There’s Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself: Taking on the ultimate ride with Kieren Perrow.

[IMAGE 1]

What’s the difference between you and Mike Parsons? Okay, besides the fact that you probably have a better hairdresser. Could it be that he’s hurtled down a 70-foot face in the middle of the ocean and you haven’t? What about you and Cory Lopez? He’s paddled into some of the thickest monsters ever surfed at Teahupo’o—you probably haven’t even been there. And Kieren Perrow? A few years ago in Tasmania he threw himself down a flight of stairs. Sure, you may have done that before, but were the stairs on the face of an eighteen-foot avalanche in icy southern waters, two hours from the nearest transportation?

It just doesn’t seem fair—every month more surfers are pushing big-wave surfing beyond the realms of absurdity, and here we are barely able to muster enough courage to paddle out on the biggest day at our home breaks. Why is that? Is it because guys like Laird Hamilton, Poto, Gerr, and Taylor Knox have some freak gene that we’ve missed out on, or is it simply a matter of needing practice?

Top-ten ‘CTer and big-wave lunatic Kieren Perrow believes it’s the latter. We caught up with Kieren to find out how he overcomes fear, and how you too can stare mortality in the face and walk away laughing.—Vaughan Blako

[IMAGE 2]

When was the first time you felt the thrill of riding really challenging waves?

Probably the first time I went to Hawai’i. That was the first time I surfed serious waves full-on for any long period of time. The first time I surfed Sunset, I just knew I loved it. I was so excited. Sitting on the beach you could feel the surging of the ocean’s energy. I remember paddling out—the sensation was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I got licked a couple of times—you know, where you get held up in the lip by the wind and get completely annihilated. Back then I was riding an eight-two. I don’t like riding big boards that much anymore. I think you’re better off on something smaller if it’s possible to paddle into it, ’cause you can end up feeling a bit lost with too much board. You want something you can turn. My goal now is trying to ride smaller boards in bigger waves.

Were you scared the first time you paddled out?

The excitement tends to outweigh the fear, but you’ve always got it in the back of your mind. Sunset actually isn’t too bad unless you get caught inside and one breaks right in front of you and you get rolled. There can be moments when you think, “Oh shit, I haven’t trained. I can’t hold my breath that long.” But there’s more fear at Pipe and places like that, where you’re gonna hit the reef.

What’s at the core of people’s fears in surfing?

I think it’s the power. The way you can feel that at any moment the ocean can put you in your place and make you realize that you’re nothing in comparison. And you can get so cocky and excited and want to take it on and nail it, and it’ll just slap you down and make you realize that fear is inside you.

[IMAGE 3]

I remember one time I went out at Waimea—it was about eighteen foot or something, but with the energy of the ocean, you knew you had to turn around and paddle for it. Paddling is a big part of it, too. I think towing in is a bit different because you don’t get a lead-up. You’re already onto it and perhaps more in control because you can ride a smaller board. The size of the wave and the elements around it probably dictate the level of fear you’re faced with. When you make the choice to go, you’re the only one who can make it happen.

Does a wave’s reputation, like Waimea, become a part of fear?

A little bit. When a place is talked about so much, and you find yourself out there with all these other frothers—there’re so many guys out there—it adds another level of danger. Tasmania was different because there was this fear of being so far away from everything. One of the scariest things I’ve ever done was paddle out there with no one around. Tre were local guys telling us not to do it (because) it was too risky. There was this cold, biting wind, and you had to jump off these gnarly rocks to get out there. We walked into Shipsterns, which took a few hours. When we got down there, our first thoughts were fueled with excitement because we could see the waves were just crazy. It was barreling and going mental, but then underneath there’re little voices saying, “There’s no one surfing out there.” I was a bit stunned when I first got out, because (when I was) paddling out I got worked. My board hit me in the face, and I was bleeding above my eye. So I’d already had a bit of action. My heart was beating pretty fast. When you paddle in from the back of the wave, which is what we did, your first view of it is looking down over all these ledges that are sucking up. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.

How do you push yourself over the edge?

It’s just a challenge, I guess. It depends how much you love challenges. I never want to give up without trying. The feeling of being inside one of those things makes it all worth it. I think if you can just get one, you’ll be right—’cause then you want another bigger and better one basically until you get slapped down. Then you’re just a lost little body in the middle of the ocean again.

Does fear feed your hunger for conquests?

It’s ego-driven, I think. Your ego almost feeds itself because you know you have that fear within you. When you face a challenge, it’s almost as if you can beat it. Once you’ve achieved that and gained that feeling of having done it, you want more. It’s kind of like the rush on top of the rush of the ride.

