Shane Dorian – The Best Big Wave Rider in the World

"I don't have any ambition to win a big wave world title. I don't have any ambition to win the Eddie Aikau. I don't have any set plans for how long I can do it or to chase the big wave world record. I don't have any desire for any titles. I just know I want to surf big waves."

Jaws. Photo: Pompermeyer

There is only one man that could honestly say the previous sentence, and mean it. There is only one man that could realistically be able to achieve all those options, and then turn his back on all of them. There is only one man that could deliver that line without a trace of ego, without a hint of self-promotion. There is only one man that is the best big wave surfer in the world.

That man is Shane Dorian.

Shane has just returned from a hunting trip in Australia. He hadn’t been hunting giant slabs or slaying huge offshore bombies, but tracking wild animals and shooting them through the heart with an arrow. “It’s very similar to surfing,” explains Shane, as if the comparisons between killing a large tusked mammal with your bare hands and riding waves are rather obvious. “I like to go bow hunting for the very same reason I like go surfing, just to get away from the other things in life and relax and spend a day in the mountains rather than spend a day in the ocean.”

What about the thrill, I ask, like in surfing, is that a big part of the attraction? “I would not call it a thrill killing an animal. I would definitely not call it that,” he says emphatically. “I have problems with killing animals, but I eat meat. I eat all the animals I hunt and I only hunt animals that I like to eat. Some people go golfing you know, we go hunting. Anyways, I’m not much of a golfer and your freezer doesn’t get filled up from golfing.”


Teahupoo Photo: Stacy/A-Frame
Todos Santos. Photo: Pompermeyer

It’s a relative new hobby for Shane, and one that came out of necessity. “When I moved up here, the boars were destroying everything, the fruit trees I had planted and the natural vegetation. One of my buddies gave me a gun and told me if I shot one they would get the hint and go away. I did that, and they didn’t get the hint and actually I really don’t like guns. Anyway a long story short is my neighbour was a bow hunter and he got me in to bow hunting.”

The move Shane refers to is from the beach side village of Kailua, on the Big Island where he grew up, to the 11-acre ranch, 4000 feet up the slopes of mountains that lie above the town. “I lived on a beach my whole life and I always wanted to live up in the mountains,” he says of the home he shares with his wife Lisa and two children. Dorian’s father, an LA actor and stunt double had met Shane’s mum after she had moved from her native Midwest to study at the University of Hawaii, at age 18. They had two children, a girl and boy, and opened up a beachside restaurant called Dorian’s.

A pulled back study of the Mav’s arena. Look closely and you’ll see a wee speck of Shane Dorian backdooring a colossal section from takeoff, where simply going straight down the thing would ‘ve been admirable work enough. Photo: Ryan Craig

“The restaurant was literally on the sand,’’ says Shane. “So I grew up in the ocean. As soon as I could walk, I could swim, and as soon as I could swim, I could bodysurf. On my fifth birthday my dad had one of his old surfboards reshaped for me as a present, so I started surfing.” Shane entered his first competition at aged 11, and despite the Big Island’s lack of waves and pro surfers, he quickly progressed through the junior ranks starting with the state champs, then the US titles, and eventually the worlds.

If it sounds like some type of dream surf scenario, Dorian’s homelife was far from ideal. “By the age my kids are now, my life was fairly unstable. My parents got divorced when I was 13 and they were having problems a long time before then. That’s a driving force now for me. The biggest part of my life is trying to be a good dad and a good husband and provide a stable home for my family.” Dorian’s father passed away when he was 20, his mum and sister though live within a five minute drive.

Paddling into a wave this big at Jaws and making the drop is ridiculous. Paddling into a wave this big at Jaws, cranking off the bottom and pulling in is beyond ridiculous, and yet somehow, is the new modern standard. And at the very forefront is Mr Shane Dorian. Photo: Pompermeyer

It was however a move away from the Big Island, driven both by his surfing and this instability, to the North Shore at age 15 that kickstarted Dorian’s career. “I moved to the North Shore when I was 15. I just had my license and somehow talked my mum into letting me leave my family and go to school on my own. I had saved all my money being a bus boy over the summer and bought a car and shipped it to Oahu. So I had this piece of shit car and everyday the school bell rang we jumped in my shitty little car and went surfing.”

