In a time when kids are doing whatever it takes to become a professional surfer, Kohl Christensen landed a sponsorship after he was in his thirties. His perspective lies beyond money, hype, brands and image. Prolific had a chance to meet Kohl and hear his thoughts on solar power, wwoofing, death in surfing and, most importantly, trailblazing his own path.
Interview: Keane Photos: Bierwolf, Farias
Kohl Christensen is 33; he’s been a professional surfer since he was 31, which is unusual in surfing today. Traditionally, young surfers dreaming about going pro would do something more like this: start surfing at age 5, and for 20 more years continue a regimented routine of surf, compete, travel, until they qualify for the WCT (World Championship Tour).
Sure, Kohl Christensen grew up wanting to become a professional, but he learned early on how difficult it was to achieve that status. Besides the surfing regimen and money, it takes connections to get you a sponsorship. After seeing his so called “glory years” come and go, Kohl continued surfing, yet at the same time worked in the family business of construction. Surfing in his spare time soon led to seeking big waves.
Kohl now follows his passion to the corners of the world seeking big waves. He’s able to do this with the help of Patagonia Clothing. Patagonia has focused on helping the environment since its inception in 1972. Patagonia’s mission statement includes a portion about helping the environment and reducing toxic impact: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Patagonia donates 1% of sales to environmental groups every year, and has encouraged other companies to do the same through it’s 1% For the Planet alliance.
So how does one follow this path of surfing simply for the love of it and eventually get paid to do it? We asked Kohl straight up, and what was intended to be an interview of pointed questions, immediately became a story with a lesson on how solar cells were manufactured in Oregon. All too often these days we run into athletes that are hung up on their particular sport and how they can do better and that they deserve more notoriety. Not Kohl – he wanted to talk about surf, for sure, but he also wanted to tell me about his organic farm and about how solar cells are grown.
Prolific: At what point did you start chasing surf?
Kohl Christensen: “When I was in middle school or high school, oh wait, when I was sixteen. Once I got my license, I was able to chase surf all over the island. I had one good friend and he and I would paddle out to Waimea. We used to chase surf all the time. When he wasn’t with me, I would have solo sessions. I had a lot of solo sessions. Over time, my circle of friends grew and before I knew it, I had a core group of guys out there that were charging with me. Having a core group out there helps you push your limits.”
P: So you started to get a reputation for charging on the North Shore, so to speak?
KC: “Well, after time, 10 or so years of surfing Waimea, I began to know most of the lineup, I had many ‘unknown’ photos, but I never had any real connections into the professional surfing scene. I did have a couple of opportunities to have sponsorships for board shorts and stuff, but there weren’t a lot of companies that I really believed in.”
P: You were invited to the Eddie* for the first time last year; I suppose that’s a product of your reputation? How did that happen?
KC: “I somehow made it onto the alternate list, and for two years I was an alternate. Then when I heard that they were going to hold the Eddie, I couldn’t believe it. I went to the bay and waited to hear my name called. As they called the names and my name came up, it was the most amazing moment in my life. I’ll never forget walking down the beach that day. It’s the best achievement of my life so far.”
*The Quicksilver Big Wave Invitational was created in Memory of Eddie Aikau. Since its inception in 1985 the tournament has only been held eight times, due to a precondition that open-ocean swells reach a minimum of 20 feet Hawaiian Scale (this translates to a wave face height of over 30 feet). The most recent tournament was held in December 2009, when waves in the bay reached heights of 30 to 50 feet (15 m). The contest only invites 28 big-wave riders to participate in two rounds of competition. The event does not allow the use of jet skis to tow surfers into the waves.
P: You won the 2010 Nelscott Reef Big Wave Classic (Lincoln City, Oregon). Tell us about that.
KC: “Well this is my first big win. At the time, I didn’t really know if I was going to make it for sure. We had been watching the storm system and were debating about possibly going to Mavericks. We made a late decision to go to Nelscott, and I’m so glad I did. This event was the culmination of a lot of things for me. Being in the Eddie was great, but having a win under my belt really solidified things for me. The trip ironically worked out great because I had a chance to visit SolarWorld in Oregon. This is the main manufacturing plant for the solar panels that I install.”
P: Sion Milosky recently passed away at Mavericks (Half Moon Bay, CA) – the two of you were friends, shared the same vision. His death has rocked the surfing world. What about with big wave surfers – has this changed the way you think about things?
KC: “No doubt. We’ve collectively realized that we all need to be better at CPR, first aid and first response type of stuff. We’re the first ones on the scene and are the watchmen for our brotherhood. We’re talking about getting training now.”
