By Steve Sjuggerud // Featured in the FALL 2010 Edition of Standup Journal
“Anytime I’m doing something new and doing it alone, I just wonder, am I crazy? Is this really as great as I think it is?” Laird Hamilton’s talking a mile a minute… and he has been for a few hours. We’re on a private beach in Malibu, where Laird spends his summers surfing and training.
He’s telling stories about his early days of standup paddling, and he’s sharing big ideas about the future. He’s articulate, thoughtful, and animated. Even better, he’s as stoked as a 12-year-old kid.
As the stories go by, the reality hits me: Before you and I had ever even thought about it, Laird Hamilton had already done it on a paddleboard.
- Standup paddled into “Jaws” – the world’s biggest, most dangerous wave.
- Paddled across the English Channel.
- Ridden Alaska’s Turnagain Arm tidal bore for miles.
- Paddled the Grand Canyon.
- Paddled across the entire Hawaiian Islands.
He accomplished these extraordinary feats years ago, when nobody cared…
There was no board or paddle available. There was no Standup Journal. This wasn’t yet a sport. He was just figuring it all out… For example, he paddled the Grand Canyon with a kayak-style double-bladed paddle. There were no “rules” yet. He was just paddling for the challenge… just to see if it could be done.
While a couple others were getting into it for fun, Laird was already doing the impossible. As early as 2003, he’d paddlesurfed the world’s biggest, heaviest wave – Jaws. (This is documented in the movie All Aboard the Crazy Train).
Look, the “tree” of standup paddling has many branches today – big-wave surfing, flatwater cruising, running river rapids, distance races, and more – but Laird is at the tree’s trunk.
The things he accomplished years ago – on pretty bad equipment by today’s standards – are still at the pinnacle of the sport today. For example, few if any could standup paddle the big waves of Jaws today as well as Laird did in 2003. And few if any would join him on an endurance paddle across the entire chain of the Hawaiian Islands like the one he did in 2006.
While many others have made highly valuable contributions to the sport, it’s our opinion that Laird Hamilton is the most important name in the short history of modern standup paddlesurfing.
For this, we felt that the honor of “Man of the Year” simply wasn’t enough… Laird is really the Man of the Sport.
And it’s not just about paddlesurfing…Laird Hamilton might just be the world’s best surfer…
If you’re honest, the list is short today – it’s either Laird or Kelly Slater. Kelly Slater is the obvious choice as the nine-time world champion. But if you define surfing simply as “riding a wave” then Laird has a legitimate claim at the top spot… Laird has undisputedly mastered riding the world’s most treacherous waves, on the widest variety of equipment (shortboards, longboards, towboards, foilboards, sailboards, kiteboards, and, of course, now standup paddleboards). Heck, he was an innovator in many of those sports.
Laird’s life has been well-documented – up until exactly 10 years ago, when he rode “The Wave” at Teahupoo in Tahiti. At the time, The Wave was the thickest, scariest wave anyone had ever ridden.
Laird towed into that wave by jet ski – a technique that he pioneered with some friends on Maui 17 years ago. (Like standup paddling, surfers didn’t welcome Laird’s innovation of towsurfing at first. But Laird’s tow techniques are now the norm for catching monster waves.) Laird was already considered the world’s premier big-wave rider when he rode The Wave. The Wave was simply an exclamation point to a fantastic surfing career. Laird had nothing left to accomplish. His story to that point was covered well in the feature film Riding Giants (a must-see movie).
It’s been 10 years since The Wave… And we haven’t heard much from Laird since then. So we started our conversation on the beach from The Wave…
“Laird, if The Wave was an exclamation point at the end of your career, as people thought at the time, then where does standup paddling fit in?”
From here on out, the words you read are Laird’s…
Getting hooked on standup
What I accomplished towing at Jaws and Tahiti was a parenthesis to this standup thing, because of the effect it’s going to have on people. Maybe I say that because this is now, and that was then.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s still some stuff to be done in big waves. We know that it’s humanly possible to ride bigger waves. But with standup… it’s going to be huge.
I first did it in the early 1990s with Dave Kalama, with a canoe paddle and tandem surfboards. We were at an Oxbow photo shoot at Ma’alaea. But I really got into it later, coming here [to Malibu]… spending my summers in L.A. with my family, training in small waves.