Is it possible for an average surfer to conquer the big-wave realm?

I reckon. Why not? If you can surf, and you have a certain level of ability, then you can push yourself. I had no ability at all in big waves, but I pushed it because I loved it. That’s what drove me to get better. I wanted to get the biggest, gnarliest barrels I could and get that feeling from being inside them. You challenge yourself. If you don’t want it, then it’ll be a lot harder to achieve. No one’s gonna paddle over the edge for you. No one’s forcing you. So it comes down to how much you’re willing to challenge yourself. Personally, I don’t even like big waves that much. I like ten- to twelve-foot barrels. I mean, that’s kind of perfect for me, but I’m not fit enough for anything bigger. I’d like to try tow-ins next time I go to Hawai’i, though.

What’s the best preparation?

[IMAGE 4]

Just to get straight out there. The best way to learn is getting worked. That’s what it’s like for me. I do something stupid and then go from there.

Do you get scared?

I have fear, but I love the feeling of getting barreled. If there’s a big set that no one wants and it’s gonna barrel, then I want it. Sometimes you get worked trying. I’m not skilled enough to know where the best spot to sit is on some days, but if you get worked a few times, you can figure it out pretty quickly. The first year I went to Pipe I was pretty hopeless out there. I’d take off too deep and pick shit waves. But eventually I’d get a couple of good ones and then learn how to surf it. Getting out there is the key. The longer you sit on the beach watching guys getting flogged, the less likely you are to want to get out there. Probably the scariest thing for me is competition (laughs). I get nervous before heats.

Have you ever read about the psychology of fear?

I’m not into motivation books. I love the feeling, and that’s why I do it. If it was for any other reason, I might study up on it, but I’m pretty sure of why I’m out there.

Has there been a wave that had you shitting yourself?

Not since Tahiti. That wave is gnarly. It definitely scares you ’cause you’re always borderline life or death. The reef is so hard and sharp that a few mistakes there can leave you in pretty bad shape. I almost ripped my toe off when it was only five foot. Another day my ring got caught on a bit of coral and almost took off my finger.

Do you take death seriously in big waves?

Probably not as seriously as I should, because I get too excited thinking about that feeling. There have been times where I’ve been rattled, but it’s always good to get back on the horse.

Who are the most fearless surfers in the world?

I think the Irons brothers stand out the most. They challenge themselves at ridiculous levels, and they pull it off. They’re doing the craziest shit in the world right now, and that’s good. I love surfing with them. (Koby) Abberton, too—he’s nuts. He was supposed to be on that trip to Tasmania, but I’m kind of glad he wasn’t, because it would have gone too far. There would have been too much energy. You definitely work yourself up. You build other people up with the energy you have, and they take it on board—it’s a big group psyche. It could have gone too far in Tasmania. It can be good, but it can put you in over your head if you don’t want it.

[IMAGE 5]

 

SIDEBAR: Quotes

 

Scary Stories

Pros talk about the most scared they’ve ever been.

Jamie O’Brien, 20, Hawai’i

“I got caught inside by a wave at Waimea that was like fifteen feet. I took off, got slammed, bailed, and got through it, but my leash was pulling really hard. I debated taking my leash off—I kind of wanted to have my board there. I went under the next one, swimming just under the lip, and my board pulled me over the falls backward. I got really pounded, and next thing I knew—bang, I hit the reef. I thought, ‘Whoa, I must be really deep now.’ I hit the reef way out there. I was swimming, but there were so many bubbles I wasn’t moving. So I waited, and I was thinking if I didn’t get up soon I’d probably be in trouble—the next wave was coming. I eventually got to the top and swallowed some water. The next wave hit me and pushed me into the channel.”

Damien Hobgood, 24, Florida

“The first couple years at Teahupo’o. I just got held down for a long time by one of those big sets. It took forever to get up. I had a feeling there was gonna be another wave behind it, so I was thinking about staying under for the next wave. Finally I came up, and there wasn’t another one behind it. I just went and sat on the shoulder the rest of the session—I didn’t even surf. I had a headache the whole day.”

[IMAGE 9]

Clint Kimmins, 20, Australia

“Last year I was surfing Waimea Bay, and there was a lot of shit talking going on about a closeout set that was going to hit at 11:00 a.m. It had been pretty solid all morning—about twenty foot—but it didn’t feel like it was getting bigger. Anyway, it got to about 10:50 a.m. and not much had changed, and we were all kind of thinking, ‘Aah, it’s a hoax, it’s not coming.’

