Exploring the World of Kai Lenny: Surfer, Innovator & Icon

Few figures in surfing are as versatile; even fewer have pushed the boundaries of what can be ridden, and fewer still have achieved the highest accolades across multiple watersports disciplines. There are some amazing watermen out there, from big wave chargers incredible to crazy fit paddle racers, skilled SUP riders, and incredible surf talent. However, no one has the prowess to match this now-legendary Hawaiin. The figure in question? Enter, Kai Lenny

This article dives into the life of the renowned big wave rider and waterman. We’ll dive into all aspects of Kai’s life, from where he grew up and his entry into surfing, how he learned so many different sports, his personal life, the many accolades he has collected, and how Kai’s life extends beyond surfing. The man has done a heck of a lot for someone only 30 years old, meaning we have a lot to get through, so let’s jump in! 

Who is Kai Lenny? 

Kai Lenny is a legendary Hawaiian surfer and waterman many call the best waterman to have ever walked the earth. Lenny competes at the top level and has won awards across multiple watersports disciplines, including surfing, big wave surfing, SUP’ing, kitesurfing, windsurfing, and paddle racing. Reaching the top level of just one of these sports is tough, and most dedicate their entire lives to do so. But competing at the highest level across multiple demanding watersports that’s unheard of. And winning in all of them? Well, that’s Kai Lenny. 

Kai Lenny was born to Californian parents on the island of Maui in October 1992. The sleepy Hawaiian island of Maui is incredibly wave-rich and has some of the world’s best surf and windsurf spots. His parents, originally from California, bought a property on the beach and were both avid windsurfers, so their move to the island was no coincidence. Young Kai was introduced to windsurfing at a ridiculously early age. It’s said he was introduced to windsurfing at the age of 4! He was also surfing at 6, supping at 7, and kite surfing at nine.

Kai’s Impact on Big Wave Surfing 

When it comes to big waves, only a handful of riders have impacted and revolutionized how big waves are ridden. Kai has been at the forefront of pushing the limits in waves of consequence, and legendary figures such as Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama are among those who paved the way and inspired young Kai to do what he does. 

Today, Kai shares big wave line-ups around the world with a high-profile roster of big wave names. Guys like Koa Rothman, Nate Florence, Jamie Mitchell, and Grant Baker are some of Kai’s sparring partners in massive ways. But while all these guys constantly push the limits of how big waves are ridden, none have taken the same approach as Kai. 

When you watch Kai surf big waves, and if you haven’t, I’d highly recommend checking out his YouTube channel; you can see the different lines he draws on large waves, trying to ride 30ft monstrosities as if it were a three-footer at your local beachie. It’s a bold and exciting way of riding big waves and an approach that sets Kai apart. 

Even so, when the biggest swells happen around the world, whether it be Jaws, Puerto Escondido, Nazare, or Teahupoo, Kai is consistently among the few pushing the limits of what’s rideable – taking incredibly critical lines and knifing under waves that were for years considered unsurfable. Before we check out some of Kai’s extensive list of accolades and achievements, let’s take a closer look at his early life. 

Is Kai Lenny the Best Big Wave Surfer? 

Asking if Kai Lenny is the best big-wave surfer in the world is a tough question. While Kai’s skill in crazy waves is unquestioned, many variables are involved in big-wave surfing (and surfing in general, for that matter) that make it almost impossible to determine the “best” rider. 

There is a roster of around 10-20 expert big wave surfers that could rival Kai in big wave surfing and whom Kai competed with as part of the WSL’s Big Wave World Tour. While the tour aims to provide a fair competitive platform for big-wave surfers, the unpredictable nature of these swells and the fact that they only run if a swell gets big enough make it hard to determine a true winner. 

Swells of this magnitude are also susceptible to long lulls, and if you’ve ever watched a big wave contest online, you’ll understand. Big wave contests often fail to live up to expectations and don’t give enough of a window for finding the right waves. A better way to determine the best big wave surfer would be to watch videos and see who’s riding the best, biggest, heaviest (and scariest) waves on swells at multiple locations. 

But contest or no contest, Kai is undoubtedly up there with the best big wave surfers in the world and has an extensive list of achievements to back it. 

surfing waves with shortboards, kai lenny masters all wave types

Kai’s Accolades & Achievements 

As you’d expect from such a high-profile and established waterman, Kai’s list of achievements is long–too many to name here. However, here are some of the most notable. 

  • 2022 2nd place big wave world tour 
  • 2020 1st place in Nazare tow challenge 
  • 2018 2nd big wave world tour 
  • 2016 1st SUP World Cup 
  • 2016 2nd ISA world surf championships 
  • 2015 2nd place Molokai to Oahu paddle race 

These are just a handful of Kai’s achievements, and the Hawaiian has won many more awards and accolades for his part in surfing and watersports. For a complete list of Kai’s accomplishments, check out his Red Bull athlete profile. 

Kai’s Personal Life 

Kai is currently married to Molly Payne, an interior designer from Maui who happens to be the sister of Dusty Payne, another high-profile surfer who has competed on the WSL Championship Tour and starred in cult surf films such as Lost Atlas. If you haven’t checked that out already, I’d suggest stopping what you’re doing and giving it a watch. 

Last year, Kai also became the father of two twin girls. (April 2022). Kai took to the waves and announced the gender of their expected children by riding a huge wave at Jaws (his favorite break) with a pink smoke flare. Pretty cool, huh? 

Kai Lenny’s Net Worth 

Surfing, particularly big wave surfing, is a tough nut to crack regarding sponsorship and endorsements, and even the top riders struggle financially. Because Lenny is one of the world’s most high-profile surfers and watersports athletes, he reaps the monetary rewards. Kai has earned himself some excellent sponsorships and endorsement deals over the years, including: 

  • Hurley 
  • Red Bull 
  • Tag Huer 
  • Nike 
  • GoPro 
  • Turtle Bay Resort  

These are the big names, with many more income streams making up Kai’s net worth. For example, Kai currently has over 125k youtube subscribers, and his videos regularly receive thousands of views–you can check out Kai’s channel here. 

Additionally, a large social media presence, prize money from contests, and award bonuses make Kai one of the best-paid surfers. According to Overall Networth, Kai’s net worth is estimated at $3 million. While this is by far the highest income of any big wave rider, it’s not as high as other top surfing talents such as Brazilian superstar Gabriel Medina and fellow Hawaiian and 2 x World Champion John Florence. 

While his earnings pale compared to other sports, Kai’s earnings are some of the healthiest in the sport! But while these numbers sound pretty comfortable for a surfer, Kai has his fair share of outgoings. Kai has to splash thousands of dollars each session to surf and ride extreme waves to the level he does. 

For a typical session at Jaws, Kai needs to spend $1000s for jetskis, water safety, filmers, photographers, boards, and equipment, not to mention plane tickets and other costs involved with last-minute swell chases! 

Beyond Surfing 

While surfing is perhaps Kai’s most notable pursuit, he is prominent among several watersports communities. His list of achievements in each doesn’t lie. Kai divides his time between riding big waves, windsurfing, kitesurfing, paddle racing, and supping. In a quote from the man himself, he states, “If it’s anything to do with the ocean, I’m down: words that beautifully sum up Kai’s approach to life on the water. 


Kai is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and legendary figures in surfing. A waterman who’s shown such prowess in so many conditions on various crafts that it’s genuinely hard to fathom. What the future holds for Kai remains to be seen, but I’m super excited to see how far he can push the level of big wave surfing. 

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