Jamie O'Brien is one of those lucky people for whom surfing can be too simple. He has lived his whole life at Pipeline. He competes in The Eddie. When a big swell demands attention, he responds to the call in any ocean.
Mexico, Fiji, Indonesia, Micronesia. You name it, O'Brien has tamed it. That's why he keeps scanning the horizon for the next challenge, next obstacle, next idea, to scratch his itch of pushing the envelope.
On Wednesday in Tahiti, while filming for his original series "Who Is JOB 5.0," he realized one of his surfing dreams: to get barreled on one of the world’s heaviest waves ... while lit on fire.
Watch the footage above, then hear from the man himself below, as he talks exclusively to Red Bull. This is not a drill.
RedBull.com: Jamie! You're still standing. How did everything go in the water today?
Jamie O'Brien: I caught the best wave of my life today. It was a dream wave, and I was on fire. It was the biggest adrenaline rush of my life. Everything went super smooth! Yesterday, during a test I burned a quarter of my eyelash and eyebrow, but it was really cool. There was a lot of build-up and yesterday we had a few difficulties, but today we just went for it and next thing you know I was in the barrel, I was on fire and flames were wrapping everywhere. It was really cool.
What sparked this whole idea?
I got a direct message on Instagram that said it would be cool if you lit yourself on fire, and I kinda thought, why not? So I went to Red Bull and said, "Hey, I want to light myself on fire and get barreled at Teahupo'o." They looked at me like, "Are you for real?" and I told them I was and that I knew the right guy, and that’s when they called Riley Harper and his team.
Describe the testing phase.
I remember on the plane thinking it was so out of the box. What was I doing flying to California to light myself on fire? Riley's crew members were telling me how some folks panic, and you never know how you'll react. People think they’ll be fine then they get lit on fire and they lose it. I was like, God I hope that doesn't happen to me. All the anitcipation and worry of whether you'll get burned, the build-up was like ... beyond ... I can’t even put it into words.
How were your nerves this morning?
The craziest thing was getting on the boat in the dark. The light where you'd normally start paddling out is the light that you need to get lit on fire. And then you're surfing over a razor-sharp reef in a perfect environment and trying to time everything with the whole set. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. And the build-up, the nerves ... it still feels like every time I get lit on fire is the first time, because there's a new challenge every time, from the trial runs on land, to taking it to the water, then surfing a wave and eventually weaving through a barrel.
Let's talk tech. What were you wearing?
I had a thermal setup underneath everything, then threw a wetsuit on and had another layer over the top. Then I had a hoodie on and a Body Glove wetsuit on top of that, and I was just right there ready for fire! I thought the buoyancy would be a lot worse. They put about 15 pounds on me before I was even in the water, and I knew once I was in the water that I’d be even heavier. So there was that side of it to understand, like, I still really need to float, you know! But the crew worked everything out and we did a test and I was stoked on the buoyancy; I was really surprised and that definitely made me feel a lot more comfortable.
What was going through your mind when you finally took off on a wave?
Oh man, this morning — go day — let's see. The first wave I went for, I lit up and someone said, "You're on fire!" I looked to the right and this flame just wraps around my head and it sunk in. I was like, "Oh my God, I'm on fire for real!" After that I just had to forget about it and surf, y'know? I took off and pulled in and got this nice barrel and as I kicked out I was wondering if I was still on fire. I jumped off the wave and the water was the perfect extinguisher; the ocean put me out straight away.
I caught the best wave of my life today. It was a dream wave, and I was on fire. It was the biggest adrenaline rush of my life.
As someone who's spent a lot of time getting tubed, how is it different when you're on fire?
The whole barrel lights up fluorescent orange! It's this really crazy feeling. Usually in the barrel everything slows down and you don’t hear anything, but the noise of a flame in the barrel is incredible. You can't really describe it. And I had this flame just wrapping around my head, which was pretty insane, something totally different than anything I’ve ever done before.
The fire itself is so hot that it burns through the wetsuit and stuff you’re wearing, while you’re in the wave. It’s a lot more intense than you think it would be. The flame lashed me a little bit and got like a quarter of my eyebrow, which I thought was pretty interesting. I thought it was just slap from the water then I realized that I actually got burned a little bit — a singe burn, they call it.
Was there ever a time where you felt it was too hot and you should dive in the water?
On my second wave, I pulled into the barrel and I'd been going for a while when I realized I was just a little too deep. I remember being engulfed in water, and there was still a full flame. They told me not to do a big breath before I wipe out, which is hard to do, and the wave just clamped down and put the fire out instantly. It was crazy.
Was it hard to focus on the actual act of surfing, while on fire?
I think the hardest thing is that you’re fighting the light. You don’t want to be there too early, you don’t want to be there too late. You gotta be on fire at the perfect time to get the glow. There's all the preparation to be lit up, there’s two jet skis out there putting their fire antics on me, and it’s just so dramatic. The right wave has to come in, and then you're getting on the wave and setting up. It is definitely something that I’ve never done, something I’d never really even imagined doing. When everything comes together with the preparation and getting lit on fire, finally pulling into the barrel on fire is something that you would only ever dream of growing up. And then you do it ... it was really cool!
What was your first thought after you did it?
It was weird, I jumped in the water and came up thinking I could possibly still be on fire. We did plenty of tests, but you never know because you’ve got adrenaline just pumping through the roof. Finally you pop out of the water and you’re not on fire anymore, and everyone on the boat, the whole team is just stoked and it keeps the vibe going.
Tell us about the team that was with you.
It's pretty cool, when it’s all said and done there are probably about 20 people out here in Tahiti, and they're all here for me. We’re working together so it’s a very humbling experience that all these people believe in me, and I believe in them to light me on fire. At the end of the day, it’s about the realest thing I’ve ever done. They’re trying to protect me and keep me from burning, because if that suit burns too long I could possibly have third-degree burns very easily, and I'm just trying to surf and repay their faith!
Amazing stuff, and congrats for pulling it off.
No worries, and thank you very much.