Kai Lenny Interview

From the archives: This interview was published in our print Magazine #15 in Mai 2019

I arrive at the Kai Lenny HQ, Kai is washing his car as he is waiting for me. I haven’t been on his property for quite a while. He now has a detached garage with a meeting room with a large table, a TV and a small kitchen. Behind it is an arsenal of surfboards, foils and other accessories. Everything looks very clean and organized. We sit down and start talking, a real interview with a common thread doesn’t come out of it somehow, we just talk about it and Kai likes to talk, so we let him talk:

Let’s get started. I was just looking through the magazine with our first interview, we had some great photos of you in Tahiti from the Waterman League in it. We talked about how the sport is not yet so well organized. Your statement that particularly stuck with me: If someone calls a world championship, but the best ones don’t go, then you can’t really call it a world championship. I almost have the feeling that after six years we haven’t really made any progress, or how do you see it?

Well, I think this year will be a little bit different than last year. It seems to me that this year the APP is finally something like the legitimate world tour. Last year we had the Paddle League, but somehow I haven’t heard anything more about what’s going on this year or if there will be anything at all. When Arthur won the APP World Championship last year, the PR was actually quite big. Unfortunately Sean Poynter was forgotten, he finally won a SUP Surf World Championship, but somehow the whole thing got a bit lost. Unfortunately he also lost his sponsor, which I felt very sorry about. But somehow I also have the feeling that we have reached something like a plateau in the sport. We can now look back on ten years of competitive sport. I have also heard from various athletes that they tend to concentrate more on the APP and don’t want to do so many events anymore. The APP also works together with the ISA and both have been there from the beginning. Even if it was not always easy, but I think if you are there from the beginning, then you have the most legality. But anyway, I think it will be interesting this year. Especially in the race area, I hear that many people don’t have the budget to participate in 40 races. Travelling that much can be really exhausting.

Yes, right now we are really waiting to see what happens in 2019.

If I look at how the sport has developed, it all started with Downwind Racing and the Waterman League Tour and 2013/14 was really hot. Today we are mainly at Flatwater Races and the whole circus has moved more to Europe.

Thats right. I have the feeling that back in 2013 and 2014, when I won the Battle the Paddle, it was somehow the highlight of SUP Racing. Then the PPGs took over and somehow the whole thing flattened out a bit. It’s just nothing new anymore. I think the success of the SUP sport and how to save it, is if a lot of people can participate – even non-pros. Say, the Euro Tour and the Flatwater Races … let’s be honest here: Flatwater is really boring to watch, and I find it rather boring to participate in. So you have to be a real fan of it. While everything is very exciting during the Downwind or at the Beach raaces until the end. It is just a different dynamic.

Yes, that’s right, this way the sport is just closer to surfing and that’s exactly what I want to find out here: Why is SUP Surfing not better rooted and accepted in the surfing world? It can’t be the performance of the athletes. Even if I compare SUP surfing to six years ago, you guys were riding boards the size of a canoe and despite the whole development: SUP Surfing has somehow fallen behind.

Kai in Tahiti back in 2011 (©APPTour)

I think when something has a stigma attached, it’s really hard to get rid of it. One reason for this is surely the videos you see on the internet where the SUPs paddle through the line up without regard to the surfers or they get washed and crash into a surfer and so on … That was the image that the surf community took over and it didn’t matter who you are or how good you are. That’s just sad. I mean, for me SUP surfing is not just surfing, but especially when I go to the outer reefs it’s a very good way of transportation to get there.

Also in big wave surfing, stand up padding is the best way to paddle a wave. But I have experienced that in the surfing world it was not so highly regarded when I paddled into big waves with the SUP as when I paddled into a wave lying down. Even though the boards are practically the same size.

Exactly that’s the point. Why is that?

Ah I think that’s exactly the stigmatization of SUP Surfing – it’s just not surfing. Many surfers are busy thinking about what surfing is and with a paddle it is not surfing. But in the past you could also say that about the leash. But I also think that the interest in Stand Up Surfing is not as big as it was in the beginning. You don’t see as many SUP surfers in the water as a few years ago. The ones who are out there now are the good guys. But there are less hobby SUP surfers. Now foiling is the new thing everyone wants and for some reason the surfers here have no problem with it, they want to try it. Many of the best surfers in the world are foiling. If they were SUP surfing back then, the discussion would be different today.

