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An Exclusive Interview with Big Wave Surfer Shawn Dollar

The surfer who impressed the masses was Shawn Dollar, a big wave charger from Santa Cruz who until that moment was known only within the inner circles of the big wave community. That day, Dollar showed his peers and fans of surfing alike just how amazing of a surfer he is.
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Zuri Irvin contributed to this story.

The 2010 surf contest at Maverick's produced some of the biggest waves in competitive surfing history. Massive bombs that tested the mettle of all the surfers in the water that day. Yet ask anyone who watched the contest what the most memorable moment of the event was, and most won't go into who won the contest, or how big the waves were, but rather who was surfing during an expression session that was held between the SemiFinals and Finals of the event.

The surfer who impressed the masses was Shawn Dollar, a big wave charger from Santa Cruz who until that moment was known only within the inner circles of the big wave community. That day, Dollar showed his peers and fans of surfing alike just how amazing of a surfer he is. Roaring into a massive 55-foot wave with incredible confidence and fluidity that at the time would set a World Record for the largest wave ever paddled into, Dollar not only put himself on notice as a premier big wave rider but also earned himself a prestigious Monster Paddle Award at the Billabong XXL Awards.

Since that day Dollar has been a fixture at most premier big wave surfing contests. When some of the biggest waves in the world are firing Dollar is there charging hard with the greatest big wave surfers in the world. I interviewed Dollar, who is nominated for a Billabong XXL Ride of the Year, Pacifico Paddle and Biggest Wave Awards, on my surf talk radio show WaXed to talk about breaking the record for the largest wave ever paddled into, winning a Billabong XXL award, reaching the finals of the Maverick's Invitational, surfing Cortes Bank, and his thoughts on Garrett McNamara cutting off Greg Long while riding a WaveJet at Cortes Bank that nearly caused serious harm while Dollar surfed the wave directly before it.

Cyrus: You've been making a name for yourself in Northern California for a while. Santa Cruz is where I believe you're from, or where you currently live. Maverick's is really where you introduced yourself to the surfing industry and beyond. Congrats, first of all, you made the Finals of the most recent edition of a surf contest at Maverick's a couple of months ago. How did that contest go? Were you happy with the way the waves were, and were you happy with your own result?

Shawn: Yeah, with my own results, I was definitely happy to make it to the Finals. For me, personally, it was a really big deal. I was just really stoked to have everything work out, that I got there. The waves were the best waves we've seen out there in three years. So I'm glad how the contest went. However, I really wish it was proper. (Laughs) The space deserved bigger, you know? So you just make the most of it, and we did. It's just what we do.

Cyrus: I believe 2010 was the last time they ran the contest. You participated in an expression session between the Semis and the Finals. That year's contest was incredible. Those were bombs coming through. Yet, I'm pretty sure people remember your wave more than who actually won that contest, which is incredible. Describe that wave and what happened after. I believe you set the record at the time for the biggest paddle-in wave ever. Talk about what that experience is like to basically explode onto the scene and immediately get respect from everybody.

Shawn: That was a pretty amazing day. I'd been surfing out there for a few years and I was well-known in the lineup with those guys that surf out there. I felt really comfortable out there. That day was just absolutely massive. (Laughs) I started paddling when the tow-in thing started getting really big, or when it was still big. And I saw some huge tow-in days out there and I'd just sit out there. And I wasn't able to paddle. Too foggy, too dangerous. But just inspired. And I saw waves breaking out that far, way out past the bowl, and just kind of knew as I got better that we could paddle into waves out there. It just so happened that that was the day that the contest was going, and there were waves breaking out there, so you know, I was watching the contest and would have loved to have been in it and surf, but I was just on the sidelines watching. And honestly, it just got me more and more amped because I couldn't surf. I don't want to just sit and watch Maverick's like that. (Laughs)

When I had that half an hour break I had just been timing the sets, and kind of knew what was going on, and I knew that I'd at least have one shot, if I sat way out there, to catch a wave. There was going to be a good set, for sure. So I just paddled out there 100 yards outside the bowl. Maverick's is interesting because it's not just even straight out, it's actually way deeper. There's just no lineup out there. I've never sat out there before, so I was pretty unfamiliar. But sure enough the set came and I was lucky enough to get into one.

Cyrus: 55 feet! If I'm not mistaken, one or two of surfers may have paddled into a bigger wave since then. Is that correct?

Shawn: Yeah, Shane Dorian. I think his was 58 feet.

