The Hydroponic Dreams of Laird Hamilton
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Outside magazine, June 1994
The Hydroponic Dreams of Laird Hamilton
He was born in a bathysphere, baptized in surfboard resin, raised in the rainforest in Hawaii. Who else is ready to ride the biggest wave on earth?
On a lonely reef a half-mile offshore from the lush green slopes of the world’s largest dormant volcano, there is a certain wave break known to a small group of Maui’s elite surfers and board-sailors as “Jaws.”
Jaws has been talked about a lot more than it’s been ridden. It’s the kind of spot that Hawaiian surfers refer to as “mysto,” as elusive. Most of the time there’s nothing to differentiate Jaws from the blue corduroy sweep of the open Pacific, except for the faint white bloom of turbulence that it leaves along the reef. Maybe once or twice each winter, when the big swells come
It is the wave that surfers see in their dreams. A wave so big it seems to break in slow motion. A wave that smokes and feathers and threatens to close out, but never does. In a word, perfect. But what if you fall?
A surfer in the clutches of a 50-foot wave would experience chaos theory firsthand: It might spit him out at once, unharmed, or smother him for several terrifying minutes. Or perhaps the fallen surfer would skip like a waterbug across the surface until the wave swept him over the falls, its conclussive force snapping his spine.
What kind of surfer would want the risk of a 50-foot wave? And what kind of board would it take to ride it, scratching over the concave ledge, making the free-fall drop, then maintaining enough speed to outrun the gigantic lip?
The fact is, nobody knows. No one has been there before.
It’s late Saturday morning, and Laird Hamilton is driving down the face of Maui’s Haleakala volcano–fast–his big red Ford pickup loaded down with longboards and shortboards and a Yamaha Wave Runner (a craft commonly referred to as a jet ski) under a tarp.
Hamilton is a big-boned, well-muscled guy, something like a hydroponic version of the first California surfers who colonized Oahu’s North Shore back in the sixties. He looks at home in a heavy truck.
His dog, Ridge, half Rhodesian Ridgeback, half Doberman pinscher, rides behind us in the extended cab. “A proud dog,” Hamilton describes him. The serpentine road dips into a valley of rich red earth topped with waving rows of sugarcane. “This is a very fertile place,” Hamilton says of his chosen isle, which is also home to George Harrison, Kris Kristofferson, and Richard
We rattle to a stop at the Hana Highway, the coastal road. Somewhere out there ahead of us in the placid Pacific is Jaws–dormant today.
Another heavy truck, also laden with bundles of surfing gear, turns off the highway and pulls beside us. “Hey, brudda!” Hamilton calls out. “Where da waves, brah?”
When the two big trucks of two big wave riders meet in the road, there’s a ritual bellowing and rattling of antlers–the exchange of shaka fist-shakes, with thumb and pinky extended. Hamilton’s voice falls into a singsong pidgin rhythm, a childhood patois that he clearly delights in. Where he grew up, a remote valley on Kauai, the Hamiltons were
His friend says he’s headed home to cut his grass. Hamilton, in heavy work boots and a pair of old board shorts the color of his tan, is already coated with a layer of Saturday-morning lawn-mowing grime. These guys are in sync: Listening to their weather radios for the buoy reports, they know with complete confidence that right now there’s no significant surf anywhere in the
Soon Hookipa Beach Park veers into view a hundred feet below us: tawny sand and see-through baby-blue water framed by two black cliffs. International beauties tan topless, old locals play poker in the shade of the pavilions, and a hundred boardsailors hunker on the beach, waiting for the breeze to pick up. The Scene.
Hamilton just gives it a glance and hurries past. Like any other upwardly mobile businessman, he is rushing off to put in a couple of weekend hours at the office, which in his case is the water. The voice he uses to explain this morning’s upcoming business is less Hawaii–“Ha-vah-ee,” as he corrects me–and more California, the voice of his answering machine, the language of
We don’t slow down until we hit the single traffic light that marks the heart of Paia, the funky beach town that provisions the Hookipa throngs with board shorts, bikinis, and macadamia-nut pancakes. Now Ridge perks up, smelling food and other dogs, but Hamilton is the one nearly leaping out the window of the truck, flashing the shaka again, and calling out to friends.
