There was a time when the idea of interviewing a bodyboarder in the pages of a surf mag would have been considered heretical. Back in the tribal nineties, surfers and bodyboarders squared off around the Australian coast, sworn enemies locked in an unholy turf war. As surfers started to push the limits at frontier reefs around the country however, they discovered the bodyboarders had largely beaten them there and were already charging. In time the bodyboard craze died off leaving just the hardcore guys and in time a mutual respect has developed, forged in heavy surf out there in the badlands. The other unifying force has been Mike Stewart. The Hawaiian has been the spiritual leader of bodyboarding for three decades, but his skills and sensibilities in the ocean have transcended the three foot wedge of foam underneath him and he’s universally regarded as one of the world’s great ocean men. He’s been deeper inside the breaking wave – in a literal and metaphysical sense – than any man alive, and at 56 he’s still out there pushing it. When we heard Mike Stewart was in town and chasing a swell down to ShippIes – the first time he’d ever surfed it – we figured it was too good an opportunity to miss. – SEAN DOHERTY
SW: What were your thoughts heading down to Shippies? What did you think you were going to encounter?
MS: Yeah, well, I can’t say that it’s my typical thing to do. I do like to ride big surf. I like to ride technically challenging surf, but this was big, technically challenging surf with a high probability that I was going to eat shit. I’m usually super calculated when it comes to riding heavier surf and so Shipsterns wasn’t something that was really on my radar but then Tim Bonython said, “Hey, there’s a really good swell coming. The period is super long so it might be gnarly, but… Hey, you want to go?” At first I was like a little reluctant, but talking to a couple other people, they were telling me how addictive that place is. I totally see why now.
It’s such a mind bender to try to work it out.
Man, it’s so trippy but it’s really cool. I guess the very reasons that make it trippy also makes it really intriguing and exciting.
Is that the kind of thing you still looking these days? Something that really challenges your surfing on a technical level?
Yeah, I was super intrigued and I’m like wanting to go back. I got such a different perspective on it now. It’s such a rush, man. You take off and it’s kind of like a controlled car wreck, you know.
You know that steps coming, but…
Exactly. It’s inevitable. And it’s just like, okay, well how are we going to deal with it? How are you gonna address this situation when it arises? I kind of had some idea. I thought, okay, I’m just going to fly. Whatever I hit or see I’m just gonna fly it. [Laughing] That was not a real successful strategy. That proved really unsuccessful on my second wave. I ate shit. With bodyboarding we do lots of big airs, so the idea of launching then landing and reengaging and then continuing is not that uncommon, but the water was sucking so hard the carpet got pulled out from under me and I just got totally tossed. It was kind of funny because as I got sucked over, I tried to bodysurf back down to try to get out of the lip. I just remember rolling over on my back and then just like, okay, I gotta get down the wave and get away from the throwing lip cause that’ll just catapult me into the rocks. It was like last ditch effort to save myself.
How was the whole end-of-the-world ambience of surfing there under those cliffs?
Amazing. Super vibrant, and you just feel like you’re so awake there the whole time. It’s like everything is so edgy and there’s so much consequence to it all. I had to go into the beach and check out the scene so I walked up there and then had to jump off to get back out. There’s that huge slab up there of granite I think and all these big rocks from recent avalanches, rocks half the size of a house. But everything else just has this been cleaned off by the surge. And so jumping off you’ve really gotta time it right. It’s raw and it’s like anything can happen at any moment. You can get swept off the shelf and stuffed into the cracks or whatever. The whole time it’s real edgy. When I got out there to paddle it, I’m just like, damn I don’t know this wave at all. I’m kinda guessing what it does. Fortunately Harley Ward [the Tasmanian bodyboarder] was out there so I was able to hang around him and I got a few. So now I have a kind of a different perspective on the whole place and it’s at least mentally more manageable for me. I have a little bit of knowledge now about it… maybe enough to get in trouble [laughs]. It’s definitely the kind of place that activates that inner instinct, that primitive fight or flight response… and that’s a pretty intoxicating feeling.