Also jumping in the car were his school buddies Ross Williams, Matty Liu and Jason Magallenes. “Those guys were positive that they were going to be pro surfers when they finished high school and that was a weird concept for me,” says Dorian. “I came from a little town on the Big Island that was basically just a rural village and not known for its surf, so I didn’t even realise it was an option. But with those guys being so sure, that rubbed off on me really quick and all of sudden that was my goal too.”

School was still a high priority, getting good grades was part of the deal with his mum, but it was surfing that was his total focus. Dorian’s competitive results and his surfing at North Shore proving grounds meant that of all those surfers in the shitty little car, it was Dorian’s pro surfing career that would be the most guaranteed.

Even from the early days, it was his all-round act that separated him from his peers. He was an integral member of the so called “New School” pack which included Slater, Chris Malloy, Taylor Knox, Benji Weatherley and Conan Hayes. Along with the new airs and fins out whizz-fuckery of the early 90’s, he was also being tutored by Todd Chesser and Brock Little – at the time the two hardest chargers in Hawaii – on the outer reefs. Still a teenager, Dorian was more than keeping up with his older teachers.

By the time he made the final with Slater of the Pro Junior at Narrabeen in 1992, then the preeminent junior event in the world, he was well and truly on his way to a professional career. In that final, the two mates surfed switchfoot on their first waves, something they did in every subsequent heat they surfed until the 2012 World Title decider at Pipe. That first time though it was the Australian surf media who screamed in disgust. While the Aussies claimed the “Seppos” weren’t taking the event seriously, the outcry was more born from fear. No non-Australian had ever won that competition before, and they could sense a period of American dominance. None could predict that it would last more than 20 years, with Slater dominating the competitive arena, and Dorian all the meaningful waves outside it.

For the younger generation, or those who have just come to know Dorian for surfing in giant waves, it’s easily to forget that for a decade, the whole of his 20’s, he was on the pro tour. Heck there’s probably groms out there who have never seen the Dorian style, never watched him sluice through Mentawai perfection or destroy Trestles with oil slick rail work. Kids, go to YouTube or whatever, Dorian on a 6’1” in good waves is still a pretty special treat.

“I spent 11 or 12 years on the pro tour. It was my whole life for at least a whole decade,” says Dorian. “And when I started out, I was hard core. I was a full frother, the full competition guy that would get really amped up about competing and about trying to beat people.” Dorian did beat many people, winning Bells in 1999 and Mundaka in 2000, the year he had his highest placed finish of fourth. The rest of those years he hovered around the Top 10, the modern day equivalent in results terms of say an Ace Buchan or Damien Hobgood.

The only deviation from this path was the Hollywood movie In God’s Hands, which was loosely based on Dorian’s life and had him playing an almost mute character who can’t decide whether to go on tour or not. The movie, was, and remains, an absolute pile of syrupy shit, and something that Dorian says, “was worth doing for the experience, and to work out that I was never going to be an actor.” It was also probably the only time Dorian has ever suffered any type of credibility loss and still slighty haunts him to this day. Yet at least it did showcase some of his own issues, as he was dealing with the loss of his big-wave mentor Todd Chesser who died surfing Outside Alligators in 1997, as well as disaffection with tour life in general.

“By my late 20’s I was pretty burnt out by it all, I started craving something different and I wanted to pursue bigger and better waves. I was sick of missing good swells and I was sick of surfing crappy waves. I would be at J-Bay and the surf would be shitty for the comp and for my heat and I was like, what’s the point of being at Jeffrey’s Bay when it’s crap? I was over competing. I was basically doing it because I thought I had nothing better to do and that’s not the reason to do anything in life.”

Dorian made a strategic exit, just surfing five key events in his last year on tour in 2004. “I was positive that the year was to be my swansong. I wanted to do work with new people on good projects, I wanted to travel to exotic locations and I wanted to get barreled out of my mind.”

Mind you this was 2005. Big wave surfing wasn’t what it is today. There was no big wave tour, there was no Billabong XXL awards, there was no Nazare and live streaming of 100 foot waves. There were very few freesurfers making a living, none over 30 and not a single one that had come from a competitive background.

“I was little unsure at the time, because it was unprecedented,” reflects Dorian. “I really didn’t have a blueprint to go off at the time. Like back then people who stopped doing the tour just disappeared. I mean Tom Curren quit and just vanished and Occy had stopped and gone underground. So there was no one to look to and go, ‘I really want to do what that guy did.’ I knew what I wanted to do, but didn’t know exactly how I was going to do it.”


When Shane Dorian surfed 25ft Nazaré, I helped.

