Interview: Big-Wave Surfer Billy Kemper Breaks Down His Unfathomable Tube at Jaws

billy kemper
After his session out at Jaws, Billy Kemper posted this wave on Instagram claiming it was the wave of his life. Easy to see why.Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Craig/SURFER Magazine

Billy Kemper is, as you likely know, a four-time Jaws event winner. The only time he didn’t win, he finished runner-up to Maui hellman Ian Walsh. That’s some crazy, 1990’s Slater-esque domination–and he’s doing it on the biggest, meanest days at the world’s most psychotic wave.

So it was no real surprise when, a few days ago at Jaws, Kemper scratched into the wave of the swell–an impossibly long, impossibly large, barreling behemoth. Mid-wave he somehow managed to do a full-blown air over the foam ball while riding a 9’8” surfboard. The ride was truly incredible and lauded by chargers far and wide.

Now that he’s had a few days to digest everything, we gave Kemper a call to get his perspective on the memorable wave.

You’ve talked about “manifesting” things in previous interviews, and in your Instagram post mentioned that you’ve been “visualizing” that wave at Jaws for a while. Can you elaborate?

My whole life I’ve been inspired by people other than surfers. It’s just crazy that the person who inspired me the most growing up was Kobe Bryant, and then he tragically passed last weekend. But that’s the mentality [I looked up to]. Not just dreaming—but actually making those dreams your reality. I had Kobe on my wall as a kid. I knew if I wanted to be great I needed to work harder than everyone, the same way that he did. And I needed to visualize my success. I’ve been doing that consistently for a long time and that wave at Jaws is just another example of why [I visualize]. When you can train your mind to visualize a destiny, it’s something really unique, and I honestly feel like I’ve overcome obstacles in my life that people don’t know about through visualization. I’ve used it as a positive drive and it’s been a big part of my success.

That wave at Jaws. Talk us through how it felt, and what it means to you today.

First, let’s rewind back to 2017, the year Ian [Walsh] won the Jaws event. I had a wave in the first heat of that event that was the biggest barrel I had ever pulled into in my life. I was one pump from making it, but I got inhaled by the spit. But that wave has been embedded in my head ever since. I had to get that wave again.

Last year [the 2018 Jaws event], was basically 60-foot Backdoor that first morning. After winning two Jaws events and getting second to Ian, I started feeling this obsession towards that event, and I was livid about my loss from the year before. I wanted to make a statement. And again, I got a chance at the wave I’d been chasing my whole life in that first heat, but same thing happened: I was one pump away, and the spit caught me. I ended up winning the event last year, but I don’t think people know how much one wave can affect a surfer—it’s like what drugs do to people. I couldn’t get that wave out of mind. It’s a crazy addiction. And I’ve really felt like I’ve had this unfinished business out at Jaws for a couple of years now; I felt like I had something to prove, even just to myself. So, I flew over the other day with one intention: To look for that wave. To find that feeling that’s been leaving me kind of empty.

At first, when I saw the waves that day, I thought about riding an 8’6” or a 9’0” and hunting the inside west bowl. And then I realized no, that’s not where the wave of my life is going to come. The wave of my life is gonna be a big one from out the back, and I’m gonna ride it from the peak to the channel.

After a few fun warmup waves, I just went and posted up out the back. It was 2 p.m., and I figured I had 4 hours of light left to find that wave. As that set approached, Nathan Florence was actually up next. I could tell it was the biggest set of the day and the angle was perfect. It had that horseshoe effect where you can take off out the back and backdoor the entire wave. Nate spun on the first wave, and it ended up being an incredible ride. But spending years out there and watching the way Shane [Dorian] approaches it, I knew that on a day like that, if the second wave of the set holds the same size, it draws all the water off the reef, and really grooms it. And that’s what happened. My wave was like an untouched powder run, where Nate’s had moguls, because of the wind.

When I saw that wave I immediately knew it was the one. 100 percent. I got a really good entry into it, took the biggest pump I could on a 9’8” and tried to pull the board as high as I could on the wave, taking into consideration the similar waves I hadn’t made where I felt like I rode too low in the barrel. And yeah man, as soon as I got that line, it was an odd feeling. I’ve never been in a barrel that big for that long. I pulled in, went through a chandelier, hit a shock wave from the foam bouncing off the lip coming up the wave, and basically did an air over it—my whole board came out of the water. As I was in the air I was actually thinking about my ankle, I’m dealing with a little ankle injury and was hoping I wasn’t going to fold it in half [laughs]. I just braced myself, got my board to land on edge, and all I could see was Nate at the end of the tunnel with his arms in the air. It was like riding a bull, but it felt like slow motion. I can remember how many paddles I took, I can remember scooting my back foot up on my board to get a little extra drive, and I can remember every second of being in the biggest barrel I’ve ever seen.

Can you put into words how that felt?

Coming out of the barrel was one of the biggest reliefs of my life. I overcame so many obstacles and challenges to reach that point. There has never been a wave in my life that lifted so much off my shoulders. I don’t know what the fuck is next, honestly [laughs].

That wave is definitely Ride of the Year-worthy and it’s only January. It’s not a stretch to say that wave was one of the most amazing waves ever ridden. So, where do you go from here?

You know, I’ve been so inspired by Shane [Dorian] and what he’s done—and I have a family now as well—that if the wave I want isn’t out there, I don’t have that drive or need to to go surf. I’ve ridden so many heavy waves, and put my life on the line so many times, so when I paddle out for these sessions, I want to make sure I’m trying to get that feeling again; I’m trying to go into that state of mind and just do it for myself, because I’m not doing it for Instagram or for the awards.

I’ve always wanted to ride the biggest and the deepest barrels in surfing. That’s been my goal, that’s what I get off on, and what really motivates me. Getting texts from Shane, and Laird [Hamilton], and all these guys that I’ve always looked up to, I’m over the moon. I got the same feeling I got from winning the Jaws event for the first time. It feels like something that wasn’t possible, just became possible—like this wave opened up a new chapter in my life. It’s been a wild one. I feel like more people were tripping out on that wave than on any win in my life. Just to have that feeling from other people, alongside the feeling I got, it’s so special. I didn’t know one wave could do that for a human. I’m really thankful to everyone that reached out, and everyone that supported that wave. It truly meant the world to me. I could go the rest of my life chasing that wave. The goal is always to ride waves better than I did yesterday, but man, I know that’s gonna be tough. Even when I re-watch it today I’m in disbelief that I made a wave that big and that deep out at Jaws.

This article originally appeared on Surfer.com and was republished with permission.

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