The thrill of the ride

Kai Lenny, on break at home on Maui, can’t stay away from his of­fice: the ocean

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - FRONT PAGE - By Christie Wil­son cwil­son@starad­ver­

Maui’s Kai Lenny talks about his love for the ocean and his new pas­sion for film­mak­ing

PAIA, MAUI >> It was Maui’s first south swell in two months, and Kai Lenny was load­ing the back of his mat­te­black 2017 Ford Rap­tor pickup truck with an as­sort­ment of ocean gear: long­boards, short boards and even shorter boards with hy­dro­foil at­tach­ments.

“Every morn­ing I wake up, it’s re­ally bor­ing if I’m not com­mit­ted to go­ing in the wa­ter,” said Lenny, who at age 24 has mas­tered a range of ocean sports like no­body be­fore him.

“I mean it’s bor­ing in the sense that I’d rather be in the wa­ter than on land. The only time I’m on land is to drive some­where.”

On the last day of Au­gust, with West Maui re­port­ing waist-high swells, Lenny was driv­ing to Mala at the north end of La­haina.

En­joy­ing a rare 11-day break at home in Paia, he was sit­ting atop the stand­ings in the As­so­ci­a­tion of Pad­dlesurf

Pro­fes­sion­als World Tour and the World Surf League’s Big Wave Tour. He cap­tured his big­gest prize purse — $25,000 — with a stun­ning win at Puerto Es­con­dido, Mex­ico, in July. It was his first com­pe­ti­tion on the big-wave cir­cuit, adding to his list of ac­com­plish­ments in wind­surf­ing, kite­board­ing and stand-up pad­dle­board­ing. Lenny said he gam­bled on the event, as it meant he would not be in Hawaii to de­fend his record-break­ing SUP per­for­mance in last year’s 32-mile Molokai-2Oahu Pad­dle­board World Cham­pi­onships. “There’s al­ways a sac­ri­fice, but I think it was cool that I was able to win some­thing I hadn’t done yet,” he said. “I try not to let others dic­tate what I do and just fol­low my pas­sion and what I’m do­ing at the time.”

AS LENNY’S big truck sailed through Maui’s cen­tral isth­mus, past acres of fal­low sugar cane fields turned brown and brit­tle, he was ea­ger to talk about per­haps the only ac­tiv­ity that can keep him on land for any length of time: film­mak­ing.

This week brings the pre­miere of “Par­a­digm Lost,” a surf film he di­rected and pro­duced with Johnny DeCe­sare. The hour­long movie de­buts Fri­day at the Maui Arts & Cul­tural Cen­ter’s Cas­tle The­ater, fol­lowed by a screen­ing Saturday at Tur­tle Bay Re­sort on Oahu. Lenny will be present for both. “I like the idea of how film can make you so in­spired to do some­thing. If you’re feel­ing tired and lazy, you can put on any movie and it stokes a fire within,” he said. “And I like sto­ry­telling.” The story Lenny tells in “Par­a­digm Lost” shows John John Florence, Kelly Slater, Clyde Aikau, Robby Naish and other top-flight wa­ter­men, in­clud­ing Lenny and his 20-year-old brother, Ridge, in ac­tion and phi­los­o­phiz­ing about what they do. “It’s a pretty sim­ple mes­sage: What makes a surfer? Is it de­fined by the way you ride waves or what you ride? In this case it’s how you ride waves and not let­ting your equip­ment de­fine you,” Lenny said.

RAISED BY ocean-lov­ing par­ents on Maui’s north shore — the cra­dle of mod­ern wa­ter sports and home to renowned wind­surf­ing sites such as Kanaha and Hookipa and the mon­ster Peahi surf break known as Jaws — Lenny was surf­ing at 4 and first came to no­tice as a wind­surf­ing prodigy.

At age 9 he wrote to Naish, the sport’s god­fa­ther, seek­ing spon­sor­ship. Naish of­fered sup­port in ex­change for a prom­ise of good school grades and be­came one of Lenny’s men­tors.

