, however, the swell seemed to have peaked, the wind had backed off and the sun started to break through. Inside, the first guys were starting to paddle out. Kohl and Ramón meanwhile were now the only guys left out the back towing, and they were beginning to wonder if they were wasting their time.
“We’re waiting out the back for an hour, coming on two hours. Ramón is in the water shivering and I’m calling Tevita on the radio asking how it is inside and he’s telling me guys are paddling into some good ones. I’m thinking, are we making the right decision here? Ramón is going, ‘Let’s go back and paddle’ and I’m saying, ‘Relax, Ramón’ because by this stage we’re hours deep in this. The sets were coming but the wave we’re looking for hasn’t.”
When the wave eventually came, it was hard to tell whether it was actually the wave. “I’ve never been much of a tow surfer but I’ve kited a lot, and when you kite you come from deep water and feel the deep water swells under you. I remember seeing what looked kind of like one of the normal big sets, the 45-minute sets, but this one had something about it. We were a hundred yards up the reef and way out. It lumped up there but it had this feeling, this hook to it, more wall down the line than the other ones. There was something about it and it felt right. I was midconversation with Ramón when it rolled through and I was like, ‘We’re going!’
“That swell was moving so fast and it was bumpy, all this wind chop, and I remember having to pin the ski to stay on it. As it started drawing off the reef I couldn’t even look back to see Ramón. I knew he either wasn’t there or he was holding on for dear life, and then as I get closer I can see the crowd way down the reef, and I can see the thing start drawing and I give him that final whip and he just let go of the rope and disappeared down into it. That was the last I saw of him.
“I remember driving out and around the pack and I’m hearing this yelling. It was Mike Pietsch. I heard his voice as I’m rounding the bend and all of a sudden the whole lineup was going nuts. At that point, I knew something magical had happened. When I got to Ramón, he was losing his shit. He was freaking out. He was hugging Kelly Slater when I found him, then he’s hugging me and laughing and he’s like, ‘Thank you! We did it! We got it!’ I was literally so emotionally and physically spent I peaked right there. I was cooked. I couldn’t take anymore. I went back to the boat and had some beers.
“It’s a little bit of closure, I suppose. There are so many young kids out there who are hungrier than I am these days, I felt like after getting that wave, there are so many other waves in the world that I could almost go somewhere else on the next swell. But, you know, in saying that, I’ll probably be back. We towed it, but it’ll be cool to paddle one.”
At this point Kohl drifts off and starts surfing the wave in his head. He’s still wrestling with it. “But they break so far off the reef and as they break they bend. You might be able to drop in up there, but making it around that corner would be pretty difficult. But, you know, never say never. I don’t want to say it can’t be done, but for now I’m just glad that I can look at a picture of that wave rolling through with someone on it, and it was my buddy and we came from Chile with a mission to get it.”
Thanks to Uri Kurop and Tevita Gukilau for their work on water safety—and for the Fijian hospitality.