TRANSCENDING EARTH- LAIRD HAMILTON
LAIRD HAMILTON AND THE ETERNAL QUEST FOR THE DESTINATION OF EXPLORATION AND DISCOVERY
“Your first impression of Laird Hamilton?”
Truth be told, when I cast the above question out into the world from the anonymity of my six seater dining table in Margaret River, I expected little in the way of response, especially so given the calibre of surfer I aimed for.
Albee Layer, Mark Healey, Kai Lenny, Shane Dorian and Kelly Slater; I mean, come on … what are the chances?
But if anything’s going to prompt four of the world’s best big wave surfers and an 11-time world champ to put pen to paper it’s the topic of Laird.
“He came off as a complete asshole,” cackled Healey down the line from Oahu not 30 minutes after I fired off the email.
Albee Layer was a little more forthright, “It really took people not liking him and wanting to outdo him to help push the sport forward.” Dorian took the diplomatic approach: “He’s … polarizing”. Slater recalled Hamilton being “always nice to me as a kid” but understood how “he and certain guys butt heads.”
While Matt Warshaw, who I’d also approached for a historical perspective, initially turned down the offer, only to spark up two days later with all guns blazing. “Asshole seems to be the default setting.” For it’s no great secret Laird is surfing’s great divining rod, rider of the wave that made the world stand still yet just as capable of lighting up a comment thread like no other.
For what it’s worth, my first impression of Laird Hamilton, and no doubt yours too, was perhaps unfairly cast in 1987 via a little movie called
Hamilton of course played the role of Lance Burkhart, in short, an outspoken prick of a guy looking to sully the professional aspirations of Rick Kane, a “young surfer from a wave tank in Arizona.”
But that was 1987.
Fast forward 30 years, and the familiar ping of an email emitting from a phone tucked under my pillow wakes me from an already restless sleep. It’s Hamilton’s wife, Gabrielle Reece. “He’s free now if you want to talk, might be the last opportunity for a while though,” it read.
“Ring this number and tell the receptionist to put you through to room 107.”
Despite the fact it's 2am, I hightail it out to the car so as not to wake my beloved Cavalier King Spaniel, Ruby, who’s taken to sleeping on the couch of late and begin to punch in the numbers as instructed. “Hello?” came the deep yet chipper voice. “Laird?” “Yeah, good morning, or is it pre morning where you are?” he enquired with a gentle, almost caring chuckle. “Oh, it’s early, but wait, you’re in a hotel? Where are you?” “Arizona." I scrambled for a witty quip but Hamilton beat me to the punch. “I’ve come looking for my old nemesis, Rick Kane,” he deadpanned, before erupting into a wonderfully robust self-depreciating laugh.
It was to be a most wonderful chat, one in which I wavered between a line of questioning and simply wondering what the man was doing as the conversation continued.
Was he fully clothed? Flexing in front of a full-length mirror or perhaps measuring out ingredients for a protein shake? Betwixt the two however, came some gold. His thoughts on big wave surfing today? “At the moment the percentage of wrecks is much greater than the percentage of completion.” How he channels his alpha-maleness? “If I really wanted to get aggressive
and bring that dragon out, I could just go to Jaws on a big swell.” And, the 50 million dollar question itself – if he actually still would? “There’s that sense of having been there and done that over and over already.” But … back to Burkhart for a moment. To say that the role forever cast Hamilton as, in short, himself, an outspoken prick of a guy largely depends on whom you ask.
“Outspoken isn’t quite the word for Laird, although he is that too,” opined surf historian Warshaw.
“But you can be outspoken in a thoughtful way or you can be an outspoken asshole, and Laird has been both – although asshole seems to be the default. On the other hand … So what? Laird is so far and away the greatest big-wave surfer of all time that you can’t even see the pack behind him. These two sides are probably related and it’s perhaps not possible to do the stuff he did without at least being a bit of a bastard.”
Big call? Certainly the comment sections below most online articles tagged “Laird” would suggest Hamilton is nothing but “a bit of a bastard” and indeed an “outspoken asshole.”
His reputation was heavily taken to task following an unflinching assessment of Maya Gabeira’s near death experience at Nazare in 2014 and Carlos Burle’s 100-foot record setting wave claim shorty after.
“She doesn’t have the skills to be in these conditions and she should not be in this kind of surf,” Hamilton calmly told a bewildered CNN anchor at the time.
“And to set a world record for riding the biggest wave? I think you need to make the wave and I believe Carlos did not make that wave. That’s a failed attempt in the school that I went too.”
Hamilton’s remarks sent online editors and nameless comment jockeys into an absolute frenzy while Mavericks kingpin, Ken “Skindog” Collins also hinted they bordered on being sexist.
Completely overlooked though was the sagely kernel of truth Hamilton dropped at the end of the interview, which stacked against Gabeira’s appalling strike rate at black diamond runs the world over may’ve proved a bit too close to home for some. “There’s old pilots and bold pilots,” Hamilton surmised. “But there’s no such thing as an old bold pilot.” Perhaps the biggest bugbear though is reserved for Hamilton’s seeming refusal to credit the paddle-in efforts at Jaws, the break he once made his own, albeit at the end of a towrope.
