Ian Walsh Riding High
The Restless Life of a Big-Wave Trailblazer
By Ben Mondy
I’d been tracking Ian Walsh for months, trying to find time to sit down with a man who rarely sits still—a big-wave, heat-seeking missile. By the time I managed to slip into his jet stream in the south of France, tracking his schedule had given me jetlag.
Prior to our time in Biarritz, he’d been in Costa Rica and then Panama, before flying to Tavarua for that epic Cloudbreak swell. From there, he came to France to make a keynote speech at his sponsor’s European sales conference, which he bookended with some big nights in San Sebastian and Prague. After that, I was forced to hang on for dear life, digitally speaking, chatting via Skype as he hit Los Angeles for the Summer X Games, parties, and various meetings. Post L.A., there was a private jet down to Mexico, then on to the Caribbean, then back to Hawaii for more meetings. Huntington for the U.S. Open came next, before he chased a swell to a massive, mysto left in South Africa. After that, it was up to Namibia for some desert barrels, before bombing it to Chile for another swell and a snowboarding mission. Eventually his run came to a gruesome end in early September, in the form of a 25-foot pin-drop from a Puerto Escondido bomb, which left him with cracked ribs and a busted wing.
And that was just the last two months. When you add some of his Alaskan heli-boarding missions with Travis Rice, flying stunt planes in Europe, red carpet nights in Vegas, plus surf missions to Norway, the Black Sea, and Turkey, which all went down earlier in the year, you start to get a sense of a life running at full throttle.
In that hyper-packed diary though, one day stood out for the 29-year-old natural-footer from Maui. It was the big day at Tavarua in the middle of this year’s Volcom Pro, a freesurf session that has been described as the single best day of big-wave riding in history. “I was sitting on the boat on the way back,” he says, “still buzzing, but finally calming down. That was the first time I had a chance to process it. And I thought, you know, that was crazy, that was beyond anything I had seen or experienced and I was right in the middle of it. With those waves, and that pack of surfers, that’s when it finally sunk in.”
The lineup consisted of a who’s who of big-wave hellmen. “There were probably 30 guys surfing,” says Walsh, “and you knew that if you paddled and pulled back you’d feel so bad, because someone else would have gone for sure.”
“The boys on the farthest outside ledge were legitimately looking to go on the biggest waves that were coming through and the performance levels reflected that,” recalled Dane Gudauskas. Ian Walsh was one of them, catching three or four of the biggest and best rides of the day. “Like 15- to 18-foot Chopes,” Ian recalls, “but with a window to paddle in and running for what felt like 500 yards.”
In a pack like that, in surf like that, no individual dominated, but Walsh’s session confirmed what most already knew: that Ian is among the best big-wave surfers on the planet. However, it’s what a lot of people don’t know about him that led me to hunt him down in France: That the future of Ian Walsh and the future of big-wave paddle surfing are intertwined.
He’s integral to the scene at Jaws and mentor to the Maui new guard. He’s pivotal in the new big-wave paddle-in movement and respected among the North Shore’s power players. His media work, through TV, events, film, and social media is penetrating the mainstream like few of his peers. And he’s yet to reach 30.
“When I stop and explain to someone what I’ve been up to, it seriously makes me laugh,” says Walsh, this time on Skype after a day of heli-boarding in the Andes. “I can’t believe some of the shit surfing has allowed me to see. I didn’t think I would ever get to see so much of the world when I was 13, hitchhiking to the beach every day.”
But Walsh’s lifestyle hasn’t come easily. A product of a working-class background, he has modeled his motivations and his career on the ethics of his family. “My dad, Peter, he is such a hard worker,” he says. “He drives the tractors for the sugar cane company near our house on Maui. It’s a 4 a.m. start and 6 p.m. finish everyday. He’s motivated just to work and to always finish what he starts.”
That work ethic played a big part in Walsh’s role during the Cloudbreak session. “The year before, for the 2011 swell [at Cloudbreak], I brought a lot of boards, but they were all wrong and I got smashed and broke one on every wave. I felt so behind, like I was playing catch-up the whole time. On the boat on the way in I had my tail between my legs because the place had rattled me.”
In the wake of that session, Walsh’s response was to reevaluate everything. “I ordered all new boards and started training a lot more. I was like, ‘Fuck that place is heavy,’ and I had been quietly carrying that burden on my shoulders all year. So to go back there and have a good surf and get a few waves was so important to me.”