Everyone in this wind-rich boardhead town knows Laird Hamilton, it seems. Every winter the board-riding athletes here must confront their fear of the really big waves. They know who hangs back on the beach when the surf is truly lethal, when the mouth tastes of tin and the adrenaline depth-charges go off with every breaking wave. They know, in exact increments of fear, where
Hamilton has always been a different sort of celebrity in the surfing world. The elder son of North Shore surfing legend and board shaper Bill Hamilton, he has never been ranked among the top anything by the Association of Surfing Professionals. Indeed, all his life he’s shunned formal competition. Yet in a sport dominated by wiry gymnasts in wetsuits, something about
Most of us can’t remember learning to walk; Hamilton can’t remember learning to surf. It happened sometime between the ages of two and three–on a Billy Hamilton custom board, of course. Growing up in the Hawaiian tides, he graduated stage by stage, always impatient to move up to the bigger stuff. When he was eight years old he asked his father to take him up the cliff at
Twenty-two years later, Hamilton thinks he’s finally found his true calling. Around town, his ambition is common knowledge. Yesterday, the day after his 30th birthday, he even declared it his occupation, officially, to a local bank loan officer: “Riding the biggest waves ever ridden.”
“I’ve done some things,” Hamilton says of his varied career. “Parts of different things, but no whole yet, nothing that’s been all-encompassing, a total package of my abilities. But this brings it all to fruition. It’s just real pure and simple: Big monster. Go ride it.”
Hawaiians have been watching big outer-reef breaks like Jaws for as long as there have been Hawaiians. Hamilton believes the kings of old rode the giant waves, leaping with their boards from fast canoes, but the art has been lost, like so much of the native culture.
Measuring wave height, it should be noted, is an inexact science at best, and height itself is only one gauge of a wave’s true size and power. The inherent guesswork is made all the more difficult by the fact that some big-wave surfers have an odd habit of underestimating wave height, as part of an elaborate reverse bravado peculiar to the breed. But modern history generally
When Hamilton first started thinking seriously about the problems of riding mortally dangerous surf, he studied action videos depicting other surfers’ big-wave wipeouts. He was intrigued by Brock Little’s takeoff on a 30-plus face in Waimea Bay during the 1990 Quicksilver contest. Charging down it, Little appeared to be going backward. He was going
After several years of fiddling with radically different board designs and borrowing eclectically from such crossover sports as boardsailing, snowboarding, and even skateboarding, Hamilton thinks he has the answer: Under the tow-power of a 650-cc Wave Runner, he believes he’ll be able to catch the big waves a good hundred yards earlier than a paddle-surfer ever could. The craft
“All we need now is some big waves,” he says with annoyance, noting that Hawaiian surf has been stuck in a cyclical lull for the last decade–the result, he thinks, of a stalled El Niño system. “When I was growing up, there were a lot more big swells,” he recalls. “Every winter it just pumped.”
But when the epochal swells do return to Maui, Hamilton will be ready–his Wave Runners tuned, his boards packed. And with the bank’s cooperation, he will have built a new house for himself and his wife and their future “grommets” (as junior surfers are called) within earshot of surfing history, straight up the volcano from Jaws.
It’s a pristine morning on a nearly deserted Maui beach called Spreckelsville. The surf is small by Hawaiian standards–just shoulder-high playful pups. A couple of local women on beach towels are sleeping through thick novels, and a fisherman casts a large net at the edge of the lagoon.
Hamilton is standing beside a bevy of mud-crusted trucks parked in a sandy cove, conversing with Da Boys, his scruffily distinguished partners in a handful of businesses formed, at least in part, to subsidize their big-wave obsession. Mike Waltze, a slight, soft-spoken young man with a goatee, is a five-time world champion boardsailor. Wild-haired Dave Kalama is developing
Among their ventures, Hamilton and his crew are involved in video production, and today they’re shooting some surfing footage for the Fox Network–nothing fancy, just a day’s wages. Along with Darrick Doerner, Buzzy Kerbox, Rush Randle, Pete Cabrinha, and Mark Angulo, they provide film and TV companies with performers, planning, expertise–whatever’s needed to shoot in surf.
