Meet Maui’s Matt Meola
Hawaii’s infamous aerial specialist Matt Meola has been soaring above the surf scene for a while, pushing surfing to its limits and championing progression within the sport. Aside from his day job as a professional surfer, Matt loves playing guitar, hiking in the mountains and going bow-hunting and spearfishing to put self-sourced food on the table. When he’s not launching and landing epic airs in the waves at home on Maui, Hawaii’s second largest island, he’s tackling gnarly mountainsides on a snowboard, searching for uncrowded waves around the globe and planning trips to surf and film with friends. We caught with the C-Skins team rider to find out about what it takes to be one of the world’s best aerialists, his recent experiences competing, and his plans for the coming year.
What does a typical day back home on Maui look like for you?
My days are completely based on the weather. If it looks like it’s going to be a good surf day then I wake up, grab a coffee, eat a small breakfast at home, play my guitar for a little bit and then I give a filmer/one of my buddies a call, and we meet down at the beach and go surf and film! I’m the kind of guy that likes to surf one really long session rather than multiple sessions in a day, so usually I’ll just surf once until I’m completely spent and then I’ll go home and plan on making dinner. Usually I have a lot of people over for dinner at my house.
When the waves aren’t good I’m really into fishing and bow hunting. If there’s no wind and it looks like a beautiful day to be on the water diving or spear fishing on the boat or jet-ski then I’ll be up at the crack of dawn. I’ll usually be out all day trying to catch fish for dinner. If it looks like it’ll be really windy that’s good for bow hunting. I’ll be up before the sun and out in the field trying to get some meat [axis deer are an introduced and invasive species on Maui]. I’m super into cooking so it’s really fun for me to catch my own food and prepare it in different ways, then have nice cook outs with all my buddies.
Airs, particularly progressive airs, carry a significant risk of injury, particularly to your knees and ankles. How do you train to minimise that risk?
Doing airs can actually be really dangerous. On New Year’s Day I hit a really big air section that I probably shouldn’t have. I just totally went for it and realised as I hit it that my timing was a little off and I had to bail and land it really hard on my ribs on the water. I think I may have cracked a rib or something. It’s still bothering me and I’m only now slowly getting back in the water.
It can be really gnarly on your knees and ankles too. I don’t do specific training really, I just stretch a little bit. I do tons of hiking in really steep terrain when I’m hunting so I think that’s really good and gives me strong legs. I get loads of exercise that way. I’m not really a gym guy. I'd rather get out in nature and do something along those lines.
A huge part of not getting hurt has to do with really knowing what your landings are going to be like, knowing when to bail out and knowing when it’s going to be makeable. It comes from experience. Once you know all that and understand how the wave is breaking, your positioning makes it a lot easier to not get hurt. But there are always those times when shit goes wrong!
Hawaiian surfers are most often associated with power surfing, barrels and bigger waves. Not that airs aren’t in almost every professional surfer’s repertoire, but how did you come to be an aerial specialist?
Growing up on Maui I got into doing airs because it’s so windy here. At a young age we realised the wind helps in doing airs. It was this little discovery we made! We were like, “Holy smokes, if you’re launching into the wind it helps the board stick to your feet," and on Maui, especially the side of the island that I live, it’s windy all the time. It’s not that great for doing turns because it’s so choppy, so we’re always trying to do big tricks off the big windy ramps. Also, when I was really young I was into skateboarding so every trick you did was in the air, so I carried that mentality into my surfing approach, so that’s kind of how I got into what I do.
Stab High was back in the ocean at Lakey Peak at the end of last year. For a contest like that, do you prefer the predictability of wave pools, or do the dynamic conditions of the ocean suit your approach?
Honestly I prefer to be surfing in the ocean but I just didn’t like the format they had. I think if you’re going to be surfing in the ocean and trying airs they shouldn’t be having heats. It should be more of a free surf format where we have however long to do the craziest air. I would prefer that. But they had a really strange format last year. I just didn’t like it at all. I think wave pools are awesome but at this point they are a little bit small. I feel like we’ve done all the craziest airs we can do in the pool, and until the pools get bigger it’s just not that exciting for me. I want that feeling of something I’ve never done before that’s just huge. On a wave that small in a pool it just doesn’t happen. When they do come with a giant section in a pool I think that’ll be really exciting and I think people will start doing things in the pool that have never been done in the ocean and it’ll be a really interesting time.
