Double Life

On land, Paige Alms may seem like an average 28-year-old, juggling jobs to make ends meet. But in the water, she’s anything but ordinary

The line to order food at Maui’s Paia Fish Market stretched out the door and started to wrap around the blue, wood-paneled building. It was an ordinary Saturday night for Paige Alms, who stood behind the cash register, hair pulled back into a bun, pouring draft beer and taking orders. The smell of seafood emanated from the kitchen behind her, along with the sounds of sizzling frying pans, clinking plates, and order numbers shouted by the cooks.

A couple hours into her shift, the line came to a halt when a short-tempered man started making a scene due to some confusion over the menu. Silence fell over the tables as the man belted out expletives toward the waitstaff, singling out Alms in particular. But she was unfazed. Truth is, in her other life—the one in which she tackles some of the biggest waves on Earth—she finds herself in more stressful situations all the time. Dealing with a disgruntled customer is a cakewalk compared to wearing a 30-footer on the head at Jaws, the harrowing big-wave break that sits just 10 minutes up the road from the restaurant.

Over the past few years, surfers in the know have come to recognize Alms as one of the best big-wave chargers on the planet, but to the surly customer that night, she was just the means to a plate of fish and chips. He had no clue that beneath her Clark Kent façade is a woman of steely nerves.

Driving past the restaurant a few days later, Alms just shrugs as she recounts the story. She doesn’t expect any kind of special treatment on land for what she does in the water, and, for the most part, she really likes her job. On most nights the customers are friendly. The tips are good. Her boss, Jaws regular Yuri Soledade, is more than understanding when she needs a shift covered when the waves are pumping. “I’m super grateful for the job,” she says as the restaurant fades out of sight. “I’ve worked a lot of shitty jobs in the past, but this is way better. I think I’d have to be making a shit ton of money through surfing to give this up.”

As good as her current gig is, I’m not visiting Maui to write about Alms the waitress and register jockey. I’m here to get a closer look at the life of Alms the big-wave surfer. And, as luck would have it, there’s a huge north swell marching toward Jaws.

 

Caption

When she’s not taking food orders at Paia Fish Market or patching up dings, Alms is charging (and dodging) some of the biggest waves on Maui. Alms, working on her off day. Photos: Leboe

When she’s not taking food orders at Paia Fish Market or patching up dings, Alms is charging (and dodging) some of the biggest waves on Maui. Alms, working on her off day. Photos: Leboe


As we idle at a stoplight, Alms checks the buoys with her phone. On Maui, forecasts change quickly. The island’s volatile trade winds can send a pristine swell into total disarray in a matter of hours, and locals have learned it’s best not to make claims too far in advance. The new swell hasn’t reached the offshore buoys yet, but the wind still looks like it will be manageable when the frontrunners reach Jaws tomorrow.

We’re on our way to the SOS Shapes factory in Haiku, where Alms’ fiancé, Sean Ordonez, builds boards for some of the best surfers in Maui, including Alms. Like Ordonez, Alms also works at the factory, but she mainly does surfboard repairs, and with a swell on the way, she’s got plenty of last-minute customers.

As we drive the Hana Highway past Ho’okipa Beach Park, we can see the remnants of a dying swell make way for the new one. The rising side-shore wind has already ushered most surfers out of the water and back to their day jobs—or at least to a more sheltered break—but a few guys remain in lineup. This wind, Alms explains, is responsible for the roster of highly talented local surfers who can hack it in all conditions—guys like Albee Layer, Kai Lenny, Matt Meola, Kai Barger, and Tanner Hendrickson. The Maui crew has learned not to fight the incessant wind, but to use it to their advantage. In the process, they’ve pushed the boundaries of progressive surfing and produced numerous viral web clips that weave footage of their crew throwing ankle-busting airs with shots of them soul-arching in 30-foot barrels.

 

Alms may be recognized by the surf world for her big-wave prowess, but she’s equally skilled in more rippable fare. Whether she’s scratching into 20-footers at Jaws or drawing classic lines at Honolua Bay (pictured here), Alms is a perennial standout. Photo: Aeder

Alms may be recognized by the surf world for her big-wave prowess, but she’s equally skilled in more rippable fare. Whether she’s scratching into 20-footers at Jaws or drawing classic lines at Honolua Bay (pictured here), Alms is a perennial standout. Photo: Aeder

Alms tells me that she’s been surfing with this tight-knit squad since she first taught herself how to ride waves on the inside of Pavilions, a right-hander located beneath the Ho’okipa Lookout. “She always hung out with the boys more than the girls,” Layer had explained earlier over the phone. “And I think that translated into her surfing. She was definitely a bit of a tomboy.”