Could it be that you have a little to do with it, you showed it to everyone…

Oh … that could be. Well, foiling is interesting because it’s the only core water sport that is actually the first thing core surfers do before everyone else does it. Laird Hamilton made SUP big. But Laird was not a core surfer in that sense, he was Laird. He was a category of his own. He introduced SUP and many of the people who started it first were not core surfers, but water sports enthusiasts in general. With me it was a bit different. I didn’t invent foiling, but developed it further without boots and by catching bumps / waves on my own. The people who jumped on it and who I taught are the best surfers in the world like JohnJohn Florence, Ian Walsh or Julian Wilson. These are all people that the whole surfing world looks up to. People have seen their favorite surfer foiling and have accepted that. The problem starts when you have people who can’t handle it. I mean, if you go into a full line up with a foil and don’t know what you are doing, then everybody hates the guy and the foil. The foil was meant to go in the water where there are no people anyway. I mean, why would anyone with a foil want to go where the line up is full? The Stand Up is an ancestor of the foil in that sense. The point with the SUP is that you can surf waves with the SUP that are normally not so easy to reach with normal paddling. Then the whole thing really makes fun… Sure it is okay to use a SUP or a foil in a full line up if a) you are surfing with your friends or b) there is nobody in the water. So my friends trust me to foil through people and I trust my friends to do the same.

Kai and his toys.

Ok cool, since we are already talking about acceptance: You address this in your film about how you were accepted by the surfing community as a wind and SUP athlete. Could you describe your path a bit?

My surfing career has not been in the traditional path, which starts by being very good in small waves and then go on the tour and work your way up. This is the traditional path that all surfers follow. Later when you have reached everything, then Big Wave comes on top. I myself have never achieved anything in small waves, but in Big Wave, I did. I was always out on the big days, going on the Big Wave Tour, winning events and getting awards. Nobody can say anything when you paddle into the biggest wave of the day, it gives respect and so I entered the surf world through the back door. I had a lot of good pictures and always wanted to perform well and people liked it and thought it was great. And now, when I’m out there in small waves, I really want to improve myself, I go in the water with modest ambitions and people like it that way. I always knew that this is my weak point. I have achieved a lot in many things, but nothing in small waves. But I think people are also happy that I am trying.

The competition in surfing is so high and everyone dreams of a big career. Since I have kids, I know this myself, because we go to a lot of contests and sometimes it’s a bit crazy and a totally different vibe than in the SUP community.

Surfing is a bit of a tribal culture: If you belong to it, you are always welcome. But as soon as someone new joins, everyone frowns and wonder what he or she is doing here. It’s like when you have a BBQ and all your friends are there and someone shows up whom you don’t know and everyone asks who the hell that is. Also surfing is kind of a very free spirit thing. Surfers sit in the ocean and ride a wave that comes from so far away and that somehow gives you a connection to nature. But on the other hand, surfing also involves a lot of greed. There are just so and so many waves that come along and there is only one wave of the day and everybody wants it. You can’t blame anyone for that. But nowadays it has become easier to make a career in surfing. There are clear structures and ways and … Socialmedia has also made it easier.

Will we see you at surf contests soon?

Big Wave off course!

Thats clear but I also meant the others.

In small waves I have to get better and this year I want to surf more small waves. If I feel good, then for sure. I love competitions and if my skills are good enough to go for the competition, then I’m in. I’m not there yet, but when the moment is right, then I’m ready to go. However it’s hard to say if I’ll get to that point, but I’m not ruling it out.

Surf Contest Honolua Bay Longboard Division (Photo: Ed. Mike Jucker)

I would be happy to witness this. Another question related to SUP and surfing is why big lifestyle brands like your sponsors still keep their hands off SUP. Do you sometimes talk to them about it?