Cyrus: Both those waves are incredible. A lot of interviews right now with big wave surfers, especially the ones with families, they talk about how difficult it can be to be running around the world, surfing these big waves, and putting themselves in life threatening situations with the family. What's it like emotionally with a family charging huge waves?

Shawn: Gosh, it would be a lot easier without a family, because you wouldn't have all these responsibilities and people to worry about if you're not around! (Laughs) But maybe it makes you a better surfer, because it makes you take less risks. It's really hard. I mean, I'm the bread-winner for my family. I don't make much in my living as a professional surfer. I do it because I love surfing big waves. To go out there and risk a lot is really challenging. It's hard on my life. It's hard on me emotionally a lot of times, but I pick and choose my days and if I feel up for it, I do it. It's really hard to find the balance. It's pretty stressful.

Cyrus: You mentioned that big wave surfing is not your day job. If I'm not mistaken, you're a sales rep for Reef, is that correct?

Shawn: Yes.

Cyrus: First of all, big wave surfing should be your day job. We've seen a lot of surfers who now get sponsored and get paid well enough to just surf big waves and I'm anticipating that's going to happen to you sooner or later. You're exceptional. It wouldn't surprise me if you're in Waimea one day and taking that crown. Speaking of these really harrowing big waves, your little grommet is two years old, is that correct?

Shawn: Yes.

Cyrus: Are you utilizing one of those inflatables now? I know that that's giving a lot of guys and their families a lot of confidence in the bigger situations and also watching out for each other. I saw some really great interviews during the Cortes Bank session that you were at. You were talking about really taking extra safety precautions, especially the ones with families. So were you wearing one of those inflatables?

Shawn: Yes, absolutely. I wear one of those inflatables. They definitely are your first line of defense and they're easy to use. They seriously work. They work really well. And there are other things I use, too. I always make sure I go out with people who are really knowledgeable. I actually bought a jet ski a couple years ago, and I always bring out a lifeguard with me at Maverick's to watch over myself and my friends out there. I also usually have a spare air canister on me.

Cyrus: A breathing canister? For oxygen?

Shawn: Yes, a mini dive canister.

Cyrus: That's James Bond style. You can just pop it underwater and you can breathe? Is that a new innovation?

Shawn: No, the dive industry has been using it for years, and I've been using it for like two years. There are really no other big wave surfers who still want to use it. It's pretty sketchy and I totally understand. (Laughs) A lot of people are just over the thing. But it saved my life once. Everything has a place. I take safety really seriously, and I'll kind of go hunt out things and really try to figure it out. Not just, "Hey, I'm going to blow out my suit."

Well, what happens if my suit doesn't blow? What's going to happen next? I think you're going to keep seeing more technology and innovation, because the waves we're paddling into are so big that you just can't hold your breath long enough every time.

Cyrus: It's always those second and third wave hold downs that will make me never want to do what you do. I can understand one and just hanging tough. But that second, and sometimes the third is insane. You surfed Cortes Bank back in December. It doesn't break there that often. You can go years without sessions. Not to mention the journey is not easy. I'm guessing you have to take those anti-seasick pills when you're out there. Sometimes you have to sleep out there, right?

Shawn: Yes, it's all of the above there. (Laughs) It's pretty rough.

Cyrus: Cortes Bank is crazy. For people who don't know, it's about 100 miles off the coast of Southern California. It breaks thanks to an underwater mountain that comes within approximately six feet of breaching the water. You were out there in December. And this session really was all over the mainstream news. The waves were massive. And your wave has put you up for a 2013 Billabong XXL Big Wave Award. You've won one of these before. You're nominated again. Describe what it's like to surf at Cortes Bank, because it seems beyond sketch.

Shawn: It is. It kind of puts everywhere else I've ever surfed in my life to shame. The biggest thing for a surfer is we all use lineups, you know? Like hey, there's the land. There's that tree. There's that house. You're out there floating in the middle of the ocean, and there really is no land in sight. So everything is moving. You can't even tell how strong the currents are. The currents are just overwhelmingly fast out there. So you're just floating out in the middle of the ocean. There are huge sets coming through and you just never know. Is a rogue 100 foot wave going to come through? Or bigger? It happens out there all the time.

