By Cash Lambert
When Ian Walsh is speeding down a 40-foot wave at Peahi, the scene around him is pandemonium. Shouts and yells reverberate from the channel, coming from dozens of surfers crowding the lineup. Jet skis roar by, adding to the deafening noise level, trying to avoid colliding with other skis and surfers. There’s also the sound of helicopter’s rotators beating beating beating the air, and even though the noise may not be heard, the clicking of shutters from an army of photographers and videographers from the bluff is sensed. Even when combined, all of these sounds aren’t as loud as the detonation of a Peahi wave, a 3-5 story building moving at an incredible rate of speed and folding onto itself at a consistent rate.
But the noises that make the scene at Jaws pandemonium aren’t what Ian Walsh hears when he steps over the ledge and races down the face of a 40-foot wave.
So what does the 33-year-old hear?
“Silence,” he says. “I don’t hear anything. Even if there’s nuking tradewinds, it feels like a calming quiet. I feel the sting of the spit, but I never hear the hissing.”
While the “calming quiet” that Ian feels on a deadly wave is certainly impossible to recreate, Ian and Redbull teamed up during the 2016 El Nino season to present the state of big wave surfing in cinematic form, taking cameras down the face of Jaws bombs and into the impact zone to recreate what big wave surfing is truly like for a global audience. The result is a film entitled Distance Between Dreams, which will drop in early December.
We sat down with the Maui boy to talk about the movie, what the 2016 El Nino winter season was like from a big wave perspective, the defining moments of his decorated surfing career, and his theory as to why he hears a “calming quiet” in one of the most action packed and deadly environments on the planet.
What can we expect from Distance Between Dreams, Ian?
It’s a film that puts people in our world. It’s more than a surf film, where it’s ‘ok travel scene, cue music, show surfing, show location’… My hope is people leave with a good understanding of each person involved in the film and an understanding of what goes into those days. I didn’t want to just show the good waves, I wanted to show surfers having a bad wipeout, because often that changes how you approach the rest of that day. I love that about certain movies: they show the heavy fall, and the work that goes into that session and what actually happens. We even put a cameraman in impact zone at Jaws so you’ll see what we see when you’re facing a 40-foot wall of water. In the film, we show these sessions – how they really happen – and show the heavy fall and the work towards whatever the surfer may be working towards. The film also looks at the progression of the sport, such as Eddie [Aikau] setting the stage at Waimea for what was to come, really building the big wave platform for everyone to work off of, the tow revolution, jet ski water safety, and more.
Distance Between Dreams: How did the name of the movie originate?
It came from a deep thought on a gondola in Jackson Hole when I was snowboarding. For me, what this film encompasses is the finished product. You see a lot of photos of surfing or even clips and edits and that’s similar to when you listen to a song or see a painting: it’s a finished product. You rarely see the amount of work that went into it. You never see everything that encompasses the finished product…. there’s so many ups and downs along the way. With this film, I wanted to be able to show that. It’s less of it being a personal project and more about what I feel like is happening in big wave surfing, and what is happening: progression. When I’m in the water and I see what’s happening on big days from my peers, I want to capture what I see along with that feel of being in the water, and I wanted to put that into a first person perspective in the film. Showing the ups and downs, that’s the distance between dreams. That’s the amount of work that goes into the goal, however big or small it is. You don’t see the losses, you don’t see the severe consequences and sometimes that means watching your best friends needing CPR. It’s easy to capture things when everything is going well than when it’s going wrong.
And this was all filmed during last year’s incredible El Nino year. As a big wave surfer, you were at the forefront of it all. What was the year like in that aspect?
The year was different mostly because of how monumental the year was for surfing. It was the best big wave season I’ve seen as far as size and consistency. It’s rare to have the magnitude of swells we had with light winds. Since there were so many big days, it gave guys the opportunity to try out equipment and really hone in on everything. For me, it was the best year of my life. Looking back on what happened, that definitely was, as far as surfing big waves, a winter season I’ve never seen before. One thing I learned throughout the year is how much the consistency of swells can help refine the progression of sport. The amount of swells we had and the quality to each swell was so high, it really gave us the chance to try different fins, boards, safety techniques and progress the sport at a much faster pace than waiting for it to progress each year, which is still fast.