Well I think from the perspective of TAG HEUER or NIKE the sport is just not big enough. I mean, NIKE used to be into surfing but then retired again. The brands were just not big enough. I mean, they sell millions of shoes and how many people play basketball in the USA? Surfing … well, I got this number from “The Economist”: It’s 34 million worldwide, which is a tiny number compared to the world population. These companies cannot sell in this market in the quantities for which their business is made. Then we have the other brands like Hurley, Quicksilver or Volcom. Quicksilver tried a little bit with the “Waterman Collection”, but somehow it got an image of old-fashioned sports. Which is actually not true, because the best in the sport are all young guys. And then there is the stigma we were talking about. These core brands don’t want to annoy their regular customers by starting to sponsor people who are stigmatized in the surfing world. Oh, the whole thing is so political … I was lucky somehow: When I joined Hurley, I was mostly a stand up paddler, but I think they saw more in me as well. Actually stand up paddling is already big worldwide, but unfortunately only as a hobby or what you can rent at the hotel beach, but not the sport and many companies just look at what is left at the end of the day. That’s my perspective anyway. So if everybody would wear shoes at SUP, then maybe that would be something or if there would be a marathon like SUP race, where as many people participate as at a marathon, then maybe TAG will come in as well.

Say, will we see you at SUP Races this year?

Ah… I keep the possibility open, but at the moment I want to train my surfing. I have been training for SUP races for the last ten years. I have been surfing a lot, but I have never really done that before. What I learned in training for SUP races, I want to apply to surfing and see how I can push my limit.

Alright … Kai Lenny is surfing; let’s talk a bit more about foiling. I was at a fair in Germany in January and the world is talking about foiling. Everybody wants to foil, it’s all about foiling. I am playing a little bit of the devil’s advocate here now. I mean, that is so hard to learn! My colleague has been windsurfing for 30 years and bought a foil last fall and he is still learning. Downwind foiling looks so cool and I would love to be able to do it, and as a result nobody wants to paddle with an Unlimited anymore.

Oh yeah asolutely the foil pushed out the unlimited.

Where do you see the whole thing going? After all, you have carried foiling around the world.

Kai in his “Warehouse”.

Well, that’s kind of funny: When I started with foiling, I wanted to cover a grey area in surfing. And when I say surfing, I mean to ride every kind of wave, windsurfing, SUP and so on …

How often do we see a 100′ wave?

Kai Lenny

At some point the waves are simply too small to go charge. You can only cruise and there is no way to be very fast. Until you say: “Shit, today I’m just not going in the water because there’s nothing going on. SUP was still a help somehow, but even that became too slow in small waves. At the same time I went foiling with my parents, but that was back then with bindings and a jet ski and you needed certain waves to do it. I wanted to go foiling more often, but it was just too much work with all the preparation and so on. At some point it clicked for me: What if I find a way to foil in small waves? The basic idea of the foil was always: If someone can surf a 100 feet wave, then only on a foil. The foil was considered the key to the biggest wave. But I thought exactly the other way round and I have to be honest – how often does a 100 feet wave come along? Just – not that often. I thought now: “I want to surf the smallest wave I can. If you separate the board from the surface tension of the water, you get fast. I once saw a Frenchman on a SUP Foil, I think it was the guys from “AHD”. He had one of those prototypes and I thought: “Ah … that works! You can get up that way too.” Then I thought, I could try a downwind, my 14′ SUP was getting really boring, I just couldn’t get faster. I just reached my limit, the only way to get faster is to have a faster board, but that only happens once a year because all boards are production boards. I racked my brains: How can I become faster?

I want to be the fastest in the water and then “boom” – we built a foil under my 14′ SUP. Right after that another decisive moment came. I also wanted to do high performance stuff. I realized that I don’t need a paddle anymore to get the foil gliding/flying. “Man, this is it!” I thought: Surf-Foiling! I don’t need big waves for that. I did it, got up and had the feeling I was just getting out of the chairlift and riding in hip-deep powder snow. I still remember. I was on the South Shore one day and my brain exploded. I mean, the wave was tiny, almost flattened out and I was doing 20 km/h on the water! It couldn’t have been any better. Then I realized the potential. Airs are also possible at such speeds. But coming back to the point where I wanted to start. When I started, I never thought that everyone would want SUP foils now. “That’s so funny and why would you want to do something like that?”that’s what I thought people would think.