Albee Layer, for example, is just one of the new generation of dragonslayers who grew up with the rumble of Jaws as an accompaniment to many a night’s sleep.
He’s since moved to the front of the queue in terms of performance at Jaws and knows full well the gravitas Hamilton’s opinion, or lack thereof, has had on his contemporaries.
“I know it used to kind of bother Shane (Dorian) for a couple years back in the day,” says Albee Layer.
“But I bet Shane being mad about Laird not giving him credit helped lead Shane to become the best big-wave surfer in the world today and there’s so many stories like that. It really took people not liking him and wanting to outdo him to help push the sport forward.”
Layer recently reconnected with Hamilton for a big wave documentary he’s working on, but their connection goes back – way back. “He knew my parents before I was born and actually helped my dad build our house while I was in my mother’s belly,” Layer recalled. “So, yeah, you could say I’ve know him my entire life. I got to actually watch sessions down there (Jaws) ever since I was literally making memories.”
Hamilton also served as neighbour before his compound grew to incorporate the arrival of a group that would not only change the course of surfing’s history, but Layer’s as well.
“The ‘Strapped Crew’ headquarters was actually behind our house for some years and they absolutely had a huge impact on all the kids that were around watching Jaws in those days,” Layer recalls of the innovative group which included Darrick Doerner, Dave Kalama, Buzzy Kerbox and Hamilton.
“Their small wave sessions for example allowed them to do airs similar to what we are only trying now. What really struck me then and what has stayed with me till now though was the fact they weren’t exactly liked by the rest of surfing, but they didn’t really care because they were just having fun pushing themselves. That to me was really cool.”
As Layer grew and cemented his position as a dominant force in the line-up he first surveyed while still in nappies, it wouldn’t have been unexpected to get a pat on the back from one of its founding fathers.
With no outwardly words of praise coming, Layer, like Dorian, simply tucked any animosity away and grafted out the hard yards.
“I used to be kind of bitter in a way that Laird didn’t give credit to us for paddling out at Jaws,” Layer says.
“But I’ve since realised Laird can do whatever the fuck Laird wants to do. He doesn’t have to paddle Jaws to prove he’s the best out there. He was the king for several years and influenced everyone who surfs big waves in one way or another.”
Which seemed like too good of a question not to put to Shane Dorian; did he see Hamilton’s seeming disregard of how far big wave paddle efforts have come as some sort of inspiration to dig deeper? “Not really,” came the reply. “I never expected Laird to paddle Jaws with us. He does his own thing and big wave paddle surfing never seemed like a priority to him, which is fine. Everyone has their own path and Laird finds passion in what he loves to do and usually what he enjoys is pretty unique.”
And the prospect of the pair tilting a few cold ones and discussing their individual roles in the advancement of the discipline?
“We’ve never buttered each other up about big waves, I think that would be pretty weird,” says Dorian.
“We mostly talk about our kids and being fathers.”
But also overlooked is the plain and simple fact Hamilton has indeed paddled Jaws, at size, often alone yet witnessed only by a fortunate few, one of which being a very young and impressionable Kai Lenny.
“The first time Laird and Darrick Doerner surfed Peahi was paddling in and I have since personally seen Laird stand up paddle into a 25 footer with nothing but his board shorts on,” Lenny says.
“He was by himself in the line-up, it was getting dark and he got blown out of a giant barrel, then simply paddled up the coast and went home … in the dark. There’s no doubt he could catch whatever sized wave he wants on whatever he wants.”
Which begged the question I had been dodging all along. Did the man who, for better or worse, put Jaws on the map still want a part of it?
“It’s natural for your ego to say you really want to go there and make a showing,” he began of his reasoning not to contest the modern day line-up at Jaws.
“But when you’re honest with your heart about what really entices you and brings you fulfilment, it becomes a really uninteresting thing to do because it’s no longer a destination of exploration and discovery. There’s that sense of having been there and done that over and over already.
“I spent so many years there with my tight circle of friends and we saw it (Jaws) in all of its different moods and saw it evolve from a place no one really knew to the place people came to prove themselves. I’ll always have a fond relationship with Peahi, but to go there and paddle with 60 guys, half of who shouldn’t be there? No, that’s no longer attractive to me. I now find myself opting for foiling a three foot wave for a mile or two.”
The impromptu segue also opened the floor for Hamilton to give his take on the direction modern day big wave riding is headed.
“I think the bottom line is a big part of the public’s attraction to big wave riding is the wrecks and at the moment the percentage of wrecks is much greater than the percentage of completion,” says Hamilton.
“Humans like to watch other humans crash. I mean, we watch Formula One because we’re hoping to see a wreck at 200 miles per hour and in big wave riding there is a lot of wrecking. Within all of that though, there is a level of skill that is continually being pushed and those guys are lifting the bar, but it’s still a bit of a spectacle and learning what humans are capable of throwing themselves into.”
So then, with that out of the way and the next generation of Jaws’ devotees firmly in his camp, why does the mere mention of his name still act as surfing’s great divining rod?
IN JAWS IT SEEMED LAIRD HAD FOUND THE WAVE HE WAS DESTINED TO RIDE.