Kai Lenny, Maui’s ‘Laukua’ and Ultimate Waterman

From hydrofoils to stories of his youth, this is what drives Kai Lenny to the water.

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Sung Han

Kai Lenny is a laukua, which in Hawaiian means one skilled in many trades — or, in mainlander parlance, a jack of all trades. Lenny, who grew up on the island of Maui, is a professional waterman — he partakes in and competes in just about every water sport you can name. He learned many of his water sports at young ages (how to surf at four, windsurf at six, SUP surf at seven and kite surf at nine). Along the way, Lenny also added windsurfing and hydrofoil stand-up paddleboarding to his repertoire. While Lenny excels in all of these sports, the one he’s most successful in, and the one where his competitive focus lies, is SUP racing.

We caught up with Lenny just before he competed in the Moloka’i 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championships, a race between Moloka’i and Honolulu that covers roughly 32 miles across the Ka’iwi Channel. Lenny won the event and also set a new record (4:07:41), besting his rival and fellow Maui native Connor Baxter’s previous record of 4:08:08. Lenny was quoted as saying that the win was “one of the biggest goals and dreams in my life.”

Still, Lenny sees SUP racing as only one activity that he could partake in on any given day. And as for which sport is his favorite, Lenny’s answer changes with the wind patterns and the waves.

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Q: You’re a surfer, a stand-up paddleboarder, a tow-in surfer, a windsurfer and kite surfer. So how do you decide what you’re going to do on a given day?
Kai Lenny (KL): Well it’s really easy being on Maui because the conditions are constantly fluctuating and changing. Really, I leave it up to what the laws of nature have for me. When I look out on the water, if it looks good for windsurfing then I’ll go windsurfing. If it looks good for kiting then I’ll go kiting. If the surf is firing somewhere then I will go surf. But usually if I’m doing an event or something is coming up, I will focus more on that sport. All my other sports will be secondary to that one, but I will still do them.

Q: What sport did you start with and how did you initially get into water sports?
KL: I got into the sports because my parents moved to Maui years before I was born to windsurf and surf. So I grew up in that environment, and they wanted to go surfing at the beach after work. They couldn’t just leave me at home, so they took me to the beach at an early age. I figured I could continue getting sand blasted, or I could go out and try to surf. I think I’m a product of the environment that I was put in, you know? It just seems like a normal life to want to get out on the water and do the things I’m doing now.

Q: Do you have a favorite sport? Or is that like choosing your favorite child?
KL: I think it is. I’ve never had a child, but I’m pretty sure it’d be something like that. It would be hard to choose because the thing is, all these boards offer a different experience on the water. I think my favorite thing in the world is to ride waves, just because they are so magnificent, and the only type of wave we can really ride. I get a connection to nature that is genuine and intimate because the wave is doing its thing, and you’re in this circle of chaos. You’re in the heart of the sea in that moment. So all these sports are really just platforms to ride waves. It’s hard to say what I would want to give up and what I wouldn’t because they all give you a different point of view, a different experience.

Q: But your main professional interest, or the area where you’ve had the most success, is stand-up paddleboarding.
KL: Right now, I would say that’s my competitive focus. That’s kind of what I’ve been doing the last two years to gain world championships. In recent times, I’ve also been trying to push the sport to new boundaries with the addition of hydrofoils. That has opened up a whole new realm, almost a new sport, in a way. It doesn’t even feel like stand-up paddling. It’s kind of a hybrid or spinoff from a normal stand-up.

Q: How did that come about? And what does that mean for stand-up paddleboarding?
KL: For me being a professional athlete and a seven-time world champion, it’s really about making it fun and exciting constantly. It takes a bit of innovation and imagination to formulate a piece of equipment that will allow you to push the boundaries of that specific sport. So my whole goal with doing these things and innovating what I do is to enhance the experience and allow me to do stuff that I wouldn’t normally do with a normal board.

Q: Did the idea for that come from what people were doing with big-wave tow-in surfing? Is that where the hydrofoil began?
KL: Well, my relationship with the hydrofoil actually started way back when it was just a hydrofoil on a surfboard, tow-in and snowboard boots. That was when I was nine years old. So I’ve had a long relationship with hydrofoil. But my level was never at the point to take it from one sport and apply it to another. I wasn’t quite there yet; I didn’t have that ability. I guess I didn’t even have that vision yet. My relationship with hydrofoil has been so long — the first wave I ever rode at Jaws here on Maui was on a hydrofoil — that was when I was 15. Then I added it onto kite surfing using hydrofoil as I gained popularity in that sport.