I was only interested to have some fun, which I now have in bad waves. Then the pro surfers came and asked me how to do it. That surprised me a little bit. I often do things that interest me just for me and not because of the others. Then more and more people came along. I think it can never be as big as SUP because you can never put your grandmother on it. Foiling has its place with people who already surf, are good at it but often don’t have good waves. I mean, 90% of the world often has bad waves, even here on Maui the waves are often not that good. So I don’t think that people start foiling without being surfers already. It takes a certain amount of skill to get into that, even if the foils get a lot better in the next few years. I’m already wondering when the zenith will be passed like in SUP surfing.

OK then I am really curious: When you were out there with JohnJohn Florence – how long did it take him to get it?

You can give a door to the best surfer in the world and he can ride it, but until you get good at it, it’s different. I think many of the pro surfers like that too, because it makes them feel like they are learning to surf from scratch.

You mean the challenge of something new?

No, not necessarily, but you know, when you start surfing, it doesn’t matter how good the wave is. But if you are the best surfer in the world like JohnJohn or Kelly and you want to surf your best, then you need a good wave for that. The pros always look where they can find the best wave. But now it’s like a little kid: If you have a wave as a kid in white water, that’s the greates. You can have fun again in waves that you wouldn’t even look at otherwise. I have never seen a pro surfer who was so excited about crappy waves. It’s just the feeling. You think you are in deep snow or surfing an overhead wave even though it is barely knee high. You can ride a wave for 100 meters and then the challenge comes, if you can pump yourself out again and … the best thing is: there is no one in the water. So you know, it’s like when the waves get too big for surfing, then tow surfing starts and when the waves get too small for surfing, then foilsurfing starts. I don’t mean that you can’t surf in very small or very big waves. What I want to say is that from a certain level on you should just change the equipment to get the best out of the wave. It’s just important to always have the right tools.

Change of subject: Have you ever talked to the people at WSL about SUP Surfing?

Yes I did, but they are investing a lot in surfing right now and in women surfing as well. I think, if they are successful with that, it’s quite possible that they will look at the SUP Surfsport. I see potential for a festival-like event, where you do a SUP surf contest on the days you don’t surf. Which would make me very happy if the WSL would work together with the APP one day. But just to make sure here: I do not know the plans of these people. What I do know for sure is that they are always thinking about how to grow surfing. Like I said: Surfing is riding a wave not only with a surfboard and stand up paddling is also stand up surfing. Let’s not forget here, we don’t paddle on a kayak, but on a surfboard.

Makes sense, I just think it’s cool when we see surf contests where SUP surfing is included and the best in the sport can surf pipeline for example. That’s what the WSL should do, the six best in the world get half a day before the actual contest. I just think SUP surf pros deserve a bigger platform and a bigger payday.

I think this could be something for the future, but right now they have put a lot of money into core surfing. As long as they don’t see a return on investment, I think such ideas are still a long way off. Multi-sports events are better, I think, and stand up paddling is the easiest one, where you get most people to participate and the longer the cameras are running, the better actually.

Exactly, golf tournaments come to my mind, where you can play a Pro-Am tournament for a lot of money before the actual tournament for example. That’s the cool thing about Stand Up Paddling at the moment: The hobby paddler can compete directly with the pros. Surfing has none of that.

Exactly. I think the idea of marathon-like SUP races is very good, where someone joins in just to reach the finish line and there are people who want to break records. SUP is just not as exclusive as surfing.

Yes, it’s true, you can’t throw a few amateurs and surf pros in the same heat. The time and the waves are always limited at such events.

Yes surfing is core. I hope that the APP manages to involve more people and who knows, maybe the sport will become olympic after all. That would certainly help! My God, SUP is the easiest sport to get someone on the ocean. The diversity of SUP is simply incomparable.

