(I wrote this last year for fiftymissioncap.ca. Reposting it for the 12th anniversary of Laird taking on Teahupoo.)
Think of a 70-foot wave.
It rises out of the water like a possessed mountain. If you close your eyes to it, your mind still sees it because of the ferocious sound. It curls, creating a perfect temporary barrel that plunges towards the shore with the weight of the ocean behind it.
There’s a tiny dot on top of this giant wave.
It glides gracefully over the top and down into the barrel, a little white trail following it.
That dot is Laird Hamilton.
Part madman, part dolphin and part Achilles, big wave surfer Laird Hamilton was literally born into the environment that he spends most of his time in. His mother gave birth to him on March 2nd, 1964 at UCSF Medical Centre into an experimental salt-water tank that was designed to ease the pain of labour.
His watery entrance into the world was but the beginning of a life spent in the ocean. Growing up in Oahu, Hawaii, Laird took to surfing at a young age, with his stepfather, former pro surfer Bill Hamilton, teaching him the ropes. He was always an excellent surfer, but despite his obvious skill and natural talent, Laird never wanted to be on the professional surfing circuit.
Instead, he invented his own shtick.
In the early 90’s, Hamilton, along with friends like fellow big wave surfer Dave Kalama, frequently surfed the North Shore of the Island of Maui. Pe’hai, also known as Jaws, boasts some of the biggest and most powerful waves in the world. Spurred on by a longing to ride the massive breaks that they could see in the distance, but couldn’t paddle to with just their boards, Hamilton and Kalama began using a Jet Ski and a towrope to get onto those mammoth waves. This method, known as tow in surfing, would revolutionize big wave surfing.
What does it take to ride a wave bigger than your house? A blatant disregard for, or a superior understand of, fear? Yes. But it also takes brute strength. With a neck the size of a large bull’s and a muscly physique built to take on waves that could literally wipe out cities, Hamilton, save for his blonde Ken doll mane, is a scary looking dude.
He’s a scary looking dude who has ridden the world’s biggest wave.
Here’s a video from the movie Riding Giants of Laird riding Teahupoo, an insane break off the coast of Tahiti. (The money shot starts about 4:20 into the vid)
Most of us will never even see a wave that large in person, let alone be in the water when it breaks, so lucky for us, Laird’s there.
Another technique made popular by Laird, and one more accessible to us regular folk, is stand up paddle (SUP) surfing. It’s an ancient Hawaiian sport called Hoe he’e nalu in Hawaiian. Instead of lying tummy-down on the board to paddle out, the surfer stands up, balancing with his or her core strength and a long paddle. The paddle is used to propel the board forward on the water and later to balance as you ride the wave.
SUP surfing is fun because you can see everything in front of you as you paddle out to the waves. You can also do it in calm waters and lakes as a more tranquil water activity. If you take out the surfing bit, it’s basically canoeing for those who can’t sit down.
I think Laird Hamilton is the greatest, but he isn’t without his haters. Some people say tow in surfing pollutes the ocean and has corrupted the sport of big wave surfing. A lot of surfers are also bothered by Laird’s promotion of SUP surfing, mainly because it has turned into a trend of yogaesque proportions and is now a flavor of the week activity for rich businessmen and their spoiled kids to try while on vacation in Maui.
The “Blame Laird” movement was started by purest surfers as a way to accuse him of mainstreaming surfing and selling out.
He wasn’t opposed to being accused, though. Being the maverick that he is, Hamilton turned “Blame Laird” into his personal catchphrase (and business venture, as you can purchase Blame Laird merch from his website: www.lairdhamilton.com).
You surfed all day and forgot to call your wife? Blame Laird. You want to sell off all of your assets and move to a surfing village in Costa Rica? Blame Laird. You’re going to trade in the Armani suit for a wetsuit? Blame Laird. Go try your best to live the life you want, and if you get into trouble along the way, just Blame Laird
By branding Blame Laird onto stickers, T-Shirts, coffee mugs and the like, Laird’s giving us all permission to have fun at his expense.
My favourite part of the Laird video above is when he cries on his surfboard after riding that monster wave. Surfing is a sport where your strongest teammate is also your biggest opponent. Trusting yourself on waves that could kill you in an instant requires a zen-like understanding of both yourself and nature.
We’ve all had moments of this. I’ve cried while looking out at Rocky Mountains on a sunny day. I once had a spiritual moment with a goat farmer in the hills of Tuscany. I’ve felt totally embraced by and at peace with the ocean while swimming in it. I’m not totally a part of that world, though. To really be a part of it, you sort of have to live it and be it, full-bore.
This is why Laird Hamilton isn’t just a big wave surfer. He’s also a big wave.