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Walsh riding wave of change

With more time at home, Maui big wave surfer focuses on family and cooking adventures

Ian Walsh makes a bottom turn on a massive wave during the men’s final of the cbdMD Jaws Big Wave Championships on Dec. 12 at Peahi. Walsh finished runner-up to fellow Maui surfer Billy Kemper in the World Surf League Big Wave event. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Like many during the coronavirus pandemic, life has certainly changed in the last five months for Ian Walsh.

But it hasn’t been all bad.

“Normally this time of the year, I spend a good chunk of the winter in Hawaii and summer I shift a lot of my energy to traveling, whether that be to the Southern Hemisphere or for promotional stuff for my sponsors,” said Walsh, a 37-year-old renowned big wave surfer who graduated from King Kekaulike High School in 2001. “So, generally I’m traveling from the end of March until the beginning of October most years.”

Walsh has taken the opportunity of being at home to spend time with his notable surfing family — both blood-related and the young surfers he mentors — and discover his inner-foodie personality, strengthen his foundation and all of his other interests.

“This is possibly the longest stint I’ve been home consecutively since I was about 14 years old,” he said. “That’s probably the immediate difference in what’s going on in my life, but the other side of that, there’s some really good things to take away from that — I’ve had a lot more time with my family and my friends, just being able to settle into a routine rather than packing and unpacking, packing and unpacking constantly.

Ian Walsh shows off a pair of bone-in ribeyes he prepared last month. Walsh has been sharing his cooking adventures on social media and YouTube during the coronavirus pandemic. — Photo courtesy of Ian Walsh

“There’s definitely a few ways to look at it and I’m appreciative of the time we have right now. Obviously this is a challenging time for the whole world, so it takes a lot of adapting and pivoting to make something positive come out of this.”

Cooking has always been a secret passion for Walsh, who won two World Surf League Big Wave Awards in 2018 and is up for another pair this month.

“Ever since I was a little kid I’ve just always been fascinated by cooking,” Walsh said. “Growing up I would spend probably way too much time with the cooking network on the TV. While I was doing my homework that would always be on in the background. I don’t know why I had such a fascination with watching people cook. It’s almost, like, meditative.

“I have a really big desire to learn and try new things even if it doesn’t quite work out, I just really like the aspect of doing it hands on and working my way through something to actually learn it and cooking has always been the perfect thing for that. … It’s been fun to just kind of fire up all these recipes I’ve always been thinking about.”

He has found new content for his Instagram and YouTube feeds by filming the cooking adventures.

Ian Walsh poses for a photo with winners from his Menehune Mayhem surf meet in 2016. Walsh’s foundation has held the event for Maui’s youth surfers the last 17 years. — MENEHUNE MAYHEM photo

“I’m basically learning with the audience,” he said. “I’m just a test pilot for all these recipes.”

Al pastor tacos have been the most fun dinner to make, so far.

“I always felt like those would be an absolute nightmare to make and once I did it, I was, like, ‘Why am I not doing this all the time?’ “ he said. “I feel like every recipe I go through has been like that.”

Walsh and his three brothers have been pioneers in the conquering of the Peahi surf spot on the North Shore of Maui with tow-in surfing. Two of his brothers — twins Shaun and DK Walsh — were a big part of the development of using Jet Skis to get to the waves that are impossible to paddle in to.

The twins have developed a company called Global Aquatics, where they educate people and enhance water safety protocols. Middle brother Luke Walsh owns Paia Bowls cafe, along with Ian.

“The safety aspect of big wave surfing has been really instrumental in making sure we come home at the end of the day,” Ian Walsh said. “I have three younger brothers who grew up here on Maui as well and naturally we push each other surfing — that’s probably the real reason why we got to the level that we’re at. It really became this thing born out of necessity.

“The waves are so critical and dangerous, we wanted to have some sort of safety aspect or component to it with the Jet Skis. So, it really was this thing born out of necessity that allowed the four of us to be in the water together. Two of us are surfing and two of us are on the Jet Skis, so if something really bad happens they can react and help neutralize the situation. We just would rotate and take turns and that just evolved into these lifesaving techniques.”

Peahi, nicknamed “Jaws,” is much more active in the winter months, leaving an opportunity for Ian Walsh to step out to some other spots that he rarely has much time in his schedule to get to. His shortboard is never too far away.

“Just really trying to find these swells that make their way to Maui and just make the most of them,” he said. “I’ve surfed a few of these south swells and then Hurricane Douglas just created some incredible waves here, a few waves that are off the beaten path that never really break. So, it was a unique angle that the hurricane provided and a different type of wind that really enhanced these waves, got to surf full winter-sized waves towards the back end of July, which is unique.”

Walsh chuckled when asked where the specific spots were that he and fellow Maui pros were at while Hurricane Douglas churned up the Pacific Ocean last weekend.

“I can’t mention that one or I will take a little bit of heat from the surf community,” he said.

Kim Ball, the founding force behind Maui Interscholastic League surfing and president of Hi-Tech Surf Sports, said Walsh has a special place in the Valley Isle surfing community.

“Ian Walsh is the consummate role model for young kids,” Ball said. “He’s proven that you can stay in school — he was valedictorian at King Kekaulike — and still have a successful pro career.”

Hi-Tech was one of Walsh’s first sponsors, a fact that Ball is extremely proud of.

“He’s very community-minded,” Ball said. “He’s a very grateful young man, from when he was a 12-year-old through his adult life. I just can’t say enough about who he is.”

The Ian Walsh Menehune Mayhem Foundation has offered a free surf meet in the spring for the last 17 years and for the last two years it has generated 12 college scholarships for Maui surfing youths.

Walsh shakes his head when he thinks about the remarkable talent that comes from Maui.

“Just think how small Maui is comparatively, like, to the size of Australia, or different places,” he said. “This island is just like a hot bed of talent. There’s so many incredibly talented young boys and girls that are coming up right now. And there’s been tons of talent that has flooded out from this beautiful island.”

Two young teens he currently has his eyes on are Annie Reickert and Ty Simpson-Kane.

“It’s a unique place to grow up and I think the big variety of surf really lends to how versatile all of those surfers from Maui are,” he said. “I wouldn’t say like I feel an urge to groom them per se, but I do feel a bit of responsibility to share everything that I’ve experienced to help give them a jumping off point to take it way past anywhere that I’ve been.

“All these years I’ve spent refining equipment and safety aspects at Jaws and big waves in particular, all those little nuances and details that go into performing and surviving on those big days. … If I can pass that on to all of them so they can start thinking about the next steps past that, rather than having to go through the same steps that I did — that’s really important to me.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com

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