Hamilton and Da Boys back their trucks to the water’s edge and heave out the Wave Runners. Cleared for takeoff, we charge toward a faraway wisp of whitewater on the outer reef. I’m riding on the first Wave Runner, with Lickle piloting and Hamilton in tow on a banana-colored longboard. Following us on the other is Mike Waltze, carrying a camcorder mounted on a long pole like a
Behind us, Haleakala wears a lei of soft pink clouds. Below us, bright yellow butterfly fish and purple wrasses scatter in panic. Far out to sea there’s a geyser of exhaust, and then a humpback whale breaches, waggling its white pectoral fins as if to punctuate the cartoon grooviness of it all.
When we arrive at the reef break, Lickle quickly checks Hamilton’s positioning and scrutinizes the horizon for the blue bulge of a swell. Suddenly he guns the engine and leans hard into a turn. Behind us, Hamilton accelerates with the centrifugal force, like a player in crack-the-whip, and is slung onto the oncoming wave.
I look back, and there’s Hamilton, cruising in the curl, looking magisterial except for one small detail: He’s standing on his head. “We want to get surfing’s longest headstand on film,” Lickle shouts to me over the noise of the engine, as Waltze aims his camcorder.
Lickle eases off the throttle, and we fall back to follow the wave from behind the shoulder. When Hamilton, now back on his feet, glides out of it, Lickle executes a close pass and delivers the trailing towrope. Hamilton plucks it from the water, and off he goes again, in a seamless circle of continuous motion–surfing backward, performing nose-ride 360s and other sleights of
“All these years we’ve been looking at the waves from a worm’s perspective,” Hamilton explains later as he towels off on the beach under the shade of creeper vines. “When you’re lying down, looking up at them, the waves appear huge and threatening. With tow-surfing, you’re looking at the waves from a human perspective. What this has done is just raise the top-end limit. One
Though all of his partners plan to surf Jaws when the big swells come, Hamilton is clearly regarded as lead test pilot, the Chuck Yeager of experimental surfing. “Laird is the most mentally prepared,” Waltze says. “Part of this, I think, is his size. He’s so much bigger than anybody else, he sees things differently. I think he feels indestructible.”
Hamilton whistles for Ridge, who is engaged in a four-dog seminar on dead fish. It’s well past noon now, time to “grind,” Da Boys’ verb-of-the-month for “chow down.”
Fortified, they’ll round out the day smacking volleyballs. Or, if the weather turns sour, they’ll play on the trapeze that Lickle has rigged from a beam in his living room, banking off the upstairs balcony on a skateboard with foot-straps and catching a little air until Lickle’s wife, Shannon, wisely puts an end to the racket.
Hamilton lives with his wife, Maria, on an eight-acre piece of paradise surrounded by spiky fields of pineapple, halfway up Haleakala. For now, until they build their new house, they’re living in a one-room loft on stilts, with Hamilton’s cache of surfboards stored below. It’s a temporary shelter that Hamilton artfully banged together himself in two weeks.
Surveying his shaggy green yard– in constant need of mowing, it seems–Hamilton says he’s thinking of getting a couple of buffalo to combat the grass for him so he can spend more time in the surf; he knows a guy on Kauai who has about 250 head. Bison seem to do real well in Hawaii, he says, and they’re less suburban than a riding mower. “Plus,” he notes, “they’d look pretty
Maria, a Brazilian clothing designer and former gymnast who met Hamilton while bodyboarding on Waimea Bay, calls us in to dinner. On the menu tonight is a large fish baked whole, a barrel of pasta, a whopping green salad, a plate of fresh avocados, and a Brazilian tapioca dessert. Hamilton puts away three huge helpings of everything, the biggest meal I’ve ever seen a human
Water, it seems, has always been Laird Hamilton’s preferred medium, his source of sustenance. He was born in a bathysphere, baptized in surfboard resin, and raised in a jungle valley that happens to be the wettest place on earth.
