Hawaiian Waterman Kainoa McGee is the exception rather than the rule. A world-class performer on just about every type of surf craft, Kainoa has a rare ability to make magic happen no matter what is under his feet, or on occasion, his body. As a perennial bodyboard world title contender McGee was always a feared performer at Pipeline. Incredibly he later transferred his skill to regular surfboards and longboards, also finding success at the highest level, a unique achievement. It was almost inevitable that as stand up paddle surfing developed the Hawaiian would again define performance levels, especially at Pipeline. We caught up with Kainoa to ask him what it’s like to be part of an elite group of Banzai stand up paddle surfers.
(This feature originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of SUP International. Print and digital subscriptions for readers worldwide are available HERE.)
SUP: You’re probably the only man on the planet to ride all different types of surfboard so well, was it really inevitable you’d pick up the paddle?
I thought that it wasn’t going to be inevitable because when I saw my cousin Ikaika Kalama suping out at Pipe I thought that he was out of his damn mind. Lo and behold, after a few more months I found my dumbass out at Pipe on a board that had no business even being on the sand at Pipe. At least Ikaika had enough sense to use the proper equipment out there. Now that it think about it I got really lucky that I didn’t get my ass handed to me on a silver platter in that first Pipe sup session. It has definitely happened a few times since but you gotta give some to get some.
SUP: For most of us it’s inconceivable to ride an SUP at Pipeline, what are the challenges you face out there?
As with anytime you get on an SUP, the wind is usually the biggest factor on whether you’re going to have a good time or just get totally frustrated. Most of the time when we’re on an SUP at Pipe, we’re usually sitting out at second reef. Just like anywhere else in the world, the further away you get from the shore the stronger the wind gets which makes it absolutely one of the hardest thing to do on an SUP. Now combine that with one the world’s heaviest waves and you either have a recipe for disaster or the best damn rides of your lifetime. Needless to say, I’ve been blessed enough to have experienced both. Other challenges are the crowds. Trying to manoeuvre those big ass boards in all of that traffic with the size of waves that we’re riding and the speed that those waves create for us is definitely something that gets your heart racing and your adrenaline pumping. And then last but not least you have the major difficulty of Pipeline herself. As if riding Pipe on any other type of board isn’t hard enough, we then throw in a paddle, and oh yeah, you have to stand up and paddle to catch a wave. As far as I’m concerned it is by far, definitely the hardest way to surf Pipe.
SUP: You have such an intimate relationship with Pipeline, how does it change with the different equipment you ride, specifically SUPs?
The relationship is always the same. She loves me and I love her but she definitely puts her foot down when she feels like it to let me and everyone else know who’s the boss. I believe evidence of that is plastered all over the internet. Good and bad it’s all there for the world to see…
SUP: What have been your best / worst SUP moments at Pipe?
The best is the segment that I have in Ikaika’s video (IK 10) and the worst is when I got hammered last year on my new board and broke it.
SUP: Are there any other North Shore spots that you paddle surf when it’s big?
I want to start paddling outer reef stuff during the big swells but I need to design the proper boards for that. That is definitely something that I don’t want to do without proper equipment. I’ve also surfed Lani’s, Sunset, Chun’s and let’s say pretty much any other spot that I could get my hands on.
SUP: Does your equipment change|as the conditions get bigger and or heavier?
At this point, NO. I use the same boards that I use at Ala Moana and Waikiki in one foot waves as I do out at Pipe and Teahupoo. As well as the same fin set ups and paddle…
SUP: Could you talk us through a big Pipe drainer?
I guess that’s something that if you haven’t experienced it would be hard to imagine or explain, but I’ll try. The easiest way I guess is to stand next to a two story building – or higher – and imagine it heaving over you and out towards the shore as you stand straight up – while it’s heaving over you. Now imagine a sweet silence as you’re in the barrel and the only sound that you hear are your thoughts and the lip landing right next to you. That sound is similar to putting your ear up to a sea shell. Then you realize that it all appears to be happening in slow motion. I would tell you to close your eyes and imagine what I’m saying but it would be pretty hard to read my explanation if your eyes are closed.
SUP: What do you think the impact of stand up paddle will be on big wave surfing?
I think that it’s going to be very limited because just being a good surfer doesn’t translate into being a great sup guy. Unlike other wave riding genres such as tow surfing, which revolutionized surfing, you don’t necessarily need to be a good surfer to do so. Of course to be a stand out in the line up you have to be really good at surfing but I’ve seen tons of donkeys out there tow surfing who have no business being out there. The ski gives them a false sense of security so they go for it. Albeit they are not going out there when it’s 25 feet and bigger (that’s only for the big boys and the real surfers) but they’re out there when it’s 15 plus and kooking it up. With stand up that’s not going to happen because it takes total concentration, surfing ability, balance, strength and balls. No ski to help you out of trouble or into waves, just the ability and skills that the good Lord has given you.
SUP: If a normal human being paddle out at Pipe on a SUP what would happen?
Their ass would be sent in. That don’t happen at Pipe. If you don’t surf out there on a regular basis and haven’t earned your placed in the pecking order then you don’t get to go out there on an SUP either. Enjoy it all you want from the beach but don’t paddle out to Pipe on an SUP. SUP
“ When I first saw my cousin Ikaika Kalama sup’ing out at Pipe I thought that he was out of his damn mind ”