By Emily Wheeler
Interview by Mark Paaluhi
Within the subject matter of surfing, Laird Hamilton is a name that has crossed the lips of many an athlete and admirer. The juxtaposition of being a daredevil who possesses an unassuming nature, has made Laird Hamilton possibly the most respected person in the realm of surfing and water sport. Hamilton views surfing as a true art form. His passion for life and the ocean has brought the world legendary examples of what it means to live life to the fullest.
Born in San Francisco, and raised on the Hawaiian Islands, Hamilton grew up tough and brave. He reportedly was filmed jumping a 60-foot cliff into deep waters at the precocious age of 7. A talented surfer from the beginning, Hamilton mostly forwent surf competitions, surfing for the love of the sport rather than for the recognition that competition can bring. Historically, Hamilton has always been about the passion of surfing, and the experimentation of new techniques.
A true innovator, Hamilton was one of the first of a small group of people dubbed the “Strapped Crew.” This group of daredevils would strap their feet to a board in order to gain the ability to complete bigger wave stunts. The “Strapped Crew,” also experimented with the combination of boards and paragliders used in tandem, thus developing the first ever kite boards.
Maybe the most experimentally challenging feat ever performed, and then practiced continually by Hamilton, is his invention of tow-in surfing. This is the thrilling act of being towed on your board into huge waves in the open-ocean. These humongous swells would be too large and powerful to paddle into traditionally. Hamilton’s pioneering of this spectacular type of surfing was covered in the famous documentary Riding Giants.
In 1999, Laird Hamilton sailed his windsurfer the 50- mile stretch between the islands of Oahu and Kauai. He performed this in six hours, being the first ever to do so. In 2000 Hamilton graced the cover of Surfer Magazine with a picture of his famous ride at Tahiti’s Teahupo’o break. This wave has been cited and claimed as the heaviest wave ever ridden. Hamilton has also experimented extensively with “foiling.” This is a fascinating technique that uses a rudder-like projection from the bottom of a board into the water. This extension is called a hydrofoil. It works by raising the board above the water to create a smoother, faster ride, eliminating the resistance of rough or choppy conditions. Foiling is little-known, and intriguing technique that has been experimented with, and perfected by Hamilton.
Laird Hamilton is a creative, open-minded entrepreneur. He has been given the knick-name of “The Innovator.” Not only does he currently and consistently ride 30-70 foot waves at 30 to 50 miles per hour, he also has a passion for stand up paddle boarding. Some purist surfers look down on the practice of stand up paddle boarding, but Hamilton sees it as a return to the traditional Hawaiian way of surfing. This type of surfing is performed with a thicker, wider board, and a hand- held paddle.
There is evidence of King Kamehameha and his queen Ka’ahumanu having practiced this type of stand up paddle boarding in Hawaii 300 years ago. Laird Hamilton has put his name on a premium line of stand up paddle boards, which are available at lairdhamilton.com. Also available on Hamilton’s website are books which he has authored, nutritional shakes and supplements, and other Laird Hamilton gear.
Laird Hamilton is unanimously thought of as the best big wave surfer of all time, yet he is admirably humble. Hamilton is a philosophical, music-loving waterman, making him a romantic soul surfer as well as a fearless pioneer. Laird Hamilton can truly be thought of as the number-one ambassador of surfing and water sports.
Mark Paaluhi: What is life like for you at the moment?
Laird Hamilton: I feel like its never been more interesting. I have an incredible family, and like all families one that is growing and changing weekly. I am excited by some of the projects going on right now, from foil surfing, stand up paddle business and the evolution of the equipment, the prospect of the GolfBoard having a new influence on golf and trying to keep working hard to evolve as a person and athlete.
M: What is your main focus?
L: My main focus physically is to try and be in better more balanced shape. As a surfer to evolve as a rider, and my focal point is foil surfing, and the progression of foil surfing. When it comes to stand up surfing I want to keep working with the refinement of the equipment.