In 1964, when JoAnn Hamilton was pregnant with Laird, she was one of 300 expectant mothers enrolled in an experiment at a San Francisco hospital to determine the effects of reduced gravity on newborns. During the final five hours of her labor, she lay with her belly engulfed in a suction device that allowed the fetal Laird to float more freely in the amniotic surf, which
The family moved from California to Hawaii when Laird was only two years old. Later that year, he fell into a vat of his father’s fiberglass resin. He would have died in seconds if he hadn’t been plucked out and given an acetone bath–a fine, if smarting, mythological start. “He’s been bold since day one,” says the 45-year-old Bill Hamilton, “and hell-bent on living life to the
The Hamiltons lived on Oahu’s North Shore from 1967 to 1971, a period straddling the biggest Hawaiian swell in memory. Then, fleeing the North Shore crowds, Bill Hamilton moved his family and his surfboard business to Kauai’s remote Wainiha Valley, not far from one of the planet’s best surf breaks. By the midseventies, when competitive surfing exchanged the old cruising
With his father’s permission, Laird quit school at 16 after deciding that there was nothing left to learn at Kauai’s Kapaa High except how to fistfight. He was doing construction work when an Italian fashion magazine, shooting on location in Kauai, gave him his first modeling job. He worked on Oahu for GQ, met fashion photographer Bruce Weber, and
He thought he might want a future in the fashion industry. In 1984 he moved to Los Angeles to promote a line of surfwear called Sunbreaker, a venture that ended in mismanagement, broken promises, and bankruptcy. Altogether, Hamilton spent two stifling years in L.A. “Cities are lonely places,” he says. “I felt my gills drying up. My whole youth was being wasted.”
He found solace boardsailing on windswept reservoirs near Palm Springs and got hooked on the speed. He returned to Kauai, then moved to Maui just in time for the sport’s golden age, when guys like Robby Naish, Mike Waltze, and Mark Angulo were snapping masts by the score learning to pull off aerial loops.
In 1986 Hamilton gambled on a trip to Port-Saint-Louis, France, where he entered a speed-sailing competition and defeated the heavily favored French champion Pascal Maka, breaking the European speed record of 36 knots in the process. He came home with a two-year contract for more than $3,000 a month from sailboard-accessory manufacturer Neil Pryde, doing “whatever it took to
He was 22 years old and more or less free to do as he pleased, without competing, so long as he continued to astonish his particular portion of the world. He had good looks, a name, an immediately recognizable persona, and the strange burden of celebrity in sports in which achievement is measured by an arbitrary judgment of style.
While most of his contemporaries focused single-mindedly on contests and rankings, Hamilton set about fulfilling an older ideal, that of the complete Hawaiian waterman. Lying prone on a hollow-hulled paddleboard, he stroked the famous 26-mile canoe racecourse from Molokai to Oahu, renowned for its high winds and swift currents. With Darrick Doerner he windsurfed the biggest
Meanwhile, Hamilton was experimenting with “connected” surfing, using hook-and-loop material to hold his booties to the deck of the board. Soon he was the only surfer in the world pulling off aerial 360s. The surfing establishment was skeptical, tending to view the use of straps as a novelty act–or worse, a bastardization of the sport. But Hamilton persisted, and some insiders
Hamilton clears a space among the ruins of dinner and brings out a pile of books. Over cups of Kona coffee, with Jimi Hendrix noodling in the background, he steers me to a passage in a book called The Hawaiian Canoe: “Ever imaginative, the ancient Hawaiians combined board and canoe surfing to come up with…lele wa’a,
Hamilton sees intriguing parallels between ancient canoe leaping and his own style of motorized tow-surfing. He surmises that Kaahumanu and the king would never have bothered with a canoe unless they were going out far, after something very big.
He shows me another book, Tom Blake’s Hawaiian Surfriders 1935, which includes a photo of the author “aqua-planing”–standing on a surfboard towed by a speedboat at a 40-mph clip.
The elements of big-wave tow-surfing were there all along, Hamilton concludes, but no one saw them. And the reason, he says, is really very simple: “No one’s had the desire.”
In fact, until a recent big-wave renaissance in the surfing media, the mainstream has been flowing full-speed in the other direction, toward more contests in small waves which favor very light and very young competitors. Sponsors, too, have been increasingly eager to promote teenage surfing stars–perhaps, Hamilton speculates, because their lack of business savvy makes them
It’s a trend Hamilton has watched with dismay. “Surfing is the Hawaiian sport of kings, not kids,” he says. “It’s regal. It’s noble. It’s not some punk trip.
