Story By: Kyveli Diener
Photos By: Kirk Lee Aeder
Just before the start of the 2015 Pe‘ahi
Challenge, the surfing competition at the monster-size Maui surf break also
known as Jaws, Shane Dorian paddled into a mammoth wave and hopped to his feet
at the top of its forty-foot peak. Moments later his board broke free of the
water and Dorian went into a free fall, a bad turn of events that onlookers had
every right to believe was about to end terribly. With his toes barely touching
the board and his arms flung over his head as he plummeted, he somehow remained
centered. When the board reconnected with the wave’s face, Dorian was still on
it, regaining control and riding the wave to completion. Witnesses were
The soft-spoken 44-year-old from Kailua-Kona
did the same thing before the start of the Pe‘ahi Challenge in 2016, catching
another pre-contest bomb that saw him sideslip, free fall, regain control and
finish the wave—once again leaving witnesses slack-jawed. Neither ride counted
in the contests, and he didn’t do particularly well in either event. In 2015 he
finished in sixth place. In 2016 he didn’t even make it out of the first round.
But for Dorian, trophies aren’t the point. Winning contests is great—and he’s
won plenty—what matters more than anything is the personal experiences he has
“If I paddle out there and get an epic wave
in the first fifteen minutes, I’m done for the day,” he says. “It’s so
dangerous out there and the risks are so significant that if I get one really
good wave, I’m good for the day—I’m good for the year, sometimes.”
That might seem like an odd attitude for
someone who earns his living by surfing, but Dorian is forging his own way as a
professional surfer, and it’s working out for him just fine. His big-wave exploits
have won him numerous accolades and awards, including the Billabong Ride of the
Year Award in both 2015 and 2016. With or without contest wins, he’s still
regarded as one of the best big-wave riders in the world today.
Shane Patrick Dorian was born in 1972 in
Kailua-Kona. His mother, a body-builder, and his father, a former Hollywood
stunt double, ran a restaurant in Kona called Dorian’s. It was adjacent to
Magic Sands Beach, a popular bodyboarding spot where the sand is scoured down
to bare rock by winter waves, only to return again in the summer. Too young to
work in the restaurant himself, Shane spent his days at the beach, surfing when
there were waves and swimming, fishing and diving when there weren’t. That
idyllic arrangement lasted until Dorian was twelve and his parents divorced.
But he kept on surfing, and after he turned
fifteen he began spending half of the school year on O‘ahu’s North Shore,
during the big-wave season. Surfing on the North Shore sharpened Dorian’s
competitive skills, and soon he was part of the loose-knit group of young,
dynamic surfers who emphasized aerial maneuvers and tail slides in what became
known as surfing’s New School movement. The New Schoolers included the likes of
Kelly Slater, still a close friend of Dorian. The approach translated nicely to
the small, glassy, high-performance waves of Kailua-Kona, where Dorian surfed
during the other half of the school year.
Dorian’s mother lived in Holualoa, the small
upland town in the Kona Coffee Belt above Kailua-Kona—a short downhill drive to
the beach. Holualoa is where Dorian and his wife, son and daughter reside
today. He is a proud product of Hawai‘i Island, and while he’s seen the world
through surfing, he’s an inveterate Big Islander. “There’s nowhere like the Big
Island, and I think that’s because of the people and the culture,” he says.
“You go down to the beach, and people are spending time with their kids,
teaching them how to throw net [the traditional Hawaiian fishing method] and
how to clean fish. The people here are open, they’re stoked. People tend to
have time for you here.”
I meet Dorian at his spacious, airy house
with views of the forest all around. Two spritely Pomeranians, Bear and Penny,
scamper about the front porch. In the yard, the wooden quarter-pipe
skateboarding ramp that Dorian’s ten-year-old son, Jackson, keeps in constant
use sits under a canopy for protection from the afternoon rains. There’s a
trampoline nearby, useful for mastering the finer points of aerial maneuvers.
There’s also Dorian’s beloved four-wheel-drive Toyota Tundra for general
transportation and surf trips, as well as a quad ATV for hunting trips.
Near the entrance to the property’s long
driveway through the woods stands a cutout of a deer for target practice, as
well as one tall tree displaying a dozen ram skulls. Dorian began bow hunting
when he and his wife moved into this house in an effort to keep the wild pigs,
which would dig up anything the couple planted, in check. Hunting soon became
Dorian’s favorite hobby. He loves spending free time on multiday hunting and
survival adventures in Colorado, Utah and throughout the Hawaiian Islands.
While he sometimes hunts pigs, sheep and goats, he mostly goes after deer these
days. “We don’t buy any red meat in my family, and we eat meat pretty
consistently,” he says. “When we get low on meat, I go hunting.”
In addition to supplementing the Dorian
clan’s diet with lots of lean, wild protein, Dorian’s bow hunting also benefits
the environment. “All the introduced mammals in Hawai‘i are really hard on the
native forest and our watersheds,” he says. “If you don’t hunt them, the
population will double every three years.” And there’s a third reason Dorian is
drawn into the forest with quiver and bow. “It’s very meditative,” he says. “I
need bow hunting to keep me sane.” Some people surf after work to blow off
steam, he says. But when you surf for a living, you need a different option.