His com­ing of age co­in­cided with the evo­lu­tion of more ex­treme ocean sports such as kite­board­ing and tow-in surf­ing and the explosion of stand-up pad­dling. “There’s al­ways some­thing I can be do­ing at a very high level,” Lenny said. “In the sum­mer I can do down­the-coast runs on a ca­noe, pad­dle­board or kite- and wind­surf­ing. In the win­ter­time when it gets big, all the outer reefs are break­ing,” he said of the wind­ward sites that lie just across the street from his child­hood and cur­rent homes. “It’s like my own pri­vate area.”

WIND­ING along the pali sec­tion of Honoapi­ilani High­way, Lenny re­vealed that his big­gest train­ing is­sue is tak­ing a step back to re­cu­per­ate be­tween gru­el­ing events. “Af­ter a gi­ant race or surf­ing big waves, when I’m hav­ing a forcible rest day, a lot of times I can’t help my­self and I’ll be work­ing on equip­ment and get­ting things prepped for next ses­sion,” he said. The con­ver­sa­tion stopped when the surf break known as Thou­sand Peaks came into view.

“Oh my gosh, there’s so much swell! I haven’t seen it like this in so long. This is in­sane. Whaaaat? That’s like the per­fect foil wave.” Re­sist­ing the temp­ta­tion to stop, Lenny con­tin­ued to­ward Mala.

“A lot of times it’s just try­ing to make it through those days. You get so used to an adrenalin high and be­ing on the edge of things that as soon as I’m not, it’s kind of dif­fi­cult. It’s al­most de­press­ing.”

Forty-five min­utes af­ter leav­ing his house, Lenny steered his truck into a tight spot in the crowded dirt lot at Mala. His mother, Paula, a physi­cian, and his girl­friend, Molly Payne, were wait­ing for him.

Lenny and Payne, whose older brother is pro­fes­sional surfer Dusty Payne, have been dat­ing for three years. A slen­der blonde and con­fi­dent surfer in her own right, Molly Payne de­signs the alola (“a life of lead­ing ad­ven­ture”) line of clutches sold at Sand Peo­ple and other bou­tiques. “Typ­i­cally in the job I do, it’s hard to have a girl­friend with all the trav­el­ing,” Lenny said. “But she’s grown up with a brother who’s a pro surfer and a fam­ily that’s all about surf­ing, so she re­ally gets it.” The trio joined a dozen or so other surfers in the Mala lineup. Lenny care­fully chose his waves, happy to share and shred­ding the long, rolling faces when it was his turn. Af­ter­ward the Lenny car­a­van headed back to­ward Thou­sand Peaks, but not be­fore stop­ping for lunch at the road­side Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop in Olowalu.

Then it was on to Ukume­hame for a foil­ing ses­sion. “Oh, yeah, look at that. It’s pump­ing,” Lenny said as he pulled off the high­way.

ASKED if he had to pick one sport above the others, Lenny replied it would be like choos­ing which fin­ger to cut off: “They all serve a pur­pose.”

“I con­sider all the sports I do not so much sports, but dis­ci­plines of surf­ing. My fa­vorite thing in the world to do is ride waves. So at the end of the day, I just wanna ride waves; it’s the equip­ment for the con­di­tions that de­fines what I’m go­ing to do.”

He com­pared it to ice cream: “Some peo­ple like chocolate more than they like straw­berry. It’s the same with surf­ing. I just hap­pen to like all the fla­vors.” Lenny might not want to name a fa­vorite, but it was ob­vi­ous hy­dro­foil­ing — on a kite­board, surf­board or SUP board — is his fla­vor of the mo­ment.

At Ukume­hame, Lenny pulled a 44-inch Naish foil­board from the back of his truck and at­tached a 3-foot­long wing assem­bly be­fore head­ing out far left of the lineup. He picked a small, form­less bump and took off, ris­ing above the sur­face, glid­ing like a magic car­pet. Lenny was still stand­ing when the ride ended and he piv­oted into a U-turn, pump­ing with his legs to pro­pel the board back out to re­peat the cy­cle. It was a star­tling sight. Aside from the high-per­for­mance as­pects of foil­ing, Lenny said he likes that he doesn’t get in the way of other surfers in over­crowded breaks.

“The true ben­e­fit is that it al­lows you to ride some­thing out of noth­ing — the un­rid­able is rid­able — and there’s some­thing neat about that.”

DE­SPITE his globe-trot­ting ex­ploits, Lenny re­mains re­mark­ably gen­uine and un­jaded. He still lives with his par­ents in a one-bed­room apart­ment above the garage of the fam­ily home in a quiet neigh­bor­hood.