“There’s something to be said for tenure,” he adds, laughing at the idea of surfing dons doing paid research at the frontiers of their craft.
Maria has been working quietly at her sewing machine, stitching an article for her new Amazone sportswear line. Now she interrupts the history lesson to raise a question: When is she going to tow-surf the big waves?
“I’ll have to be blindfolded!” Hamilton replies. “I wouldn’t be able to watch!”
Maria sighs. It’s a debate that will be resumed later. She announces that she’s going to bed and begins to climb the ladder up to the loft.
“T’amo,” Hamilton calls after her.
“T’amo,” she answers. “And please do the dishes.”
Farther up the volcano from Hamilton’s place, up where the air is thin and fragrant and the ocean views are majestic, you’ll find the spread of another Maui surfing icon: veteran shaper Gerry Lopez. On a cool afternoon, Hamilton pulls into Lopez’s drive and parks by his modest two-story house in the shade of towering eucalyptus trees. We trot down a pine-bark path to the
Back in his prime in the early seventies, Lopez set the standard for Island cool in the heaviest barrels of the Banzai Pipeline. Today competitive surfing’s climactic contest, the final leg of the Hawaiian Triple Crown, is the Gerry Lopez Chiemsee Pipeline Masters. At age 45 he still competes in his namesake event.
We step into the open-air drying room and walk past the racks holding dozens of freshly glassed boards, still tacky to the touch and redolent of resin. An open doorway leads to a larger room, a catchall of shop overflow, with an old sofa, piles of surfing magazines, and a Ping-Pong table. Finally we come to the inner sanctum, the shaping room, where we find the master himself,
The third generation of Gerry Lopez mini-gun, ski-tow, foot-strap, vision-quest giant-killers lies etherized on the operating table. All the old board-shaping rules have been chucked out. At seven feet and one inch long and 14 inches wide, it is a radical design that seems ridiculously small for a surfer of Hamilton’s size. The edges are nearly parallel, like a ski’s, for
A year ago, when Hamilton gave him the orginal specs for the board, Lopez was skeptical but willing. Then, after watching some film of the board in action, he came back with a second generation.
Sharpened pencil behind his ear, Lopez brushes his dusty fingers over the concave tail section and discusses the possibility of altering the fin angle by a degree or two. Otherwise, he thinks it’s just about right.
Now he lifts the larval shape and presents it to Hamilton. There’s a Star Wars symbolism to the scene, Obi Wan Kinobe passing the light saber to Luke Skywalker. One wonders whether this is part of what drives Hamilton to evolve the sport: not to dethrone the fathers, but to delight them.
Reverently holding the board, Hamilton looks nervous for the first time. “It’s scary,” he says, “when you think what you’re going to have to do with this.”
Around four o’clock on the morning of January 31, Laird Hamilton was awakened by a terrific noise. He stood outside in his pitch-black yard and listened. The explosions carried from two miles away, resounding up the valley.
The big waves had come back to Jaws.
The break, as Hamilton soon discovered, was producing hollow giants with 40-foot faces, not the biggest waves ever seen before, but certainly the most powerful ones he’d ever ridden. By dawn the surfers–Hamilton, Kerbox, Randle, Cabrinha, Angulo, Waltze, Kalama, and Lickle–were on the beach with the two Wave Runners and a big Zodiac inflatable with all the boards roped across
The raw footage, shot with a telephoto lens from a high vantage on shore, shows everything working according to plan–and hints at the future. The Wave Runner delivers Hamilton to the wave, no problem, then turns right and exits the picture. The wave is still only a swell at this point, its vast bulk wallowing invisibly below. Hamilton cautiously S-turns, looking for his
Pursuing him is a dark barrel full of blowing mist, like a cave behind a waterfall. A few seconds of water-spotted footage shot from near the impact zone shows the glacial whitewater, the crumbling iceberg-colored lip, the navy blue wall striped with sunlight–a wave out of science fiction.
The barrel makes a furious attempt to swallow him, but Hamilton burns up the distance. Still on the face, but losing critical altitude, he does an instinctive little stall–shades of his father’s famous cutback–then finds the zone and sets the line, floating in a glorious stasis.
Bucky McMahon is a frequent contributor to Outside. His article about breath-hold diving appeared in the March issue.