No matter how you look at it, Laird Hamilton has done more for surfing than most – his innovations on varying types of crafts have moved the sport to a place where it wasn’t before he was doing it.
He speaks with a confidence touched by a bit of arrogance, which I assume is necessary when doing the things he’s done. A bit of arrogance goes a long way in situations where death is a real possibility. The ability to convince yourself that you are able to do something that most would consider impossible simply has to come from a place painted with a slightly arrogant brush.
He’s led an interesting life, to say the least, and it started off interesting. Born in San Francisco, his mother participated in an experiment at the University of San Francisco. She used a salt-water experimental device to make labor easier on mothers. “It was called a bathysphere,” he told me. “It’s not what you think. It wasn’t underwater – it was a vacuum that they put on my mom’s stomach through the last trimester to create room for the fetus to move.” I found it fascinating how his life began, considering how it turned out. But he’s hesitant to give the bathysphere too much credit. “That system obviously had some effect on me, but I’m also a Pisces and I was raised around the ocean, so I think that there were multiple contributing factors that have made me how I am.”
After a move to Oahu when he was young, Bill Hamilton, the Californian-turned-Hawaiian, took over as Laird’s father figure after a meeting at the beach. Bill and Laird’s mother soon married, and in a testament to the power of parenting over genetics, he passed along his affinity for surfing giant waves to the young Laird. It wasn’t an easy childhood for Laird, though. Hawaii’s paradise was a little different back in the ‘60s, and as a big, blonde foreigner on the islands, he took his fair share of Hawaiian hate. “There was a certain amount of racism, at least when I was young,” he remembered. Growing up in Hawaii, Laird believes racism is just something that’s inherently there. “It’s an underlying thing. You resemble Captain Cook, the guy that messed up the place, I guess. There was some resentment.” Interestingly, most of the bullying wasn’t from Hawaiians, but from a different group. “A lot of the racism was really not from Hawaiians, but more from the migrant workers that were brought over by the plantation owners,” he said. Laird thinks that the racism he encountered will always be present in Hawaii, at least to some extent. “Being a white guy in Hawaii when I was growing up had a similar flavor to being a black guy in the south… it’s ever-present. It will always be present.”
But he never let any adversity stop him from doing what he wanted to do. From his early years, he was pushing boundaries that weren’t even boundaries yet. In fact, his innovations into tow surfing started when he was just out of his teens, when he and Buzzy Kerbox were messing around in boats. “I was in my early twenties,” he told me as his cell service cut in and out while he drove through Kauai’s valleys. “We started in the summer time with the zodiacs. I used to work with them, and Buzzy Kerbox had them too, so we were both pretty proficient at driving them. We had the revelation one day when there were little waves, and we got whipped into them, and that’s how we realized it could be implemented in bigger waves.” Soon after, they put their theory to the test. “We tried it that winter and, obviously, it was highly effective. But the boat was pretty cumbersome, so when the skis came along, it made it much more possible.”
As with any new thing, there will always be people who doubt it, but in Laird’s opinion, those people are the same ones that aren’t willing to try anything new. Even with the incredible footage of waves that were much larger than anything ridden before, there were still some that scorned his approach – but not that many. “I think that the proof was in the pudding,” he remembered about those early days at the loose end of the tow rope. “At the end of the day, with the waves we were riding and how we were riding them, there was enough of a case to kind of, you know, keep the nay-sayers quiet.”
His approach to the ocean is that there is much more than just one way to ride a wave. “People would always say ‘that’s not real surfing’ and this and that,” he says about those who view tow-surfing as a lower form of the sport, “but those are the same people that are narrow-minded and never get on a different board from the one board that they ride.”
Although the direction that big wave surfing has recently taken has been away from towing, there is, and always will be, a line where paddling is just not possible – and that’s where a large part of Hamilton’s interests lie. “You know, when you go to Tahiti, the line between what’s paddle-able and what’s not is very defined,” he told me about the backless monster that is Teahupo’o. “It’s more defined that anywhere else in the world. It simply becomes un-paddle-able very quickly – it’s amazing how clear that line is.”