The tree of standup paddling has many branches today, and Laird is at the tree’s trunk
I need to train for big waves, and nothing will make you stronger for riding big waves than standup paddling. It gives your feet and your legs and your toes all this stability and strength. Then you learn how to manipulate a 12-footer, get it to turn and cutback and move around… After that when I get back on my tow boards they seem like toys.
In the beginning I’d gotten some Bill Hamilton tandem surfboards for teaching my kids how to surf. Just standard tandem12-footers.
I thought “The better you can surf that board, the better you can ride with someone on the board.” I didn’t want to be learning how to deal with a 12-footer with my daughter on it. So I started practicing just surfing on those boards.
I’d go surf ‘em… and I’d kick out of the wave and still be standing on the way back out… with no wave… Things just started going through my mind…
I’d never seen standup paddle surfing before, per se. I saw a guy standing in Waikiki – Mr. Ah Choy. When I saw him, he wasn’t surfing or riding waves and stuff. He was taking pictures of tourists. Gerry Lopez also talks about somebody in the 1950s that did it [ed note: that was John Zapatocky, now 92 years old].
When I went back to Maui, guys would see me paddling and catching waves at Ho’okipa and go “What is he doing?” But I’d already put my time in here at Malibu – three to five months of paddling around, riding little waves using the paddle.
It’s amazing how – if you encourage somebody – how much strength you give ’em –Laird
Dave [Kalama] got into it too… I watched Kalama go from standup paddling once in a while to most of the time. That’s what’s happened to a lot of the guys… That’s the sign that I’m not crazy… that it is as great as I think it is… On driving along the coast and seeing so many people paddlingThose for me… those are my trophies…
That’s my trophy case. When I’m driving and see somebody paddling by, it looks so nice.
It makes me feel very good…When I see your Journal…When I see people out doing it…When people tell me stories about doing it…I see the joy it brings to people.
I get chicken skin when people tell me things like “Oh man, standup paddling is so great – it changed my life: I lost three waist sizes; I lost 40 pounds.” That’s my Emmy, that’s my Oscar. Those are my rewards for the time I’ve put in.
The best part of the whole thing is the inspiration it has given long-time surfers…These older guys that are burned out, whose necks are tweaked and their rotators cuffs are jammed. You see them now and they’ve just got these grins on their faces. They’re like, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had.” If there’s just one guy like that, I can have a thousand people scream at me… I don’t even care. It’s all worth it for those guys. The joy it brings them… You can’t put a price on that.
Sometimes when something new comes along, surfers get so resistant to it. It’s like “No, I surf and this is what I do.” You’ve got to be open to the joy. Sup is surfing – it’s like, this is as surfing as you can get. Technically, standup paddling is Hawaiian, it’s waterman, it’s everything that we love about all the things that we do.
This is my format for continuing to be in the water…continuing to love to be in the water, continuing to be inspired in the water, continuing to figure out ways to feel accomplished and successful.
The Hawaii 500 adventure, or, as Laird calls it, “The Hawaii Five Uh-Oh”
We paddled across the Kauai channel, like 88 miles. Dave Kalama and I actually did the whole Hawaiian chain in six days [covering 450 miles]. It’s something that I’d wanted to do for a long time.
The last stretch from Oahu to Kauai was the toughest one. We paddled 16 hours before we could even see Kauai… And then it got smaller because of the winds and currents against us. That’s a real sight.
The captain of my escort boat then told me “You guys are going about a half knot.” I thought “Well that’s good… that means it’ll only take 176 more hours… It’s going to be a while.” Somebody else had paddled this channel in 21 hours with a trade wind. We paddled into the wind and did it in less than 20 hours, after we’d completed all the other islands in the days before.
I don’t know if all the biking and paddling in the days before hurt us or helped us [the challenge also includes biking certain sections]… I think it helps. In a way you get momentum and you get in a rhythm.
When these “crossings” are cause-related, you just have a different energy. [Laird did the Hawaii 500 to raise money for autism, and made the documentary A Path of Purpose about it.] You think about your own pains and realize they are nothing. They are temporary. They go away.
Why train so hard?
My biggest thing is to always be ready… My Super Bowl is what she [the ocean] delivers… this winter, next winter [in huge waves]. You don’t know when. I just want to be ready.
Honestly, for me, what is it? Besides doing all this stuff, ultimately my goal is to keep evolving, and keep looking for another way.
I’m working on a couple things right now that are inspiring me as well. The process is a slow, arduous one. The R&D of new things just takes time.
Nothing happens quickly. You have a prototype made, something breaks; nothing happens in a hurry.
