People living in the Northeast weren’t too fond of Mother Nature after a winter that brought a seemingly endless onslaught of snowstorms and frigid temperatures, and introduced the country to the phrase “polar vortex.”
Kurt Rist, however, couldn’t have been happier.
The 28-year-old Southampton native spent his fourth consecutive winter living on the northwest coast of Ireland, and his reason for being there—chasing and riding some of the best big waves the world has to offer—was in perfect sync with what the atmosphere dished out from the end of 2013 into the beginning of this year.
Every time a big snowstorm pounded his hometown and surrounding areas, Rist and the rest of a small but tight-knit group of surfers in County Sligo had a reason to get stoked—they knew that only a few days later the same storms would work their way across the Atlantic, pick up steam when they hit warm Gulf Stream waters, and deliver the type of conditions big-wave hunters like Rist dream about to the next shoreline in their path.
Rist certainly made the most of the exceptional conditions, getting towed into monster waves via JetSki by his friend and surf comrade, Dylan Stott, also a Southampton native who now lives in Ireland on a year-round basis. Rist started coming to Ireland in the winters four years ago, at Stott’s suggestion. Prior to that, Rist spent the cold months honing his big-wave skills in Hawaii, but he found himself eager to return to Ireland after his initial winter there, drawn to the smaller crowds and less competitive vibe that exists there without having to sacrifice wave quality.
But it was only last year that Rist and Stott were able to tackle some of the biggest waves in the region thanks to their purchase of the JetSki, which allows a surfer to be towed into a brewing monster wave at high speed.
On January 27, 2013, Stott pulled Rist into what Rist described at the time as “the wave of his life,” a monster at the well-known big-wave spot called Mullaghmore. A successful ride on that wave, and subsequent photo and video documentation, earned Rist an entry into the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards contest.
Although he didn’t win, just being granted entry into the contest was a huge accomplishment for Rist, one he hoped to repeat this winter. And, thanks to Mother Nature, he was able to do that and more, garnering a total of five entries while surfing again at Mullaghmore and the surrounding area. While Rist didn’t finish in the top five, he did garner an exclusive invite to the awards ceremony, which took place in Los Angeles on May 2.
Rist’s best wave came on March 3 at a spot called Prowlers, which breaks two miles off the Sligo coastline. Big waves are actually rare at Prowlers, according to Rist, but when the conditions are right—a massive swell and no wind—it becomes something special. Not only were the surf conditions just right that day, but the sun was shining as well, a rarity for that time of year in Ireland, where rain, hail and wind are typically part of the equation with XXL-worthy swells.
“So the vibe was great from the beginning,” Rist said, recounting the day. “I was really excited to surf a new big wave over there. Dylan was driving the ski, and he did a great job finding the perfect big wave out there for me. He whipped me in at the perfect spot.
“The wave hit the reef perfectly,” he continued, “It was drawing so much water off the reef that the face of the wave was completely clean, with no bumps. I was feeling pretty confident as I was flying down the wave, and when I reached the bottom, it was time for me to make the bottom turn, the most critical in big-wave surfing. I never felt a bottom turn like that one—I was going the fastest I have ever gone, and the rail of my board was just slicing through the wave like a knife through butter. After completing the bottom turn, I was able to pull into the pocket of the wave, and complete it safely.”
Rist estimated he was traveling anywhere from 30 to 40 mph as he hit the bottom turn, and that the face of the wave was in the range of 50 to 55 feet. Making it into and out of the wave safely was a team collaboration between Rist and Stott, and Rist said that Stott’s expertise is just as crucial as his in taking on big waves. But Stott gave credit where credit was due.
“It was the biggest wave that came through, and Kurt surfed it like I thought he would,” Stott said.
A photo of the ride landed Rist on the cover of the Irish Times, and of course was one of his five entries into the XXL contest. And while the sheer size and strength of that wave was the headliner of the day, both Rist and Stott were perhaps more eager to talk about Rist’s surfing abilities sans JetSki. While big-wave surfing and getting towed in typically go hand-in-hand, especially for award-winning waves, Rist said it’s still important to him to test the limits of what he can do on his own. Stott was quick to point out that Rist had the courage and commitment to paddle into a wave at Prowlers that day as well—a feat no one else attempted, he said. And Rist acknowledged that paddling into big surf remains important to him.
