Crazy Larry

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

Behind-the-back trash-talk is a common practice among professionals. Valid or not, this kind of peer criticism is standard fare and a human reality. Politicians, actors, musicians, athletes, hairdressers—you name it—all constantly bitch about the next guy, and why he sucks.

This is just the way the world is.

Surf photographers are not immune to this reality. Take me, for example: even during my tenure as a supposedly unbiased photo editor, I still criticized and complained about other photographers without their knowledge. Often my complaints centered on the limitations of a specialized group of fisheye-specific water photographers.

I would now like to announce to the world that this particular criticism comes with an asterisk. An asterisk of respect. An asterisk of admiration.

If you’ve ever stood on the beach in Hawaii watching wide-angle water photographers shoot giant Pipeline, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s one thing to see a pretty picture of a place like Pipe, and another to experience it in person. The reef is shallow and treacherous, the lip is three feet thick, and the earth literally shakes. The impact zone is beyond heavy. People die here.

In fact, if you’re anywhere near the impact zone on a big day it would be perfectly understandable if you soiled your boardshorts.

And that’s just the left.

Big Backdoor is another story—because for as gnarly as Pipeline is, Backdoor can be even shallower, and more menacingly, has no channel. Negotiating a set here is akin to dodging a series of randomly shaped two-story buildings that are collapsing on an exit-less cement parking lot full of potholes.

And this is the place where some water photographers like to swim.

(Insert cuckoo clock noise here.)

These are the crazy gentlemen that I would now like to publicly take my hat off to, for their unmitigated courage. For their aqueous athleticism and bravery. For their complete abandonment of sanity.

I know these guys are insane because I know how much they get paid. They either have pathologically low self-worth, or they shoot with a fanatical love, because it’s pretty difficult to justify your sanity when you’re risking your life at $150 a page.

Unlike top-level professional surfers who garner high six-figure incomes, or even “B level” pros who still pull in salaries triple that of an inner city teacher, fisheye water photographers charge Pipe and Backdoor while getting paid squat.

There has been a tradition of psychotic, underpaid water photographers over the years, some highly intelligent, some not. Some of them include Bud Browne, Don King, Vince Cavataio, Chris Van Lennep, Eric Baesman, Jeff Flindt, Tim Jones, Pat Stacy, and Zak Noyle.

The recently retired Scott Aichner was possibly the craziest/bravest still water photographer in recent history, but there’s one guy who was swimming before, during, and after Scott’s time, and might just dangle nads larger than Scott’s…and he gets far less attention.

His name is Larry Haynes.

Larry has been around for so long, and is such a fixture on the North Shore, that he is taken for granted.

Let that end now.

Originally from Central California, Larry moved to Hawaii decades ago and never looked back. On every major swell for over 20 years, he has been swimming with a heavy water-housed movie camera in the heaviest conditions. And he does so with a refreshingly positive attitude and a huge smile on his face.

Larry has every reason to be bitter and condescending, but he’s not. He’s constantly stoked. He has been sand-bagged, double-crossed, and taken advantage of in the business world, but he keeps on spreading the aloha, and for that he should be highly praised.

To me, Larry is a precious character in the surf world and a living legend. I have seen him shooting wide-angle in-water film at giant closed-out Off The Wall, Backdoor, Maverick’s, Teahupoo, and Waimea. I once was in Australia with him when he shot wide-angle water movies at the sharky Easter Reef when the faces of sets were 25-foot. Before GoPro existed, Larry used to surf with a 10-pound camera attached to his head—a camera that would break your neck if the lip hit you unexpectedly.

The guy is a human bulldog.

Larry has used his athletic talent, considerable courage, and oceanic instinct to hold firm in the pit and then dodge potential catastrophes with the thinnest of margins for what seems like forever.

No one is paying Larry Haynes a salary or providing him with health insurance. He is a freelancer who shoots for the pure love of it, and has routinely put his life at risk hundreds of times.

There is no better measure of Larry’s dedication to his craft than the fact that he continues to shoot, even after the odds caught up with him several years ago at the Pipeline HIC Pro. What transpired that day is a story that may be hard for some to believe.

When you hear it, you have to consider the source, and also consider the lack of agenda on the part of the teller. For that reason, I believe every word of what Larry Haynes says happened to him:

“It was third reefing, and a big set swung wide.” Larry begins, “And a macker came so I dove down, and started hovering around the bottom, looking for a low point. I like to stay low. I found a crevice, and then BAM!”

Larry says what happened next can only be described in a series of “frames,” because that’s how it looks in his memory,

“So I look down at myself, and I can see my lower body and the bubbles and the light, but I ask myself, ‘How can I see myself when I can’t feel myself?’”

“In the next frame, I’m looking at a body floating there underwater, silhouetted in the light with bubbles all around. It’s me, but somehow I’m five feet behind myself.”

“Then I start to feel myself again, and I come up. All of a sudden Mark Cunningham is there swimming next to me, and he’s saying, ‘Are you alright?’ And then I’m looking around for my camera, and then I see why Mark was asking…my helmet was there, cracked into two pieces.”

Larry Haynes swims in the pit to get the ultimate shot, to provide the viewer with an intimate view of the sport we all love so much. Together with an elite crew of still photographers, he consistently puts his life on the line—not for piles of money, but for love of his craft, and for love of the ocean.

So what did Larry do after his brush with death at giant Pipeline? Go to the hospital?
Take a few months off to contemplate his life of risk taking?

No, Larry did what those of us who know him knew he would do.

He went back out after lunch.

Larry Haynes, nut job extrodinaire. Photo: Gilley
Larry working on a new angle and his neck muscles simultaneously, pre- GoPro. Photo: Gilley
Larry shoots Ross Williams on a relatively tame one. Photo: Gilley