But then also I got to hang out with a lot with guys like Jimmy Spithill and the Oracle Teams from America’s Cup, trying to experiment with the hydrofoil. So I was seeing what they were doing, and it inspired me to try to figure out how I can do something rad like they’re doing. And I guess the cogs in my head started turning. So it’s been a really long relationship with it, and I had all these pieces, but I didn’t have that one last missing piece. And now I do, and I think that’s how it all came together. It’s hard to just sit under a tree and think up stuff; a lot of times it comes from being out on the water, and all of the sudden you’re like, “Gosh, I wish I could do that.” And I’m like, “Well, wait. Hey, I have a solution.”

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Q: In competition, you guys aren’t racing with the hydrofoils, right?
KL: In competition, a little. It’s kind of a bummer because the class that we race in for Inner Island, like Molokai to Oahu, is called an unlimited class. And you’d think that unlimited means anything, but it doesn’t. If it’s anything new, people aren’t sure if they like it or not yet. I’m still, I think, the only one who can do it really well or proficiently. There are a lot of people trying to learn stuff, but there’s a learning curve. In the future, I think the highest level will all be on hydrofoils in downwind and flat water. It’s just faster, and it’s like, I don’t know, riding a bicycle, compared to a Moto GP bike. It just can do things that you can’t do on a normal bicycle. And it’s harnessing the power of the ocean. It’s not easier; if anything, it’s a little more taxing, physically, but that’s what it takes to go fast. So in the future, for sure, it’s going to be allowed. There’s just going to need to be a little more participation from some of the top athletes to make it its own division.

Q: What physical differences are there? And what are the challenges in riding a hydrofoil versus a traditional SUP board?
KL: I think with the hydrofoil, going downwind particularly, allows you to go so much quicker, have so much more freedom and really be able to surf the ocean — and not have to drag a giant, long race board that’s 17 feet long. In the future, it’s going to be on eight-foot boards downwind. And to me, that’s just so exciting because you’re going 22, 25 mph versus just 10. That’s already way better. But it’s hard riding it in waves, you know — lineups where breaking waves occur. So really it’s adapting to the conditions with these tools. It’s going to make crumby waves feel really, really good. And that’s the best part of it.

Q: You don’t really have to deal with the chop on the surface, right?
KL: I guess the common misconception is that you don’t get the sensation of the board cutting through the water. What I’ve read on comments is, “Oh, I like the feel of the ocean.” The reality is, with the hydrofoil you get more of a feeling of what’s going on with the waves than you ever could with the board, because the board is just cutting across the water. Whereas with the foil, you’re gaining this lift, this energy, and you’re kind of harnessing into a deeper source of power within the waves. As the board hits the bottom contour, it’s adapting. It loses power and it gains power. You really learn a lot about your surfing when you can ride a hydrofoil because you’re connected to the sea for the source of the waves, rather than just the surface.

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Q: How much of SUP is technique? And how much of it is fitness?
KL: I would say it’s 60:40 — 60 percent technique and 40 percent physical. With technical ability or finesse you can save a lot of energy, but it’s definitely physical to keep going downwind with open-ocean flow — you’ve got to be really focused and you have to be able to react really quickly. So it’s like doing sprints up a hill, really quickly, then relaxing. Sprinting, then relaxing. Rather than just chugging along at a constant pace. So with all that being said, when I’m surfing on my hydrofoil it’s a lot less work than riding a normal board. Because you have the power from the energy of the wave thrusting you forward and all you’re doing is kind of directing with zero resistance. It really does feel like you’re flying or floating on a cloud. It’s kind of like a magic trick to your brain when you’re standing on the thing. I would say it’s a lot less taxing than a normal surfboard that you’re having to push through water.

Q: What’s the relationship like between traditional surfers and SUPers or SUP hydrofoilers?
KL: I think there’s a time and place for everything. Unfortunately, as much as people think they’re open minded, human nature is pretty safeguarded, and new things scare a lot of people. That’s just a fact of it all. So I mean, like, when a new stand-up came out, people obviously feared the worst. A bigger board, somebody’s going to steal your ride, a wave will swell up on the lineup, blah, blah, blah, but that’s just the worst-case scenario. It’s just as dangerous to have somebody who doesn’t know how to surf surfing out there, you know? There’s a time and place for it all.

