Robbie Maddison and the Tahiti wave he surfed
Like most of his visions, this one materialized slowly, in flashes and over years, seeping piece by piece into his consciousness until a handful of fragmented thoughts formed a full-color image. It's possible, he thought, to surf the world's heaviest wave on a dirt bike.
This is the way Robbie Maddison's mind works. He can't explain exactly why he is drawn to attempt feats -- call them stunts, if you must -- that no one before has thought to try. He just knows that once an idea smacks him square in the frontal lobe, it grips hold of his attention and he is unable to let it go. No matter how crazy it might sound to everyone else and no matter how many people tell him it can't be done, he won't stop trying until he proves it to be possible or exhausts all possible options in the attempt.
This one, though, twisted and tested him in ways he had never been tested before. Because the toughest challenge of this project wasn't tinkering and testing or achieving incremental breakthroughs and overcoming setbacks; it was convincing everyone else to believe, too.
"When I spoke about my idea, I spoke with full confidence," Maddison says. "I'm a sincere, calculated person. When I say I'm going to do something, I have always followed through. It was like people forgot. I felt like people were laughing at me behind my back. Even people close to me, friends, people who helped me in the beginning, thought I had lost my mind."
The idea for the water bike didn't hit him overnight. In the mid-90s, he remembers watching freestyler Brian Manley skim ponds in "Crusty Demons of Dirt" videos and dreaming of riding his own bike long distances on water. Born in New South Wales, Australia, Maddison is an avid surfer and has always lived close to the ocean. A few years ago, he was back in Oz with his wife, Amy, and their two sons for Christmas, and he found himself spending a lot of time on his brother's wakeboard boat.
Robbie Maddison surfs wave on dirt bike
Years in the making, famed motocross pro Robbie Maddison is set to release video surrounding his latest project: the water bike. "I've always been fascinated by the way water moves around boats and the way wake boarding happens. I'd seen quad bikes move over water, and I knew with the right speed and the right skis on the bike, water has enough surface tension that I should be able to ride on water. And if I could ride, then I should be able to catch a wave." Welcome to the mind of Robbie Maddison.
"My mind started wandering," he says. "I've always been fascinated by the way water moves around boats and the way wakeboarding happens. I'd seen quad bikes move over water, and I knew with the right speed and the right skis on the bike, water has enough surface tension that I should be able to ride on water. And if I could ride, then I should be able to catch a wave."
As with any of his grand ideas -- jumping his bike to the top of a replica of the Arch de Triumph in Vegas, over the Corinth Canal in Greece or across London's Tower Bridge -- Maddison knew his idea wouldn't happen in a vacuum. He needed help.
He started by drawing sketches of prototypes for the skis to mount to his bike and then called Bill King, a former rocket scientist who had engineered the RadiX snow conversion kit for motorcycles. "He flew to my house, looked at my design and said, 'This will work,'" Maddison says. "Then he took the drawings home to Boise and I flew up to join him a few weeks later."
Within a few months, the duo had a pair of skis ready to test. Picture two skateboards with holes cut in the center to allow the wheels to rotate on the ground. The front ski is narrower than the back and together, they provide surface area underneath the entire bike.
"We tried so many different skis," Maddison says. "Some went faster, some turned better. We didn't have a water tank and a laboratory; it was just the two of us riding and testing and tinkering."
On the second day of testing on a lake in Idaho, Maddison hit fourth gear and rode the bike a half-mile. "It was the best feeling I'd ever had," he says. Although his eventual goal was to catch a wave at Tahiti's famed Teahupo'o surf break, known as the heaviest wave in the world, Maddison first wanted to prove he could skim the bike across the San Francisco Bay, which is three miles across at its narrowest point and 12 miles at its widest.
Feeling confident, he and King traveled to Modesto, California, to begin training for the crossing. At one point, he successfully rode his four-stroke Honda 3.5 miles on water. But each time he sunk the bike, it took days to get it running again. "The four-stroke is such a complicated engine, so I went back to a two-stroke and switched to a KTM 300," Maddison says. "But the skis wouldn't work."
For days, he and King tried to replicate with the KTM what they'd been able to accomplish on the Honda. Eventually, admitting defeat, Maddison headed home to southern California. The San Francisco Bay crossing wasn't meant to be. "It was the craziest thing," he says. "I couldn't wrap my head around what was going wrong. I left Modesto brokenhearted. I'd been off the map for more than a year, unable to tell anyone what I was doing. I felt like I was losing my career. I think a lot of people were thinking Robbie Maddison is having a hard time facing retirement."
Despite his frustration, Maddison says that word never crossed his mind. But there were days when he did think about giving up on this idea. He walked away from the project multiple times. But he always found his way back. "This project has taken me to my breaking point," Maddison says. "It tested every atom of who I am as an athlete to make it through this."
Back in SoCal, he began searching for a new place to practice. But each call was met with the same unfortunate answer. Then the city of Lake Elsinore threw him a lifeline. Provided he could prove he'd sealed the bike well enough and wouldn't contaminate the lake, he could use their waters any time. "Without the city of Lake Elsinore, this project wouldn't have happened," Maddison says. "And so many people there saw me testing and kept my secret. No one posted a single photo to social media." It was in Lake Elsinore's mile-long inlet where he discovered why he had been unable to replicate the success he'd had with the Honda. "The Honda and KTM had different centers of gravity, so it was important where the skis sat on the bike," Maddison says. "It seems so obvious now. But once we moved them, it worked. I rode 7.5 miles in one run on that KTM."