Walsh’s brother, Luke, says this type of response is typical of Ian, and labels him as both a comedian and a pragmatist. “Even when we were younger, every day after school he would rush home and do all his homework in one sitting. Or he would bang it out on the school bus, so he could go surfing and not have to worry about anything. On the bus, we’d be carrying on like clowns and he’d be doing his friggin’ algebra.”
Ian graduated valedictorian of his high school, and would have had offers for various scholarships if he hadn’t already made up his mind to make a career out of surfing. His small-wave act, honed at the breaks along Maui’s North Shore, was strong enough and exciting enough to put him in the elite level of Hawaii’s best competitive surfers.
He hit the WQS ranks with a manic energy and efficient planning, traits not usually associated with teenaged pros. “I was really driven. I was so focused on learning, both on surfing and the business side of things,” Ian remembers. “I was always trying to get an angle on the bigger picture, out of sheer curiosity really, but also to see where I could fit in and how I would make it work for me.”
Sponsored by Billabong, it was at this stage that he was introduced to fellow team rider Shane Dorian, someone who would go on to play a huge role in his career. “When we first met, Ian was a grom,” says Dorian. “He was just starting on the WQS and I’d see him traveling around, just so stoked on seeing the world. I remember being impressed by his level of maturity and that he already had his shit together.”
At 19, Walsh placed runner-up in the 2003 Billabong XXL Awards with a 68-footer at Jaws, but his WQS results were still marginal. Having your shit together was one thing, he realized; making heats in 2-foot slop was another. “I also was sick of the routine,” he says. “I’m naturally curious and the tour then was just a continuous loop of the same places, the same beaches, which I found lacked real adventure.”
Eventually a change of sponsor gave him an opportunity to try the freesurfing path, one that has led to his niche in the surfing world today. Walsh is at pains to express the role traveling with Dorian played at that stage: “He was making the same transition from Tour guy to freesurfer. He’s really smart and charges harder than anyone I’ve ever met. As we became friends, I learned a ton, just from being around him. I pushed myself further in big surf just by being in the water with him.”
I first met Walsh on a boat trip in Fiji in 2004, after he had already set out on the second stage of his career. The trip featured some of the biggest names in surfing: Andy Irons, fresh off his third world title and at the height of his powers, Bruce, Fanning, and Jamie O’Brien. The 24-hour period while we were waiting for the surf to arrive devolved into an all-day drinking session, then a night of poker, which culminated in Andy losing a big hand to his brother. Andy blew his top, as only he could when losing to Bruce, and went back to his cabin and vented his rage by hurling his own laptop into the Pacific.
By the time the sun rose the next day, the air was pregnant with that sick, sullen hangover tension. There were still no waves, the heat was oppressive, and Andy was on deck with a sore head, leaving the rest of us treading on eggshells around the unspoken, but well known, fact of the overboard computer. We had all just finished breakfast when Andy announced that he had had enough and was going to his cabin, an explicit warning for everyone to leave him alone. “Going to watch some DVDs?” japed Walsh. “On your laptop?”
No one knew which way it was going to go until Andy laughed, followed by the rest of us, and the tension was punctured.
Over the course of the next few years I had the chance to watch Walsh conduct himself on the North Shore with the same mixture of humor, wit, and balls. He spent the season at the Red Bull house, right at the epicenter of the Pipe stretch, where Andy and Mick stayed, a place bathed in that weird, passive/aggressive limelight that gives Hawaii its edge. From my viewpoint, it seemed Walsh had a controlling influence on a fairly radical environment, although he sees it differently.
“I was just the grom at the house really, although maybe my ADD meant I had to keep it real tidy,” he laughs. When pressed about the egos and the pressures that came with the situation, he reluctantly reveals more. “Well you know what it’s like dealing with these explosive characters, some of whom were my heroes. But I just treated everyone the same, no matter who it was. And I’ll tell you, we had some real good times in that house.”
