Fourth-generation waterman Austin Kalama takes flight on his own
It’s easy to get lost in the shadows of your ancestors when you come from a long line of champion watermen, but at 24, Austin Kalama has come of age. Wing-foiling has brought him new respect and big-name sponsorship, but it’s the legendary behemoth surf break at Pe‘ahi on Maui’s North Shore that beckons him most of all.
Austin is the son of big-wave surfer, Dave Kalama, who gained fame as Laird Hamilton’s tow-in partner and a pioneer in the use of jet skis to whip strapped riders onto waves like “Jaws.” The duo was featured in films like Dana Brown’s “Step Into Liquid” (2003) and Stacy Peralta’s “Riding Giants” (2004). The elder Kalama is also credited with helping to popularize stand up paddleboards (SUPs) and developing foilboard technology. He coaches two-time SUP surfing world champion Kai Lenny.
“I remember going down to my grandpa’s house as a real little kid early in the morning,” Austin recalled. “He and my dad were going surfing and hanging out on the beach. I just thought it was so cool when I was younger. I couldn’t wait until I was big enough to go out and surf with them.”
The family’s credentials in the watersports world run deep. Austin’s grandpa, Ilima Kalama was a pioneering surfer, having learned as a boy on O‘ahu before moving to Newport Beach in 1959. As a youth, Ilima swam competitively against future Olympic champion and surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku. He went on to win the men’s title in the West Coast Surfing Championships in Huntington Beach in 1962. Ilima’s father, Noah Kalama, had been a renowned body surfer and started California’s first outrigger canoe club.
It was while dining at Polli’s Mexican restaurant in Makawao at the age of seven or eight that Austin started recognizing his father and Hamilton on the wall-mounted TV screens that played surf videos on an endless loop, mostly of surfers riding Jaws, the legendary break at Pe‘ahi. “I started having these ideas that maybe someday I can do that,” the younger Kalama recalled. The seed had been planted. But it took some time to germinate. Meanwhile, he was busy gathering fond memories of being taunted into trying to ride Uncle Laird’s pet pigs, watching Hamilton light the annual Thanksgiving bonfire by firing a flaming arrow into the wood pile, and eating pineapples stolen from the fields above Peahi as he and his friends watched their daddies surf.
“He was a very good kid who loved to play, nonstop,” Austin’s father told MauiTimes. “He loved the water, but didn’t really love surfing until he was about 12 or 13. Then he really found a passion for it.”
“I wasn’t super into surfing until I was a little older,” Austin agreed. “I didn’t even think of it as a pastime. It was just what we did.”
“I pushed him for a second real early on and I could see it wasn’t there,” Dave said. “So, I backed way off, but I always gave him the option to go with me and kind of let it be his decision.”
In seventh grade, Austin formed a group of friends who were really into bodyboarding and the camaraderie made it fun. “Everyone wanted to be the best, so we started pushing each other,” he recalled. “That’s really where I found a passion for it. Every day I wanted to get into the water.” It’s what Dave had been hoping for. “Then I could cultivate that and introduce him to all the aspects of riding waves,” he said of his son’s renewed love of the ocean. And that he did. Today, Austin is an accomplished big wave surfer, wingfoiler, stand-up paddler, and hydrofoil rider.
“It’s really satisfying,” said Dave. “I enjoy immensely watching him go through the process and truly understand what’s going through his mind and the feelings and sensations that he’s experiencing. It’s a pretty cool thing to be able to share that with your son.”
“My dad and his friends, they were experimenting with all different watercraft,” Austin explained. “They weren’t just longboarders or shortboarders. So, ever since a young age, I had a really open mind.” He had excellent mentors, too, who shared their breadth of knowledge about the ocean and her rhythms.
Dave thinks Maui’s predominant role in the evolution of water sports is a product of our Tradewinds. “Because it’s so windy here, you can’t solely focus on surfing, like you can on Oahu and Kauai. So windsurfing was big here, Maui was the Mecca,” he recalled. “If you windsurf, by default, you have an open mind to step away from surfing and do another version of it. And that mindset lends itself to be much more willing to try new sports and new variations and be creative with things that exist and combine them to make new hybrid forms of surfing. It’s a very natural evolutionary process because of how strong our Tradewinds are.”
“My dad was never, like, the best surfer, but he had a lot of respect as a waterman because he could conduct himself well and knew what to do in the water,” Austin said, “so that’s what I looked up to more than any one skill.” He sees a parallel with his own surfing career. “I’m not a sensational short boarder,” he admits, “but I’m good at all these things. Just the fact that I’m comfortable in the ocean on so many different crafts sets me apart as a surfer.”
