At the last minute, Archie Kalepa decided to go right on a wave instead of left at the Jaws surf spot in Peahi. Then, he knew he was in trouble with "the Big Kahuna."
"It was too deep on the wave," he said of his wipeout Monday. "The wave, I tried to get around it, and it caught me, pretty much exploded right behind me. . . . It felt like a bomb went off behind me and ripped my leg to the side. It was pretty violent."
He surfaced but took another pounding to his head.
ED GARCES photo
A surfer gets out ahead of a mountain of white water at the Jaws surf spot in Peahi on Monday.
Archie Kalepa, big-wave surfer
"It was pretty intense at that point. It turned into survival mode," he said in a phone interview Tuesday from his Lahaina residence. "I just told myself, really just relax, don't panic. This is what you train for, this is what you do. . . . I was afraid, but I was in control."
As soon as Kalepa could be found in the white water, his tow-in surfing partner, Buzzy Kerbox, zoomed toward him on a personal watercraft and grabbed him. In severe pain from his twisted left knee, Kalepa was flown out of the area by a crew on the Maui Fire Department's Air One helicopter.
The 46-year-old, experienced waterman said he knew the risks of challenging waves as high as 50 feet at Jaws, a site he has been surfing for 12 years.
"This is how I live my life. You lay down all the cards when you go down there," said Kalepa, Maui County's ocean safety supervisor.
He described Monday's surf as being the "Big Kahuna."
"This was one of the bigger ones we've seen since the ending of last year and beginning of this year," he said.
On Tuesday, the National Weather Service reduced a high-surf warning to an advisory, which was expected to remain in effect until 6 p.m. today.
Then, another large northwest swell is expected tonight or Thursday, said Glenn James, senior weather analyst with the Pacific Disaster Center in Kihei. That large surf will subside Friday and Saturday, but jump back up to warning levels when another swell arrives Sunday and lasts for several days, he said.
Kalepa estimated that when he was injured Monday there were around 20 other surfers out with him in the water. Only the most experienced surfers dare ride the monstrous waves at Jaws on Maui's north shore, a prime spot for northwest swells to visit the island in the winter.
Kalepa said he tries to be smart when riding huge surf, but he loves the challenge.
"When I'm on the wave, for me, it seems it cannot be big enough," he said.
Kalepa said he tests his limits, but on Monday "I pushed a little too much. (I) may have not made the right choice."
He also was questioning his decision to cut right instead of left, but perhaps it would not have made a difference.
"Either way, maybe it wasn't the best wave," he said.
On Tuesday, Kalepa was upbeat and grateful that he was able to be home with his family.
"It could have been way worse," he said.
His last major surf injury was four years ago, when he broke his leg in surf off Spreckelsville.
Kalepa rated the pain on Monday as an 8-1/2 on a scale from one to 10, with 10 being the most painful. On Tuesday he rated his pain as a two.
After a visit to the doctor's office Tuesday morning, Kalepa said he either has torn cartilage or a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but he was going to get an MRI to check it further.
Kalepa thanked the Maui County Fire Department, his ocean safety crew and the emergency medical technicians who all helped and treated him.
"Everyone was on it," he said.
Before his visit to the doctor, Kalepa said he might be back to work by Friday and back surfing in two weeks.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.