P: Big Wave surfers seem to be a breed of their own. I imagine you have some common personality traits.
KC: “Definitely. I’d say we’re all a little crazy in our own way. After a big event, everybody loves to party. There are some nutty guys in this group – except one: Carlos Burle. He’s crazy, but he doesn’t party. The guy is so pure and he’s 42. He won the Todos Big Wave World Championship Killers in Mexico in 1998. He’s still charging big waves today. We all could learn a lot from that guy. At the rate we’re going, we won’t last nearly as long as him.”
In 2005, Kohl and his brother managed to corral enough money to buy some raw land onOahu’s North Shore. “It was something we’d always wanted to do, and we found a good deal on this property. It was an open canvas, that we could build our dream on.” The land now consists of 3 acres, fruit trees, a house and guest house and an organic farm. “…Mangos, papayas, avos, lychee – and we have wwoofers work on the farm…”
“Wwoofers?” I asked, “What the hell are wwoofers?”
Kohl laughed, “Ya, it’s a wwoofing farm. You know – people who enjoy gardening work on the farm and we give them a place to stay”.
I personally had to look up “WWOOFING” (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) to understand it: www.wwoof.org. As I read more about organic farming, I learned that Kohl’s life is even more simplified and dynamic than I’d originally imagined.
P: So, back to Solar, you have your own business installing Solar Panels?
KC: “I’ve been in construction all my life. My brother and I have our own construction company building homes. I got into solar from a family friend and started working for them – Bonterra Solar. My brother runs the construction business still and I now have a partnership with Bonterra.”
P: Tell me how you manage your time between surf and work.
KC: “Well, work is always happening, but when there’s surf, I go surfing. It’s taken a few years, but I now have the business to the point where I have a right hand man that can run the business if I have to travel for surf.”
P: Hawaii seems to be a great place for solar energy – this seems like a great direction for the islands to be sustainable and rid themselves of burning fossil fuels.
KC: “Exactly. With the technology now, the panels are more efficient, the price is dropping and it is the most fulfilling work. When I finish an install, I get the gratification of seeing my work, and then feeling like I’m saving the planet. And you know what the best part is? Standing there with the home owner at the end, and watching their meter run backwards.”
P: What’s next for you, Kohl?
KC: “I’ve been working with my solar supplier, SolarWorld, to provide small panels that can be installed in remote locations. As I’ve been chasing surf to Chile, Fiji, and Indonesia, I have met some amazing people that could use a little help. It would be nice to provide some clean solar power for them. We haven’t figured out all the details yet, but it’s in the works.”
P: You seem to live a very clean, wholesome life with a clear direction. It seems people often get sidetracked from their goals. Any advice for our readers?
KC: “Well, being a professional surfer was always a dream for me, but at some point I knew I needed to work a real job. I decided to create a clear picture of how I wanted to live my life and followed that picture. I set up a life where I could catch big waves where people would recognize my effort yet, at the same time, live a simple life. It happened to be that the sanctuary that we decided to call home was near where I could achieve my surfing dreams.”
Kohl’s personality is every bit as sincere as it is infectious. During the course of our conversations, Kohl’s stories continued to inspire me to want to live according to my dreams, my agenda, ride my own wave. Too often we blindly follow the path that others carve for us, or we let circumstances guide us. Driven by his own intention, Kohl took the road less traveled. It seems that with the amount of Aloha Kohl has put out into the world, it’s that same Aloha that is guiding him now.
We at Prolific, with help from friends like Kohl, are taking away your map and recommend that you explore what direction feels right for you. We hope you’ll share your story with us someday…
Kohl also excitedly talked of a recent trip to Chile where he was able to score waves at a well known surf break named El Buey in Arica, Chile. More importantly, Kohl and a group of fellow big wave chargers returned to the spot to help protest against the future destruction of the wave. The wave will soon be destroyed as a result of the construction of a breakwall that is part of a hydro-electric plant soon under way.
One of the best ways to protest the destruction of the wave is to surf it.
When we last talked to Kohl, he was hot off a trip from South America where he took 4th in the Quiksilver Ceremonial Punta de Lobos. Held in pristine 20-foot Chilean surf, the final was packed with big-wave all-stars. Given the green light to run earlier in the week, the first event of the 2011 Big Wave World Tour (BWWT) drew notables such as Greg and Rusty Long, Peter Mel, Gabriel Villaran, and Ramon Navarro. Also making the trek to desolate Punta de Lobos were two former BWWT champs in Jamie Sterling and Carlos Burle.
See the highlights below, courtesy Rodrigo Farias