Laird Hamilton conquered Tahiti’s Teahupo’o on the morning of August 17th, 2000 when his death-defying drop into the big wave caught the world’s attention. This cemented his reputation as the greatest big wave surfer of all time. A wipe-out in Teahupo’o, a particularly hazardous shallow-water reefbreak in southeast Tahiti, means almost certain death.
His ride there is known by surfers worldwide simply as ‘The Wave’, and a shot of him riding The Wave made the cover of Surfer magazine, accompanied by the caption: “oh my god…”. Afterwards even Hamilton admitted that even he was pushing himself to the “max, max, max, max”. Such is his humility that he broke down and cried after riding it.
Is this the greatest big wave surfer ever?
It could be argued that no one has changed the face of a sport more in the last twenty years than Laird Hamilton has for surfing. He is a throw back to that time when surfers prided themselves on being all-round waterman. He is also known as the guiding genius of crossover board sports. He is truly amazing in the water. He has been instrumental in pushing stand-up paddling, foilboarding, windsurfing, kitesurfing and long distance paddling, as well as his surfing and he and some friends invented the tow-in, which in one winter seemingly doubled the number of waves that could be surfed in the world.
Laird has been a major ambassador of his sport, spreading his love and respect for surfing around the world.
A Surfer’s History:
Laird was born in San Francisco on March 2, 1964. He moved, with his mother, to Hawaii when he was still an infant, and even as a child showed an unquenchable thirst for adrenaline – footage has been released of him jumping off a sixty foot cliff into deep water at just 7 years old.
While a young boy, Laird met legendary 1960s surfer Bill Hamilton on Pupukea beach of the North Shore of Oahu; and introduced Hamilton to his mother. Bill Hamilton went on to marry Joann, and become Laird’s adopted father. What better father, mentor and coach could a boy like Laird have? and to top it off to have been brought up in one of the greatest surf locations in the world – north coast Oahu.
By the age of twenty, Hamilton had already become an accomplished surfer and could have easily pursued a career on surfing’s World Championship Tour. However, competitive surfing and contests never appealed to him and he is quoted as saying, “Contests are less about the one big wave than about your performances. Surfing is about your body of work. It’s about art. I would snap if I was letting someone other than the audience determine my fate. How does a musician judge his thing? By how many people love his music?”
In late 1992, Hamilton with some of his companions, such as Darrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox, started using inflatable boats to tow one another into waves which were too big to catch under paddle power alone. The technique, which would later be modified to use jet skis, was a revolutionary innovation. Tow-in surfing, as it soon became known, pushed the confinements and possibilities of big wave surfing to a whole new level, although they met with mixed reactions from the surfing community, some of whom felt that it was cheating and polluting. Hamilton explained that tow-in surfing was the only way to catch the monstrous sized waves such as those that can be seen a Peahi (Jaws) off the coast of Maui and the coastline of Tahiti.
In 1999 Hamilton sailed his windsurfer between the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai, some fifty miles away, in just under six hours. He later sailed his windsurfer back again.
He has also been credited with inventing the foilboard. The foilboard is an innovative surfboard which incorporates hydrofoil technology allowing a higher degree of precision and effectiveness of aerial techniques within the water.
Most recently, he has become the most public practitioner and proponent of stand-up paddle surfing, an ancient Hawaiian technique that requires an enormous longboard and a long-handled paddle, as well as considerable skill, strength and agility. Some “purist” surfers have blasted him for this, but Hamilton has called it a return to an old, traditional Hawaiian way of surfing.
However, it was his drop into Teahupo’o, which is widely considered to be the most dangerous wave ever ridden, which became the benchmark in his career and his life.
He has often been credited for being able to conquer such enormous ‘big wave’ surf because of his exceptional physical condition and stature. At 6’3″ (1.90m) and 220 pounds (102kg) he is able to take on larger waves which many smaller surfers could not physically handle.
Hamilton is now widely regarded as the “best of the best” at big wave surfing, regularly surfing swells of 35 feet (11 m) tall, and moving at speeds in excess of 30 miles (48 km) an hour and successfully riding other waves of up to 70 feet (21 m) high, at up to 50 mph (80 km/h).