“I grew up taller and stronger than most of the guys, and my mom always told me I can do anything the guys can do,” says Alms, who, sitting next to me behind the wheel of her Toyota Tacoma, clocks in at 5’10”, arms sculpted by countless hours of paddling. “I never grew up thinking, ‘I’m a girl; I can’t do that.’ I never felt weaker than the boys.”

Her mom’s wise words had a profound effect on the trajectory Alms would take with her surfing, starting with the success she garnered in a jersey. When she began competing on the NSSA and Hawaiian Amateur Surfing Association circuits as a grommet, she immediately stood out from the rest of the field and won a handful of national titles throughout middle school and high school. In 2006, she even beat three-time world champion Carissa Moore in the NSSA Explorer Women’s division. Performing in a jersey was never the hard part for Alms, but she realized early on that it took more than talent to win competitive titles.

“The NSSA in Hawaii was weird back then,” she tells me as she flips the radio to her favorite country station. “There were eight or nine contests throughout the whole year, two contests on each island. So you needed money to fly to the different islands.” Her mom, who was a single parent supporting both herself and Alms at the time, couldn’t completely subsidize her daughter’s contest-related travel costs. But that didn’t stop a determined young Alms from looking for ways to compete.

“Every year, since I was 11 or 12,” she continues, “I’d write a letter to family and friends saying what my goals were, what specific events I had to do to get to Nationals. And I would send these letters out and everyone would donate to help me travel.”

“I grew up taller and stronger than most of the guys, and my mom always told me I can do anything the guys can do,” says Alms, who, sitting next to me behind the wheel of her Toyota Tacoma, clocks in at 5’10”, arms sculpted by countless hours of paddling. “I never grew up thinking, ‘I’m a girl; I can’t do that.’ I never felt weaker than the boys.”

With the contributions, along with earnings she made from side jobs and a little assistance from Pipeline, a surfwear company started by Gerry Lopez, she was able to afford her travel expenses each year until she graduated high school.

After high school, Alms went on to compete in Qualifying Series events, but eventually she grew disillusioned by the high price tag of near-constant travel. “I didn’t have the financial backing to fly halfway around the world only to lose in the first round in waist-high waves and act like it was no big deal,” she explains.

Alms eventually stopped chasing ’QS points and started doing ding repair and construction full time. But, according to her peers, Alms had more than enough talent to make the ’CT if she could have found the support to continue competing. “Paige is as good as any of the girls on Tour,” explains Layer. “But I think it was hard for her to qualify quickly because you have to surf small, bad waves at a high level on the ’QS. But eventually I’m sure she would have qualified, and once she did, I think she would’ve been on Tour for as long as she wanted to be. She probably would’ve even been a title contender.”

Having to stop competing on the ’QS was a bitter pill to swallow, but the transition away from competition was made easier by her growing passion for heavy surf. Her first taste of big-wave surfing came when she was only 15 years old, when Chris Vandervoort, her mentor and shaper at the time, handed her a 9’0″ and took her to one of Maui’s outer reefs. It was a smaller day, only 10 to 12 feet, but she recalls being scared out of her mind and uncomfortable on a board so cumbersome. “I remember him yelling at me to go on waves that I didn’t want anything to do with,” says Alms. She surfed big waves a few times after that, though not consistently. Then, just after her 18th birthday, Alms started tow surfing the behemoth waves at Pe’ahi.

At that time, Jaws was still mainly viewed as a wind- or tow-surfing spot, primarily due to its hefty power and susceptibility to trade winds. Then, roughly six years ago, the break became the world stage of the big-wave paddle-in revolution. Brazilian hellmen Marcio Freire, Danilo Cuoto and Yuri Soledade (Alms’ boss at the Paia Fish Market) were the first to ditch their tow boards to paddle big-wave guns into Pe’ahi’s capricious lefthander. Shortly thereafter, Shane Dorian, Mark Healey, Greg Long and Ian Walsh followed suit and tackled the right for the first time sans Jet Ski assistance. It wasn’t long before Alms felt compelled to try it herself.

“I remember picking up my 10’2″ and thinking, ‘I don’t know if I want to use this; this is really scary!’” says Alms. “But once I got out there, I caught three waves and I decided paddling Pe’ahi was the best feeling in the world. It’s a high. It was that moment when I knew this was what I wanted to do. I definitely always liked surfing big waves, but I never thought I could be a big-wave surfer.”

