Ryan McDonald

Snapped at Jaws: Photographer Brent Broza captures a monster, and the award for shooting the largest wave ever paddled

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The award-winning photo of Aaron Gold's record-setting wave. Photo by Brent Broza

The award-winning photo of Aaron Gold’s record-setting wave. Photo by Brent Broza

by Ryan McDonald

In earlier times, a photographer wouldn’t know how good a shot was until making it to the darkroom. But on January 15, photographer Brent Broza knew right away he had something special. And not much later, so did his friends.

The Hermosa resident was perched on a rugged cliff face overlooking Jaws, a famed surf break on Maui’s North Shore. Massive waves unfurled for a crew of elite athletes testing their limits.

Amidst all of the churning water and surging adrenalin, some rides managed to stand out. Broza had his lens trained on the takeoff area for hours at a time, and would take hundreds of photos per session. But after capturing Hawaiian charger Aaron Gold, one frame in particular made Broza take his hands off his camera, and pick up his phone.

Aaron Gold, falling down a monster at Jaws. Photo by Brent Broza

Aaron Gold, falling down a monster at Jaws. Photo by Brent Broza

“It was crazy. I shot the sequence of the wave, then I took a photo of the back of my camera and texted it to a bunch of friends,” Broza said. “I had no idea how big it was, I just knew it was huge.”

Three months later, Broza would find out just how big the wave was. Last weekend at the World Surf League Big Wave Awards at the City National Grove of Anaheim, Gold’s wave won the 2016 Paddle Award, given to the surfer who paddles into the year’s biggest wave. When Gold’s name was announced, Broza became a winner too.

The recognition that something special had happened, however, wasn’t as instantaneous as it was when he captured Gold’s wave.

“When they said Aaron Gold, I thought, ‘That’s cool.’ There was this camera boom in front of me that was blocking me that was blocking my name on the screen,” Broza said. “But my nephew sitting next to me was like, ‘Dude you won!’ And then I heard all my friends from the South Bay in the back of the auditorium calling my name.”

Long Month’s Journey into Day

Aaron Gold, falling down a monster at Jaws. Photo by Brent Broza

Brent Broza at the cliff at Jaws.  

The instant in time captured in Broza’s photo was the result of a month’s worth of work, and lots of help from his friends — starting with a flight attendant. It all began New Year’s Day. Broza was sitting poolside at Terranea in Palos Verdes, recuperating from the previous night’s New Year’s Eve party. He was idly flipping through his phone when he came to the surf forecast for Jaws.  

“I think the swell was being measured at 43 feet or something ridiculous like that,” Broza said. “I happened to be sitting with some of my friends, one of them is a flight attendant. I said, ‘Hey, anyway you could hook me up with a buddy pass?’”

“I think the swell was being measured at 43 feet or something ridiculous like that,” Broza said. “I happened to be sitting with some of my friends, one of them is a flight attendant. I said, ‘Hey, anyway you could hook me up with a buddy pass?’”

Equipped with a one-way ticket to Maui, Broza packed up all of his photo gear and headed out the next day. He had planned only a short stay. But the North Pacific simply would not let up.

“I initially planned for 10 days, maybe two weeks,” Broza said. “But I would check the forecast and, oh, it’s supposed to be bigger next week. Jaws doesn’t break like that very often. To have that that, it would be silly for me to take off.”

His timing was impeccable. El Niño-fueled storms were producing massive waves that would break everywhere in the Eastern Pacific, from the deep-water reefs of Hawaii to the packed-sand beach breaks of the South Bay. And few places break harder than Jaws.

Hermosa Beach surfer Trevor Carlson earned his second-consecutive Surfline Overall Performance Award nomination for a winter of waves like this one at Jaws. Photo by Brent Broza

Hermosa Beach surfer Trevor Carlson earned his second-consecutive Surfline Overall Performance Award nomination for a winter of waves like this one at Jaws. Photo by Brent Broza

“Jaws for me is just an incredible place to shoot,” Broza said. “You could sit there all day and just be mesmerized by all the beauty that it has to offer.”

