Kai Lenny Tells Us The Secrets Of Riding The World’s Biggest Waves And How He Became The Best There Is
Hawaiian Big Wave Surfer Kai Lenny has seen and surfed more of the world in his 28 years on this planet than most of us could ever dream of. Kai’s more than a surfer, he’s a true waterman. On any given day he’ll be active across five or six water sports including Big Wave Surfing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, stand-up paddleboard, wingfoil, and that’s just a naming a few.
Earlier this year, Kai won the 2020 Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge in Nazare, Portugal which is home to the biggest waves on the planet. The underwater canyon at Nazare has produced multiple world record waves. Now he’s bring a new project to fans. Life of Kai is a new five-part series from Red Bull that documents Kai’s journey through the Big Wave Surfing calendar and the first episode premiered on November 18 on Red Bull TV. Here’s the trailer:
I was fortunate enough to speak with Kai on the phone earlier this week about what fans can expect from the 5-part Life of Kai series. I was very stoked to hear that there’d be a season 2. We discussed everything from how he scouts the weather on a big swell, what he eats to keep his energy levels up, how his sport ironically benefits from damaging storms, and a lot more. Here’s our interview:
Cass: What do you hope fans take away from the Life of Kai:
Kai Lenny: I think if anyone can take away is that just how hard it is for me to even get to the point I’m trying to get to, and there’s a lot of dedication behind it, but through perseverance, you’re able to achieve some of the wildest stuff you could’ve imagined. And I think if anything people could take away is, I guess the ideas that it might look easy from the outset, but it’s really hard from inside, and I guess one thing is for sure is there’s a transformation from the first few episodes to the last one. You just see how maybe I’ve even matured through the season as well and so there’s that little bit of growth to it. So if anything, and the most important to have people entertained. If they can take away something that relates to their own lives that would be great, but hopefully they’re just thoroughly entertained.
Cass: Did you have any surfing films or documentaries in mind when you’re doing this, were there any projects that you thought about ahead of time on how you wanted to model this?
Kai Lenny: Well, I think a lot of times, a lot of the favorite movies we have our our heroes and favorites and stuff. I definitely wanted to really give an in-depth look and I think doing it through a series is a little bit easier than docs because in documentaries you’re so limited on time to tell a story with a certain perspective. While a lot of these movies are telling many stories and I’m like, well, this is a good opportunity to have people see the inner workings and kind of the ups and downs. But then also what it takes to get to a certain point. And then obviously the reward in the satisfaction at the end from a job well done. I think it just gives people a little bit more of an insight into this world than they’ve previously gotten in other mediums.
Cass: Was doing Life of Kai something you’d been thinking about for a long time? Was now just the right time? Did Red Bull approach you with this?
Kai Lenny: So I’ve been actually wanting to do a there for a couple of years now, mainly because I would just love to share of what I’m up to. There are many people that have been supporting me and following my path. I kinda wanted to give them a really good inside look into what is going on at a specific point in my life. And because I do so many different sports, I feel like I could probably do a series on all these different ones. But ‘big waves’ I feel like really connects to people because it’s easy to understand and it’s also kind of like a formidable force that most people wouldn’t want to go up against. And so I was just grateful that Red Bull gave me the opportunity to do that. And I think the timing is usually everything, and this is probably a good time to have this kickstarted, and hopefully there’ll be more great stuff to come from it.
Cass: I think in the first or second episode, you mentioned how part of Big Wave Surfing is ‘the ultimate pursuit of freedom’, was it weird to have cameras on all the time? Did you get used to that?
Kai Lenny: Yeah, I guess the cameras don’t really bother me since when I was a younger kid, I was able to be exposed and be in some film stuff, movies and all that sort of thing. But I guess I really am so focused on my performance. If anything, I’m just trying to help the cameras capture what I’ve been able to see since I’m so into this series on a creative side that I really wanted to be like, well, ‘maybe if we shoot this’ and ‘you get this angle on this’, because this is more from my perspective. And that being said, everything that we’ve done in this first series/first season is going to get picked up this Winter with a second season, and that’s what I’m pretty excited about, ’cause I feel like this first season was just to kind of get everything kicked off.
Cass: In the trailer, your coach was talking about your energy levels and how hard you train. I was curious for someone like you who’s just constantly on the go and burns more calories than I could ever imagine, what does a typical day of food look like for you from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep to maintain those energy levels?
Kai Lenny: I think it really comes down to kind of the day. Sometimes on these big days with these giant waves, you probably can’t eat or drink enough water ’cause you’re just fully invested in the water. But on a normal day, I probably eat three or four meals a day. Two breakfasts, a late lunch, an early dinner, and then I get to bed early. It’s ‘early to bed, early to rise’.
I think the secret to my success in those really difficult moments, has been being able to eat something that is easy to carry around, like say, a burrito. And then get that last kick in with a Red Bull that usually is on the key to my success is those two items (Burrito + Red Bull). And I think it’s really important to be consistent on all of it as well. I try to eat as much as I can just to maintain it, but for the most part, it’s like you’re so focused on trying to ride giant waves or do something crazy that… Sometimes you don’t have time, so anything that’ll stay preserved in my JetSki out in the ocean is coming with me.
