In the world of ocean sports, there is surfing, which is what most people see at their favorite beaches—riders carving small and medium waves, hooting and hollering, having fun. Now mainstream, it is by far the most popular type of surfing in the world.
Then there’s big-wave surfing, the stuff of legend, associated by most with Hawaii, though a global sport. It’s an elite form, practiced by experienced riders. The consequences of wiping out are severe, occasionally deadly.
Then there is an outer realm known as tow-in surfing, which was developed by a small corps of athletes who had dedicated their lives to chasing surfing’s holy grail: successfully riding a 100-foot high wave.
In that pursuit, Brett Lickle has damned near succeeded—and he very nearly paid the ultimate price.
“I was so close,” says Lickle, a 51-year-old native Delawarean who has called Maui home for almost 27 years. “That was someplace I don’t want to go too soon.”
Lickle is a tow-in pioneer, which has made him one of the most famous surfers in the world. Readers everywhere now know his name, thanks to “The Wave” by Susan Casey, published by Doubleday in September. “The Wave” relates the obsession of both the scientists who study big waves and the men who ride them. Lickle and his crew play the starring role. The book’s climactic chapter tells of his near-death experience off Maui in December 2007.
But close calls haven’t stopped Lickle. He has spent his adult life pushing the limits of wave riding. He needs the ocean.
“If I could put surfing into one word, it would be purity,” Lickle says. “It cleanses my soul. You become one with the ocean. Surfing is my church.”
Lest you think that’s a bunch of pie-eyed hippie smack, consider the source.
It was a short hop from Delaware to Hawaii all those years ago. Lickle had once attempted surfing at Indian River Inlet, but when he returned home with 20 stitches in his leg, his mother forbade him from surfing again. A short time later, he and his cousins learned the young sport of sailboarding on the flat water of Silver Lake in Rehoboth. When they planned a trip to Hawaii in 1982, Lickle begged them to take him along. They did.
Home in Wilmington, Lickle would often sailboard in the Delaware River. While sitting in class at UD, he’d notice trees swaying in the breeze, then bolt to the Chesapeake when class ended. Obsessed with sailboarding, he made another trip to Hawaii in 1983. He tasted heavy wind and watched sailboarders shredding big waves on high performance equipment. “Each time I came, I saw a little more that it was inevitable that this was where I needed to be,” he says.
In 1984 Lickle and his brother McKenna made the move. But the wind seemed to disappear for a few weeks. Devoted to sailboarding, he had resisted learning to surf, but he quickly grew restless. “I decided I could sit there and watch the waves, or I could learn to ride them.”
In Honolua Bay, he caught the wave that changed him, a long peeling tube that
swallowed him whole, then spit him out. “I thought, Oh my god, this is the best thing I’ve ever done,” Lickle says. “It is the best thing man can do. It was like riding a roller coaster, but standing on the roller coaster. And it was like the difference between the kiddie roller coaster at Rehoboth and Six Flags. That was the beginning of the end for me.”
Surfing led him to riding waves on a sailboard, and sailboarding allowed him to ride more waves. He improved quickly. When Lickle almost got dusted at a world-famous sailboarding beach called Ho’okipa, he realized he’d reached the limit of wave height and performance there. He started to explore outer wave breaks, places far offshore. At a place called Pe’ahi, known famously as Jaws, he discovered waves with 40- to 80-foot faces and became the first to ride them on a sailboard. “This is the next realm of big wave riding,” he thought.
Sailing to Pe’ahi was exhausting, so Lickle bought a Zodiac inflatable boat to shuttle his gear and friends, a group of cutting-edge sailboarders who had learned to surf. They later realized they could use the boat to tow surfers water-ski style into the big waves, waves that had gone unridden because they moved too fast to paddle into.
While Lickle’s crew was exploring Pe’ahi off Maui, all-around waterman Laird Hamilton, considered the finest big wave surfer in the world, and two friends—surfers who had taken up sailboarding—were experimenting with tow-in off the neighboring island of Oahu, the famous epicenter of surfing. The two crews linked up. Hamilton’s adopted Lickle’s use of footstraps. Lickle’s crew traded the bulky Zodiacs for the faster, nimbler personal watercraft that Hamilton’s crew used. The new group worked out a system of towing and rescue, and the current era of tow-in surfing was born.
In December 2007, after more than 15 years of refining their sport, Lickle and Hamilton headed to a break two miles from the beach at Maui, called Egypt after its pyramid-like waves. By all accounts, the surf was larger that day than any of the most experienced big wave riders had ever seen. Lickle was driving when he and Hamilton were mowed down by a wave estimated at well over 80 feet—possibly 100—and rolled underwater for more than 600 yards. Held down by five massive waves, the fin of Hamilton’s board gashed Lickle’s leg to the bone from knee to heel. Hamilton applied a tourniquet, then abandoned Lickle while he swam for the personal watercraft that could get him to shore.
Lickle floated alone in a heaving sea, rapidly bleeding out. In his few moments of consciousness, he wondered if he would ever see his family again. Hamilton finally returned and pulled Lickle to the beach, where EMTs rushed him to the hospital.
“My big revelation was, No. 1, somebody up there likes me,” Lickle says today. “Then I had this new feeling that I was here for something different than I thought I was. I’ve had lots of close encounters. This was kind of the grand finale. How many more chances can they give you?”
The surfing press and some popular media reported Lickle’s experience around the world. Author Casey told the tale to Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.” It immediately became part of surfing’s colorful legend and lore.
Yet long before that day, Lickle and the original band of tow-in surfers had changed the sport in a way greater than the men who first paddled into big Hawaiian waves in the 1950s. In an age of extreme sports, they have taken sport to new extremes. They have inspired large numbers of other big wave surfers to adopt tow-in around the world, and they have been glorified by the media.
Yet Lickle says there was nothing of glory in his pursuit. “I know I’ve influenced and guided people, but that was never my goal,” he says. “It was just my gig. I was working on things I wanted to work on. I’m progressing as a person and having fun. If I see something that looks more fun, that’s what I’ll do.”
Since that day at Pe’ahi, Lickle has lost his desire to ride the world’s biggest wave. Instead, “I had to get back to the basics of what surfing is all about, which is fun.” He took up paddle surfing, where wave riders stroke into waves with the aid of a paddle while standing, just as Hawaiian kings did a century ago. He is as happy on 4-foot waves as he is riding giants. And as one of the first kite boarders in the world, he continues to pioneer new ways to ride waves.
To glimpse his influence, park at the sailing beach south of Dewey on any windy day. Count the number of people zipping across Rehoboth Bay attached to short boards and large, parachute-shaped kites. Lickle, an instructor of the sport, describes it as like tow-in surfing, “but with a Jet Ski and a helicopter.” Of course, unlike the flatwater sailors in Dewey, Lickle kites in big waves. “For me, it was a rebirth. It was like I’d just moved to Hawaii all over again.”
Board sailing, stand-up paddle surfing, kiting, tow-in—for athletes everywhere, it all boils down to the rush, that moment Lickle describes as purity, when the athlete’s fear turns to focus and focus turns to total awareness, when everything but the elements and the act ceases to exist. For surfers of all types, Lickle says, it’s all relative.
“I get it in 30-foot surf. Some people get it with 3-foot waves, and that’s the great thing about surfing,” he says. “You might as well have fun. You only live once.”