Jesse Richman @ Jaws

Interview by John Bryja
photos by Quincy Dein

Jesse Richman is unquestionably one of the most well-rounded, all-around kiters on the planet. He’s done it all: A two-time overall champion on the KPWT tour, 2012 and 2016 AWSI Kiteboarder of the year, and 2013 King of the Air are just a few of his accomplishments. Most recently this past winter he was spotted actually carving turns at Maui’s infamous Jaws. Kitesurfing Magazine caught up with Jesse for this exclusive interview.

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Kites: Naish Pivot 6 meter
Boards: Naish Global 5.8 Custom
Vest: Patagonia Inflation Vest
Harness: Ride Engine Hex Core
Personal watercraft: Yamaha VX
Jaws sessions so far? Maybe twelve.
Average waves per session? 6 to 25 depending on the day.
Biggest swell so far? I would guess we had some solid 20-foot Hawaiian waves (40-foot faces). Maybe a few bigger ones occasionally. The first Jaws day of this winter in October was probably the biggest I’ve kited it so far.
Distance from your house? 15-minute drive.

Kitesurfing Magazine: How did you and your brother end up living on Maui?
Jesse Richman: My parents decided they wanted to be where the wind was blowing, the sun was shining and the water was warm. So they made the great choice to move to Maui. They proceeded to fall in love, start a family and live happily ever after in the Haiku jungle. There might be a bit more to it than that but that sounds nice. I will say I’m very, very stoked they made the series of decisions they did. Shawn and I grew up on Maui and it made us who we are today.

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Kitesurfing Magazine: When did you first become interested in kiting Jaws? What watermen inspired you?
Jesse Richman: Jaws has always been my ultimate goal growing up on Maui. We would go to the cliff and watch it when it was breaking. It looked big but the huge waves seemed so far away. I met Laird Hamilton one time and asked him why he went out to Jaws and he said it was an unexplicable drive. That didn’t make sense to me. I was thinking he would tell me the answer but he just gave me that. What was I supposed to do with it? Jaws was awesome, gnarly and for some reason it was something that I wanted. I didn’t understand why I wanted it, but I just knew there would come a day when I would be out there amongst the small group of elite watermen.

Kitesurfing Magazine: Do you remember your first Jaws wave? What was that experience like?
Jesse Richman: I don’t recall my very first wave but I will never forget my first session out there. I launched from Lanes and kited upwind to Jaws, all by myself on gear that I hadn’t really tested. I had a big flotation vest on and figured I would be able to handle whatever I came across. Thinking about it now it was pretty reckless. But at the time it was the only way I was going to get up there. There were a bunch of windsurfers out there and a few skis. I made sure to make a connection with one of the safety drivers on a ski. After they said they had my back I felt a lot better out there. It was wild to be on waves that big. But that’s when I realized how hard it was to ride at Peahi; all the photos of kiters going straight out there made sense. It was the hardest thing I had probably ever done and it was going to take some serious time to figure out.

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Kitesurfing Magazine: You ride Jaws with safety support now. Who would you describe as your Jaws team?
Jesse Richman: Going out to Jaws it’s essential to have a good safety team. I have many people on land who make the whole production possible. Out on the water I’m a part of a three-person team. I have the pleasure of working closely with my Jaws kite partner Patri McLaughlin. Having a friend out there on a kite is really nice for many reasons: It’s awesome to share the experience together and you have each other’s back. A kite is a really handy tool for saving people in many situations; kites can go places that might not be safe for a Jet-ski at times because you can boost over a big wall of white water with a kite. The same thing is much trickier to do with a ski. However to kite out there responsibly you need a Jet-ski and it’s really nice to have a good guy driving it. That’s when Ryan “Toast” Toaspern comes into play. He’s an incredible kiteboarder and knows what’s going on with the wind and the waves. He knows how to deal with a kite and lines, he has lightning-fast, analytical reflexes and he can drive a ski like a boss. So it’s nice to look over and see he’s there for you. I feel extra confident with my team as we hang out and train together. We go free diving pretty often and there will be situations where we need to communicate in challenging conditions, such as being underwater or in a dark cave or being far away from each other out at sea. We have really good communication with one another and we can sense what the other is trying to do as they are doing it. Proper, effective and efficient communication is essential for the life-threatening situations out at Jaws.

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Kitesurfing Magazine: You are one of the only kiters doing turns on the wave. How did you build up to that?
Jesse Richman: I’ve spent a lot of time out there with a kite now. For the last four years I put it at the top of my priority list, so every day that’s been good for kiting at Peahi, I’m out there. There have been some good days that I’ve missed due to injuries or being off island, but I’m usually out there. When the wave only breaks a few times a year and only some of the swells are windy, you need to be ready to go at any time. It’s a lot of work to have all the gear ready, the Jet-ski legal and running good and feel prepared mentally and physically. But once all the logistical stuff is done and the kite is in the air, the fun begins and the hard work pays off ten times over.

Kitesurfing Magazine: What does it feel like to ride Jaws now?
Jesse Richman: It’s the funnest thing that I’ve probably ever done. Riding it is cool and now every session out there is my new best session because I learn so much every second. I’m dreaming of my next session.

Kitesurfing Magazine: Do you get scared riding out on the ski as you prepare to ride? What mental preparations do you go through?
Jesse Richman: Often times it will hit me when I’m out surfing smaller waves and get worked. I think to myself, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not at Jaws.” But when I’m on the Jet-ski headed out to Jaws I’m already committed. It’s too late to back down and I have no interest in doing anything other then charging full speed.

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Kitesurfing Magazine: What does falling at Jaws feel like?
Jesse Richman: It is honestly the most baffling thing ever. The whole time I’m usually thinking, “How is it possible for the beating to be so freaking violent?” It’s how I would imagine getting beaten with 100 baseball bats at the same time would feel like; while holding your breath. It’s just serious abuse. Then after the severe beating you really hope you make it to the surface before the next wave hits you and starts the whole thing over again.

Kitesurfing Magazine: What difference have inflatable vests made to the Jaws experience?
Jesse Richman: The biggest difference for me is that they are way more comfortable. Before we would ride with big impact vests that worked good and would float but they didn’t work too well with a harness. There was just way too much stuff on to really move. Now, with the inflatable vest this is not an issue. I inflate my vest slightly before I go out so I float without pulling anything, not much, but enough. The beauty is that the air moves through the bladder so it doesn’t restrict you at all. Then if I eat it really hard, it’s nice to have the ability to get maximum floatation and pull the vest. Being inflated might actually make the wipeout last longer because you will stay in the white water longer, but it’s comforting knowing that you float and you can just relax and enjoy the ride.

Kitesurfing Magazine: How do you train for a wave like Jaws?
Jesse Richman: Many different ways. You need to be ready to hold your breath for a long time. I train for this by free diving and rock running. Then you need to be strong enough to handle the wipeout. I train for this in the gym. Apart from that you need to have safety training and know life saving skills because someone may have a life-threatening situation. You need to know what to do in a split second. It gets real, real fast. I train for this by going to different courses and learning as much as I can from the best. Then you need to have all the gear dialled in and a Jet-ski ready to rock. This takes time, money and a bit of mechanical skills. Lastly, you need to know what to do when you get on the wave. I train for this with countless hours on the water. I dedicate a lot of time to Jaws and almost all of it is training.

Kitesurfing Magazine: What’s your next goal for riding at Jaws?
Jesse Richman: Obviously I want to get a bigger barrel. The other day I made it in and out but I wasn’t very deep. Next time I want to get deep on a bomb. Making it out will be my next goal after that.

Originally published in Kitesurfing Magazine’s Spring 2016 Issue.