While the Nazaré tow exploits of G-Mac, Burle, Cotty et al have lit up news headlines around the world garnering a massive mainstream audience, the ‘core’ surf world has been largely indifferent. The surf world was however transfixed with this groundbreaking paddle sesh, and this shot made half a dozen covers. Photo: Pujol

What Shane did was effectively write the blueprint. He is the guy now that people look to and say, ‘I want to do what that guy did.’ The likes of Mark Healey, the Long Brothers, Twiggy Baker, shit, every single big wave surfer that makes any type of living from riding big waves, is following the path Dorian carved. “He was, and is, an inspiration,” says Ian Walsh. “Obviously for the way he surfs and his approach to big waves, I mean there is no one better. But when I dropped off the WQS and was trying to make it as a free surfer early in my career, I saw what he had done. And I was lucky enough to travel with him and learn so much. I still do.”

“It’s been pretty smooth that transition,” says Shane. “I mean on a personal level every couple of years I reevaluate whether I want to continue chasing super giant waves and is this the right thing to do? Look, I’m not making millions of dollars, but I get paid in barrels and I get to travel with friends and I get a lot of time at my home.”

Early on Shane’s profile and transition to big wave free surfer was assisted by jetskis. His efforts at Jaws and Teahupoo in some of the epic sessions of the mid 2000’s cemented him further as unbeatable in waves of consequence. However it was a double edged sword, as the use of skis also brought him back closer to pack. It is the return of paddle surfing in the last few years that has again elevated him back to top of the big wave pecking order.

“At the height of the tow craze, there was no order,” recalls Dorian. “At Jaws for example, there were 60 jetskis in the line-up and every single one of those 60 wanted to catch the biggest wave of the day. Not 59, but 60. These days when that big wave comes, out of the 60 people, only three people want that wave, at most. So there is order, which is nice.”

It goes without saying that of those three, Dorian will be one. When he made his debut at Mavericks in 2010, Evan Slater stated, “He did in 20 minutes what the rest of us have been trying to do the past 20 years.” This is a man who two years ago ordered four 10”6’s, specifically designed for paddling the biggest waves Jaws has to offer. The man who arrived at 8pm in Portugal after a 30 hour flight, and paddle surfed Nazare the very next morning, surfing the biggest waves that had ever been paddled there. Again this season at Jaws, he caught the heaviest wave of the winter, in a winter that had a ridiculous amount of heavy waves. The move back to paddling big wave surfing has created space for those with the biggest balls, the most talent and the true commitment to shine.

“People usually ask me if a wave is paddleable and my answer is usually yes,” says Dorian matter-of-factly. “That’s not saying I would paddle it. I’m just saying you could paddle it. There’s a big difference.” For Shane Dorian though, the difference between could, and would, is a lot smaller than for any other surfer.

“Paddling big waves is something that I really truly love to do. I feel I am now doing what I am supposed to be doing, and that’s a good feeling. I do thrive off the energy. When I am travelling now there is that good healthy competitive energy. Like if I see Greg Long, or Sancho, or Mark Healey or anybody really who stacks up and turns around and charges a giant wave, it’s such just a cool thing to be a part of, and that’s where I want to be.”

So I’m in the shore, in my underpants. Ten foot waves are detonating on the shorebreak, picking up a riderless jetski like a piece of seaweed and flicking it about the shorey for fun. Irish big wave surfer Al Mennie, all 6’6” ginger man-mountain of him and UK’s Andrew Cotton, are trying to drag the ski up a steep bank, and failing; the waves too powerful, the ski too heavy, the bank too steep. My dick is the size of a tic-tac, my puny arms aching from the attempts at not budging a waterlogged ski. I’m not sure my heroic attempts to help, in my underpants, were of any use. Well I know they weren’t. The ski soon disappeared from view and was found by the Portuguese Navy three days later.

Not for the first time in my life, I think it wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was in Nazaré to follow Shane Dorian, Eric Rebiere and Benjamin Sanchis paddle surf the gimungous wedges of Portugal’s most famous beachbreak. Dorian had flown in the night before, the trip from Hawaii only taking a cool 37 hours. I asked him that morning, when we were checking a disorganised 20 foot beachie in the grey fog and driving rain, how he was feeling. “A little tired” he said, claiming one hour sleep due to jet lag. I felt for him, as I too was tired, having also stayed up past my bedtime clicking on ex-girlfriends on Facebook.