Maybe it’s just in his blood. Austin remembers going out bodyboarding with a schoolmate on a pretty big day. “It was solid. We were scared as we paddled out,” he recalled, “and then we see my grandpa on a big board way outside of us. And my friend is like, ‘Dude, is that your grandpa?’ And I was like, ‘Holy shit! Yeah, that is my grandpa! He’s charging!” Ilima, who will turn 80 this year, was in his early 70s at the time. “I was like, ‘Damn, this guy’s a hammah! I want to be like that when I get older,’” said Austin. “It was really inspiring. He’s such a legend.”
Due to his late start, Austin didn’t compete as a surfer until he took up SUP riding at about age 16. He placed sixth in his age group at the Sunset Beach Pro that year, and in the ensuing years has won SUP and foilboarding contests at China Wall, Makaha, and Waikiki.
Austin’s eighteenth birthday in 2016 might’ve been the surprise of his life. “I went to the harbor before school just to go surf and my dad shows up with Kai (Lenny) and said, ‘Hey, if you have your stuff in the car you can hop on the ski and come with us, Austin remembered. Their destination? Jaws. Austin wasn’t quite ready to surf the massive wave, which typically only breaks a few days each winter. So, he sponged it. “I was bodyboarding a lot back then and I was really confident and comfortable on my body board,” he said. “I got some good waves.”
His second time riding Jaws was about two months later, on an SUP. For a few years after that he tried tow-foiling it every now and then. “It’s so much fun!” he exclaimed, claiming speeds of 30-40 miles per hour. “It’s the fastest you’ll ever go on a wave!”
But it was three years later before he would paddle in at Peahi on a big wave gun. It was the day of the 2019 Peahi Challenge. He paddled out right after the contest ended and rode it prone for the first time. “I’ve basically surfed Jaws on everything,” he claimed. “I just like to ride crafts that I have fun on.”
The same year, Austin won the Foil Surf Racing League’s pump race championship in Cocoa Beach Florida, in both the SUP and prone divisions. “It’s pretty crazy,” he recounted. “You start on the beach, run into the water with your foil, catch a wave, and then pump 700 yards to the buoy—and it’s heats, so the top ten advance.” That first year, he won both the SUP and prone divisions, and has since placed first in each at ensuing contests.
He had taken up foiling just a couple of years earlier. “For my nineteenth birthday I got a foil for a present. That’s when I started winning a lot more stuff,” he said. “I got good at that pretty quickly.” His talent was rewarded with sponsorship by Go Foil.
Last March he was picked up by Naish and has been riding wing foil for them ever since. He believes it was both skill and commitment that caught founder Robbie Naish’s eye. “I would always be out at Kanaha winging, and definitely one of the standouts out there,” he said. “So after a while, Robby just shot me an offer and asked me to be on the team.”
Being on team Naish has given him renewed confidence and exposure. He feels like it’s lifted him out from under his famous father’s shadow. “I’m kind of coming out from under him and gaining my own name and my own following rather than just being Dave Kalama’s son, you know?” he explained.
“Naish gives me a platform to show myself off for a bigger audience,” he said, “to be globally recognized as one of the top riders. It was a personal thing for me. All this work is paying off.” Of course, all of this makes Dave very proud of his boy. “If he ever really develops a hard core work ethic, I think he could be the best in the world at whatever he decides to be,” said the father of his son, “because he’s got way more talent than I ever did.”
Austin gets inspired watching friends Kai Lenny and Zane Schweitzer attack Peahi, but when asked to pick his heroes, he thinks for a moment, then names his father. While he admits it’s unrealistic, he wishes he could paddle surf Peahi with his dad back when Dave was in his prime. “He’s always going to be a legend in my mind,” said the proud son.
In 2012, at 14, Austin was paddling out to the outer reef at Sprecklesville with his dad on a big day with 25-foot faces. “We’re in the lineup, waiting for a wave, and this big set stands up on the horizon,” Austin recalled. “We both start scratching out to the horizon and I’m absolutely shitting myself. I’m so scared, like, ‘Oh shit, this thing’s about to land on our heads!’ And I remember paddling vertically up the face, just trying to get over it, and this thing looks like it’s going to destroy us. And I look at my dad and he just whips his board around and chases it, last second. I was like, ‘Ho! That was nuts!’ I was freaking out!” That legacy of courage is what keeps him in the family business.
“I really want to focus on my big wave surfing,” Austin Kalama says of his future. “Winging and hydrofoiling is what I’m getting paid for now, but big wave surfing is really where my passion’s at.” He’d love to compete in the Peahi Challenge, but so far he’s just an alternate. “I really want to get my chance to do that soon.”
“I feel like I have something to prove out there [at Pe’ahi], you know,” he added, “with the legacy that my family has there. It’s my time to make an impression on Jaws.”