As an outsider, it was intriguing to watch a slightly built, white, 24-year-old manage that ecosystem and the egos within it without a hint of intimidation or aggression. “Well, yeah,” he says now. “It’s the gnarliest totem pole in the surfing world. But look, I went to the North Shore when I was young and I just took the values that my Dad had taught me: Treat people how you wish to be treated and be really respectful. I mean, there is violence and intimidation, which helps control a lot of the surf spots. I know it exists and it helps that a lot of those guys are my close friends. When I was a young, blonde, haole kid from Maui though, there wasn’t much room to move, so I just found a way by being myself. Being mellow and not trying to impress people was the key, and if you get a chance to get a big wave at Pipe as a grom, you better charge so next time you’re in the spot maybe the boys will see what you can do. Paying attention and giving the locals their room works anywhere in the world.”
With that approach, it’s no surprise that Walsh has now taken over as mentor on his home island of Maui. The island has seen a sudden explosion of talent and Walsh, via his early maturity, has been a guiding force. He’s hosted the Ian Walsh Menehune Mayhem grom surf contest since he was 19, this year’s edition being the biggest and best iteration so far. Dusty Payne, Kai Barger, Albee Layer, and Matt Meola have all benefited from the event over the past nine years. Crucially, the contest is free to all, and promotes excellence in not only surfing but also in the classroom, with GPA awards handed out to those who have excelled in school and the ocean.
Having 15 years of experience at Jaws, it’s also no surprise that when surfers began paddling into the wave, Ian was among the first. “Guys had been paddling it for a while, but mainly the lefts, so we thought it might be worth a shot on the rights,” says Walsh. “When I would be out there towing I would notice little windows to paddle into a wave or two and it really got the wheels turning in my head. We just saw it as something new to do with a swell that didn’t look like the biggest tow swell. The media response and reaction to that first session caught us totally off guard. We were so caught up in the moment of what we were surfing that day that we weren’t really thinking too much past it. I think we all just realized the potential and are now exploring how far we can go with it.”
“He is one of the key guys actively chasing every huge swell and he is helping to raise the bar in terms of performance,” says Shane Dorian. When I push for a chink in Walsh’s armor, Dorian laughs. “Well, I suppose he never, ever stops, which can be exhausting when you are traveling with him. And he has a weakness for young, leggy, beautiful women.”
Ladies that fit such a description are seemingly abundant in Walsh’s world. And his social media proficiency hasn’t hurt. He currently has around 100,000 Facebook fans, 80 percent of which are female. He also has more than 20,000 Twitter followers, resulting in a huge fan base that he engages with directly and consistently. They lap up his content, a big proportion of which is Walsh just having a damn good time.
To illustrate a point, Walsh pulls out his laptop in the crowded Biarritz café and shows the response to a simple question he posted on Facebook regarding the possibility of a night out in Prague. “Look at the replies,” he says. “There’s hundreds, some of which are pretty graphic. I’m always trying to get the balance, but my approach is just to take it all on and just go really, really fast.”
“I will say that he enjoys having fun,” says his lifelong friend and filmer Justin Clark. “Especially if a really pretty lady is around, but then again, who wouldn’t? That being said, he has never changed his plans to chase a girl. Surfing has always come first.”
Walsh’s brother, Luke, agrees: “We were recently on this trip in Mexico with a friend of ours who takes some of his friends on these wild, expensive vacations. We flew down there on a private jet, had this amazing multi-million dollar mansion on the beach, with butlers, chefs, masseuses, and a yacht sitting out front to take us surfing whenever we wanted. And the waves were pumping. Then on top of that, we had this big group of female friends that happen to be models and one famously hot celebrity singer, who were all hanging out with us every day at our private pool. I mean, quite possibly the best scenario you could ever hope for. Ian and I never had much money growing up, so we certainly appreciate any type of trip like this. The only problem was that Ian was inside the house, in a back corner, driving himself crazy, studying wave charts and swell forecasts. He’s freaking out because there’s a giant swell heading toward South Africa. We’re sitting here in paradise with perfectly fun waves, models, and anything else we can think of—and this guy is itching through his skin to get on a 30-hour flight to go to the African desert to surf shark-infested, cold-water waves. But that’s who he is, and why he is so successful at what he does. He’s driven. He really takes everything he does as a career seriously.”
“Look,” Ian says, “wherever I am I’m still thinking about all of it, about the big picture. The thing is, if I’m at home on Maui, even after a week, I start to get itchy, thinking of what I could be doing, where I could be surfing. I think that will stop for me down the track, because I do want a wife and kids at some stage, but right now I’m full steam ahead. I really can’t see anything slowing me down yet.”