Have you ever surfed The Right?
I haven’t and I would say that that was more on my list and then Shipsterns. Given the chance I would do it in a heartbeat.
I was gonna ask you about The Right because it was interesting that going back 10, 15 years, a lot of those big slabby waves were pioneered here by bodyboarders. Do you remember seeing those first photos of that wave?
Yeah, I did. And it was super intriguing but it was also like… people were pretty tight lipped about where it was. That was classy.
Growing up in Hawaii your Dad surfed… how did you end up bodyboarding?
Yeah, my Dad surfed and I surfed too when I was younger but mostly the types of waves I was riding were really tough to surf. I really liked being in the barrel and being close to the wave but I didn’t have the skill to really be able to handle it on a surfboard. So it was easier and just a lot more fun to bodyboard and so that’s why I stuck with it. Then when I moved to Kona on the Big Island I was able to find even more slabby waves that were super shallow and that made it even more appropriate staying on the craft I had chosen. It was just a lot of fun to ride in those conditions.
When you ended up on Oahu and found yourself at Pipeline, can you walk us through like heading out there for the first time and trying to get your head around what the enormity of that wave and psychologically what it represented.
Interesting. I mean, I had gone there as a very young grommet when I was actually living back on Oahu in the early seventies. I was only riding the inside but seeing the outside and just being mesmerised by it. Oh my gosh, that’s like, it wasn’t even in the realm of possibilities back then for me. Then moving away to Kona and seeing it in magazines and my bedroom was basically just wallpaper of Pipe. Shane Dorian used to come by just to go hang in my room and look at the photos of Pipe. I was quite intrigued with it before I even got there. Then when I lived on Oahu there’s a guy, Roger Pfeffer, he was my best friend’s dad and I used to catch rides with him to the surf every day after school. This day was a good Pipe swell and he told his girlfriend to take me. I went out there and I was tripping out, man. I must’ve sat in the channel for about an hour. It was a pretty good day. I’d say it was like eight-to-10 and it was seriously doing it. Pretty west, just ideal conditions, super glassy.
It looked like your wall at home.
Yeah. I just could not even believe how hollow it was, you know? I mean, I had hollow waves in Kona but not that big. These things seemed to come from a different universe, how they were throwing. They would throw and they just keep throwing. It was just so freaking hollow that it shifted my whole thinking about what a wave even was and how it behaved. I was super intrigued and that was the hook really. That sent me on a Pipe focus. Even now I still fly out to Oahu for Pipe swells. So that was like a really eye opening moment and a test of what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn and I wanted to figure out how to be with this thing. And so that was my first impression on a big day. And the crowd was pretty intense; everybody yelling and that was super intimidating as well. So I just kind of watched for a long time and then I slowly but surely moved into the lineup and started catching a couple. But awesome experience, you know… really transformative in a lot of ways.
What was the dynamic like in Hawaii between the surfers and the bodyboarders when you were starting out?
Initially it was kinda weird. It took me years and years to be able to get set waves at Pipe. I spent years out there before I learned the lineup, learned the wave, learned the people riding the waves. Who’s who in the zoo. Who are the alpha guys? Who are the guys who’ve got watch out for? That all took years.
Did you have a crew? Guys you surfed with pretty regularly who you were tight with?
When I travelled, a lot of times I’d go with photographer Tom Boyle who had a lot of different surfer friends, and usually they were pretty gnarly guys. Some of the first trips I made were with Marvin Foster, who’s unfortunately not with us anymore but we were kind of like kindred spirits in a lot of ways. I cruised with Mickey Nielsen on other trips. First trip from Hawaii was with Ronnie Burns and Mickey and Glen Jeans. It wasn’t like I would really had a crew I surfed with though. When I would go to Pipe I almost always would go by myself.
