Kurt Rist’s definition of risk differs greatly from that of the general population.
When Rist, 29, talks about “risk assessment” in big-wave surfing, he’s making decisions about whether or not to jump into the Pacific Ocean in southern Mexico when the waves are 60 feet high. Waves that run from 20 to 40 feet high? Those are his version of a no-brainer.
The Southampton native made those decisions recently while surfing in Puerto Escondido this spring. He quickly booked a ticket for his fourth trip to the surf spot—referred to as the Mexican Pipeline—after seeing the surf report promising some of the best waves Puerto has even seen. Rist arrived on April 30 and was set to arrive back in Southampton on May 7.
Rist, of course, is no stranger to giant waves and the big risk associated with them. He’s spent his last few winters chasing giant swells in Ireland, and, in his words, “the more you play, the more you pay.”
Rist was towed into a 20-footer at Mullaghmore in Ireland in November and caught an edge coming out of a massive barrel, resulting in an over-the-falls wipeout. The result, he said, was a “nice beatdown”—and a strained MCL in his knee that sidelined him for three months. It did not, however, sideline his enthusiasm for big waves.
Rist ultimately decided not to take his chances on the 60-foot day in Mexico, after looking at what he called “the craziest waves” he’s ever seen. But he did hop on a Jet-Ski and towed a friend safely into two huge waves that day. Upon depositing his friend safely back on shore, Rist took the ski out one more time to rescue a boogie boarder who had wiped out, plucking him from the madness and dropping him back to shore as well.
“Let’s just say we became good friends after that,” Rist said.
Whether it was good karma, good luck or a little bit of both, Rist was rewarded the next day, when the waves were slightly more manageable, ranging from a mere 20 to 40 feet on the faces. “That was the day I knew I had to go,” he said.
He continued, describing the day and the approach he takes to big-wave surfing, a mix of caution, patience, and bravado:
“The winds are offshore every morning in Puerto and switch onshore in the afternoon, so it’s all about paddling into massive waves in the morning and towing in the late afternoon. I took out my 10-foot gun that morning, and I played it safe and sat outside, waiting for the bigger sets. I caught two big waves and successfully rode them, so that was all I needed to be content.
“If you’re trying to catch smaller waves on the big days, not being patient, you’re going to get cleaned up by sets. The thing about Puerto, the currents are so strong, you get pounded by one wave, and then it sucks you back into the impact zone, and you keep getting pounded by waves. That’s what makes this place so hardcore—the smart surfers always win out there.”
Of course, Mother Nature can always find a way to remind surfers like Rist that no matter how good they get, she’s always in control. Rist received that not-so-gentle reminder later in the day, when he was towed in with friends Will and Cliff Skudin of Long Beach, New York.
“Will towed me into a huge one, and it looked perfect at first, but then down the line a rip current ran through the wave, and all of a sudden the whole thing avalanched down on me,” Rist said. “It was treacherous beating. I had my inflatable life vest on—[the wave] tried ripping the vest off my head, and I just wrapped my arms around the vest and waited for the flotation of my vest to bring me up. I came up, and there was one just as big coming right at me. I barely dove under. I just let the wave rock me, knowing it would wash me into the shore if I didn’t dive deep.”
Rist “paid to play” that afternoon, but it was well worth it, he says.
“It was an amazing experience, trading waves with the best big-wave surfers in the world, such as Garett McNamara, Mark Healy, and many more,” Rist said. “The place is such a challenge—all you need is one good barrel, then you pretty much go home after that.”
Now that he’s back home, Rist will turn his attention to his summer gig—sharing his passion with others. Rist owns and operates Hamptons Surf Company, offering surf camp and lessons for aspiring surfers during the summer. Camp starts the last week of June and runs into the first week of September, with sessions every weekday morning.
Rist is also working on launching a non-profit surf foundation for inner-city youth and children with disabilities.
For more information on Kurt Rist’s summer surf camp, a new website, www.hamptonssurf.co, is slated to go live this week.