M: What are your goals for the year?
L: Same as every year, which is to be able to capitalize on weather conditions when Mother Nature allows. My New Year’s resolution every year is to try and laugh more and have more fun. It goes without saying that my family and their well being are a priority.
M: Tell us from a true waterman’s perspective about paddle boarding
L: I feel like stand up is a natural progression of surfing. For me stand up is an opportunity to see and do things we can’t do when in the prone position. I find it to be one of the most diverse forms of surfing given the broad participant profile. Plus, it’s a great way to train and a wonderful tool to use in all kinds of water conditions (ie lakes, rivers, bays etc). Let’s face it, most people are not even going to ride a wave with a stand up. It’s like a bike to get around on the water.
M: What was the greatest moment of your life?
L: Do any of us have a “greatest moment”? I hope not. I have been fortunate to have quite a few important moments. Certain waves I can recall, births of my daughters, meeting my wife and so many occasions of just being out in Nature and feeling a part of my environment. I hope to continue to create many more moments for the years to come.
M: What type of people can you see loving stand up paddle board?
L: From what I can tell people who have surfed forever and are excited by the new way to do something they love, beginners that are afraid of the ocean and just want to get out on the water and SUP allows them that opportunity. Old, young, male, female, people who live near water and just want to get out and be in Nature. I don’t think I can define or sum up who can enjoy SUP because I believe that it’s meant for so many different people to enjoy their own personal way.
M: Where is your favorite place on earth?
L: A perfect surf spot with just my friends and I.
M: What is it like to ride the wave at Teahupoo? Sounds, view, feeling?
L: Teahupoo is a special place. It is like being inside of Mother Nature herself with the sound of thunder that is so loud you not only hear it but you FEEL it. My vision is focused on the path that will lead me to completing the ride. Heading for the exit. I feel really excited when I’m at Teahupoo
M: How did you come up with the idea to foil? What is it like to foil on waves in the open ocean?
L: Some friends and I got a hold of an Air Chair in the 90’s and cut the chair off which we replaced with snowboard bindings and boots. I practiced for a lot of years behind a jet ski knowing that if I could get some control of the board I could apply it to wave riding. The foil is the most efficient way to ride a wave that we have today. The pursuit of foiling speaks to one of my original goals, which is to ride the largest waves, the furthest distances, and at the highest speeds. I have never experienced anything like flying on waves, which the foil board enables us to do. The boys and I say we feel like the albatross bird (which we share the waves with from time to time).
M: Where would you like to see surfing and paddle boarding go in the future?
L: For them both to continue to evolve, and for each one to progress in their unique path. When I watch what is happening in surfing I am always amazed at how talented the riders are and their ability to continue to push the levels of surfing.
Since SUP is new it’s growth in riders skill level and equipment makes significant improvement every single year. I enjoy watching how people are individualizing what they are doing in SUP from how and what they ride. SUP is being expressed in various disciplines. There are races, big wave riding, obstacle courses that combine both and for me if people are enjoying themselves then they must be doing something right.
I love the ocean and all the ways to ride waves. I grew up prone surfing, body surfing, raced professionally windsurfing, kited when the kites didn’t restart, tow surf, stand up paddle and foil surf. Surfing is the act of riding a wave and there is no way to define how one should do it or which is “right or wrong” or “better or worse”. The prospect that on any given day I have options on what I can ride given the conditions is exciting and one that has allowed me to keep my youthful enthusiasm.
M: Very few people in the world ride big waves like yourself. Can you describe the feeling of riding a 40’ plus wave?
L: Riding a big wave is an all consuming experience that involves all of your senses. It is a time that you are truly in the moment. I liken it to someone who is great at meditation where you are truly present. As calm as the experience is, as is intense as it is, it is the ultimate improvisation. Each wave and each ride are unique and different. For me I have never been in a situation with more things occurring simultaneously. This forces you to be instinctive in your decision making.