The beauty when stand-ups came out was, there were so many awesome waves that weren’t so good for short board surfing, but great for stand-up. With the hydrofoil, same thing. I go to spots where nobody else can ride and I catch a little white water. There’s no other piece of equipment that can ride it. I’m all alone, and I almost prefer to ride that type of wave on a hydrofoil anyway. So there’s a time and a place. My whole thing is, I want to go ride waves either with my friends out or by myself. I don’t want to be hassled with grumpy people. A lot of times people can be grumpy over new things. It’s like I said before — a time and place for everything.

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Q: Have you seen a lot of surfers try SUPs in the years they’ve been around? Or do people stay kind of get stuck in their ways and only want to surf?
KL: You know, I don’t know. I think the bigger problem is when people try to tell others what they need or don’t need to do. What they should and shouldn’t do. If you want to surf, I think you should just go surf. Whatever, that’s your choice. At the end of the day, don’t tell me what I can or cannot do. I’m not bothering anybody, I’m just enjoying what I do. I think there’s some sense of like, “Oh, you can only surf if you want to be cool.” Well, that’s usually not the facts. Honestly, a lot of people that say that sort of thing are usually the biggest kooks in the world. All of the top-level pros and big-wave surfers that I’ve been around are open minded to try other stuff because it’s just all about fun at the end of the day.

Q: What do you see as a “complete waterman?”
KL: I think there’s people who are water athletes who can do all of the sports. But to become a true waterman, which I think is the master class of surfing sports or just aquatic life, I think you have to be the best in the world at all of these different sports. Be able to ride the biggest waves on the planet, the smallest waves, paddle for a mile into high wind. Not only that, but be able to go below the surface; free dive, be self sustaining, be able to fish, be able to spearfish; all of these different avenues that make an incredible athlete. I think you need to be able to do that in the ocean. You need to be able to win any event in any given sport you enter. I think that’s a possibility because if you’re not pushing the sports you’re participating in, you’re not at that true level. In my opinion, I don’t see myself as a complete waterman yet. I can do all these different sports and whatever, but I still think I have a long way to go to really consider myself someone who can do everything the best in the world. Which is a big ask, but it’s harmless to chase after.

Q: Is that a motivation for you?
KL: I think it’s a constant motivation because I can be feeling like I’m really good in one sport and feel like I’m killing it, and then I can go into my other sport and be riding with some of my friends, or somebody else, or do a video and feel like I’m such a kook. I’m like, god, I want to get better. It keeps everything exciting. I’m not doing it to prove anything, like, “Oh, I’m the best waterman in the world.” You know, that’s never been what it’s been about. I think about trying to constantly have something to strive toward.

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It’s no fun when you become really good at something and you don’t really have much area to grow and improve. Sometimes it takes walking away from a sport like that for a little bit to get inspiration and come back. Whereas I can just jump on another sport and feel like I’m still learning. I just love learning. And then I go back to the sport and have inspiration from something that I learned kite surfing affect my windsurfing. Or my windsurfing affects my big-wave paddle surfing at Jaws. So for the rest of my life I’ll always be chasing and following this improvement bunny that’s outrunning me constantly. But that’s what it’s all about for me, just to continue learning. It takes up all my time, but I wouldn’t want anything else to.

Q: Being out on the water in Maui doesn’t sound like the worst way to spend a life.
KL: No way! I would say I probably am one of the luckiest people in the world. I’m living a life where if I didn’t have all the money in the world, I could still be who I am and love what I’m doing. Of course it takes a little money to have equipment and stuff, but the ocean’s free and it’s the best playground on the planet.

Q: What advice would you give somebody who’s trying out SUP for the first time?
KL: I guess more than anything, getting out on stand-up is the best entry sport to surfing, and water sports in general, because it’s so easy to learn. Then there’s so much growth to it. First and foremost, if you’re unfamiliar with water and waves, know what you’re getting yourself into — having safety equipment, wearing a leash on your board. If you decide to go out on waves, go to a spot where there’s not many people or no one’s out.

Don’t go over your skill level. It takes time, and baby steps are the best way to improve and grow in all of these sports. If you try to rush it, you’re going to end up hurting yourself and hurting someone else. If you’re just doing it out on a lake, it’s awesome because you can adventure to all these different parts. It’s really just deciding to go on water, in that sense. You’re also going to get the best workout. You can avoid the gym if you just stand and paddle. I would say safety, though, is paramount in any new water sport you do.

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