I was gonna ask you about Tom Morey a bit and the influence he had on you. I look at a guy like him and from a bodyboarding perspective he plays the role Greenough does for surfers; a free thinker who runs as a counterpoint to the establishment. How influential was he on you?
Yeah, he was very influential. My Dad left when I was pretty young so I didn’t have a lot of fatherly figures around. My Mom, you know, she was busting her ass raising three kids so she wasn’t around that much, but she was incredibly supportive. But I did gravitate towards certain fatherly figures throughout my youth and Tom was one of them. I think I was 17 when I met him. He lived in Kona and he had his R and D thing here. I got a job there just cleaning up the shop. For me it was a fantastic opportunity and pure happenstance that I stumbled on because he was extremely creative. He’d just got a bunch of cash from the sale of his boogie boards to this company and so he created this R and D centre and just went to town on all these different projects. Some of them were pretty out there. I saw the first Flowrider illustrations there. It took me a little while to wrap my head around what it was but I figured it out after a while. There were two levels to his facility: there was downstairs where just stuff would be stored, anything that wasn’t high priority. I wasn’t allowed upstairs cause all the top secret shit was up there, but it was so freaking cool, man. It was a full-on Willie Wonka thing. Above his door upstairs, it said something like, “Leave your ideas and thoughts and egos at the door.” Come in with a fresh mind. I was about two weeks into the job when I got invited up there and it was so cool. One wall was just full of all these like prototype swim fins. He was working on some sort of mechanised spring to get the power, and he had all these different experiments going on. Having his spirit and his ideas and creativity, that was a catalyst for me. Okay, now I’m going to really get into this. What a great teacher. To have him open my eyes to a different thought process or different ideas. So, yeah, extremely influential and even to this day we’re still close. Like I just went up and stayed with them for a few days in California. I’m not sure how much longer he’s gonna last so I cherish any time I get with him. He’s this really beautiful soul. I don’t know anyone that’s quite like him. I guess you could say he’s kinda like Greenough in a lot of ways; just super open-minded.
When you guys stumbled upon Teahupoo for the first time, did you ever in your wildest imagination think it would become what it’s become today?
No idea. When I first surfed it, it wasn’t that big. It was maybe six feet but it was just perfect. I knew it was a really beautiful place and it was just like heaven on earth, but I didn’t understand yet to what level it could go to. The first trip I made to Tahiti was in mid-eighties. We were staying down at Vairao and I’d tried to surf Big Pass which was big and super hectic. It was kind of like a gnarly version of Shipsterns. It just started stepping right at the beginning and it just like continued to step. It was nuts. After that I remember walking to the end of the road at Teahupoo and looking out and watching this wave come in and barrel and spit and then just come up onto dry reef. I’m thinking that wave is incredible, but not surfable. It must’ve been more on a west swell, so it was nutty looking. Then I went back on another day on a super big, maxing swell. Easily a Code Red swell. It was basically washing underneath the house we were staying in, so I wanted to just see what it was doing out there. I went to Chopes and I’m all, I’m just going to paddle out and see what it’s doing. I didn’t really expect to catch any waves but I eventually moved into the lineup. It took me a long time to figure out how to catch them cause they’re not normal waves. Normal waves you see a set coming, you paddle out and try to match the speed of it. Well Teahupoo is different, right? You see this set and you start stroking straight in as hard and fast as you can. So it took me a little while, but eventually I got a few and it was pretty epic. It was one of those moments where my whole thought process about surf shifted and it was like, holy shit, this place is ridiculous. It just comes in and it just looks like something out of a cartoon.
How’s your relationship been with that wave over the years and how important has that been for your surfing?
It’s been a really significant part of my life. Probably not as much as Pipe, just because I’ve been surfing Pipe much longer and a surf surfing a lot more, but such an amazing place. It’s super important to me.
Where’s bodyboarding going from here? What’s the next big step?
