Chuck Patterson is an action sports athlete, who loves the ocean, mountains and snow. Growing up in Tahoe, Chuck got into skiing and snowboarding at an early age. He’s also picked up surfing, windsurfing, kiteboarding and stand-up paddleboarding so he one of a handful of guys skiing down 60-foot waves.
He feels like a kid in the candy store chasing swells around the world. His friends are just shaking their heads when they see him skiing down Jaws and Mavericks. Oli Russell-Cowan speaks to Chuck about where the idea came from and how he got into it.
Oli Russell-Cowan: Hey guys, today on Rad Season I’m talking with action sports athlete, skier, snowboarder and big wave surfer, the legendary Chuck Patterson.
Chuck, thanks for coming on the show. You started skiing and snowboarding at an early age, got into windsurfing and surfing which opened the door to many more wind and watersports after that. How did the idea come about to start big wave skiing? There are only a handful of people out there who do it.
Chuck Patterson: So the idea stemmed from my skiing days. I had a really good friend of mine, Shane McConkey, who was a Red Bull athlete. He is phenomenal, one of the best skiers in the world that spent a lot of time in Lake Tahoe. I ended up skiing a lot with him. He had a very out of the box mindset as far as doing things that people thought were impossible. He took a pair of water skis, and went to Alaska to ski and film there. He skied an insane, super steep run in the Alaska mountain range and ripped it to shreds. He made the normal skis that we ride look ridiculous.
Everybody in the ski industry was blown away, because it really changed the thought process of the design. At that time, I was going back and forth to Maui chasing the waves and also chasing the snow. He said, Chuck, this is so up your alley, you should really try a pair of these water skis and try to ski a big wave because you do both, surfing and skiing. It’s totally doable. I always thought about that, but I never really pushed forward. He ignited my fire, excitement and curiosity to do so.
I got a pair of jumper water skis, and went out with some friends in Maui. I got towed into a couple big waves with a jet ski and the minute I let go of the rope and went down the wave, I’d go 200 yards in a straight line. It was really hard to turn, the skis were basically like flat boards. They were straight, there was no side cut.
I just didn’t really feel that that was what I had envisioned in my head. It wasn’t like when we’re skiing down a mountain doing turns. So I let the idea go.
About eight years later two friends of mine, Mike Douglas and Cody Townsend, who are freeskiers, went to Maui for a month and brought a bunch of different design water skis. They put all their time in testing the different skis and came out with this really cool video, skiing waves, doing turns and big airs. When I got the video I thought, Oh my gosh, that’s exactly what I had envisioned in my head. I got on the phone, I said, Dude, I need a pair of those skis, I want to take it to the next level. I’m really excited. Thank you so much for the inspiration. I got a pair of the skis and when the next big swell in California hit, I went with a bunch of my friends.
It was really big surf. We tow surfed on our regular surfboards for a couple hours and then I talked to my partner and said, Hey, I think this is a perfect opportunity to try these new skis. I put the ski boots on, buckled everything up and then put the skis on. Coming from a ski background, it made perfect sense to have ski poles because that allowed me to have my body movement feel more natural than having my hands out to the sides. We went out to the peak and there were a bunch of set waves coming. My buddies are going back and forth dropping on waves on their tow boards and suddenly they see me coming out on skis. They were shaking their heads. What is Chuck doing? This is mind-blowing. We want to see him crash because there’s no way this is going to work.
We get on this one wave, I get speed and let go of the rope. I instantly glide and do a giant GS turn like on a mountain. Then I angulate and do another turn. I stay in the pocket where the energy is and do a couple turns. Once I came to the inside, the wave exploded and broke behind me. It was like 20 feet of white water coming at the back of me. I thought I was going to get steamrolled so I leaned back on the tails. As the whitewater hit me, it shot me straight out. I came out in front and shot out to the channel and into the safety zone. I was just blown away by how well it worked.
I instantly grabbed the rope and I said, Let’s get some more. We ended up getting another 20 to 30 waves. It was exactly the way I had envisioned it but even better because I was going faster. I ended up getting a one-page photo on the back of Surfer magazine. That kind of exploded and a lot of people said, That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. Other people said, Wow, I can’t even believe that’s possible. A couple more years later I decided I really wanted to go to Maui and chase the big waves because for me going to Maui and going to Jaws with a pair of skis is like going to Alaska for skiing. We went there, we had a big film crew, we had a swell that came out of nowhere. It wasn’t really the best conditions but we decided this is the time to really make a mark. Let’s go. So we got there. It was a really crowded day, a lot of people trying to chase big waves. I went out and got a couple of waves on my tow board, just to feel it out. The wind came up and I was scared that the conditions were going to get worse. I hurried and grabbed my skis, put everything on and went back out to the lineup. And at that time, no one had seen it.
Russell-Cowan: Did the guys know? Did anyone in the lineup know that you were going to attempt this?
Patterson: No, they didn’t. Everybody was shocked and surprised. They thought, You’re not going to do that here. You’re going to get hurt. I was looking at it, I’ve already done it, I know what works. If I have a bigger wave, it’s going to work even better. I was still very nervous, the conditions got windy and it was really crowded. It took me half an hour to get a wave.
I had to make sure I chose the right wave. The skis have regular ski bindings, and I had regular ski boots. So once I have my foot in the binding, I can’t pop the skis off if I crash unless I slam my heels together but that’s not really easy to do when you’re underwater. It was a big risk.
