Meet the Guy Riding Waves Like Mountains – on Skis

Chuck Patterson does it all – and sometimes he does two things at the same time. Like wave-skiing.
Chuck Patterson drops in to a JAWS monster © Tracy Kraft Leboe
By Josh Sampiero

The hardest thing Chuck Patterson has to do when he wakes up every morning is decide what kind of fun he's going to have that day. He's a pro skier, big-wave surfer and professional stand-up paddle boarder – with a difference. When he goes to surf the world's biggest waves at Jaws, he's wearing ski boots and poles!

Watch Chuck in action at JAWS Wave-skiing... where did that idea come from?

Chuck Patterson: I was good buds with Shane McConkey. After his infamous line on waterskis up in Alaska, we started talking about surfing waves with skis. He thought I could do it, and he said, because of my versatility as a water athlete and alpine athlete, I was the one to do it.

We hear you are the man – you had the record for the highest cliff huck?

Yes, 142 feet in the Tahoe backcountry. I'd been hitting 80 feet without even realising it, and the video director suggested I go one higher. I really had to work up some nerve to hit the blind take-off, but I did it. I wouldn't do that again these days – I'm 45 and I still do stupid stuff daily – but you've really got to be skiing every day and in the right state of mind.

Weight one foot, unweight the other © Tracy Kraft Leboe

How did the first attempts go?

We tried on a pair of jumping water skis first – long, flat, wide skis. They had incredible glide! I got pulled into the wave, and just cruised along super fast until I shot way out in front of the wave. There was no edge control because of the soft waterski binding and huge surface area. So we said, "Cool, we did it."


Well, 10 years went by, and Shane had passed away. I heard Cody Townsend and Mike Douglas – two other freeskiers – were working on surfing waterskis. I got a pair and took 'em out on the Central Cali coast on a day we were surfing a 12m (39-foot) slab. The other guys were laughing so hard, they couldn't wait to see me eat it. I'd never even been on the skis before.

Chuck Patterson, the man who wants to ski Jaws
This man knows how to take a selfie © Chuck Patterson

And how did it go?

The minute I let go of the tow-rope, the glide, the angulation, everything made sense. The ski boots gave me leverage over the skis. I was doing these big GS turns on the wave face. I got 20 waves that day on skis! We towed a few other places – I grabbed poles for balance and comfort – but I knew I had to go to the Alaska of wave-skiing – JAWS.

Sometimes the ride gets bumpy © Tracy Kraft Leboe

You know JAWS pretty well.

I've windsurfed it, kited it, surfed it, SUP'ed it, and now wave-skied it. So, yes! The first day on the wave skis wasn't perfect. There was a big crowd, so lots of pressure. People in the line-up were like 'what the hell is this guy doing?' – but JAWS regulars like Robby Naish and Dave Kalama backed me up and gave it cred.

The first drop was nuts – I barely made it, and dropped the lip just like a cornice, going faster than I've ever gone. I got three rides and called it a day. The next day we went back to smaller but cleaner waves and just had a blast – big S-turns, fading back into the wave…

Whitewater explodes as Chuck skis to the channel © Tracy Kraft Leboe

How do the wave skis work?

Much like snow skis when you're skiing powder. The big difference is you're steering from the middle of the boot to the back of the ski, not using the whole ski like you do in skiing. The front of the ski is out of the water.

Will we see an evolution of skills in wave-skiing?

I'd love to see what some of the freestyle kids could do with some practice. You can get great speed – and with the right timing off the lip, they could easily do a rodeo or a corked seven and stomp it right back into the wave.

What's up next for you?

We're doing some filming in the coming weeks here on Maui, but I'd like to take the wave-skis to some other spots – Belharra, in France, looks like an amazing wave to ski when it's big. And I'd love to hit Teahupo'o in Tahiti. That's the pinnacle.

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