On handling fear in waves
With 50-foot-plus faces that can kill you, people go “Hey man, you’re not scared.” They just don’t realize… I’m the most scared.
The most scared guy probably runs the fastest, jumps the highest, and has incredible vision. Nothing like fear to get you in line… and make you smart… and make you aware. That’s what the waves deserve… they deserve my respect and fear. Our fear is respect.
I remember when we first started at Jaws – it was all about taking care of each other. You asked me about saving a Japanese windsurfer once at Jaws… Well, he had “the look.” He was scared. Dave Kalama dropped me off next to him in the whitewater. I just sort of got the guy’s attention and said “HEY… It’s all good.” As soon as I said that he was cool.
It’s nothing that I wouldn’t hope someone would do for me. Do unto others. It’s a simple thing… implementing it isn’t always so easy.
I don’t have to like you to save you. I don’t have to know you to save you. I can even dislike you and I’ll still save you. Doesn’t mean I won’t give you an earful. At the end I’m not worried about hurting feelings when it’s about survival.
I can’t always put the time in to make people understand the human side of me. The people that I care about know me.
We try not to take ourselves too seriously. There’s a time to be serious… and it’ll be known to you when it’s time. Let’s enjoy ourselves between those times.
On friction with surfers in the lineup
I had a situation last year where somebody came to visit me on Kauai. He paddled out to Hanalei Bay, and he started paddling around people to get their waves. I watched him the first day and thought “you can’t do that.” The second day I paddled up to him and said “Did you take your number?” And he looked at me like “What do you mean?” And I said “Did you take your number? You know, for your turn? There’s a queue here… a line.
We’re surfing… we’re sharing. It’s a part of what we do in surfing.” I try to sympathize with surfers, because I’m a surfer. I’ve been out in lineups on my little 5’6” when 30 construction workers were on their 12-foot boards. I had to take off on waves deep in the pit. I had to paddle behind them and ride behind them. I can relate to the frustration that brings. But it doesn’t make it wrong; it’s just frustrating. Nobody owns the ocean.
Part of the issue is the newness of the sport. Everyone is learning, which means you’re going to have problems with beginners. You have to educate people…
If I see somebody doing something really dumb with no control while there are kids on the inside, I’ll go up to them and say “No disrespect to you, but you don’t have complete control yet. So move over, learn how to surf a bit better, and then you can come back into the lineup.”
Funny thing is, people will fight you for a 2-foot wave at Malibu… but they’ll give you a 20-foot wave. “Oh sure… you can have that one!”
When it’s 2 feet they’re screaming. When it’s 20 feet, the ocean takes care of it.
Who impresses Laird in standup?
When I go to Tahiti I’m always impressed with the locals…
Raimana [van Bastolaer] and those boys… If it has to do with paddling and surfing you know it’s a no-brainer for them with their background. The last time I went there to standup paddle they were blowing my mind. It’s no surprise but it’s always interesting to watch them. It’s cool and it’s a great thing.
You have a guy like Jamie Mitchell – laying down, standing up, windy, clean, you name it – he’s impressive. Then you have guys like Robby Naish… standing up, kiting, whatever. And Dave Kalama… he’s always at the top of the heap for me. Dave’s such an understated man.
We have Kai Lenny in the new generation of multi-taskers. He’s fortunate to have all the [new and good] equipment. I know there are a lot of guys out there, but I haven’t seen many of them yet.
I’m still here. So I haven’t failed yet! [Laird laughs.] In all honesty I haven’t failed yet. You ask me what success and failure is… success is that I’m still HERE in all senses of the word… You know, I’m still with my kids and with my wife. And I’m riding giant waves and I’m foiling. And I’m standup paddling, and I’m crossing channels… I’m still HERE.
They ask my friend Don Wildman [Laird’s 77-year-old training partner], “When are you going to stop training?” And he says, “When they throw the dirt on the box!” Don Wildman is the master… I look at him as the guru. [Don founded Bally Health and Fitness.] Personally I don’t think that I’ve ever been in a better place in my life as far as having all the pieces together. I’ve never trained harder. I haven’t been stronger. I haven’t been more flexible.
I have had more sleep before… but that was before I had children [laughs].
The age thing is a cop out… it’s an excuse. A lot of times people are burned out. But there is no stopping.
Stopping what? Stopping living? I don’t think so.
Some things may change… but you’re not stopping living. There continue to be challenges that I’m excited about.
I’m happy to be alive… I’m happy to be able to do all the stuff I’m able to do.