Big Wave Surfer Kai Lenny Explains the Joy of Risking His Life at Nazaré

Lenny earned the 2020 XXL Biggest Wave award after catching a 70-footer at Nazaré

February 3, 2023 6:30 am
Kai Lenny rides a wave during the TUDOR Nazare Tow Surfing Challenge in 2021.
Kai Lenny feels right at home atop the waves at Nazaré in Portugal.
Getty Images

Earlier this year, famed Brazilian surfer Márcio Freire plunged into the ocean off his board after he was pulled by a jet ski into one of the record-breaking waves that crash into the coast alongside Portugal town Nazaré. Freire, 47, was recovered by rescuers and brought back to the beach, but all attempts to resuscitate him failed. Somewhat amazingly, considering the waves that batter the area’s coast can be as tall as a 10-story building, Freire was the first surfer to be killed at Nazaré.

Despite Freire’s death, surfers continue to ride the waves, and the 2022-2023 TUDOR Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge will go on as planned. Big wave rider Kai Lenny, who earned the 2020 XXL Biggest Wave award after catching a 70-footer at Nazaré, will be there.

Lenny, a rider for is a Hurley, is a cresting superstar in the international surf scene. He’s the youngest person ever elected to the Surfing Hall of Fame at the age of 29 and was profiled in HBO’s 100 Foot Wave along with legendary surfer Garrett McNamara. Now 30, Lenny is hoping to make a splash at this year’s edition of Nazaré.

Kai Lenny holding his surfboard.
Kai Lenny is ready to ride the waves in Nazaré.

“I feel great,” Lenny tells InsideHook. “Every year, I feel I’m a little bit better than I was the previous one. I think of it as this compounding thing where you just feel better and better and ultimately figure out ways to train harder and be smarter. There’s really no way of telling what the conditions are going to be like because no two waves are alike and no two days of big waves are the same. Being able to be adaptable is just critical. This year I have a lot more confidence in my ability and what I can handle.”

While Lenny was waiting for his (next) big break at Nazaré, we caught up with him about living, and risking, his life atop the waves.

InsideHook: How has your prep for Nazaré changed now that you’ve surfed there so many times?

Kai Lenny: In this sport above many others, experience is one of the most critical tools you can have. It’s like trying to describe a color to somebody who has never seen before. It’s impossible to do unless you have a reference. With big waves, it’s the same. It’s hard to describe what you’re feeling or seeing until you’re actually on one of those waves. I’ve spent the last 14 years surfing big waves consistently, and I’ve finally gotten to a place where I can focus mostly on performance and less on just survival. Oftentimes people fear the unknown, but if you know it, it gets a lot less scary. I’ve always thought the best big wave surfers were older. It’s cool to feel experienced at such a young age.

IH: So the bigger you get, the more capable you are of handling larger waves?

KL: Yeah. I’ve pretty much been training every single day for my entire life and have been in the gym since I was 12. For something like this, you think about it every waking moment and it kind of encompasses your life. When you’re younger, you’re still growing and fragile and you can get beat up a little more. Now that I’m 30 years old and a full-grown man, I have an extra little bit of strength to get myself out of situations rather than relying on somebody else to come get me. A crucial component of the whole thing is never getting yourself into something you can’t get yourself out of. Newcomers to big wave surfing will experience injury and mental strain in their earlier years. Whereas when you get older, you’ve kind of been through it. Training breeds confidence, and that confidence is what helps you get through critical moments when you have to think clearly and can’t let your emotions control whatever you’re doing. It is just as much of a mind game as it is a physical one to ride big waves.

Big wave surfer Kai Lenny rides a wave in 2021 in Nazare.
Lenny expertly riding the waves in 2021 in Nazare.
Zed Jameson/MB Media/Getty

IH: When you’re out there, do you ever think about the potential physical consequences of what you’re doing?

KL: You run through scenarios, but it’s best to take each thing as it comes when you’re in the moment. I don’t want to say react, but when things are happening, take it as it comes. If you’re thinking too far ahead, you’re going to trip and fall. When you’re getting pounded on rocks and thinking of what could happen — if I go under this wave, am I gonna come up? —  that’s not the right thought process to have. If you’re just in the moment, that’s how you’re probably going to get out of it. You can question how you escaped it when you get back to shore and you’re safe. If you take it too seriously, you’ll inevitably end up where you don’t want to be. It’s a never-ending journey, and every big wave surfer ends up coming to a point where they have to throw in the towel, but it happens differently for people. With some people, the flame burns really bright and they’re the best big wave surfer for five years, and then they’re doing something else or not risking their life the same way. There are other big wave surfers that’ll do it into their 60s and just hope they don’t end up succumbing to death riding big waves. If they do, at least they’re doing what they love.

IH: Kind of like what happens with Patrick Swayze’s character at the end of Point Break.

KL: I think that scene is very dramatic. That sort of situation could happen in reality, but it’d be a little different. I don’t think any big wave surfer goes out expecting not to come back. There might be a case where some legendary big wave surfer actually paddled out and was never seen again, but you wonder if they died out there or if they just started a new life somewhere else. There have been times when someone goes out for a session and weird things happen, but I think that scene is dramatized for Hollywood.

Kai Lenny hanging 10.
Big wave surfers like Kai Lenny risk life and limb.
Octavio Passos/Getty

IH: Is being on top of a massive wave similar to anything else you’ve done or experienced?

KL: The feeling is unique. You could compare it to standing on top of a mountain looking down, but the difference is the mountain is moving. You can feel the amount of ocean being displaced — it’s just this monster moving and it’s going fast. If you blink, it’s changed. All your senses are heightened when you’re riding big waves. The feeling is surreal. It feels like everything that mattered on land doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a very freeing feeling. You just know this energy, and that’s freedom. You live so much in the moment that a 30-second ride feels like it lasted five to 10 minutes. Time slows down because you’re so focused.

IH: Do you still get the same rush now that you did when you first started riding big waves?

KL: Absolutely. I don’t think there’s a moment I’ve ever had in the ocean that makes me feel most alive or makes me feel so good. To me, it’s the ultimate feeling. It’s fantastic. I do it because it feels just unreal. You just can’t get it anywhere else. If you could bottle up that sensation and sell it, you’d be the richest person on earth. The coolest thing about it is that it has to be earned and it doesn’t come overnight, like most everything else you can get instantaneously nowadays. If you want to feel the ultimate rush, you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price and be showing dedication that is greater than pretty much everything.

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