“Then, sure enough, right on eleven this set started walling up right across the horizon. I took the first one but ate shit and had to cop eight more on the head. By about the third one I started to get pretty exhausted, but I just focused on relaxing and told myself to deal with it. When I made it to the beach, it felt like I’d just won a contest. I was so stoked. I was coughing up water and could barely walk, but it felt sick.”

Andy Irons, 25, Hawai’i

“Being out at Teahupo’o when it’s big is really, really scary. Just being in the water is scary. Last year before the contest, one day was just really hairy, freaked out, and weird.”

Occy, 37, Australia

“There are so many times I’ve been scared in the surf, but one time that springs to mind is when I was in Tahiti a few years ago filming with Jack McCoy and Pancho Sullivan. We weryou in pretty bad shape. I almost ripped my toe off when it was only five foot. Another day my ring got caught on a bit of coral and almost took off my finger.

Do you take death seriously in big waves?

Probably not as seriously as I should, because I get too excited thinking about that feeling. There have been times where I’ve been rattled, but it’s always good to get back on the horse.

Who are the most fearless surfers in the world?

I think the Irons brothers stand out the most. They challenge themselves at ridiculous levels, and they pull it off. They’re doing the craziest shit in the world right now, and that’s good. I love surfing with them. (Koby) Abberton, too—he’s nuts. He was supposed to be on that trip to Tasmania, but I’m kind of glad he wasn’t, because it would have gone too far. There would have been too much energy. You definitely work yourself up. You build other people up with the energy you have, and they take it on board—it’s a big group psyche. It could have gone too far in Tasmania. It can be good, but it can put you in over your head if you don’t want it.

[IMAGE 5]

 

SIDEBAR: Quotes

 

Scary Stories

Pros talk about the most scared they’ve ever been.

Jamie O’Brien, 20, Hawai’i

“I got caught inside by a wave at Waimea that was like fifteen feet. I took off, got slammed, bailed, and got through it, but my leash was pulling really hard. I debated taking my leash off—I kind of wanted to have my board there. I went under the next one, swimming just under the lip, and my board pulled me over the falls backward. I got really pounded, and next thing I knew—bang, I hit the reef. I thought, ‘Whoa, I must be really deep now.’ I hit the reef way out there. I was swimming, but there were so many bubbles I wasn’t moving. So I waited, and I was thinking if I didn’t get up soon I’d probably be in trouble—the next wave was coming. I eventually got to the top and swallowed some water. The next wave hit me and pushed me into the channel.”

Damien Hobgood, 24, Florida

“The first couple years at Teahupo’o. I just got held down for a long time by one of those big sets. It took forever to get up. I had a feeling there was gonna be another wave behind it, so I was thinking about staying under for the next wave. Finally I came up, and there wasn’t another one behind it. I just went and sat on the shoulder the rest of the session—I didn’t even surf. I had a headache the whole day.”

[IMAGE 9]

Clint Kimmins, 20, Australia

“Last year I was surfing Waimea Bay, and there was a lot of shit talking going on about a closeout set that was going to hit at 11:00 a.m. It had been pretty solid all morning—about twenty foot—but it didn’t feel like it was getting bigger. Anyway, it got to about 10:50 a.m. and not much had changed, and we were all kind of thinking, ‘Aah, it’s a hoax, it’s not coming.’

“Then, sure enough, right on eleven this set started walling up right across the horizon. I took the first one but ate shit and had to cop eight more on the head. By about the third one I started to get pretty exhausted, but I just focused on relaxing and told myself to deal with it. When I made it to the beach, it felt like I’d just won a contest. I was so stoked. I was coughing up water and could barely walk, but it felt sick.”

Andy Irons, 25, Hawai’i

“Being out at Teahupo’o when it’s big is really, really scary. Just being in the water is scary. Last year before the contest, one day was just really hairy, freaked out, and weird.”

Occy, 37, Australia

“There are so many times I’ve been scared in the surf, but one time that springs to mind is when I was in Tahiti a few years ago filming with Jack McCoy and Pancho Sullivan. We were at a break called Ha’piti off Moorea. It’s a reef pass that’s a pretty long way out, and from shore you can’t really tell how big it is. I only had a six-three at the time, and we figured it was only six foot, so we jumped in this little rubber ducky and buzzed out there.