We take off on this big set, the wave starts to grow and I get a lot of speed and I let go of the rope. I started to drop down this wave and I’m like, Oh, this is awesome. At that same time, there was a helicopter, Red Bull TV was shooting and suddenly the helicopter came down really close to me. The rotor wash basically drove down onto me and slowed me down to where I almost couldn’t make it into the wave. I freaked out and ended up leaning forward and I used my ski poles to get the momentum. When the wave was about to break, I ended up dropping off the top, into this wave and went for one of the bumpiest rides I’ve ever had. The people in the channel were screaming in disbelief that it worked.
The next day we came, there was nobody there. The surf was 20 to 30-foot faces and beautiful conditions. I ended up going out for three, four hours, taking off on every wave, doing big turns, and really found every element of how well it worked and honed my skills. It just exploded, social media really started to blossom. It just got to a whole new level with the videos and photos.
Russell-Cowan: What did you do after that? Did you park it until Mavericks?
Patterson: I always brought the skis with me. I tried it a couple of times, and it didn’t really work. And so as time went by, I found myself having a little break. I was chasing waves without the stress of bringing the skis and making a giant circus out of it.
This year with COVID going on, it was very hard to travel anywhere. I really wanted to push skiing and as luck would have it, our season started late. We started to get really good swell and I decided to go back and pursue my love for the ocean. I hooked up with one of my good old partners, and we chased a bunch of waves. We went up to the central coast, and we chased a wave that I love surfing, and I brought the skis out. And the skis worked insane. I was just like a little kid in a candy store. I was all excited. A new swell hit the radar and a bunch of my friends that were photographers were saying, this could be one of the biggest swells in 10 / 15 years. It didn’t really register to hit Maui so I was doubting it. I thought it was a lot of hype. The days went by, it grew more and more evident that this was going to be a giant swell. The intervals were 25 / 26 seconds. It was huge.
I thought it would be great to go to Mavericks and bring my skis. When the swell gets too big for the paddlers to paddle then I hope to grab a wave on the skis. When we got there, the swell was bombing. The conditions were beautiful. There was a little fog in the morning and there was everybody at Mavericks. It was the most crowded I’ve seen Mavericks in a long time. We got out there mid-morning. I had my skis in a bag. My plan was to chase the big waves. When we were in the channel I saw all my friends. It was a giant reunion with Peter Mel, Kai Lenny, Lucas ‘Chumbo’ and Twiggy and all these great athletes that I used to travel with. It was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time to reignite my fire and love for big wave surfing.
We watched the swell getting bigger. Every hour there’d be a giant set coming through and it would wash all the surfers out and no one would get any waves. The surfers would move 100 yards away. In the meantime, we’d watch these waves come through unridden and they’re like 40 / 50 foot perfect barrels, giant round tubes going unridden. We were flipping out. We needed to be towing but there was such a huge group. And for me not being Mavs local, I’ve been gone for a long time, I waited for Peter Mel or a couple of locals to make the switch before I was going to go. Peter gets this giant wave and suddenly, it’s game on. When we pulled up there I saw Jeff Clark from Mavericks, and Kai and Lucas, and those guys waiting already for the sets. And so Kai looks over and looks at me going Oh, yeah, Chuck, this is gonna be good. He has seen it, he knew what I was up to. There was no attitude. It was just like, Dude, we’re so stoked. There are big waves, let’s just get it and everybody got a good ride.
A giant set came. At that time I told my driver, let’s just wait, let those guys get their waves. If there’s another wave, let’s go for it. Two waves went by and there was no one around us. I said, Let’s go for it, this is our wave. He rode into it, I let go and had a bunch of speed. I was way outside of the pack of surfers. The waves don’t really break there, they kind of crest and so I took off, I’m doing a turn, bottom turning and it’s getting really steep. And then suddenly it goes over a section that’s of deep water and it flattens out a little bit. I’ve got just enough speed but I’m leaning forward and I’m trying to go into tuck and get going with my ski poles and I make it to the edge and then suddenly the wave hits the inside. It doubles up and gets big. That’s when I got my big drop. I dropped down and I could see and hear the yelling and screaming for all the surfers that were in the lineup. I was super excited, all this adrenaline and I drop in on the way, I do this bottom turn and then I come up and I hit the wall kind of just skiing and just do this arcane GS turn and come back and then the wave kind of fades out. I come out to the channel and everybody’s just going off screaming and I’m excited that it worked.
We got out of the water and made our way back home and as the swell started dying and then social media just erupted. It was crazy because it seemed like it exploded more because it was at Mavericks versus at Jaws. I don’t know why, it was just one wave. The media just ran with it. It was really cool.
Russell-Cowan: Awesome. Chuck, it’s been inspiring listening to all your stories, how the journey has been going. We’re definitely keeping an eye out on the future and what projects you have coming up. I’d be stoked to see you over at Nazare if you can get over here to Portugal. That’d be awesome.
Patterson: Yeah, no, thank you so much for the opportunity. I’m very excited, always great to share my story and great to talk with you and I will definitely keep you posted because I think Portugal is very beautiful. You guys are very lucky and I definitely want to come visit and I’m hoping I’m going to set my sights for this winter if I can put it together with the right athletes and get it going. That’s going to be my one bucket listing for this next winter.
Russell-Cowan: Awesome. Thanks. Thanks a lot.