Ultimate Renegades | How Laird Hamilton Forged His Status as a Surfing Pioneer

“I had a sense competition would make me aggressive. That led me to a more creative and artistic approach...”

We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. Lauded by big wave surfers like Jeep Brand Ambassador Andrew Cotton, Laird Hamilton is one of the pioneers of the tow-in movement. But that’s just one of the crazy contributions this maverick has made to the world of water sports over the years

Photo: Connor Baxter

There aren’t many people who can claim to have made history in their sport; to have redefined it and driven its progression without having regularly competed at the top.

But Laird Hamilton isn’t like many people.

The San Francisco-born innovator invented the foilboard, championed stand-up paddling and windsurfing and helped pave the way for big-wave surfing to become a globally-recognised movement.

“If you’ve only got one bike and it’s broken, what do you do? You learn how to ride it broken…”

It’s perhaps not entirely surprising though. Hamilton has been going against the grain his whole life. His mother moved him to Hawaii as an infant, and as a tall, blonde, aggressive kid, in a mostly native Hawaiian neighbourhood, he stuck out like a sore thumb.

But if he was somethign of an outside,r he was also a phenomenally talented surfer. In fact, he could have been riding on the World Championship Tour by the time he was 17, but having watched father-figure Bill Hamilton endure the politics of the waves, he decided to pursue a more creative path, eschewing contests altogether.

“I hate being told what to do,” he tells us. “I don’t want to be told to go in a competition. I feel like I’m a naturally aggressive person and those environments weren’t the best use of my skills.

Laird Hamilton takes to the waves on a foilboard, which he helped to invent. Photo: Joel Guy

“Judgement restricts creativity. If you go into a contest, you know that if you crash you’re not going to win. But if you have to stay within [those] guidelines then you’re not going to be allowed to evolve.

“I had a sense that they would make me aggressive instead of focusing on the surfing. That led me to really enjoy more of a creative and artistic approach.”

There are few people who embody the word contrarian better than Laird. The athlete has made his mark on the sport like no other, but in his own unique way. He tells us he’s never liked being told what to do, and his track record backs it up. He’s a man for whom the word “can’t” sounds like a challenge.

If there’s one moment that sums up Hamilton’s career it was this: In August 2000, when being towed in behind a jetski was still relatively unusual, he rode into the huge barrel of a terrifying wave at Teahupo’o, disappearing from the assembled photographers’ view behind a wall of spay. It had been dubbed “the heaviest wave ever ridden” and some doubted whether he’d make it out… But he did, rocketing out the tube and straight into the history books.

He explains how that wave came about: “Sometimes my creations comes out of necessity. If you’ve only got one bike and it’s broken, what do you do? You learn how to ride it broken.

“We were already riding giant surf laying down [before that wave in Teahupo’o]. Then we started windsurfing, and then one day we had the epiphany: ‘hey, what if we got towed onto one?’.

Photo: Tom Servais

“We hadn’t seen waves like that one in 2000 before. That wave didn’t exist and the way to ride it didn’t exist, but somehow I understood that I could ride it. And that’s where faith comes in.” His faith in his own abilities certainly paid off. Not only did the ride cement his own reputation, it brought the tow-in surfing new prominence.

If Laird had proved himself as a pioneer by the turn of the millennium, he became a hero in 2007 when he rescued friend Brett Lickle’s life.

Lickle was towing Hamilton into a wave on the Maui north shore when he was sliced by the fin of a surfboard, causing him to bleed in abundance, not only raising the obvious danger of being wounded far from land, but also increasing the likelihood of a shark attack.

Hamilton recovered the watercraft and fashioned Brett a bandage out of his swimsuit, a move that would ultimately save his life.

“You do the right thing when it comes the time,” Laird says. “We preach that all the time; so when the time comes, you’ve just got to make sure you do it.

“And the thing with Brett was really, well, that’s a situation where you fear less about the wellbeing of yourself than you do about that of others. When it happens to you it happens to you, you’re just dealing with yourself, but when it happens to somebody else then it’s out of your control. You can’t deal with it for them so you have to help them deal with it. I think that’s part of that mechanism that’s already built in us.

“If you go into a crowd of people and someone falls down or breaks something, there’s normally somebody there who will run out and help. Not all the time. But there are some people who will help even if it puts their own body on the line because it’s a pre-ordained mechanism.

Laird on a stand-up paddleboard – another of the sports he helped to pioneer. Photo: Joel Guy

“And those are probably the same people that are willing to go out and fly through a crack in a wingsuit. I think it’s part of that same mechanism that was a necessity for survival.”

Whether it’s talking surf history or saving lives, Hamilton is a captivating speaker; a man who answers each question in line with his own personal philosophy; one that he’s thought hard on and worked assiduously to develop.

It’s a philosophy that centres on thinking outside the box, and one that has, and still does, put Laird in a league of his own.

The Jeep Ultimate Renegades

We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. In this second installment of the series we shift our attention to surfing, asking big wave surf legend Andrew Cotton to pick out his ultimate renegades.

Renegades of Surfing

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