The Laird Hamilton Interview | "I Always Believed I Could Do Great Things"
"When you don’t see, you step into the unknown, and that’s usually where the fear is...”
“I think there are a certain percentage of us that in the interests of mankind have a mechanism that allows us to go against all of our cautiousness. We’re using that same mechanism that was a human condition for the evolution of our species."
The man behind the words is Laird Hamilton, the greatest big wave surfer of all time and a pioneer in the world of board sports and beyond. He’s sitting opposite me at a small table in an inconspicuous cafe in Piha, a small coastal settlement in New Zealand.
“There’s not a person who’s great at what they do who didn’t think that they could be great when they started..."
Laird has left his Hawaiian home to fulfil his duties as an ambassador of the Ultimate Waterman, a contest which aims to find the world’s best all-round water-based athlete through a series of gruelling challenges.
In truth, Laird is the ultimate waterman. He’s invented or popularised a whole host of disciplines, from stand-up paddling to foil boarding to tow-in surfing, which allowed riders to catch waves above 20ft for the first time.
He’s taken on 70ft waves when nobody else thought possible, and revolutionised the entire big wave scene in the process. He’s shaped the manner in which we tackle the ocean time and time again, risking his life against the unknown like none other on the planet. And he knows the impact that he’s had.
As charismatic and convincing as he is theoretical, Laird's opening quote may read fanciful at best and wildly narcissistic at worst, but the conviction in his voice and the contentment of his character means he almost surprisingly doesn’t come across as arrogant. Rather, he's entirely compelling.
The scale of ego simply doesn’t seem to apply to a man who lives in his own world of creation, curiosity, trial, error and adventure. It’s a world where very few outside opinions matter and anything outside of the mantra – health, innovation, exploration – won’t make it near centre stage.
It’s a world where fear exists only as a form of understanding rather than as a warning, and it’s a world that is absolutely hypnotic to look into from the outside.
“I always say that people only do dangerous things in three ways; in fear, ignorance or denial," he said. “Everyone involved in these kinds of sports has a certain amount of each of those.
“I think that if you’re conscious and you really assess things, and it is a dangerous situation, then you should have a little bit of fear. It comes from instinct, and that’s been around a lot longer than waves and kites and jet skis.
“When you see and learn, you skip the unknown. When you don’t see, you step into the unknown, and that’s usually where a lot of the fear is"
“But there’s fear and then there’s being scared because you understand what’s going on; you respect what is going on and you understand how dangerous the situation you’re in actually is.
“People chalk us off as being ‘adrenaline junkies’ because they’re really not being realistic about this being an inner thing that we’ve had for millions of years. It’s something that’s in us that we express through adrenaline and these things we do. We tap into this core thing and that’s why we love it."
Never did Laird show this understanding better than at Teahupo’o in the year 2000, when he rode the 70ft monster which would become known as the Millennium Wave - and which would completely revolutionise the sport.
Tow-in surfing was still a relatively new concept at the time, being scorned by critics, whose argument would be dealt a serious blow by Hamilton’s astounding ride. There was simply no way he or anyone else would have been able to ride that wave that day without a tow.
As Laird let go of the rope and carved his way down the wave, the South Pacific Ocean rose up behind him like a blue wall, curving over and crashing down uncontrollably. A huge foam ball exploded out the side of the wave and covered the surfer. Four seconds later, out of the impossible whiteness, rode Laird Hamilton, as cool as you like.
Laird’s improvisation on that day, dragging his backhand along the wave to avoid getting sucked into oblivion, was one of it not the most significant rides in the history of surfing, redefining what was possible for the entire scene.
If there was ever a time for fear, that was it. Nobody had ever taken on a wave nearly as big as the one Hamilton rode that day. It was dubbed “the heaviest wave ever ridden" at the time, splashed on the front cover of Surfer Magazine next to the simple caption “Oh my God...", and in an era of 20ft waves, it was an absolute gamechanger.
He continued: “That was all about faith. Believing I could. That wave in Teahupo’o was a wave we didn’t know existed. We hadn’t seen waves like that. In my world, when I was a kid, I went to every surf movie, I knew all of the best surfers in the world, I was in the middle of all it... but a wave like that did not exist, and the ability to ride that wave in any form didn’t exist either.
“Somehow I understood that this wave was there though and that I could ride it. And that’s where the faith comes in. I had this dream that I could ride this wave and do it in a way that I didn’t know for sure was possible.
“Part of it is the ability to be able to see things differently enough to understand what it means to implement it. When people are innovating something they usually have that ability to understand before they see it.