He went to explain that at three in the morning he had been in his hotel room, in his wetsuit. “I was so wired, just couldn’t sleep,” he explained. “So I put my wetsuit on and started adjusting all the rip chords on the inflatable devices, just checking everything was all okay.” “Yeah, weird, me too, I was also in my wetsuit, checking my dictaphone, charging my computer batteries,” I didn’t reply.

Anyway we both managed to man up and face the day ahead. For Dorian, that meant tackling 20-25 feet Nazaré beachies. For me, that meant watching Dorian tackling 20-25 feet Nazaré beachies. Nazaré, as you probably well know most probably through Garrett McNamara’s deranged facials and tow surfing exploits, has some very, very tall waves. For Dorian this was a one day smash and grab mission and he was here to take on these amplified wedges by pure paddle power alone. “I didn’t even bring a tow- board,” said Shane. “Me neither,” I didn’t say. “These days if there is anyone towing, I won’t even surf. I’m just not into it.” “Me too,” I whispered.

Instead he chose to ride a 11’3” quad fin, that was four inches thick, had been glassed twice and weighed more than 15 kilograms. Approximately 15 minutes into the session, he manoeuvred that boat and took off on his first wave. He made it, but then was caught inside (which tends to happen in 20 foot beachbreaks). The safety ski picked him up, but was unable to punch through the line-up, and so it was decided to beach the ski and regroup. Which was fine, until trying to get back out, a massive shorey swamped them both, ripped the key out and deposited the two tonne machine on its back about ten metres up the beach, incapacitated.

Lucky though, the true hero of this story, me, was on hand. Faced with no way for Shane to get back out, it was decided that I would get a car and drive him back to the port for another pick up. It would be the world’s longest runaround. I sprinted the 300 metres of extremely soft sand, climbed the steep cliffs, found a car, wrangled it out of the packed cliff car park, and headed for the other beach carpark near Dorian. The heroism ingrained in that last paragraph cannot be understated.

As I drove around the last corner (my heart palpitating, both with unhealth and the thought of some sweet quality one- on-one time with Dorian in the car. I had already practised my gag about his wetsuit being used as a potential airbag and visualised the raucous laughter) I was disheartened to see Shane paddling into a 50 feet high wedge, my truly heroic efforts all for nothing. It turns out that a German by the name of Sebastian Steudtner, a previous XXL winner, had offered to drive his ski from out the back and rescue Shane from the beach, the Hun bastard. The fact that Shane later told me he did it with supreme control and skill only made me angrier.

Anyway I continued on with unsung efforts. I watched as Dorian took off another giant right, freefalling from the top and just hanging on. “It was one of those big wedgy ones and I was kind of right in the perfect spot. I was right next to Sancho, but I was a little deeper and just in the right spot. It kinda kicked me into it and was really steep and really intense and riding an 11’3” board, that is four inches thick, I was holding on for dear life, literally trying to dig my toenails into the wax,” he said, a little dramatically I thought.

Later Dorian free-fell from a gnarly left, gripping back about halfway down the face, before getting ragdolled back to shore. I was again, unselfishly, down on the beach, making sure he was okay. I even tried to assist by carting one of Shane’s back up boats from the beach to the cliffs, until it proved way too heavy. The tide got higher and the wind cleaned up and all the surfers managed to survive a wave that in my eyes really isn’t designed for anything but suicide.

Of course Shane agreed. “As far as intensity, power and size goes you could compare this wave to anywhere, whether it’s Cortez Bank or Jaws or Mavericks,” Shane told me later over a fish dinner, candlelight and some red wine, just me and him waxing lyrically. Well us two and 15 other Billabong retained media specialists.

It was at the very end of the day, when again, heroically and unsungly I was facilitating a tractor pick up of the aforementioned buggered jetski that I rushed to the aid of Cotty and co, in my underpants. Of all the daring efforts done by anybody on the day, I can honestly say that was probably the most daring. My hoody even got wet and at one stage I almost lost my mobile phone.

Later that night over dinner, I tried to explain to Shane the various reason for my chaffed ballbag, aching calf muscles and dead arms, but he seemed disinterested, instead talking to Sancho and Eric about quad fins and 11 foot boards and mythical unsurfed big waves, as if they were interesting topics. It didn’t matter though, and as I wrapped some cold sardines around my swollen testicles, drained my fifth quart of sugary Portuguese vino, I knew who the real hero was and it didn’t matter if no one else did. It really didn’t.

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