“To paddle into a massive wave, pull into the barrel, and come out, is just about the best thing a surfer could do,” he said.
Aside from garnering as many entries as possible for the Billabong contest, Rist was also intent on achieving a personal goal of paddling into and successfully riding a 20-foot-plus wave at Mullaghmore. He made it happen in November. With an 8-foot-6-inch Doc Prescription surfboard, which he described as the perfect “big-wave gun,” and also equipped with an impact flotation vest and a designated “rescue man” on a JetSki out in the safety of the channel, watching his every move, Rist paddled into a 25-foot face, locked into the biggest barrel of his life, and made it through.
Rist has the look of a typical surfer—a lean build, with long, beach-blond hair—but he also possesses a laid back and humble demeanor that does little to give away the ferocity of what he does out on the water. Vinny McGann, a North Sea resident and lifelong surfer, tackled big waves with Kurt’s father, John Rist, in locations such as the Canary Islands in the 1970s, and he watched Kurt grow up and evolve into the surfer he’s become today.
He said it’s hard to overstate what Rist has accomplished in his pursuit of big waves, but he’s also not surprised by it. McGann hired Rist as an instructor for the surf camp that Rist now runs on his own during the summer when Rist was just 14 years old.
“At that point, his surfing was so far advanced—he was the equivalent of a 21-year-old,” McGann said. “He’s a better surfer that I ever was. And now he’s doing things … I mean, how do I even say how impressive it is? Even from my standpoint, and I love big waves, what he’s doing is phenomenal.”
McGann tried using another analogy to sum it up.
“I think there are 600 or 700 NBA players in the world, and they’re the absolute best at what they do, out of seven billion of us,” he said. “There are no more than 100 people in the world doing what Kurt is doing. Lots of people surf, but very few people choose to do that. And the reason he’s able to do it is, one, because he absolutely loves to surf, and, two, he’s totally authentic. He’s not driven by his ego. He’s driven for sure, though. You have to be to paddle over the ledge of one of those things.”
Rist and Stott’s surfing adventures in Ireland over the winter were documented in a short film called “Run To The Sea,” which garnered them the top prize at the Irish Surf Film Festival this year. The film was shown in Bridgehampton earlier in the month with the cooperation of the Surfrider Foundation, and Rist was on hand to talk about his experiences before taking off for Mexico.
Stott, who was the mastermind of the film, according to Rist, said the film will be available to view online in a few weeks after it is shown at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain in June.
With spring finally here, Rist was wrapping up another final surf trip before returning to Southampton for the summer, taking on big waves in Puerto Escondido, Mexico—known as the Mexican Pipeline, a reference to the famed Hawaiian break—last week. Once he’s back on Long Island, Rist will run his own surf camp, Surfhampton, at Scott Cameron and Mecox beaches in Southampton Town this summer. The camp starts the last weekday in June, and is conducted every weekday after that from 8:30 until 11 a.m., until Labor Day.
“I love seeing beginner surfers catching the same feeling on a 2-foot wave that I get on a 20-foot wave,” Rist said.
Anyone interested in Surfhampton can call Hampton Watersports at (631) 283-9463 for more information.
After a few months at home, Rist said he’ll be back at it again, chasing big waves in the fall and winter. He plans on going back to Ireland again, but also wants to surf Hawaii’s most well-known big wave mecca, Jaws.
“Surf forecast technology is amazing nowadays,” Rist said. “You can predict a big swell a week before it hits anywhere in the world. So next year I might be doing a bit of big-wave chasing, depending on where the biggest, best waves are in the world. My goals are to win the biggest wave category in the Billabong XXL, with a prize of $10,000, and win ride of the year, with a prize of $50,000, and just have fun while I’m doing it.”