Cass: I’m down in Florida and constantly scanning my weather apps all Summer for Tropical Storms and Hurricanes. I was curious as a pro surfer are you doing the same to monitor potential swells across the globe or do you have someone in your life who you wait to say ‘it’s go time’ and you book a ticket when they tell you the conditions are right?
Kai Lenny: I’m actively looking into it. I’m always kind of monitoring it, but sometimes a friend or someone I know will just hit me up and be like ‘okay, I think something’s over here. Do you wanna head to Portugal?’ And most of the time, a lot of my friends that do surf big waves, were always kinda keeping each other in the loop. ‘Hey did you see that to that new swell coming?’ And it’s pretty ironic because I feel for most people, having bigger and bigger storms is a major dread for anybody especially to those who are affected. It’s terrible, but I think as surfers, we’re always praying for a giant storm, and of course, we hope it stays out at sea so it doesn’t affect anyone. But, the bigger the storm, the bigger the wave. So if there is a positive from it, its’ these giant waves.
Cass: On that topic of bigger storms and bigger waves, I’m curious if the Big Wave Surfing community has pinpointed the next Nazare as weather shifts sand and storms are more ferocious to bring about swells in areas that haven’t been tapped into yet? I spoke with fellow Big Wave Surfer Greg Long a few years back about the use of Google Earth to scout giant waves, have you tapped into that at all?
Kai Lenny: Yeah, you know I think there’s a lot of potential. And as we see, maybe if the climate does continue to change the way it does the storms are of course going to get more powerful. And places like Nazare and other spots would probably get bigger and gnarlier, and heavier. But there are other possibilities for other spots and I don’t think we’ve truly seen all the best big waves on the planet yet. If you really think about it, Nazare was only discovered nine years ago at most in terms of Big Wave Surfing. It was known as a small wave spot. But it was just this monster that was hiding in Europe and nobody fully tapped into it.
And so you just have to think the potential is out there for some giant waves, and Greg Long I think for many years now has been on a mission to find those big waves. And I certainly hope in my career that I’m able to serve a giant way that’s never been ridden somewhere. It’d be like summiting a mountain for the first time somewhere.
Cass: Are there any ‘holy shit!!’ moments in Life of Kai that fans can expect to see?
Kai Lenny: I think you’re gonna see some insights in the later episodes, especially surrounding Nazare that people are going to be really stoked about it. Some footage that no one’s ever seen. And I think there’s an in-depth look into the experience behind it that people are going to love.
I also think that a lot of people are gonna be, I think, really thrilled with a lot of the journey to Jaws and the journey to Nazare. There’s a couple of waves there that no one’s ever seen yet and I’m really excited for them to see ’cause it’s from angles and perspectives that have yet to be fully visualised, and I’m hoping that people are just over the moon because of it.
Cass: I know Jaws is your spot and as human beings, we’re all shaped by our surroundings. Do you think you could’ve ever been where you are in life right now if you’d been born in California or Florida instead of Hawaii?
Kai Lenny: I’m definitely a product of my environment because I’ve been given an opportunity to do so many different sports in one place. Maui’s North Shore is really one of the most special spots because on any given day I can do five or six water sports and each one sort of helps deliver what I need to surf a giant wave at the highest level. And so I think I could have done it in other places, but it might have taken me longer, just considering the fact that I wouldn’t have the access to the conditions so frequently. I always feel like I would go to be a slightly different surfer, but I would be a product of my environment regardless of where I ended up.
Cass: You do so many different sports. Surfing, Windsurfing, Stand-Up Paddleboard, Tow-In Surfing, Kitesurfing, Wing Foiling…Do you plan out ahead of time what you’re going to ride on any given day or do you show up at the beach with all your gear and go with whatever feels right at that moment?
Kai Lenny: You know what, I usually just pack my truck with all the gear that I can. In the morning, I walk and go and check the beach and I just see what the conditions are gonna offer. You can look at the forecast and I’m like, ‘alright, this is what kind of could be on tap today’ and I always make sure to have all my gear and on the really good days when there’s a good wind and good waves, my truck is full of equipment from surfboards to foils to kites to windsurf sails to wings. And the JetSki’s prepped in case I need the JetSki and I got everything even to swim fins. It really is I look at the water and I look at the conditions.
And I’m lucky enough that it’s my job that I can go to the beach and I can just decide what I wanna use during that day, and I always try to use what best for the conditions at that moment. And then if I’m training for competition, then I might actually focus on one of those sports a little bit more, but really I have such a draw to every one of these sports that I’m doing multiple sports per day. At least five sports if the conditions are good.
Cass: Something I was wondering about with your safety camps. Is that something where you’re actively scouting the conditions like a competition with an open window of potential dates and when the surf is big enough you tell everyone ‘okay let’s do this?’ or do you plan out the safety camp with specific dates in mind and just hope for the best?
Kai Lenny: So the great thing about these kinds of training camps that we do is that we don’t even need great conditions. In a perfect world, there’d be waves and we work on all the simulations. But the thing is, when the conditions get really good, we don’t wanna be practicing what we’re training. We want to be ready to execute what we’ve learned. And so we kinda set up those camps to not have the conditions. If we get lucky in those conditions, that’s fine. We’re just trying to kind of prep before the season starts typically.