Yeah, well it’s continuing in the direction it’s going, which is guys pushing it harder in more technical conditions and in bigger and gnarlier waves. The aerial action is pretty nuts. Guys just get so damn high doing this crazy shit. I think surfing will be on the same trajectory. I think you’re kind of starting to see it. I mean, before, airs were the domain of bodyboarders and now surfers are doing pretty big airs. Colliding with a 10 foot lip at Pipe? Not yet, but I think it’s right around the corner. But as far as progress with bodyboarding, there’s a lot of really high level surfing going on, especially in pockets where there’s these potent little slabs like the Canary Islands. Bodyboards are great craft for harnessing and redirecting wave energy. In surfing you can generate your speed because you’ve got a lot more vertical height that you can apply leverage against so you can generate a lot of speed and you can get pretty high with airs on a surfboard in small funky surf. On a bodyboard it’s more to do with harnessing and redirecting high levels of wave energy.
What’s your thoughts on the whole softboard movement that created this weird mutant world between surfing and bodyboarding?
[Laughing] I’ve seen some and I’m just kind of baffled. It’s like, wait, this guy’s like proning on a surfboard! But hey, whatever. You know, I think one thing that’s super cool about the era we’re in right now is that it’s kinda adopting the initial rules of bodyboarding, which is that there are no rules. That’s the true spirit of wave riding, man. It doesn’t have to do with what your riding, it’s your interaction with the wave, however you do it. And so to me that’s a really cool thing and it seems like that is being, uh, really, embodied by the culture right now and for the most part, people are embracing that and I think that’s a really healthy thing and a good thing. It’s gonna open up possibilities and who knows what it will lead to, you know?
I’ve got to ask you about surfing Kelly’s wavepool and that experience. Speaking of mind benders, how did you deal with that?
It was super challenging, man. I guess there’s like, there’s an instructional video I wish I’d watched before because the whole time I was trying to figure it out. It was super fun – I’ll just say that right off the bat – but it’s challenging. It’s not like a normal wave where you pay close attention to the curvature of the wave face to see what’s going to happen. You get a little bit of that, but because the ram goes a little bit faster than you would normally experience in a wave of that size, you just have to time things. Okay, I should probably start going because it’s going to start doing that thing it does at the end where it just starts draining out. So it’s kind of like riding a rip bowl to a degree. At least that’s how I found it. I’d like to go back. It’s like damn, I just feel like it’s far from being figured out.
I figured a guy like yourself so tuned into the physics and hydrodynamics of breaking waves that it’s probably kept you up at night thinking about it.
Oh yeah. You’re accurate. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure stuff out on it. In the instructional bit they say, okay, don’t stay in the first barrel the whole time because you won’t make the rest of the wave, and [laughing]… that’s all I tried to do for the first half of the day! Get totally shacked and stayed in there as long as I could until it got so tight and I came out and the next section had already gone.
Have you spent much time with Kelly personally?
Over the years I guess I have. I’ve known him for a long time. We were back on the Freestyle team together doing promos on the East Coast and then there’s the PSA tour and then Hawaii of course and we have mutual friends. So over the years I guess cumulatively it’s probably a considerable amount of time. I will have long conversations with him on occasion, which is cool. I enjoy his dialogue.
I imagine you two hold similar positions in your positions within your respective fields, the parallels with the longevity and how deeply you guys think about riding waves. I imagine you guys would have a lot to talk about.
Yeah, we do and it’s pretty cool. I guess we’re talking at a high level on a lot of different surfing topics that in most conversations wouldn’t be as nuanced. So that’s kinda neat. And he’s a nice guy. I think what’s really interesting is that as well as a super high IQ for surfing he’s got a really high social IQ. He loves people and really understands social behaviour and people very well. Me, not as good I think.
I was going to ask you how you handle that profile. How does being the GOAT of bodyboarding sit with you?
