Surf history

Laird Hamilton

Brawny blond regularfooter from Maui, Hawaii; a unanimous choice as the best big-wave rider of the 1990s and early ’00s, and one of the four or five surfers throughout the sport’s history to significantly change the manner in which waves are ridden.

Hamilton was born (1964) in San Francisco, California, the son of surfing parents. Laird is Scottish for “lord.” His father left the family and joined the Merchant Marines when Laird was five months old; at age two Laird moved to the North Shore of Oahu with his mother, who soon married revered California-born surfer Bill Hamilton. The new family lived first on the North Shore, then Kauai, and Hamilton began surfing as a toddler. At 16 he dropped out of high school and worked as a mason, carpenter, and plumber; at 17 he moved to California and found part-time work as a model.

Hamilton lived on the North Shore of Oahu in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and was a noncompetitive professional surfer, paid by sponsors to simply be an alpha figure on the media-saturated North Shore. He rode in the disciplined neoclassic style used by his stepfather, keeping his head, arms, hips, torso, even fingers all perfectly aligned, and blending each maneuver seamlessly into the next. But where the medium-sized Bill was smooth and subtle, Laird, at 6′ 3″ and a ripped 220 pounds, was smooth and brutally powerful—”our modern Ulysses,” as one surf writer put it.


In 1992, former world tour pro Buzzy Kerbox convinced Hamilton to try towing into waves from behind Kerbox’s inflatable boat. Tow-surfing was Kerbox’s idea (though wave ski pioneer Herbie Fletcher had experimented with tow-ins a decade earlier), but by 1994 Hamilton had such command of the new sport that it was his to define. The jet ski had by then replaced the inflatable boat, footstraps had been added to the new small-dimension towboards, and headquarters for the tow project had moved from the North Shore to Jaws, a big-wave break located not far from Hamilton’s new home on Maui.

As seen in Bruce Brown’s 1994 surf film Endless Summer II—a movie debut for tow-in, with Hamilton starring in the Jaws sequence—it was obvious that mechanization not only allowed surfers to ride much bigger waves than ever before, but opened up a new performance frontier, with banked turns, cutbacks, and even tuberides. Hamilton’s performance in Endless Summer II was a revelation. “He can actually challenge the wave,” as Hawaiian surfer Brock Little said, “whereas the rest of us are forced to just ride it.” Peter Mel, Darrick Doerner, Dave Kalama, and Ken Bradshaw all helped make tow-surfing the sport’s most compelling act through the ’90s and early ’00s. Hamilton meanwhile seemed to make a game of letting everyone get close, before suddenly and spectacularly bolting forward. On August 17, 2000, at Teahupoo in Tahiti, he was towed in to the thickest, hardest- breaking wave ever ridden at that point, making it clear once again that he was operating by himself on a different, higher plane.

Usually described as “focused” and “intense,” Hamilton was less generously labeled as an “egomaniac” by a number of surfing acquaintances and as “smug” by the surf press. Billy Hamilton said his son was at times “mean, arrogant and gnarly.” When not surfing, the talkative and frequently hyperactive Hamilton was indiscriminate in his pursuit of thrills, making his debut bungee jump off a 700-foot-tall bridge, riding a street luge headfirst at 50 miles per hour, and breaking a rib after jumping off a 125-foot cliff in Hawaii. He entered a sailboard competition in France in 1986 and set a European speed record at 36 knots per hour. He made headlines in 1990 after crossing the English Channel with Buzzy Kerbox on paddleboards, landing at Dover, England, five and a half hours after leaving Calais, France. He invented foilboarding (sometimes called “airboarding”) in 1997 after attaching a three- foot-long, split-bottom aluminum hydrofoil to the back of a wakeboard. Pulled into an open-ocean swell, the foilboard rises until just the bottom few inches of foil are connected to the water surface; Hamilton, levitating above the water, can ride this way for minutes at a time.

Hamilton has also become one of surfing’s greatest crossover media personalities. He and fellow Hawaiian big-wave rider Brock Little starred in Easter Island: Forbidden Surf, a one-hour ESPN documentary that aired in 1994; in June of that year, he was featured in an Outside magazine cover story; in 1996 he was named as one of the “50 Most Beautiful People” by People magazine. He played a snarling pro surfer in North Shore (1987), and did stunts in Waterworld (1995), and Die Another Day (2002). Hamilton also appeared in more than 40 surf movies, videos, and documentaries, including Totally Committed (1984), Gone Surfin’ (1987), Surfers: The Movie (1990), Wake-Up Call (1995), Biggest Wednesday (1998), Step Into Liquid (2003), Riding Giants (2004), and Going Vertical (2010). Laird, a biographic video and DVD, was released in 2001. A photo of Hamilton riding a 35-foot wave was selected for the cover of Jaws, a 1997 surf photography book; the same photo was used the following year for a National Geographic cover story on Jaws. Outside named him in 2000 as one of 25 “Outside Super Heroes.” Hamilton was again featured on the cover of Outside in 2002, while Sports Illustrated Women named him as one of the “Sexiest Men in Sports.”

Hamilton’s spectacular ride at Teahupoo was featured on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, and earned him the Action Sport Feat of the Year at the 2001 ESPN Action Sports and Music Awards. Hamilton seemed a bit disoriented as he accepted his statuette; he thanked Jesus Christ 12 times, then finished by saying, “We’re all equal before the wave.” American Express tapped Hamilton for a television and print advertising campaign in the mid-’00s, as did Davidoff Cologne to market their “Cool Water” product line. He also did ads for American Express.

Hamilton made regular appearances on prime time television, including spots on 60 Minutes (2007) and The Colbert Report (2010). In 2006, he and Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder were paired for an episode of the documentary series Iconoclasts.

In 2003, Hamilton won the Surf Industry Manufacturers’ Association’s Waterman of the Year award. Surfing magazine reserved a spot for Hamilton on their 2004 list of the best 16 surfers in history. Surfer magazine ranked Hamilton #9 on their 2002 roster of the “25 Most Powerful People in Surfing,” and #11 on their 2009 list of the “50 Greatest Surfers of All Time.”


Laird Hamilton: Force of Nature, an autobiography, was published in 2010; the following year brought Susan Casey’s non-fiction book The Wave: in Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, which focused heavily on Hamilton. The Wave went to the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list.

Hamilton has been married twice, and has three children. His second wife, model and former professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, made headlines with her 2013 memoir in which she said that “to truly be feminine means being soft, receptive, and…submissive.” Hamilton himself waded into a small controversy a few months earlier, defending Lance Armstrong’s performance-enhancing drug use just after the cyclist was stripped of his Tour de France titles. “Rocket ships need rocket fuel to go to space,” Hamilton said on camera. “Athletes…need to do what they need to do, let’s be realistic about that.”

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