Cody Townsend is one of the most awarded and respected free skiers in the world. Over the course of his career he has won multiple invitationals, chased new routes, and stunt-skied for Hollywood productions like xXx: Return of Xander Cage. He is currently in the midst of a mission to ski all the lines in the 2010 book Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America.
Over a decade ago, he traveled to Hawaii with fellow alpine trailblazer Mike Douglas with the purpose of taking their skies out on the North Pacific Ocean. Below, Townsend describes that experience. His story appears as told to Charles Thorp, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I remember as a kid growing up in Santa Cruz I would wonder if it would be possible to ski on waves, since I was spending so much time with both sports. The waves seemed steep enough. But I never really took it any further than just pondering it. Over time people pushed other boundaries, and things like tow surfing came around.
I found myself talking about it with my friend and fellow free skier Mike Douglas. The conversation started casual but became more serious as we went. By the end we decided we were actually going to give it a try. I went up to Whistler in Canada, and we started to really work on research and design. We had boats tow us in the water, observing how they performed, and we got these two guys on the East Coast to make us some custom pairs [of skis].
I tried to use my experience surfing to help inform the design. We knew that we needed a lot of surface area — more than any pair would have that was made for snow skiing. They needed to be bigger and wider. We shaped them a bit like pin-tail surfboards, because in our minds that would help them track better in the water and help us have good edges, since we knew we weren’t going to have fins on them.
In the end, we decided to go with ski boots and normal ski bindings. It turned out the standard ones were better than anything that we could come up with custom. The water-ski boots were too soft of an interface and we weren’t able to control the experience enough. Sure our boots got wet, but whatever. Looking back now, I would have experimented with them even a little more. We didn’t know the exact speeds that we were going to be hitting while on the waves, since we only tested behind boats.
When we felt ready to go for it, we shipped off to Maui. We lived that proper island lifestyle, and rented a house there for a month. The locals took us in, and really helped us out. There is a culture there that is all about doing weird stuff in the ocean. It’s a wild place, big waves and big wind, that allows for people to really push boundaries in the nature world. They were like, “Yeah, sure, we’ll take you out there.”
I got to know a lot of the amazing crew that lives there. I have skied and surfed with Laird Hamilton. I also got to know Dave Kalama, Levi Siver and Ian Walsh, who has become a close friend. I also met Kai Lenny then and he was just 15 years old. His dad kind of helped us out on this trip. It’s kind of surreal that we were hearing that he was the next guy then, and now he is the defining waterman of our generation.
The crew were all about it, but they drew the line at letting us go out to Jaws, which I was fine with. We were already the first people trying to ski on waves, and I didn’t think it was necessary to go to the most dangerous surf in the world. Regardless, we still got blessed with some massive swells, and when they came, the guys would jet ski us out there to put them to the test. We ended up riding some really big waves.
It’s not quite like surfing, because you didn’t have that same freedom of movement that you have on a board. Because you have four edges instead of two, you are kind of always doing this balancing act, and it is very easy to hook an edge. If you wanted to draw a line out, you had to be very slow with your turns. You couldn’t just do a quick hop; they had to be drawn out.
We put a lot of time into experimentation to find the groove with it. Being towed out by the jet skis and feeling out the release of it, and the speeds. I grew up kitesurfing, and I tried doing that with the skis as well. Getting to test the waters in every way, in a number of different conditions. We learned that the pairs that we built almost had too much traction, and we didn’t have free release. We broke a couple of the pairs along the way, and had to repair them on the fly.
There was one wave that I crashed on where my skis didn’t come off and I got held down for a really long time. The skis were a massive surface area that I was connected to, and they were getting pulled down by the wave. I was under water for at least two whole waves, and I started to really get terrified. I couldn’t click out, and I couldn’t swim up. I was relying fully on my life vest bringing me back up. It felt like an eternity.
The feeling that came when we finally got a run in was special. I just remember thinking “holy shit, we did it.”
Our first real successful run came just three days before we were set to leave, so we were cutting it close. The perfect wave came, we got towed out and we nailed it. Once we finally got it, we started to get the hang of it quick. We were even able to hit a lip and get a few feet above it, and land back on the wave to keep going. That was a pretty awesome moment to experience, because it’s really unique.
We just wanted to know it was possible. That was our goal, and we accomplished it. That was 10 years ago. And now Chuck Patterson has towed into Mavericks and Jaws on skis. I gave him some advice on my experience with the skis when he was gearing up for it. I let him know about our speed issues, and they built the skis wider. It’s kind of cool that he’s taken what we did to that next level.
I still think you could get a real barrel on a pair of skis, which nobody has done yet. That is the only thing that is kind of is calling me back to doing it again.
This series is done in partnership with the Great Adventures podcast hosted by Charles Thorp. Check out new and past episodes on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts from. Past guests include Bear Grylls, Andrew Zimmern, Chris Burkard, NASA astronauts, Navy SEALs and many others.