Yeah, well, for the longest time I didn’t even know what that was [laughs]. But my thing is so niche. First of all, I’ll just say that it’s super humbling and I’m super stoked when somebody appreciates what I’ve done. That’s just like a great feeling. And you know, amongst advocates, they’re super into it and that’s awesome. But bodyboarding is so niche. I don’t think I’m as well-known as Kelly. I mean, I’ve got 80,000 followers on my Instagram and he’s got three million. He’s way more mainstream. I’m not in the same league.
What can surfers learn from bodyboarders?
Open-mindedness. Eat your ego. Have fun, enjoy life, enjoy the ocean. It’s a lot of the same things, but I think in particular a lot of their bodyboarders are pretty free minded and free spirited and are less concerned with social things that might create hang-ups. Just the idea of really enjoying it and having fun as a paramount objective when you go into the ocean. That’s key. It doesn’t matter what you’re riding or how you’re experiencing it, just as long as you’re experiencing it in a good way and you can enjoy it and it raises consciousness, you know. That’s a good thing for humanity.
Your appreciation of being out in the ocean, has that changed much over time?
I don’t know if it’s changed. I mean, maybe it has. I think my perspective on things generally, I’m a lot more appreciative and by that I just mean I take time to reflect and take time to appreciate and really love where I am. Time is always slipping away. We’re going through it in this like, conscious way, in very progressive in steps, but time is not this cohesive thing. It’s like grains of sand. It’s really important that in every moment we can experience our senses. I guess that more than anything, just the appreciation and love for the moment and for the experiences that are out there. Gosh, you know, the ocean, man. What a dynamic, beautiful place. It’s just like, my God… there’s creatures, there’s this unbelievable audio visual show going on. It’s just such an amazing place. And the other thing is that we’re starting to destroy it. I went back to Fiji this year. I do camera work on occasion and I filmed some stuff out on the reef back in the late eighties and going back and seeing the reef on this most recent trip, there’s giant swathes that are just dead now. It really brought home the importance of the impact we’re having and trying to figure out some solutions. That’s occupied a lot of my development space in recent times. Just trying to figure out alternative to foam, alternatives to plastics. Finding ways around plastic… petrochemicals and plastics. Those are pretty gnarly.
Having lived on the edge with your surfing for so long, how do you look back on all that now? Do you still feel compelled to be out there looking for it?
[Laughing] Oh yeah. It’s human nature. I’ve kept myself in good shape and I’ve tried to keep myself capable. For the last 10 years I’ve been pretty meticulous about what I’m eating, stretching, routinely doing strength exercises and just keeping in a capable way. And yeah, I’m just super stoked I didn’t get fucked up at Shipsterns and injured cause I thought that was on the cards! It’s freaking gnarly, man. That’s the other side of it, right? On one hand you gotta be very cautious but it kinda also draws you in. It’s like a fricking bull ride, right? You want to ride that big bull and there’s no feeling that compares. So, I guess to answer your question, yeah, super stoked from time to time to reflect. When I was down there in Tasmania I only towed three waves. The first one was hectic but it all worked out. Second one I got my ass handed to me, and then the third one I got shacked. Okay, now I’m going to paddle a couple but I didn’t need to push past that cause I needed to analyse a little bit. Just reflect in the moment. Reflect on what the hell was going on. You get caught up in the situation and before you know it you’re a little bit off your game, you’re pushing it a little bit past the edge and you’re gonna pay for it. That happened to me recently in Tahiti where I was bodysurfing and I caught my last wave and I rode it to the inside and just got fricking lit up. That totally sucked. That was only the second time I ever got stitches.
It was only the second time you got stitches. Really?
Yeah. I got stitches at Shark Island once but that was it. That’s a pretty good record. I’m pretty stoked. I haven’t broken any bones. I mean, I’ve gotten worked. I’ve gotten scorpioned a few times. I’ve torn ligaments in my shoulder and stuff like that but no stitches, no broken bones. You know, 80 per cent of the joint strength is muscle, so I’m just like keeping myself in shape and making sure I can cope. But I’m going to keep going until I can’t go anymore.