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The Taker of Every Wave

Laird Hamilton discusses the new documentary about his life and his divisive path through surfing

There may not be a more divisive surfer in modern history than Laird Hamilton. Raised on the North Shore of Oahu under the tutelage of Billy Hamilton and a rotating cast of bona fide surf legends, Laird was bound to make his own mark on surfing. The mark he made, however, was hard for many to reconcile with their idea of what surfing's core principles should be. Laird used modeling, acting and oddball endorsement deals that many considered not quite "core" to finance his wave-riding escapades around the world. He also pioneered tow-in surfing, stand-up paddling and hydrofoiling—all of which were met with plenty of snickers and sneers from surfing's mainstream. Laird is aware of all this, but he probably couldn't care less. After all, whether you love him or hate him, you can't deny that he has made a significant mark on surfing, and if the content of the new documentary about his life, "Take Every Wave," is any indication, he's had a hell of a time doing it. I recently spoke with Laird about the new movie, and the unusual path through surfing that it documents.

Watching the movie, it's interesting to be reminded of your upbringing, which was pretty much as core surf as it gets, but as you got older, you came under such scrutiny in the surf world for being the face of various products and for popularizing things like SUPs and hydrofoils. How do you reconcile that? Is that frustrating?

I would say that whomever you are, when you're not understood, it's frustrating. But I've never been frustrated to the point where it's discouraged me from my calling. I think it's easier to disclaim something than to take it into account as legitimate. I've been trying to subsidize my surfing for nearly 50 years. Would some people respect me more if I ran an excavator to subsidize my surfing? Maybe. But in the end, would that have allowed me to focus on the ocean, surfing, and evolving as much as I have been able to on the path I've taken? I don't think so. When we go, "That's not pure. That's not core," it keeps us from having to be accountable to our drive, our missions, our passions. I've always tried to stay pure and true to my love of surfing and the ocean, and I don't think I could be involved in it any more than I already am.

Do you feel like an outsider in today's surf culture?

I feel like an outsider everywhere in life. I grew up an outsider, but I've probably just embraced that. In surfing, I feel like an outsider in every way except when it comes to the act itself. I might be on the outside of the industry, but when it comes to the purity of wave riding and being a wave rider, I feel like you can't be any more connected than I am—except if you were living in the ocean and a dolphin.

Today, when you see guys like Kai Lenny riding hydrofoils, or even John John giving them a try, does that feel vindicating for you?

Yeah, lately I've thought about that quite a bit because of the film, because it kind of forces you to look back at moments in your life. My rewards haven't been trophies as much as just seeing the way that people engage with the ocean now. When you see people approaching the ocean in the same way as you, it kind of confirms that you're not completely out of your mind. If you're doing something in isolation for years with just a few buddies, you begin to wonder, "Is this as awesome as we think it is?" That's kind of what happened when we were first towing at Jaws. When other people see what you're doing and reaffirm it, that makes you feel good. It makes you go, "Okay, I'm not crazy. I'm not the only one who gets it." Whether it's stand up paddling or foiling or anything that I've participated in, it's rewarding. Seeing other people enjoy those things and gravitate toward them is great. It's hard to beat those kinds of rewards.

Since you pioneered tow-in surfing all those years ago, I'm wondering what you think about the paddle-in revival. Do you think that's the pinnacle of big-wave surfing? Or do you think those big boards are inherently limiting?

I think that prone paddling in big surf is a discipline, just like foiling, tube riding, towing, riding alaias and bodysurfing. They're all just disciplines within the sport. In terms of big-wave surfing, we know that there is a defined line between what we can and can't paddle into, but there's a challenge in pushing that boundary, and I love it. Any time the surf is big and exciting, it's great, no matter what you're using to ride it. And I think prone paddling is a good way to test all the young bucks. You've got all these young studs who want to show their power, and paddling is a perfect platform for them to go and push themselves into giant waves. Is it the highest level of performance in big waves? Are they doing as much on the wave as they could if they were towing in on a 6-foot balsa board? Maybe not. But again, it's just a different discipline. Plus you can't have 35 jet skis running around in a lineup; it destroys the place. But there's room for the different disciplines. Will there be foiling in giant waves? Yeah, they're already doing it. Same thing with stand-up boards. All these different ways to ride giant waves are fun because they allow you to perform in different conditions. You can go tow foiling in conditions that are so horrific that you'd normally be standing on the beach watching. It's nice to be able to have all of those tools at your disposal.

What about your own appetite for big waves these days? Do you approach big swells the same as before, or do you feel like your relationship with big surf has changed?

It hasn't changed yet. But what's nice is that I'm not looking for the Day of Days. It would be hard for me to surpass certain swells and certain days that I've experienced. I'm not waiting for the 100-foot wave to come, and to wait around in that mindset is so taxing. It's taxing because of the anticipation, the expectations and the disappointments. I prefer to kind of pull it back a little bit and let things happen. But if there's a giant swell and it's 100 feet and it's beyond beyond, believe me, I'm ready to go. Every ounce of me is totally ready. I feel like I've just gotten more realistic about the waiting and what you do with that time. I've become a little more calculated and more precise. I'm not going to chase it around. I'm going to wait for it and fill the spaces productively. If some freak of nature that we've never seen comes from nowhere, we've got some devices that we plan to implement for that environment. We've got the guys, the equipment and the training so we're going to do it.