I don’t want to not live because of my fear of what could happen. – Laird Hamilton
Laird Hamilton is without a doubt one of the most important figures in the history of surfing. A big wave riding legend and tow-in surfing pioneer, Laird has traveled the world and changed the perception of what is possible by riding the biggest, fastest and deadliest waves this planet has to offer.
Born in San Francisco in 1964, Laird moved to Hawaii at a young age and faced some tough challenges being a tall blonde kid and standing out from the local population. At the same time, his father was an avid surfer and introduced him to the world of riding waves, which Laird embraced wholeheartedly. In fact, he was so enthusiastic and had such a daredevil mentality that by the age of 7, he was not only challenging himself on his surfboard, but also jumping off 60-foot cliffs into the ocean.
It was such feats that allowed him to prove his manhood and it was the high level of competition he had from his peers that forced him to keep pushing himself until he earned the nickname “the Waterman.” The name came from the Ancient Hawaiians who used to swim in and surf the big Pacific waves with their canoes. These waves were a test for Hawaiian men to prove their ocean sport abilities as well as their courage in the face of the biggest waves. Those that did were made leaders of their tribes and bestowed with the title “the Waterman.” Laird, who not only became a master surfer, but also an all-around watersport expert, was given the nickname by his peers who have also been known to call him “a freak of nature” for his unbelievable accomplishments in the water.
Undoubtedly, Laird’s biggest contribution to the sport of surfing has been tow-in surfing, which he co-invented in the mid-1990’s. Tow-in surfing involves a surfer being towed into a breaking wave with a tow-line by a partner driving a personal watercraft like a jet ski, or sometimes even a helicopter. The tow-in method offers the surfer numerous advantages in catching large waves at a correct positioning. When waves get too big, they are impossible to paddle into, but it was Laird and his surfing colleagues who figured out a way to catch up to big waves via a jet ski and adding foot straps to the surfboard to acquire stability on the biggest waves. As a result, some of the most challenging waves in the world, including Todos Santos in Mexico, Mavericks in Northern California, Shipstern Bluff in Tasmania and Jaws in Maui have been made more accessible to the bravest of big wave riders.
However, most professional surfers, including Laird, will agree that no waves anywhere in the world rise and explode with the power and ferocity of Teahup’oo (said cho-po).
Situated 3,000 miles south of Maui on the French Polynesian island of Tahiti is a reef pass unlike any other in the world. Teahup’oo, meaning “Wall of Skulls,” is nothing short of a geologic anomaly and hydrodynamic freak.
The island of Tahiti has been recognized as a surf destination since the 1960’s, but Teahup’oo on the southwest corner of the island had mostly been off limits due to its dangerous swells. The surf at Teahup’oo is unique in that the mass of ocean water meets an ocean floor that gets so shallow so quickly that a surging wave is formed with a steep, fast moving flat face that allows the rider to get barreled. There are plenty of taller waves in the world than Teahup’oo, which only gets to about 30 feet during a large swell, but that’s hardly the point. Teahup’oo is a thick and heavy wave that sucks so much water off the reef and explodes with such treacherous force that it is unlike any other known wave in the world. Add to that, the reef below is razor sharp, increasing the likelihood of serious injury.
As such, Teahup’oo promises only one thing: trouble for the surfer who tries to ride its waves. It would take a “freak” surfer to ride one of Teahup’oo’s most freakishly powerful waves. That would be Laird Hamilton.
Ride of a Lifetime
On the morning of August 17, 2000, on a day when Teahup’oo was producing swells far larger than normal, Laird Hamilton took a board ride that would change the course of surfing history.
Laird’s tow-in partner, another surf legend named Darrick Doerner, piloted a watercraft with Laird in tow. Doerner later said, “I towed him onto this wave. And it was at the point where I almost said ‘don’t let go of the rope.’ And when I looked back, he was gone.” Hamilton had already shot down into the well of the wave’s tunnel vortex. With an army of his peers watching and photographers and videographers documenting the moment, Laird not only rode the awesome and deadly wave, but in his signature style, carved the water and put on the show of a lifetime. When he finally emerged over the wave’s shoulder, it was clear to all that it was the heaviest wave ever ridden.
The world became aware of Laird’s groundbreaking ride via an image of him on the wave at Teahup’oo, published on the cover of Surfer magazine, that was titled: “oh my God…”
Pushing the Limits
Thanks to Laird’s big wave riding feats, his name has become synonymous with pushing surfing extremes. While he may not hold as many world championships as legends Kelly Slater or Andy Irons, he has left a legacy like no other surfer. Laird is a modern surf pioneer who dictates the future of the sport. He is fearless in the water and he is a freak in the very best possible way.