 

Surfing cathedral-sized waves doesn’t come without the price. Alms has endured a few injuries over the years and trains hard at the gym (and beyond) to prepare for the demands of big-wave surfing. Photo: Leboe

Surfing cathedral-sized waves doesn’t come without the price. Alms has endured a few injuries over the years and trains hard at the gym (and beyond) to prepare for the demands of big-wave surfing. Photo: Leboe

Mocha, Alms’ 8-year-old Labrador–pit bull mix, looks totally at ease sitting next to me on the floor of the shaping bay, amid the roar of planers and power sanders. A layer of foam dust has settled on her chocolate-brown coat, and under the fluorescent lighting she looks like a sugarcoated brownie with legs.

For the past few hours, we’ve been watching Alms mend buckled boards and splintered fiberglass—casualties of the last big Maui swell. She’s working on one of Albee’s big-wave guns, the 8’8″ he rode to a second-place finish at the Pe’ahi Challenge last December. It’s buckled through the middle and has absorbed a lot of water.

Alms is covered in dust and splotches of resin as she talks me through the repair process, speaking through her respirator in a muffled voice. She looks completely different from the women I saw in photos and videos all over the Internet last year, grinning like a Cheshire cat while getting spat out of an enormous sapphire-blue cavern. That wave ricocheted throughout the surf world, and for good reason: it made Alms the first woman ever to get barreled at Jaws, and it was one of the best barrels ridden there all season.

“There were 50 or 60 guys out that morning,” Alms recalls as she fills the cavity in Layer’s board with Q-cell. “I had been out for only 15 or 20 minutes when that wave popped up. I didn’t even have a second to see if anyone else was going. I whipped around and literally was in the perfect spot. It chip-shotted me in, and I remember yelling because I could see out of the corner of my eye three or four people paddling for the same wave. At the time, I didn’t know they were Nakoa [Decoite,] Albee, Tanner and Kai. I dropped in and was like, ‘Holy shit, this is a perfect line.’”

It was a perfect line. Watching the footage, you can see Alms glide down the mountainous face, accelerate hard off the bottom, and wait for the bowly section to form in front of her before getting completely enveloped by the wave. For a few seconds, all that’s visible is the turquoise nose of her 9’4″ gun guiding her toward the channel, and it looks as if she’ll be swallowed whole. Then comes the spit, followed closely by Alms.

The wave netted her the Women’s Best Overall Performance award at the WSL Big Wave Awards and was in contention for the XXL Ride of the Year. It also earned her a nomination for an ESPY award. But more than the prizes and accolades, that single wave opened the eyes of many in the surf world to what women are now capable of doing in waves of consequence.

“There were 50 or 60 guys out that morning at Jaws. I had been out for only 15 or 20 minutes when that wave popped up. I didn’t even have a second to see if anyone else was going. I whipped around and literally was in the perfect spot. It chip-shotted me in, and I remember yelling because I could see out of the corner of my eye three or four people paddling for the same wave. At the time, I didn’t know they were Nakoa [Decoite], Albee, Tanner and Kai. I dropped in and was like, ‘Holy shit, this is a perfect line.’”

Despite the publicity Alms received for her superhuman tube ride, her main sponsor (which signed her just a year prior, allowing her to take some time off from her day jobs and focus on improving in big waves) called one day to tell her that it could no longer support her. Alms was taken by surprise, naturally, considering that she was getting more exposure than ever before. She still maintained a few smaller sponsorships that helped with gear, but it wasn’t enough to pay the rent. And just like that, she was back to juggling odd jobs.

“I was really disappointed,” says Alms. “I did so much work for [my sponsor]. I sent them 12 videos a month and a constant stream of photos for their social media. It wasn’t like I was lazy or I wasn’t doing my job. I was doing everything that was in my contract, plus some. I was on it.”

According to Greg Long, who befriended Alms on a surf trip to Puerto Escondido, the majority of the world’s elite big-wave surfers weren’t making a living through sponsorships until recently. “The attention and financial support given to big-wave surfing has increased dramatically over the past few years—at least for the men,” Long later told me over email. “Now I’d say that most of the surfers on the Big Wave World Tour today are making a living, or at least making ends meet.” Their female counterparts, however, are still struggling to find financial support. “In women’s big-wave surfing, sponsorship really doesn’t exist,” said Long.

I ask Alms why she thinks that’s still the case for the world’s best female big-wave riders. She takes off her respirator and sighs. She doesn’t have an answer as to why potential sponsors overlook women like her, but it’s a subject she’s passionate about. Not because she’s bitter about having to work multiple jobs to support herself, but because she knows that without the financial support to travel around the world to chase the biggest swells, female hellwomen like herself, Keala Kennelly, Bianca Valenti, and more won’t be able to progress at the same rate as their male counterparts and won’t be able to reach their true potential as big-wave surfers.