“As we got closer we could see it was actually a lot bigger. The boat driver didn’t want to take the ducky out past the lagoon ’cause the engine had been playing up, so we jumped off the side and paddled out. As soon as I got into the lineup, I realized there was no way I could paddle into a wave on my six-three—it was huge. Twelve foot, at least, maybe even bigger. So I tried to paddle back to the lagoon, but the current was too strong—it took me a long time to get in. I was shitting myself. It’s strange, because when you’re that scared time seems to slow down, like if someone puts a gun to your head or if you’re in a car accident. Everything comes in flashes, and you really fear for your life.”

[IMAGE 6]

Jason Magallenes, 30, Hawai’i

“Last year I was surfing Waimea with the Malloys, Evan Slater, Mike Todd, and some other guys at around 5:00 (p.m.), and the swell was supposed to peak at five-thirty. A huge break-in-the-corners, meet-in-the-middle set came through, and as I was paddling up the thing, I thought, ‘If this thing breaks, I’m dead.'”

Joel Parkinson, 22, Australia

“Last year I took a really heavy wipeout at Pipe a few days before I was supposed to surf in the contest. It was one of the biggest waves I’d ever caught out there, and I remember thinking, ‘Shit I just got worked, and I lived through it!’ So by the time the contest came around I was a lot more prepared and relaxed, and I was able to make a few good ones.

“The thing with Hawai’i is you really need to judge whether or not a wave is makeable. If there’s only a 50/50 chance anywhere else in the world, you just go, ‘Yeah, I’m on it,’ but in Hawai’i the waves f—k with you. And what’s worse is you never know what’s behind them. If you don’t make a wave and you wind up in the dead zone, you gotta deal with the six or eight waves after it. That’s why I ride waves all the way to the shore or into the channel at Sunset. I’m too scared not to.”

Taylor Knox, 32, California

“My scariest moment might be with Mike Parsons at Todos (Santos).

It was probably a fifteen-foot day. The scary thing was, the night before I told him I had a really bad feeling about going, and that I thought something really bad was gonna happen. It did. I got held down for two waves. I was like, ‘F—k, I knew this was gonna happen.’ I really didn’t trust my intuition, which wasn’t smart. He (Parsons) said, ‘It was just a feeling—don’t worry about it.’ We were laughing about it later. Next time I won’t to listen to him.”

[IMAGE 7]

Taj Burrow, 25, Australia

“I get scared a lot, but the most freaked out I’ve ever been was at Teahupo’o. It was during the contest—there hadn’t been waves for a few days, so one night we all went mad for Hira Terinatoofa’s birthday. All his family and all the locals were saying ‘No chance of waves tomorrow,’ so we got totally wasted. Anyway, we woke up at 5:30 the next morning and the whole island was shaking. I was with Jake Paterson, and we had to drive down to see whether the contest was on. We were kinda telling each other, ‘It can’t be that big,’ but when we got to the spots in the road where you could see the reef passes, we could tell it was f—kin’ huge! And the contest was on. The adrenaline sobered us up instantly, and it turned out to not be too bad, but that drive was one of the scariest hours of my life. We were sweating booze the whole way.”

Ian Walsh, 20, Hawai’i

“Trying to get a jet ski out of the impact zone at Jaws when a set was coming. We had just gotten attached to the front ski and we were getting towed out and barely made it over the top.”

[IMAGE 8]

Mick Fanning, 22, Australia

“I shit myself every time I paddle out at ‘Chopes (laughs). I guess when it starts getting big you kind of push yourself to go, ’cause if you don’t, you might miss the biggest and best barrel of your life. The stoke you could get outweighs the fear of getting smashed.”

Dustin Barca, 21, Hawai’i

“Kala Alexander brought me out to Hanalei when I was fifteen. The whole ocean was like a rushing river, and I didn’t have a leash. I was pretty scared.”

Dean Morrison, 23, Australia

“When I first used to come to Hawai’i, there were sessions I’d be out in where I’d wish I was back on land watching TV. But the more you surf in big waves, the more comfortable you become and the more relaxed you feel. I still have issues with Waimea Bay, though. I don’t know if I feel too comfortable out there yet … I don’t know if I even want to.”

t a break called Ha’piti off Moorea. It’s a reef pass that’s a pretty long way out, and from shore you can’t really tell how big it is. I only had a six-three at the time, and we figured it was only six foot, so we jumped in this little rubber ducky and buzzed out there.

“As we got closer we could see it was actually a lot bigger. The boat driver didn’t want to take the ducky out past the lagoon ’cause the engine had been playing up, so we jumped off the side and paddled out. As soon as I got into the lineup, I realized there was no way I could paddle into a wave on my six-three—it was huge. Twelve foot, at least, maybe even bigger. So I tried to paddle back to the lagoon, but the current was too strong—it took me a long time to get in. I was shitting myself. It’s strange, because when you’re that scared time seems to slow down, like if someone puts a gun to your head or if you’re in a car accident. Everything comes in flashes, and you really fear for your life.”