He’s quick to defend his contributions to the sport. His accomplishments in Tahiti especially – and the Millennium Wave in particular – changed how the world looked at surfing. He has sculpted the entire structure of surfing in a way that no one else has done. “I think in other situations, people maybe pretend that you can paddle in instead of tow, and that tow-ins aren’t a legitimate aspect of big wave riding, but you know, the bottom line is that in some ways, it’s actually the most legitimate aspect of big wave riding,” he said. “It’s the only way that you can really deal with enormous waves.” The only way to ride waves the size that Laird wants to ride is by towing into them. “Obviously, in prone paddling, you can work on that barrier – how big can you go – but there is still a line where it becomes… it’s just not practical. You can’t paddle into waves when they become a certain size.”
Hamilton’s interests lie in pushing his own personal boundaries, but it’s not something that he consciously goes out to do. “I mean, that’s just part of my make-up. It’s not really a conscious thing; it’s more about what interests me and where I end up. I wouldn’t say it’s so calculated that I’m out there trying to make a point. It’s more the result of pursuing the things that I like.” Surrounding himself with like-minded people has been a huge help in the things he’s done. In doing things that have never been done before, there is no way to gauge what’s actually possible, save for your own perceived limitations. “In what I’ve been involved with, a lot of the stuff that my friends and I are doing hasn’t been done before. We’re never using the other people as a gauge. We’re using our own interests and desires.”
Those interests and desires have been the building blocks for a successful career in a niche sport that many are interested in, but few are capable of. And the only way for that to happen, according to Hamilton, is for it to come from a place that’s purely for yourself. “It’s more of a genuine thing. I always say ‘if your intentions are right, everything else will take care of itself.’ Our intentions are genuine… I mean, we have to make a living, but we would do this if no one was watching.”
He’s been very outspoken about those whose intentions he beliefs aren’t genuine. The most notable situation, of course, was Maya Gabiera’s near drowning at Nazaré. In an interview on CNN, he called out Maya’s skills, saying that she shouldn’t have been where she was. Many in the surf world labeled it as sexism, but Laird says it was a simple misunderstanding – that it had nothing to do with her sex, but with her talent and her reason for putting herself in such incredibly risky situations. “I think whatever I said, I’d say again,” he remembered about the debacle. “I think people misinterpreted what I said. People obviously don’t know me if they think I was talking about women. I have a lot of respect for women. My wife is a professional athlete, and if Maya had the skill and the experience to be out there in that situation and not be a liability to herself or to someone else, then I would have nothing to say.” Which makes sense, to me, at least.
Although, I do disagree with a few sentiments in the CNN interview, namely placing the lion’s share of the blame on Carlos Burle in particular. “I feel like it’s Carlos’ responsibility to take care of her,” he said in the interview. “He’s just lucky that she didn’t drown.” My reaction to this is that Maya is lucky she didn’t drown, not Carlos. Either way, experience in places like Nazaré is nearly paramount – but the only way to get that experience is to try it. Laird’s issue is that she simply didn’t have the experience, and she was putting herself and others at risk just by being out there. “I think that if she could get the experience and the skills to not be a liability in the lineup, then I would, by all means, be supportive. But at this point, I’ve yet to see something that changes my mind.” He’s not apologetic about his comments. He said what he believed, and he stands by it. “I learned a long time ago that you can’t please everyone. As long as I try and tell the truth, as best as I know it, then I don’t have to look over my shoulder.”
In the end, Laird is just a man that loves to surf. He loves the ocean and has managed to build a successful career out of doing things he’d be doing whether or not he was getting paid to do them. Innovation has been one of the cornerstones of his success, and when an outspoken person is put in the public eye, there will be those that disagree with his sentiments. But he’s not fazed by it. He just wants to keep on doing what he’s doing: pushing his own limits, trying new things, and having as much fun as he can. “When you’ve been surfing for 45 years, and you can do something that you’ve never done,” he says, “I think that’s a pretty great thing.”