I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville


Athletes & Explorers

Jan 21, 2019

Mega Swell: Big Wave Windsurfing at JAWS.

With conditions too radical and dangerous for competition, the world’s top windsurfers sail down the biggest waves ever at Jaws.


Rudy Castorina

On November 26th 2018, The WSL Canceled the “Peahi Challenge,” a Big Wave surf contest at Jaws, a world-famous surf spot on the island of Maui, Hawaii, due to too heavy winds. Some of the world’s top windsurfers in Camille Juban, Kai Katchadourian and Rudy Castorina seized the opportunity to windsurf one of the biggest days ever ridden at the far-famed big wave break. Without water safety support,  they laid it on the line during every ride in a session to be remembered for all time.


The WSL Big Wave World Tour “Peahi Challenge” was on orange alert. We were on the lookout for promising weather and sail conditions for several days. It was a very big swell with light wind, but doable. So the question was:  “How are we going to be able to sail if the contest is taking place?”

Kai Katchadourian. Photo by Si Crowther

The chief commissioner of the WSL gave the green light 48 hours before the day of competition, which made it impossible to sail. Of course, we thought, “There’s going to be all the WSL circus on the spot – 15 boats, 30 jet skis, all the best big wave surfers in the world waiting for their turn at the end of the contest to hope for a wave of this mega swell.”  

We turned the problem around from every angle and we still did not see how to carve out our own moment to sail. So, that morning we went surfing another outside reef. Then, around 11 am the wind picked up. I started to see boats and jets returning to the harbour. I wondered what was happening. Around 11:30 am, I called the office where everyone was watching the Live contest and Bella (my partner) told me that the contest was cancelled. I immediately felt exhilarated! I asked her if it looked windy and she said, “Yes, it looks light, there is only Kai Lenny doing tow-in.”

We had never thought that the contest could be cancelled, but the conditions had become too radical and dangerous for the competition. At noon, we were at a leeward spot about 45 minutes away from Jaws by the calm sea, but the wheels were in motion to arrange our own epic session.

Kai Katchadourian. Photo by Lyle Krannichfeld

With 15 meters of swell and 15 knots headwind, it took us an hour to make it halfway up and recover the windsurf gear. The bay where we come in and out of the water with the jet ski to get the gear was closing out, so it turned out to be a very difficult and hairy situation. We arrived at the channel at 3 pm, ready to rig. All the boats and jet skis for the contest were gone and the spot was empty aside from Kai Lenny doing his own tow-in festival. The wind felt very light as we rigged our gear.


It was really not easy to catch a wave with this light wind. After about three or four attempts and getting blown off the back, I told myself, “It’s late, it’s been a long day, the wind is not going to stick around much, energy is running out, it’s time to go deep and get one!”. So, I positioned myself on the north peak in order to get a bit of a roll-in. With the wind updraft that comes up the face of the wave, you can start moving a bit (that’s when I started pumping) and hopefully transfer your forward momentum into the wave energy, then fight that updraft wind that wants to kick you out the back. This is exactly what happened and it allowed me to get into that enormous wave.

Rudy Castorina. Photo by Erik Aeder


My equipment is a mix of production line and custom. That day I had a production 5.0m Black Tip SimerStyle with a 370 top and 400 bottom mast, which gave it a bit more on the low-end. My board is an 86L Tabou Jaws Custom board with almost 2 pounds dive weight screwed on the board in front of the mast track and a Production Quad Fin K300 MFC set up. I like to sand the end tips of the fins to make them really sharp.

As far as safety goes, I wear a Patagonia inflatable pull vest. As the session turned out to be last-minute that day, we had no proper water safety that could come get us in the pit – only a regular driver that would come get you before you would end up on the rocks on the inside.

Rudy Castorina. Photo by Erik Aeder


The award for the biggest wave of the day definitely goes to Camille Juban. That was certainly one of the biggest waves ever ridden at Jaws.

Camille Juban. Photo by Lyle Krannichfeld


That session pushed my personal limits to the next level. It was really dangerous if you would happen to fall at the impact zone of the main peak. I’d rather not think about it, to be honest. I didn’t have much time to warm up or reflect on just what I was getting myself into. It was just “Go” time. For me, the mental challenge of convincing myself to go over the ledge was the hardest part. Riding any big wave is a risky situation. A couple times after missing a wave, we ended up passing over the next one only by a hair. Luckily, none of us crashed that day.

Film Credits

Riders name: Camille Juban / Rudy Castorina / Kai Katchadourian

Filmed by: Jace Panebianco / Si Crowther / Aerial Video Maui

Music by: Sleep / Track: From Beyond / Album: Holy Mountain

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Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.



Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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