Situated on Maui’s North Shore, Peahi, or Jaws as it is commonly known, takes deep-water swells from the North Pacific and turns them into massive, barreling rights. Chargers from all over the world—including Hermosa’s Trevor Carlson, a nominee at the Big Wave Awards for the Surfline Overall Performance award—are drawn for the possibility of an epic ride and an award-winning photo. Stiff offshore winds comb the waves, and add to the challenge of steep, rapid drops.

The location offers difficulty in shooting as well. A narrow, one-lane road once used by the Maui Pineapple Company provides the only ingress and egress, and quickly becomes a traffic jam. Swimming around with water housing is out of the question with such dangerous surf, but some photographers will sit on a boat in the channel, or even in a helicopter. For those on land, the cliff face offers a great vantage point, but relatively little space for a photographer. Broza compared the experience to shooting the Descendents at the Standing Room last Wednesday, when he had to pick an ideal location and hold it in order to capture the magic unfolding.

“Getting a spot, a lot of it is making sure you’re there early. There’s only so much room,” Broza said. “You’ve got big lenses, big tripods, so you’ve got to get in there, get your stuff set up early, and hope that’s the right spot for you for the day.”

In order to get a spot, Broza would get up at 3:30 a.m. on days when Jaws would break, and would not return until after 8 p.m. In total, Broza estimated he took 6,000 photos of Jaws during his time there.

Broza, who used to live on Maui, said it was all made possible by the support network of friends he maintains over there. In addition to putting him up for the month, they would give him pre-dawn rides to the break, and come by mid-day with food and refreshments to keep him going.

“When I go back, I stay with old neighbors, and it’s a great time for me regardless of the waves,” he said. “It’s like the South Bay for me over there.”

The one

Aaron Gold and Brent Broza, celebrating their victories at the WSL Big Wave Awards last Saturday. Photo courtesy Brent Broza

Aaron Gold and Brent Broza, celebrating their victories at the WSL Big Wave Awards last Saturday. Photo courtesy Brent Broza

Broza was not the only one to find magic that day. For Gold’s wave, 15 photographers submitted sequences of up to eight shots, said Bill Sharp, event director for the WSL Big Wave Awards. Per contest rules, the surfer chooses up to five that best display the wave.

The limits can make for some tough decisions. John DeTemple, a local photographer who directs Red Bull’s popular web series “Who is JOB?” was in the lineup at Teahupoo in Tahiti in July, and got a shot of Keala Kennelly, who won the Barrel of the Year Award last weekend. DeTemple said he was “elbow to elbow” with photographer Tim McKenna and took a similar shot, but missed the final cut.

From there, a panel of experts looks at the wave and decides which one best represents the wave, Sharp said. This year’s nine-person panel included legendary surf photographer Jeff Divine, former Surfer editor Sam George, and famed big-wave rider Mike Parsons.

Broza was thrilled to be nominated, let alone to win. He submitted his photo, but wasn’t sure he was in the running until a few weeks before the ceremony.

“I was quite shocked when I got the nomination. I hadn’t seen my photo on the WSL Facebook page,” Broza said. “There were many other photos, but mine hadn’t surfaced. It was such an honor to be nominated in that class of photographers and the level of surfing going on out there.”

Broza was humble about the award, and hesitant to take too much credit. None of it would have happened, he said, without his friends in Hawaii and the South Bay, the athletes risking their lives in the water, or the organizing efforts of the WSL. But when pressed, he said that he was able to differentiate himself by revealing more of the scale of the wave.

“My photo was a bit more pulled out to get more perspective of surfers in the foreground, whereas others were shot a bit tighter,” Broza said. “Some people were on the water so they had a different view, too. Different angle, same wave.”

Gold had high praise for Broza’s photo, saying it demonstrated a surfer’s understanding of what the ocean is going to do.

“[Surf photography] is truly an art, very similar to riding the wave itself,” Gold said in an email. “There is a sort of forevision or anticipation of what is going to happen that has to all come together at a perfect intersection to share the true feel and movement of the moment.”

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