You’ve seen him kegged in waves that leave you weak in the knees and you’ve mispronounced his last name. Below, Stephen Koehne (read Ko-Heen) reflects on what it took to make it as a pro surfer hailing from Kauai, his intense work ethic, and his deep-seeded devotion to deep-water fishing.
Kauai seems like this mythical place in the surf world. Can you tell me what it was like growing up there?
It was one of the best places in the world to grow up. As far as surfing goes, it was pretty competitive in the water. We had to surf with Bruce and Andy and I was the youngest guy in the group. I got scooped up under Dustin Barca’s wing and he really helped me out, brought me along, and let me surf with him and the rest of the crew. As a professional surfer, it’s a challenge to make it from here. We try and keep it from getting exploited so you have to travel a lot. There are rules, but with social media, you’ve seen it get a little more exposed. But even then, Kauai has a voodoo to it. You can come here in the winter for a month and get skunked. It can rain for 30 days straight. It’s almost like Kauai doesn’t allow you to just show up and get waves.
There are a lot of very talented surfers from Kauai that, perhaps had they moved to California or the North Shore, could have had careers. But it seems like it’s a tough place to leave.
Yeah, that’s definitely true. It’s easy to be satisfied on Kauai. You really do have to leave to make it. There are a lot of guys who surf really well over here—they probably surf better than me—but when you try to make a career out of it, that leads to pressure and expectations. There have been those who leave the nest and go to the North Shore and try to make it happen and get discouraged and come home. For good reasons though: It’s crowded and everyone is after the same piece of pie. So if you’re not committed, it’s easy to ask “Why am I doing this again?” Just look at guys like Reef. It took him so long to get off the island, and when he did, the world took notice. But he’s always surfed that well. Since he was a kid. He was the guy that Bruce and Andy looked up to. And then one winter he went to the North Shore and worked for it and it happened for him. For me, I always felt that I wasn’t the most talented person, so I had to really present myself well. I think 70 percent of it is presentation.
What do you mean when you say “presentation?”
Hooking up with the right photographers and making sure that you’re getting the best waves in the best conditions. Making sure your photo portfolio is solid. Making sure you had all of your sponsors’ stickers on your board. It’s like that saying, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” It’s all the little things that end up amounting to something bigger. I believe in my heart that I surf with guys—at least in small, average surf—that surf better than me. I think in big, solid waves I can hold my own against most people, but in everyday average surf, there are a lot of guys who surf better than me. But they don’t want to stick it out on the North Shore and surf three or four swells at Pipe and not get shit, in order to get the wave of their life on the fifth swell. They’d rather go home and surf with their friends. I totally understand that, but I’ve always been dedicated and had to work harder than the other guy.
As a group, so many of your peers were able to make careers in surfing. What made you guys different?
Surfing was everything for us growing up. We were able to look up to Bruce and Andy and held their talent as the standard. I think collectively we all had a real drive to make it. I think because there were so many of us pushing each other, it really helped. My dad really instilled a hard work ethic in me as well. Both my parents are hard workers. We all came from different circumstances, but we all surfed our butts off. Some of us were blessed with talent. Barca, Bruce, and Andy, but the rest of us were just trying to keep up and I guess it just pushed everyone to be better. We all knew it wasn’t going to come easy. We all knew we had to leave the island. And that’s pretty much what everyone did. I think we’re the last generation to all make it as a whole. There are a few kids here and there coming up now, but you don’t see a whole group coming together like we did.
You recently became a father. Has it changed you as a person?
Becoming a dad puts everything into perspective. It’s the best thing that I’ve ever accomplished. It makes you appreciate everything that much more. At the end of the day, if your child’s healthy, it’s hard to complain. It’s made me a better surfer because I appreciate it all that much more.
Would you want your son to be a surfer?
My parents didn’t push surfing on me at all and I actually really appreciate that. I’m definitely going to introduce him to surfing and fishing, and he really loves the ocean…but he’s also really into animals, too. And that’s the other side of my family. I’m pretty much the only surfer. We live on a farm with pigs, chickens, dogs, and horses. Because I’m a surfer doesn’t mean that he has to be one. He can be whatever he wants to be. I just want him to be a good person and positive member of the community.
You’re also really passionate about fishing. Tell me about that.
Yeah, a few years ago I bought a Jet Ski. I would just take it out in the summer to make sure the engine ran and would bring some fishing equipment along and it sort of grew from there. I got a few onos and mahis and then one day I caught a 170-pound ahi on the Ski with Barca. Dustin and I fought this thing for four hours, finally got it into the ski at night, and then had to come back into shore in pitch-black conditions. Imagine that for a second. It was a heavy-duty adrenaline rush. From that fish on, I knew I needed to get a boat. Once that happened, it really became a lifestyle for me. I’m catching my own food now and feeding my family. I still have a lot to learn about fishing, but I love it.
Why do you think so many surfers get into it so much?
I think we’ve all spent so much time in the ocean that it’s almost like a natural next step. Surfing is something you can never really master. And I think the same can be true of fishing. There’s always something new to learn and I really appreciate that part of it.