Sorry, now I spontaneously have another question about surf contests and stuff. You are now a frequent guest at Kelly Slaters wave. Say, couldn’t you put the idea into his head to do a SUP surf contest there?

Hmm… yes… well, the wave actually does not belong to him anymore. The WSL bought it and at the moment they have such a big rush there.

No shit … das glaube ich sofort. Dann sag doch mal, was muss ein Normalsterblicher wie ich tun, wenn ich dort eine Welle surfen will?

Well … either you know someone or you pay a lot of money. But don’t worry, this is just the beginning. In ten years there will be waves like this everywhere.

Great, then we should remember that and do another interview in ten years. But right now everyone is asking themselves: “How do I get there? What do I have to pay?”

Also with pay, they are so greatly booked that without connections it’s really hard to get in. Fortunately I know Kelly and he invites me, sometimes I have to cancel. I got lucky. But like I said, if you don’t know anybody, then it’s going to be hard. But that is also because this wave is not the final wave. It is still a prototype. It will be even better and they are still testing waves there. The last few times I was there, I was there to test waves and give feedback.

Testing a wave (I laugh) – that sounds wonderful. A little steeper here, a little flatter there or a better barrel here, please.

Exatly that is what I keep telling them…

… please make a double overhead wave?

(Laughter) No, pleeeeeaaaasseee a big wave … make me a 25 foot face wave (eight meter wave). No, but seriously: If this could be done, a Big Wave (and I say anything higher than 25′ Face is Big Wave) so if this becomes possible, then Big Wave surfing will be revolutionized.

Phoa… so if that would be possible, I don’t want to know how much energy such a thing would need and how big and deep the pool would have to be.

No, no, this is possible. I mean, if they just did everything twice as big. The plant is powered by renewable energy. It’s just all a question of size, the pool doesn’t have to be that much bigger. I talk to the people there. At the moment they have two winches, if you add a third one and the shovel would be bigger and … “holy cow”, we would be at 25 feet.

It would certainly be an interesting question for an engineer to ask how much energy and material to put into it until you have are doubling the wave and how long you can do that until a plateau is reached. But that is more of a rhetorical question here.

I think so, at some point you can’t just grow a wave like that exponentially. Kelly’s wave also has real power, if you fall, you get a good pounding.

Salt- or Freshwater?


OK so less dense water.

Yes, but you don’t really notice that. But if the wave was 25 feet there, I would only go into the water with helmet and suit. Because the ground is concrete and the pool is very shallow.

Oh wow, yes interesting. So tell me, as you go in and out of there and now have become a worldwide brand. Tell me, compared to six years ago: Was there any point where things changed very quickly for you? I haven’t talked to you for a long time, but I seriously thought you had an agent and a planner who would take care of all your appointments. But it was very easy to get in touch with you.

No, no, I am not that far yet. It would certainly be nice to hire a few people one day to organize things for me. But my dad already helps me with appointments and travel planning and so on.

You must have many requests from people who want you to come to their event.

Oh, yes, so many. I would also like to do a lot more, but often there are simply too many overlapping appointments. I actually try to keep my calendar open as much as possible so that I can say at the last moment: “Okay, I can come”. If a big swell comes, that’s the priority and I have to cancel all appointments. So when I come home, I have so much to do, when I’m on the road, it’s almost like a vacation, because then I only have to concentrate on one thing – my trip.

Yes say, how do you run a business when you are one person and a brand at once?

The most important thing is always to be a pro athlete. This is the priority for me to improve my athletic performance and myself. As soon as the world of social media, videos and sponsorship become more important than performance, then something has gone wrong. The whole thing for me is about 60/40 I would say. I mean, half the work is all PR stuff, but if you’re not careful, you’ll quickly spend more time on it than focusing on your performance. That’s why I always make sure that performance is my priority. So when I come home I am always super busy.

Sort images? Answering e-mails? Do the photographers always send you everything at once?

Often it is me who chases after them. But most of the time I know who is behind the camera and then I write them a text message. What is very interesting nowadays is that if someone uses content from me, I could say no.

Oh wow, how interesting.

Yeah, so I could say, “You’re using a picture of me, I can’t do that.”