It’s been reported that when you were in your late teens, you had an injury that forced you out of the water for some time and you used that time to become more knowledgeable about swell forecasts. Is this something you’ve built on, and something that really benefited you during the El Niño year?
When I was 19, I broke my ankle and tore ligaments, so while I was recovering I studied meteorology. I started to learn a little about waves and forecasting and began to pick up the nuances. I began logging and writing down notes from every single swell that I surfed that had substance, and kept a catalog. Now I can go back through it, and say ‘there’s a swell coming from this angle with these tides’ and I can compare notes. It’s geeky, but I love surf forecasting. Now, I have logs from all over the world and can see that if a specific swell had a different wind direction or came from a different angle, it could have been better. It’s those details that make it good. Tracking swells and seeing it come to fruition is one of my favorite things to do. When I started studying meteorology, that was a defining moment in my career for sure.
What are some other defining moments in your career?
When I first came to North Shore as a grom, just seeing everything. Another is after I graduated from high school, I spent my second full winter on the North Shore and moved in with Andy Irons and Mick Fanning in the old Red Bull house. I was sweeping the floor, just being a fly on the wall. Seeing how well it worked for those guys, seeing how if you commit yourself to this sport what it can become, that was pivotal. It added even more drive too. I watched Andy win a couple World Titles, and had a front row seat to the highest level of surfing. Another moment has to be when I’m quietly watching Shane Dorian. He has the ability to adapt to what’s right in front of him at the highest level. I started traveling with him from a young age, and he’s the benchmark. Every time he surfed it was ‘well if you’re sending it that hard, I guess we’re sending it that hard too’. As a kid growing up, that helped motivate me. He’s on such a high level day in and day out surfing these waves, and is one of the most respectful guys in the water.
You’ve surfed some of the biggest waves on record, have contest winnings… you’ve accomplished so much already. So what’s your underlying motivation to keep pushing, to keep growing and continuing to refine your skill?
It’s an internal drive to push myself. There are incredibly talented surfers on Maui and from a pretty early age, I think it’s about just being yourself. Surfing is a hard sport to get good at when you’re young, because there’s a pecking order, and you have to have a really clear and concise way to process what’s happening in the water and how everything works. For me, it’s more about adapting to whatever it is you’re doing and understanding. When I was young, I never pretended to be something I wasn’t. I’m a product of growing up in those Maui surroundings. The waves have a lot of versatility. My dad has been an influence, too. He’s been a blue collar worker, so I understand the value of work, if you want something you need to work towards it. Anything you want is going to be more work. I made the decision a long time ago that this is the path to take and I’ve tried to make that happen. Everyone has different reasons for why they do what it is they do, and I love the aspect of pushing myself and I love the process of work that goes into what I’m doing. Once you can look at the process of what it takes and enjoy that process and the work of it… the work ethic that goes into it that really helps keep me driven.
With today’s camera technology, we can recreate the element of seeing what it’s like to surf a wave at Jaws. But we can’t recreate what it would actually sound like inside our own head. What’s that like for you? What do you hear while surfing Jaws?
I don’t hear anything. Everything goes silent. I hear a lot right before I stand up, but because your senses turn on so much, I never kick out of a wave and say ‘man that was loud’. It feels like a calming quiet, even if it’s nuking trade winds. When I get up, my focus narrows. I feel the sting of the spit, but I never hear the hissing. And as soon as I kick out it all comes back.
It’s well documented that you spend an incredible amount of time preparing for surfing on big days, from Jaws to Mavericks and beyond. Even with all that time spent in preparation, do you still meet waves that you’re unprepared for?
Every session. So many waves go unridden, waves that no one want’s a piece of. That’s part of surfing. It’s the waves we miss, the waves we pull back on or the waves we’re out of position for that keeps you coming back, more so than the waves you ride. The waves that keep me up at night are the ones that I was scared or pulled back on. I feel like when you have that level of commitment of time in the water and physically getting ready, it’s all ultimately built up in your subconscious and that confidence pushes back when fear is telling you no. It’s about thinking ‘hey I did all this work, so I can try this and push myself’. If it’s that little extra motivation that helps me get over that ledge, then it is worth it for me. You have to use fear to propel you from behind rather than it being a wall in front of you.