"I know Laird, and I like him, but at the same time he is very defensive," says Ken "Skindog" Collins. "He always wants to be the alpha male—the only guy on the big wave mountain."
Laird Hamilton has never been one to cloak himself in subtlety or nuance. He’s big and brash, with an ego as mammoth as the waves that have carried him to fame. Whether by design or accident, those whose familiarity with big-wave surfing revolves around mainstream media coverage generally believe him to be the sport’s Zeus. In short, there’s Laird, and there’s everyone else.
To most of the other big wave surfers in the world, this perspective would be just fine were it not for the fact that many interviews with Hamilton through the years have carried an annoyingly familiar theme. Hamilton refuses to compete in surf events and only seeks the raw purity of the experience; other surfers seek money from events like the annual Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards or hunt down and ride big waves for sponsors who demand huge risks be caught on film.
For the most part, the small fraternity of serious big-wave surfers have grumbled and chuckled through Hamilton’s narrative in private. Even if they disagreed with that narrative, the man behind the story laid down a generational gauntlet with his pioneering tow-in surfing at Maui’s Jaws.
That silence ended after Hamilton gave an interview to ESPN writer Jake Howard in advance of an Oprah Winfrey Network special called “Oprah’s Master Class.” Howard asked Hamilton’s opinion on the resurgence of traditional big-wave paddle surfing—particularly at Jaws. Surfers are charging bigger and bigger waves without jet skis, in the process rewriting what is achievable with just strong arms and stronger lungs.
Hamilton answered Howard by describing paddle surfing at Jaws as “moving backwards.” He said the waves were so fast and powerful that the best most paddle surfers can hope for is a truncated ride on the wave’s shoulder. Thus, the best way to catch and ride them was by using a jet ski. “It’s a little bit of a waste to see these guys out there trying to paddle and then so many waves going by unridden,” he told Howard. “I see guys taking doughnuts, and it's really not the most productive thing.”
Then he moved on to his familiar narrative.
“I guess maybe they’re trying to prove a point that you can do it. But is it the most functional way to really ride that wave, and are you getting all you can out of it? You’re not. So for me, I look at it kind of like a gimmick, in the sense of, ‘OK, yeah, can I crash on a giant one?’ Part of it has to do with the sponsors. A lot of it’s stimulated by these bigger surf companies pushing their guys to be different.”
For fellow big-wave surfers who have been behind the push to test paddle surfing’s outer limits—like Shane Dorian, Greg Long, Danilo Couto, Carlos Burle, Ken “Skindog” Collins, and Mark Healey—this crossed a line. Hamilton has not focused on traditional big-wave paddle surfing—whether at Jaws, Teahupoo, Maverick’s, or almost anywhere else—for some time. When Hamilton has been seen charging big waves lately, it’s generally been atop a standup paddleboard. He was not only criticizing the practitioners of an extraordinarily difficult pursuit in which he doesn’t typically participate, but also calling that pursuit a gimmick.