“I’m really blessed that I live on Maui and have the best big-wave spot in my backyard,” Alms says as she places Layer’s newly refurbished board back onto the wall racks. “But it would be so beneficial if I had the opportunity to surf others.”

Long echoed Alms’ sentiments: “If the top women were given more support to follow swells around the world, they would obviously have more opportunities to showcase their talents, and the level at which they were performing would increase dramatically as well. In turn, there would be much more recognition and interest from people and surf fans around the world, which would justify the money being spent by the companies who support them.”

Whether or not Alms and her fellow female chargers are able to secure significant sponsor backing in the future, Alms’ dedication to riding big waves remains unwavering. “All the girls who are doing this, we’re doing it for the love of it,” she says. “I know we all want to see the sport progress and we all want to leave a footprint. But I’m going to keep surfing big waves regardless of what happens, because it’s fun and it challenges me. Yeah, I still have to work a few jobs, but at the end of the day, my whole life still revolves around surfing.”

As we exit the shaping bay, Mocha bounds past us and hops into the bed of Alms’ truck. The sun has started its slow descent, and we pull out onto the street and head toward Alms’ house.

Alms yawns as we pull into her gravel driveway. After a long day fixing boards, she’s eager to get some rest—especially considering the forecast for the morning. If everything goes according to plan, she’ll be facing monstrous waves at first light.

“Do you always work this late the night before a swell?” I ask.

“This is nothing,” Alms laughs. “I’m usually never home this early.”

 

Like most female big-wave surfers, Alms finds it challenging to secure financial backing to support her passion. Lucky for her, she doesn’t have to travel far to find huge waves. “Jaws is the best-shaped, most consistent big wave on the planet,” says Alms. “When you’re surfing out there, you feel the high you get from surfing a normal wave, just times 10.” Photo: Aeder

Like most female big-wave surfers, Alms finds it challenging to secure financial backing to support her passion. Lucky for her, she doesn’t have to travel far to find huge waves. “Jaws is the best-shaped, most consistent big wave on the planet,” says Alms. “When you’re surfing out there, you feel the high you get from surfing a normal wave, just times 10.” Photo: Aeder


By the time we boat out to the channel the next day, 15- to 20-foot waves are cresting over the Jaws reef. The sets are sporadic, with half-hour lulls giving surfers just enough time to get comfortable in the lineup before another bomb appears and sends them scratching furiously toward the horizon. The channel isn’t as crowded with boats and Jet Skis as it was for some of the historically massive days earlier in the season. Our captain, Joe, easily slips past the other boats for the best panoramic view of the lineup.

It’s a sight we’ve all seen a hundred times, usually from behind the safety of a computer screen. This winter, the Internet was overloaded with countless look-how-crazy-Jaws-was-yesterday photo galleries and videos depicting tiny surfers hanging on for dear life as they skipped like stones across ribbed 50-foot faces. It’s easy to become desensitized to a wave like Jaws after you’ve been barraged by so much media. But seeing the incredible power in person, from the channel, is almost overwhelming

Alms, however, couldn’t be more comfortable. Seated next to me at the stern of the boat, she’s got a peanut-butter cookie in one hand and is adjusting her inflation vest with the other. For someone who’s about to go dance with building-sized waves, she looks more composed than most do when paddling out in much smaller fare.

Polishing off the last few bites of her cookie, she wipes the crumbs off her suit and begins waxing her aqua-and-yellow-hued 9’4″. Suddenly the biggest set of the day thunders through the lineup and the entire channel erupts in hoots and hollers. Before I get the chance to tell Alms I think the swell’s picking up, I turn and realize she’s already out of the boat and halfway to the West Bowl.

Thirty minutes later, Alms spots a wave on the horizon. She swings around and paddles toward the cliffs, taking deep strokes as the wave builds beneath her. She jumps to her feet and angles her brightly colored board toward the channel, looking very much like a cape-less superhero. Despite being face to face with potentially deadly natural forces, Alms seems more at ease now than I’ve seen her since I arrived on the island. Far away from ornery fish-market customers and thick clouds of foam dust, Alms’ true self shines through.

She sticks the drop—one of the steepest of the day—and kicks out into the channel with a huge smile spreading across her face.

When this swell passes, Jaws will go back into hibernation, Alms will go back to her various jobs, and things will get just a little bit duller along this windswept coastline. But in this moment, Alms isn’t thinking about where she’ll be tomorrow. She’s exactly where she belongs.

 

Photo: Leboe

Photo: Leboe


[This feature originally appeared in “Hidden In Plain Sight,” our October 2016 Issue]

[To read our women’s roundtable interview with Alms, Courtney Conlogue, and Leah Dawson from our April Issue, click here.]