Tracks - - Con­tents - BY ANTHONY PAN­CIA

“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

North Shore.

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?




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