His par­ents, Martin and Paula Lenny, said they were wary of the pit­falls of rais­ing a pre­co­cious “child star” and com­mit­ted to his ed­u­ca­tion, even af­ter he be­gan home school­ing at age 15 to ac­com­mo­date his bur­geon­ing ca­reer.

Naish re­mains a main spon­sor, along with Tag Heuer, Hurley, GoPro and Red Bull, which signed Lenny at age 12; he is also fea­tured in TV com­mer­cials for First Hawai­ian Bank. These spon­sor­ships pro­vide the bulk of his in­come and fund his ex­penses. He doesn’t drink al­co­hol or most any­thing else ex­cept wa­ter, and most nights he’s in bed by 9. As for nu­tri­tion, Lenny prefers the fresh, health­ful food eas­ily found on Maui but also scarfs down bean-and-cheese bur­ri­tos at Taco Bell to fuel his lean 5-foot-7, 154-pound body. A typ­i­cal break­fast at home in­cludes four eggs, av­o­cado, cheese, ketchup and Tabasco in bur­rito form to eat on the run — a con­sis­tent theme in Lenny’s sin­gle-minded pur­suit of his ocean ob­ses­sions.

“No mat­ter how early I wake up, I’m in a rush be­cause I can al­ways be there a lit­tle quicker,” he said.

BACK AT Ukume­hame, Lenny came ashore af­ter an hour in the wa­ter and re­luc­tantly stowed his gear. Five days later he was off to at­tend a surf expo in Or­lando, Fla., as Hur­ri­cane Irma threat­ened.

So far this year, Lenny fig­ures he’s cir­cum­nav­i­gated the globe six or seven times for com­pe­ti­tions and promotional ap­pear­ances. He said he hadn’t been home more than a week at a time since April.

With the win­ter sea­son ap­proach­ing, he’ll be spend­ing more time in the is­lands, fly­ing back and forth be­tween Maui and Oahu as the surf dic­tates.

In Fe­bru­ary, Lenny won the Sun­set Beach Pro SUP surf­ing cham­pi­onship for the fifth time, but his heart be­longs to Jaws.

“It’s per­fect as a small wave, but it’s gi­ant. Jaws just seems to be groomed un­like any place on Earth for wave-rid­ing,” he said. Lenny’s fa­ther likes to tell the story of how when Kai was 8, he would hold hands with younger brother Ridge and walk to his hero Laird Hamil­ton’s house in their neigh­bor­hood and knock on the door hop­ing to meet the big-wave pioneer. When they fi­nally caught Hamil­ton at home, Kai de­clared he was go­ing to ride Jaws one day.

In the years that fol­lowed, Lenny fell un­der the tute­lage of Hamil­ton and fel­low big­wave star Dave Kalama. When he was 16 they judged him ready to take on Jaws, and Lenny chal­lenged 25foot faces on a foil­board his first time out.

“Jaws takes prece­dence over ev­ery­thing,” he said. “I’ve had the op­por­tu­ni­ties to go on dream trips and chum it up with celebri­ties, but as soon as I hear Jaws is go­ing, I’m like, ‘Yo, for­get that.’

“Peo­ple say, ‘You could’ve hung out with Tom Brady and Cris­tiano Ron­aldo and all these fa­mous stars,’ but I’m like, ‘I didn’t get into this to hang out with peo­ple — un­less they’re out at Jaws.’” Jaws is next up on the WSL Big Wave Tour, with the Pe‘ahi Chal­lenge hold­ing pe­riod start­ing Oct. 15. Lenny will be wait­ing for the call.

More photos from a day in the life of Kai Lenny at starad­ver­ PHOTOS BY BRYAN BERKOWITZ / SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR-AD­VER­TISER



A stand-out foil­boarder, Lenny as­sem­bles his gear be­fore hit­ting the waves at Ukume­hame. At left, a 10-year-old Lenny rides an early hy­dro­foil board out­fit­ted with snow­board boots at Outer Sprecks, Maui. At top, a cus­tom board by Gerry Lopez and the green jersey he wore while win­ning a re­cent big­wave surf­ing con­test in Puerto Es­con­dido, Mex­ico, are dis­played in Lenny’s bed­room.

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