Although Maddison says he never quite got the bike to maneuver on water the way he envisioned it would, after eight more months of testing and no forward momentum, he decided it was time to test his vision. Over the past year, he'd started Robbie Maddison Entertainment so he could oversee the filming and production of the project once he was in Tahiti and in that time, one of his sponsors, DC Shoes, had come on board to provide funding and support. "[DC VP of Marketing] Jeff Taylor had full confidence and belief in me and that meant a lot," Maddison says. "I wanted to prove to everyone that this really was possible."
On April 17, Maddison and his family boarded a flight from Los Angeles to Tahiti and the final phase of his project began.
"In the lead-up to Tahiti, I'd been away from my family for eight weeks. By the time we left for Tahiti, we were back together and traveled as a crew," Maddison says. "Amy is my backbone. In our family, we try to stay really present and not think of the what-ifs. That's what we did that day."
Once in Tahiti, Maddison spent a few days tow-in surfing at Teahupo'o with his friend, legendary local surfer Raimana Van Bastolaer, and skateboarder Mikey Taylor. Maddison studied the wave and another nearby break, Papara, and even surfed a wave at Papara in full riding gear and a helmet to get an idea of how well he would float if and when he was hit by a wave.
At a nearby lagoon, he tested speeds and learned how the bike would perform in salt water. "Most people thought the bike would perform better in warm, salty water because it's buoyant," Maddison says. "But warm saltwater is less dense than cold freshwater and the density is what's important. The tires didn't have as much grip in salt water and the paddles [on the back tire] didn't have as much drive. Instead of topping out at 58 mph, I could only go 35. Fortunately, we figured out the wave is only moving at 13 mph."
On April 27, 10 days into the trip, Maddison and his crew decided conditions were right to make their first attempt at riding Teahupo'o. To catch the wave, Maddison would be positioned with his bike on a boat with a 70-foot ramp that reached into the water at much the same place a surfer would sit in the lineup. He practiced timing his launch and then, once Raimana helped him select the best wave, Maddison planned to ride off the barge and across its face. "Then I would try to keep the right speed so the curl of the wave was behind me," Maddison says. "Once the photographers got the shot, I would ride off the wave and up the ramp onto the catch boat."
On his first attempt, he fell quickly. "I had the wrong idea of how I would ride the wave," Maddison says. "I thought I would come across in front of it, but the front of the wave is like a treadmill and sucks a lot of water up. It slowed me down and I sunk the bike. I realized I was wrong; my idea wasn't going to work. I wondered if I'd dragged all these people halfway across the planet for nothing."
That night, as he contemplated packing up and heading home, Maddison reviewed the footage from that day. "I realized the water was taking a different line than I thought," he says. "If I rode the face of the wave, it would work. I went out the next day with fresh energy."
But on the first wave of Day 2, "I got too far in front of the wave and it hit me," he says. "I got rolled across the reef and the bike rolled into the inner den. We lost it for a half hour. The skis were broken and we spent a day rebuilding the bike. Morale was really low. That night, I called up the team and said, 'Tomorrow at 6 a.m., be ready to go.' At that point, everyone was like, 'This guy is wiling to die for this.'"
The next day, the next wave, his new plan worked. "I rode across the wave and it went so smooth," Maddison says. "But when I put my hand up to claim the ride, the water got bumpy and I missed the ramp and took the side of the catch barge to the face. I sunk the bike and we spent the rest of the day rebuilding it again."
Still reeling from his successful first ride, Maddison regrouped and rode a few more waves that day. But everyone in the crew agreed -- the size simply wasn't there. They got their shot, but it wasn't the shot they had hoped for. "That night, we got the surf report that the swell was going to come up on Sunday," Maddison says. "Most of the crew left the next day, but a skeleton crew stayed behind."
Over the next three days, the swell continued to build and surfers from around the world began flying into Tahiti. "Saturday night, I went to bed praying there was no swell," Maddison says. "I was terrified. I had a sickening feeling this might be the one event that kills me."
He awoke to news that Teahupo'o would see 20-plus-foot waves by mid-day. And the lineup was as heavy as the wave. So his crew made the decision to move to Papara, an equally massive break not far from Teahupo'o. "I didn't have the same knowledge of that break and Raimana was on the jet ski instead of on the boat with me helping to choose a wave," Maddison says. "Without him, I chose the wrong wave. I went to Tahiti hoping I would never fall off the bike and have a wave that big hit me. But that last wave I caught, after I fell, I thought, 'this is the last few seconds I am going to be alive.'"
Maddison had selected a wave locals call a 'west bomb', a hooking monster that closes out the entire bay. By the time he realized what he'd done, it was too late to turn back. So he held on to the bike and waited for the wave to swallow him.
"It was the most violent ride of my life," Maddison says. "My goggles were ripped from their strap and the fenders and levers tore off my motorcycle as it was dragged across the reef. When the first wave picked me up, it hit me in the back and knocked the wind out of me. Right then, I gave up. Everything went white and peaceful ... and then I popped up. I had a split second to take a deep breath and then I took another wave straight in the face and tumbled across the reef. I took four of those before, somehow, I popped up and the jet ski found me."
Safely on the beach, Maddison hugged his wife. He apologized to his friends for worrying them. And he decided that would be the last wave of the trip.
"Before Tahiti, I did breathing training and was up to holding my breath for two-and-a-half minutes," Maddison says. "Since I've been home, I'm up to three-and-a-half, but my goal is for over six. I want to go back."
That's right. After everything he'd been through in the past two years, and three months before he was able to tell anyone what he'd done, Maddison was already thinking about his next feat, one he says will require him to be as fit a marathon runner, as strong as a power lifter and as good a rider as he's ever been on a dirt bike.
"This experience solidifies to me to believe in myself and have confidence that if an idea makes sense for me and my passion, then I should follow it, " Maddison says. "Some people have that built into them from birth, but I learned it over the past two years." He also hopes the people around him have learned from this experience, too. An idea is only crazy until someone does it.