“That’s the whole; ‘monkey see, monkey do’ thing. It’s hard to be the monkey who doesn’t see and does, because that’s how we normally learn.
“When you see and learn, you skip the unknown. When you don’t see, you step into the unknown, and that’s usually where a lot of the fear is – even though it really shouldn’t be, because it’s insane to be scared of something that you don’t know."
He speaks fast, unstuttering and self-assuredly when it comes to philosophical matters; preaching tried and tested theories about how to live life to the full. And they're convincing to listen to, as well.
And yet all the principles and characteristics that make up the man come from humble childhood origins, not all positive.
Laird was jumping from 60ft cliffs into water by the time he was just seven years old. His indomitable, reckless fixation with the unknown was deep-rooted, and his resilience built from the discrimination he endured growing up as a tall, fair-skinned blonde in Hawaii, where his single mum moved when Laird was just a toddler.
“Sometimes I see things. I see the potential to do something differently..."
He chalks a lot of his defiant, aggressive nature down to that discrimination, admitting: “It already put me out there as someone who was different. So I would think ‘well if I do something stupid and people think that it’s bad, I don’t actually care because you already don’t like me because of the way I was born’.
“I think I was fortunate enough to see the result of discouragement on other people and learn from that. I give a lot of it to my mum and the ability to believe in yourself against all the odds, against people telling you you’re going to be no good and using that as fuel to drive you instead of drown you.
“That’s where the willingness to fail comes in, and to not be deterred by peer pressure or by other people discouraging you. They say if you have a great idea then not to tell anybody for a year, because if you do then they’ll just discourage you from doing it, because that’s how humans are."
Safe to say Laird has had a few great ideas. From his first, the foil board, “the most efficient wave riding vehicle ever created", to popularising the stand-up paddle board to the derision of many surfing-purists and doing the same for kitesurfing off the coast of Hawaii way back in 1996.
It doesn’t stop when he gets out the water, either. Laird’s latest invention is the “GolfBoard", a golf buggy-meets-surfboard for riding around the course. The American has always been as much of an innovator as he is an athlete, often, he admits, as much out of necessity and boredom as anything else.
“I would say that most of my inventions have been for pretty selfish reasons," he laughs. “I would like to say I was so smart that I thought these ideas up because I knew what they were going to do but it was more out of my desire and interest to try and do new things.
“My friend calls me a contrarian and in a way I never accepted that things were the way they were. I have a fortune to sometimes be able to see things before they happen. I can understand and see the potential to do something differently.
“Because sometimes it’s not that you came up with an original idea before anyone else, but that you just understood what the idea meant. At one point someone might say “we were towing before you were towing"... and I’m like okay, well if you did, then you didn’t fully understand what it meant, because you didn’t implement it.
“I think that it comes down to boredom and wanting to have an impact. Maybe it’s short-attention span! After a while if I’m doing the same thing over and over again I just want something new.
He continued: “My mother was a cultivator of imagination; she would read me the Lord of the Rings when I was young. Before I could even read she had read me the whole trilogy and lots more.
“And some of it was just out of necessity. If you’ve got only got one bike and it’s broken, what do you do? You learn how to ride it broken. You don’t have a choice!
“Thomas Edison, the great inventor, said that all you need to be an inventor is an imagination and a pile of junk. I had the junk. When I was a kid, I used to ride broken pieces of adult surfboards or reject prototypes from a shaper. That’s all there was.
Our ‘strict’ 15 minute interview slot felt like it came to a close in a matter of minutes. A quick look at the clock confirmed it had actually been closer to double that time.
It was a mesmerising conversation and a fascinating insight into one of the greatest athletes in action sports history; a man who never won any form of championship in surfing or regularly competed – “I hate being told what to do. Competition restricts creativity" – but yet can still lay claim to being one of the greatest to ever ride a wave.
It’s a tale of invention, reinvention, risk, reward and going above and beyond fear to do what has never even been considered before. And for Laird, it’s been a journey of fate as well.
“I always believed that I could be well known or do great things," he concludes. “There’s not a person who’s great at what they do who didn’t think that they could be great when they started.
“You don’t arrive at a place that you first didn’t set out to get to in some way. You maybe didn’t know what it was going to look like but you had a mind that you were going to go to the top of the mountain – you might not have known what mountain, but you knew you were going to the top."
It’s safe to say that Hamilton’s legacy is one that has been formed from taking on mountains that had never been scaled before; mountains that held views of the future from their summit.