Your lineups become crab buoys. There are tons of crab buoys that are anchored out there. Realistically, if your body goes through a crab buoy rope full speed underwater, you're probably not going to live through that. And there's a massive shipwreck right on the break underwater that's concrete and steel. I don't know, man. You couldn't even really come up with a place that's worse than that to tell you the truth. (Laughs) And then you get to the wave. The wave is so big and faster than any other wave that I've ever surfed on the planet just because of the physics of it, you know? If you're from California and you go to Hawaii, you'd think, "Wow, the waves are moving really fast because it's open ocean swell hitting island." Well, they're moving way faster than Hawaii. Because there's no continental shelf, there's no continent, there's just a mound in the middle of the ocean and the waves just keep blowing past it.

Cyrus: You're going faster than any other wave?

Shawn: Oh yeah, way faster. I mean, I don't even know. It would be interesting. Probably 50 to 60 miles per hour.

Cyrus: That's crazy. What a rush you must be feeling. That concrete and that metal you're talking about that's underneath you, I don't know if you knew this, the reason why that's there, besides shipwrecks that have happened on occasion, is that back in the 60's a group of people tried to create a man-made island there by stacking up ships. And it was such a failure that it left what you're seeing now. Can you see the shipwreck underneath you?

Shawn: I could see the top of Bishop's Rock when I was out there, but I couldn't see the shipwreck. I guess it's still covered in barnacles and everything else, that you can't see it. (Laughs) But when divers go down there, the rebar's exposed. I didn't know about the shipwreck when I first went out, and I caught that wave. Since then, I read Chris Dixon's book and read a lot about Cortes and became really interested in it, and I was so glad I didn't know that.

Cyrus: You've experienced your share of tragedy. It comes with big wave surfing. It's one of the reasons people have mad respect for what you guys do. You're risking your life out there, literally. You've been out there when tragedy has literally struck. Sion Milosky was right in front of you at Maverick's when he tragically passed away. At Cortes Bank, Greg Long, who is a good friend, wiped out there either the same day you surfed or the day before, and you can clarify that. Part of the reason was Garret McNamara took off on the same wave as him, on the outside, and essentially cut him off. And on top of that Garret McNamara was riding a WaveJet. Those things repulse me. I am not a big fan of WaveJet at all. I don't think they belong in the lineup. That's just me. What's your take on it? You were there. Do you feel like it was just an unfortunate incident? Do you think it was avoidable? What's your take on what happened? It really could have been much more serious than it was regarding Greg Long and Garrett McNamara.

Shawn: Geez, complicated question. Because, that was the set after my wave and I had returned to the boat to put my board away. And I had to take a suit on my wave towards the end. My suit was broken. I didn't continue surfing so I hopped on my jet ski and started doing water rescues. So I had a front row seat to that whole thing. They missed Garrett's pickup, and I went in to pick Garrett up. And I knew that Greg was getting picked up, and I could tell a bunch of people were over there, so I returned back to the lineup and was kind of just watching over things. So from that perspective, it was definitely really disappointing. It's pretty rough. With big wave surfing, people do party waves all the time. When you're out there surfing big waves and somebody burns you, it would almost be bad karma to tell the guy, "F off, get off my wave." You know? What are you doing?

Cyrus: When you talk about these party waves, Waimea always comes to mind. In these old pictures you had all these dudes catching the same wave. And they're big sketch waves! So I get where you're coming from with that.

Shawn: Yeah, it's not cool getting burned on a two-foot wave. (Laughs) It's not cool getting burned on a 50 foot wave. But it happens. With Garrett, the whole thing is, at the end of the day, it's just not okay to be burning people when you're on a WaveJet. It seems like Garrett just didn't quite have the control he needed, so the whole thing is just disappointing and unfortunate. Because it's not just, "Oh, Greg didn't make the wave. Whatever, Greg would have had no sweat off his back." But Greg almost died on that wave. And he technically probably did die on that wave and was brought back to life. There are responsibilities for the surfer that was in front at that point, you know? I think if that was me, I would take responsibility for it. He's apologized and all that, and that's all good, but I think it's just a learning lesson for all of us surfers, you know? We have to be really careful about dropping in on people and the equipment we choose. I just really hope that that doesn't happen again to anybody because it's dangerous enough out there. We don't need to make it more dangerous.

Cyrus: And maybe Step One is preventing WaveJet from being in the big wave lineup. That's just my opinion. Who's paying your bills?

Shawn: Reef. JS Surfboards, too. They've been making me some really good boards and I really appreciate that. I want to also say thank you to my wife. She's the one that really supports me in all this, I'll tell you that. And my family.

Cyrus: And you have a website Thank you so much, it was a pleasure to finally talk to you. I've been following your career for a while now, you're as good as it gets when it comes to big wave surfing.

Shawn: Right on, thank you.

Shawn Dollar

Shawn Dollar

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