In that contest, surfers were required to focus on a particular type of air in each round. What are your thoughts and feelings on this format? Does it stifle creativity and lead to missed opportunities?
I feel like in my eyes Stab High is the contest that’s supposed to promote progression. It has all the best aerialists there to promote the sport but when you’re told what move you have to do and put under a time limit it just kills creativity. It makes it so people are just going to do what they can to get through the heat. If I get a crazy air section I’m not going to hold back just to make it though a heat, so that was the approach I took to the event. I was like, “Hey, maybe I’ll do the craziest air of the event, maybe I won’t, but at least I didn’t conform to this format.” I just want the sport to progress. That’s all I really care about. I think I did a great air but it wasn’t a straight air, so I didn’t get through the heat. I honestly think that was better for me and I think I got more recognition for doing that air and sticking to my guns than I would have for making the final.
You also surfed in the Pipe Masters. What was your approach to that wave?
I was really surprised at being invited to that as I really don’t put in any time out there. I think they just wanted someone like me in the event because of the new format and they thought it could be interesting. I was definitely really nervous for the event because I feel like there are so many guys who would have probably loved to be in it, who surf out there every day, and I’m a pretty random pick! I surf really heavy waves at home, that in my eyes are a lot scarier than Pipeline because of where they are, the rocks and the cliffs. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of the wave, I was afraid people were going to be mad I was invited.
I showed up hoping I was going to score a really great wave at Pipeline. I typically never go out there because of the crowd, but when they held the event the forecast was terrible. I was like, “Man, if I knew the waves were going to be like this I don’t know if I’d even have done it!” My first heat I didn’t even catch a wave until the end, and I just stood up just to stand up on a wave. But during the second heat I got this fun little barrel and I thought, maybe I could get another one and make it through the heat. Unfortunately that didn’t happen for me and it also wasn’t good for airs at all. The wind was weird and it wasn’t blowing well into the left. The conditions were really funky. I was hoping it was going to be 6-8ft pipeline with big ramps at the end of the waves, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was more like victory at sea and we were all hoping we could find a diamond in the rough.
Can you please talk us through your kit – your quiver of boards, fins and wetsuits for the various locations and conditions that you surf? What do you need, to do what you do?
I ride AJW surfboards. He’s a shaper originally from the East Coast but lives in San Diego, California right now. He’s a really good buddy of mine. Most of my boards are designed for doing airs here on Maui. They’re all in that 5’4” - 5’7” range, lots of wide tails, kind of trippy boards. Then I have a few bigger guns made for those occasional heavy days we surf. We focus a lot on air boards.
When I have certain trips planned we usually design a quiver for that place. If I was going to Fiji or Indonesia I’d have boards designed for better waves. Probably narrower and stuff like that.
Here on Maui, as far as wetsuits go, I basically live in the short leg long arm C-Skins spring suit. I wear it every single session. I’ll wear a top if it’s a really warm day, but the wind here is really chilly and since I like to surf long sessions I just love that short leg, long arm suit. It’s just insane.
When I go on trips, if I were in Mexico or Indonesia, I wear tops a lot more as the water is warmer and you don’t have that wind chill. I’m in talks with C-Skins at the moment about designing a floatation suit, like the long-armed spring with a little extra padding in it for those bigger days. With all the injuries lately I think it’s really important to have floatation in your suit on any day that there is risk involved. If you get knocked out you want to come to the surface as fast as possible for someone to pick you up. If you don’t have any floatation in there that’s the difference between life and death. I'm looking forward to the collaboration with the team at C-Skins.
What are your plans and focus for 2023?
Shoot, I’m already going hard! I’m leaving in a few days to go on a crazy snowboarding trip up in Baldface British Columbia. From there I go heli-snowboarding in Jackson Hole. Then I’m coming home and I believe I’m going on a bow hunting trip to Australia. When I get home from that my sponsors Salty Crew are flying to Maui and we’re doing a big photo trip from here. Then it’ll be summer, and I’m planning some trips to go surf and film. It’s been tough for me to find uncrowded, good waves, and it’s getting harder and harder. I keep picking people’s brains trying to figure out where I want to go. After that, around September, I’ll probably do an elk-hunting trip. I usually get random calls and trips pop up out of nowhere too, so I’m just waiting for that. Once winter comes it’s just all time here in Maui so there’s no point leaving because we have great waves in the back yard and I can just work from home.