“For me it’s bowhunting,” he says.
Professional surfing is hardly a stress-free
occupation, and professional big-wave riding—with its life-or-death stakes —is
especially anxiety provoking. A near-death experience at Mavericks, a giant
surf spot in Northern California, so unnerved Dorian that he seriously
considered retiring from the sport altogether in 2010. Instead he channeled his
trauma into innovation.
The waves were monstrous on that February
day, slamming into spectators on the cliffs and breaking bones of people who
weren’t even there to surf. Dorian pulled into a thirty-foot barrel that never
let him out. The wave pushed him deep into one of Mavericks’ notorious
trenches, where an underwater waterfall effect can pin surfers to the bottom.
Despite his years of experience and sizable lung capacity, Dorian nearly
blacked out before the wave finally let him go. But just as he returned to the
surface, another monster wave engulfed him, sending him back to the bottom for
another long hold-down.
When Dorian surfaced he was dazed and half
drowned. A lifeguard on a jet ski fished him out of the cauldron, and later
that day he paddled back out and caught another wave. But the experience deeply
rattled him, making him think about leaving the sport. He also started thinking
about how to make it safer.
When he got home he contacted the wetsuit
designer for one of his sponsors, Billabong, the Australian surfwear company.
Big-wave surfers were just beginning to use flotation vests around this time
for safety. Dorian had an idea for building the flotation device directly into
his wetsuit. Through a collaboration with Billabong and a Canadian company
called Mustang Survival, which builds marine and aerospace safety suits, Dorian
came up with a wetsuit equipped with a built-in air bladder and CO2 canisters.
With the pull of a cord, the bladder inflates on the surfer’s back and rockets
him or her back to the surface.
“I think the inflatable vest has changed so
much as far as the safety aspect and people coming home to their families at
night after the swell,” Dorian says. “It’s so much safer now to surf big waves,
and that’s enabled a lot more people to go surf big waves.”
Today there are many varieties of inflatable
vests used by big-wave surfers, and it’s considered foolhardy if someone
paddles out on a really big day without one. Despite this advancement, Dorian
stresses the importance of understanding basic safety skills for all surfers,
regardless of wave size. “Anyone who surfs should be doing CPR courses and
learning how to save people’s lives, because it doesn’t take big waves to kill
somebody,” he says. “As far as surfing big waves, you’re crazy if you paddle
out without knowing the absolute basics and having a plan in case something
With the sun hanging low in the sky above
Kailua-Kona, Dorian climbs out of the water after surf session at the local
break known as Banyans. Jackson, his pint-size partner in crime, follows behind
him, sun-bleached hair hanging in wet curls on the shoulders of his baggy
wetsuit. When Dorian is home from chasing monster swells around the world, he
picks up Jackson after school and heads straight to Banyans to surf.
A steady stream of locals pat Dorian on the
shoulder and shake his hand with friendly greetings. Known throughout the wider
surf world simply as Dorian, here he’s called Shane, or Shane-o, the nickname
his mom gave him growing up. The kids call him Uncle Shane or just Jackson’s
Dorian spent eleven years as a pro surfer on
the World Championship Tour before retiring in 2003 to focus on riding big
waves. When he was 22 years old and just three years into his career as a
professional surfer, he felt compelled to give something back to his community.
So he established a kids surfing contest at Banyans called the Shane Dorian
Keiki Classic. The contest, which has run every year since 1995, is open to all
surfers under the age of 18, as long as they maintain at least a 2.25 grade
point average. The entry fee is a can of food for the local food bank. A
nonprofit organization spun off from the contest holds fundraisers twice a year
to benefit up-and-coming surf talent from Hawai‘i Island.
“We’ve sent dozens of kids over to nationals
in California,” Dorian says. “We’ve sent kids to O‘ahu and on surf trips to
Tahiti and to go look at colleges on the East Coast—all kinds of different
After ten minutes ashore, Dorian’s own kid
sprints up to him. “The waves are getting better,” Jackson says. “Can we go
back out?” His dark brown eyes are wide open, as if he’s trying to will his
father back into the waves on pure cuteness and stoke. “You can but I’m done,
buddy,” Dorian says. He’s encouraging but firm. He knows that because Jackson
is small for his age, it’s easy for other kids in a crowded lineup to block him
from getting waves. But he also wants his son to gain confidence to paddle out
without him. That, and he is hoping that by not getting back in the water, he
will get them home sooner for the nightly routine of homework, dinner, bath
time and bed.
There was a time when Jackson showed little
interest in his father’s sport. He was devoted to skateboarding but he hardly
cared about surfing. That has changed, and now he’s equally passionate about
skateboarding and surfing. Dorian didn’t want to push his son to follow in his
footsteps; he let him find his own way there. Now he can hardly keep him out of
“I’m done, buddy,” Dorian says. Jackson looks
at his father with understanding, takes a deep breath and says, “OK.” Then he
grabs his board and heads back out into the waves for a second session by
himself. His father watches from the rocks. The waves are getting better and
there’s still some daylight left. The nightly routine will have to wait.