Wow for real! Well, I guess that picture rights play a role in your level, too. I am sure you are already an expert in on this topic.

Well, of course I would never do that, but I already had people who wanted to sell me pictures of myself for astronomical amounts. Then I usually say: “No thanks, I just wanted to see if I can get a picture from a different angle and just by the way: I’m not giving you permission to use my picture”. Let’s say a photographer uses a picture of me to make money.

Let’s say he sells it to “National Geographic” for a lot of money. Then I would have the right as an athlete to sue the photographer and the magazine. Of course I would never do that, but the right is here on the side of the athlete. I mean, it’s cool that people generate content, but when someone makes money from what I do, the ice gets very thin. Yeah, especially these days image rights are very important in all the social media and stuff. Imagine somebody sells a picture of you to a company and they use it for advertising.

Oh yeah that’s a clear violation. That happens?

You would be amazed at what people try to do. Many people just think they have more rights than the athlete and tell you they took the picture. I always have to remind them that it was me who surfed the wave. But I want to emphasize that I am always for everybody to win. If you take the time to sit on the top of the cliff and take a picture of me, then I support that and also buy content at a fair price.

I find this a really interesting topic and I’m also surprised how bold some photographers seem to be. I honestly thought it was rather the other way around: People flood you with photos and get a “shout out” for it.

By now I also have a few people around me that I pay to take pictures and videos. Then the legal question is no longer relevant. But with most people you always find a fair deal.

Yes, I can tell you are “out there” with your content. I was just on my way from Maui to Germany and saw your face at Honolulu Airport and at the boat show itself. When you’re traveling, how often are you approached by strangers?

So just today I was at breakfast and there was someone from New York who flew here with Hawaiian Airlines and saw my movie. He came over and wanted to say hello because he had just seen the movie. But at Honolulu Airport it’s usually the employees at the check-in or security check or something like that who recognize me. A lot of people are more likely to see a picture of me surfing than my face. TAG HEUER just made an advertising campaign at airports in Europe with a picture of me surfing Maveriks. Some people say: “Hey, the guy in the picture looks like you” and I say: “Well, that’s something …

You have become a celebrity. Where or when was the point when you became more mainstream. You had a cover in “Out Side Magazine” and that is not a surf magazine.

This is a difficult question, I think it has something to do with how you deal with yourself and your performance and how you sell yourself.

Do you have an agent who can arrange this for you. I can hardly imagine that you just call up a big magazine and say: “Hello, I’m Kai Lenny and I surf big waves.”

No, no, honestly, they all come to me. I seldom go out on the media like this. Having a lot of followers on Instagram helps and I share my experiences in the ocean in an honest way and with five sports it is also something unique. Especially Big Wave Surfing goes down very well in circles where people don’t surf.

And… one must also call out reality: Your performance simply stands out and speaks a loud and clear language. Especially when we think of your tow session at Jaws. That was “next level”.

Yeah, that was great! It was a lot of fun and even if nobody was there, I did it anyway. A lot of things are faked these days, but people see when someone has a lot of fun with something, then people also realize that it comes from the heart.

Oh yes, guaranteed. I mean, there are people in sports that are totally overrated, but I think in your case we don’t have to worry.

Thank you very much. Yes, it is important to me that people know that I care about performance. I always want to improve in what I do. And of course, if you have the pictures to go with it, it helps. The mix just has to be right.

OK, but let’s look at the future and then we’re done: What dreams and goals does Kai Lenny have for his future?

Uh… well, I’m actually not a fan of giving away my exact goals, because then I always have the feeling that they would be harder to reach.

An that creats expectations?

No, actually it’s not that at all, I just prefer to keep my goals to myself. You don’t always have to tell people what you want. What is certain, however, is that I want to do even more in the direction of my Big Wave performance. I think there is still a lot of room for improvement and in ten years I want to be able to say: “What I did at Jaws after the Big Wave contest was nothing compared to what I do now. That is certainly one of my goals.

OK, great! Thank you very much for the nice reception and the conversation. I am already looking forward to looking back in six or ten years.

That be fun.