Iron-willed big-wave rider from Sunset Beach, Hawaii; winner of the 1982 Duke Kahanamoku Classic; often credited as the first surfer to ride a 40-foot wave. Bradshaw was born (1952) in Houston, Texas, the son of powerful steel industrialist. An All-City linebacker in junior high school, Bradshaw nonetheless had thought of himself as a surfer since riding his first wave at age 14 at Surfside Beach on the Texas Gulf Coast. He immersed himself in the sport after moving to California in 1969; three years later he landed on Oahu's North Shore, a raw but game big-wave hopeful, and in 1974 he rode his first 20-footer at Waimea Bay.
Because Waimea breaks just a few times each season, Bradshaw generally rode Sunset Beach, the North Shore's most dependable big-wave break. By the late '70s the bearded and slightly manic Bradshaw was patrolling the Sunset lineup like a hair-trigger sheriff; anyone who interfered with his rides was ordered to leave the water, or told to dismount so that the six-foot, 185-pound Texan could disable the surfer's board by smashing off a fin with the heel of his hand.
Bradshaw worked as a surfboard shaper—creating the Bradshaw Hawaii label in 1978, after working two years for Lightning Bolt Surfboards—but spent uncountable hours in the water in all conditions, and throughout the mid- and late '70s, his surfing improved dramatically. He rode in a taut crouch, and was slighted by big-wave peers as a rider of average technical ability ("He's a little off in his timing sometimes," Darrick Doerner noted; "He doesn't really connect his moves too well," Mark Foo said), but by the turn of the decade he was in fact a fully accomplished North Shore surfer, and at Sunset Beach he rode with knowledge, precision, and power. He finished second in the 1982 Pro Class Trials, first in the 1982 Duke (beating world tour stalwarts Peter Townend and Dane Kealoha in the finals), and third in the 1983 Duke.
Bradshaw rode yellow and orange surfboards covered in sponsors' stickers, and was a leading figure in the 1983-launched big-wave surfing revival in part because he brought brightly packaged professionalism to a surfing specialty that for years had been regarded as a nonmarketable backwater. Darrick Doerner, Roger Erickson, and a few others were equal or superior to Bradshaw in giant surf, but nobody trained harder (vegetarian diet, no alcohol or drugs, running, swimming, and weight training), surfed more often, or was more accessible to the media.
A rivalry was born in 1985 when Bradshaw was joined in the Waimea lineup by Mark Foo, a younger, even brasher big-wave ace; their feud was the subject of "The Divided Rulers of Waimea Bay," a 1988 Outside magazine feature story. The two surfers eventually became friends, and flew to San Francisco together in late 1994 to ride Maverick's. Near midday, both paddled for a 15-foot wave; Bradshaw missed it, Foo wiped out, went over the falls, and drowned. Stealing the Wave: The Epic Struggle Between Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo, a 256-page chronicle of their legendary rivalry, was published in 2007.
Tow-surfing reconfigured the big-wave game in the early '90s, and after resisting the change for a year or two, Bradshaw then threw himself enthusiastically into this new mechanized version of the sport. Regarded as well past his big-wave prime, the 45-year-old Bradshaw surprised everyone on January 28, 1998, when he was towed into a wave at Outside Log Cabins on the North Shore estimated to be between 40 and 45 feet (or about 70 feet from trough to crest), bigger than any wave ridden to that point, and unmatched until 2001. Bradshaw fell into an existential depression after his giant wave, wondering out loud, "How can I ever get that high again?"
Changing gears, he became an adviser/coach for his Australian girlfriend Layne Beachley (the couple split in 2002), and helped her to win the first of seven consecutive pro world championships in 1998. Yet Bradshaw seemed to struggle with life as a middle-aged big-wave hero, ever-cognizant of the sacrifices he'd made in the name of wave riding. "It's sad, the opportunities I've missed because I'm so obsessivly addicted to surfing," he told the Surfer's Journal in 2001. "I see myself as dysfunctional, I really do. Maybe you can admire me for enjoying my life. But don't be me. I don't have what most human beings want."
Bradshaw has been featured in more than 20 surf movies and videos, including Adventures in Paradise (1982), Journey to the Impact Zone (1987), and The Moment (1998), the IMAX film Extreme (1999), and Biggest Wednesday (2000). He placed third in the 1986 Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau big-wave event at Waimea; along with tow-in partner Dan Moore, Bradshaw competed in the 2002 Tow-In World Cup, the first tow-in contest held in Maui.
"The Nation of Ken," a 35-page Surfer's Journal profile, was published in 2001, in which writer Bruce Jenkins described Bradshaw as "the most driven individual the sport has ever known." In 2011, Vanity Fair magazine published a full-length profile on Bradshaw called "The Wave Maker." As of 2013, he was running the Ken Bradshaw Surf School on the North Shore.