There is no bigger set of balls in the universe than the pair in Laird Hamilton’s shorts. He continues to amaze humanity by putting himself in the most harrowing situations imaginable and emerging unscathed. In contrast to the offspring of most famous parents who routinely fall short of expectations, he usurped his stepfather’s lofty position in surfing history to become the big-wave charger by which all future entrants will be measured.
It’s easy to see how Hamilton came to be the smug, aggressive, death-taunting waterman he is today. Born is San Francisco but raised on the North Shore, with the Pipeline beach as his playground, he experienced the last of the original big-wave pioneers — Greg Noll, Butch Van Artsdalen and Jose Angel — and inherited their bravado and all-around skills. Having the legendary Billy Hamilton as his stepfather afforded him a hall pass into surfing’s elite. As one of the only blonds in his school on Kauai, Hamilton experienced racism at its worst. He had to be on constant guard as he was a daily target for abuse. The ocean became even more important, providing equality with its disregard for race.
Finally, the struggle for acceptance was abandoned, and Hamilton left school for California. Not only were his looks accepted, he used them to forge a living from modeling. He returned to his old playground for a stretch in the late ’80s and made a statement with his aggression and tuberiding prowess. Formal competition has never interested him, but in daily duels at Backdoor and Pipe, he took on all comers. Like most things in Hamilton’s life, this pursuit was discarded upon mastery, and he turned his sights to a bigger quest.
Along the North Shore’s outer reefs, he began using a Jet Ski to tow in to waves that were too big to catch by paddling. Soon he took his mission to a place on Maui called Peahi. Now known as Jaws, the once unsurfable reef has been the setting for the most progressive big-wave experimentation in history. Hamilton and his “Strapped” crew, including Darrick Doerner, Dave Kalama, Pete Cabrinha and Rush Randle, have caused the biggest buzz surfing can remember. They redefined big-wave boards, trounced all over the Unridden Realm and ignited a debate between surfing’s purists — those who think Jet Skis should be banned and those who think PWCs are the link to a whole new level of big-wave surfing. One thing that cannot be debated, however, is Hamilton’s place among surfing’s elite. He is our most accomplished living waterman, equally adept at windsurfing, paddling the English Channel, longboarding or carving laybacks on the world’s biggest waves. His relentless pursuit to design and alternative methods of waveriding is unmatched.
On August 17, 2000, he again raised the bar by towing in to what was indisputably the heaviest wave ridden to date — a Teahupoo ledge that defies description. Living on Kauai with his wife, volleyball superstar Gabrielle Reece, Hamilton continues to redefine what is possible in the water. Considering the sort of waves it takes to rouse his interest, he remains active between sessions by riding motocross, mountain biking, hitting the occasional golf ball and performing any necessary tasks around his house. He has no doubts that he will ride even bigger waves in the future. “We haven’t seen what we’re capable of yet,” he insists. “It’s only a question God and Mother Nature can answer. As our equipment evolves, we’re just waiting to meet the winter of ‘69. We’re ready.” — Jason Borte, November 2000