[IMAGE 6]

Jason Magallenes, 30, Hawai’i

“Last year I was surfing Waimea with the Malloys, Evan Slater, Mike Todd, and some other guys at around 5:00 (p.m.), and the swell was supposed to peak at five-thirty. A huge break-in-the-corners, meet-in-the-middle set came through, and as I was paddling up the thing, I thought, ‘If this thing breaks, I’m dead.'”

Joel Parkinson, 22, Australia

“Last year I took a really heavy wipeout at Pipe a few days before I was supposed to surf in the contest. It was one of the biggest waves I’d ever caught out there, and I remember thinking, ‘Shit I just got worked, and I lived through it!’ So by the time the contest came around I was a lot more prepared and relaxed, and I was able to make a few good ones.

“The thing with Hawai’i is you really need to judge whether or not a wave is makeable. If there’s only a 50/50 chance anywhere else in the world, you just go, ‘Yeah, I’m on it,’ but in Hawai’i the waves f—k with you. And what’s worse is you never know what’s behind them. If you don’t make a wave and you wind up in the dead zone, you gotta deal with the six or eight waves after it. That’s why I ride waves all the way to the shore or into the channel at Sunset. I’m too scared not to.”

Taylor Knox, 32, California

“My scariest moment might be with Mike Parsons at Todos (Santos).

It was probably a fifteen-foot day. The scary thing was, the night before I told him I had a really bad feeling about going, and that I thought something really bad was gonna happen. It did. I got held down for two waves. I was like, ‘F—k, I knew this was gonna happen.’ I really didn’t trust my intuition, which wasn’t smart. He (Parsons) said, ‘It was just a feeling—don’t worry about it.’ We were laughing about it later. Next time I won’t to listen to him.”

[IMAGE 7]

Taj Burrow, 25, Australia

“I get scared a lot, but the most freaked out I’ve ever been was at Teahupo’o. It was during the contest—there hadn’t been waves for a few days, so one night we all went mad for Hira Terinatoofa’s birthday. All his family and all the locals were saying ‘No chance of waves tomorrow,’ so we got totally wasted. Anyway, we woke up at 5:30 the next morning and the whole island was shaking. I was with Jake Paterson, and we had to drive down to see whether the contest was on. We were kinda telling each other, ‘It can’t be that big,’ but when we got to the spots in the road where you could see the reef passes, we could tell it was f—kin’ huge! And the contest was on. The adrenaline sobered us up instantly, and it turned out to not be too bad, but that drive was one of the scariest hours of my life. We were sweating booze the whole way.”

Ian Walsh, 20, Hawai’i

“Trying to get a jet ski out of the impact zone at Jaws when a set was coming. We had just gotten attached to the front ski and we were getting towed out and barely made it over the top.”

[IMAGE 8]

Mick Fanning, 22, Australia

“I shit myself every time I paddle out at ‘Chopes (laughs). I guess when it starts getting big you kind of push yourself to go, ’cause if you don’t, you might miss the biggest and best barrel of your life. The stoke you could get outweighs the fear of getting smashed.”

Dustin Barca, 21, Hawai’i

“Kala Alexander brought me out to Hanalei when I was fifteen. The whole ocean was like a rushing river, and I didn’t have a leash. I was pretty scared.”

Dean Morrison, 23, Australia

“When I first used to come to Hawai’i, there were sessions I’d be out in where I’d wish I was back on land watching TV. But the more you surf in big waves, the more comfortable you become and the more relaxed you feel. I still have issues with Waimea Bay, though. I don’t know if I feel too comfortable out there yet … I don’t know if I even want to.”

anning, 22, Australia

“I shit myself every time I paddle out at ‘Chopes (laughs). I guess when it starts getting big you kind of push yourself to go, ’cause if you don’t, you might miss the biggest and best barrel of your life. The stoke you could get outweighs the fear of getting smashed.”

Dustin Barca, 21, Hawai’i

“Kala Alexander brought me out to Hanalei when I was fifteen. The whole ocean was like a rushing river, and I didn’t have a leash. I was pretty scared.”

Dean Morrison, 23, Australia

“When I first used to come to Hawai’i, there were sessions I’d be out in where I’d wish I was back on land watching TV. But the more you surf in big waves, the more comfortable you become and the more relaxed you feel. I still have issues with Waimea Bay, though. I don’t know if I feel too comfortable out there yet … I don’t know if I even want to.”