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Giant Killer

  • Written by  Richard Raptor
Hamilton uses a small board that allows him to nimbly scale and ride 50-plus-foot-swells Hamilton uses a small board that allows him to nimbly scale and ride 50-plus-foot-swells

Laird Hamilton Conquers the most ferocious waves in the world. 

Laird Hamilton minces no words; he does not fear “fear itself.”  Rather, the man known as the world’s best, bravest, and most innovative big-wave surfer embraces it.

“Every so often,” Hamilton says, “someone describes me as fearless. That’s like calling me an idiot.” Instead, he says, the adrenaline produced in confronting thunderous waves as tall and intimidating as a 10-story building is “an energy source designed to increase performance.”

 That combination of thrills and terror has resulted in rides that are utterly the stuff of legend. Hamilton’s ride on Tahiti’s

Teahupo’o break on August 17, 2000, is still spoken of with awe by the sport’s veterans. The legendary spot, a hazardous shallow-water reef break southwest of the island and known as Chopu, produces some of the most powerful cylindrical waves ever seen. Unlike the deep-water breaks of Hawaii, Chopu explodes laterally onto a shallow and sharp reef, creating an enormous “well” that sucks down huge gouts of water, forming a powerful vortex that carries water at enormous speed under, behind, and over any rider.

On that day, Hamilton dropped into what is considered the most ferocious wave ever ridden. In the documentary film Riding Giants, Darrick Doerner, pilot of the watercraft that towed Hamilton to the spot where he released, remembers that he had strong misgivings about the wave, which looked potentially deadly. “It was to the point where I almost said,‘Don’t let go of the rope,’ ” Doerner recalls. “But then I looked back and he was gone.”


Hamilton, 45, is the son of Bill Hamilton, one of North Shore Oahu’s legendary ’60s-era surfers. Today, he is one of a current generation of water gods, the half-man half-dolphin who broke the surfing “sound barrier,” devising a way to catch, ride, and survive the 50- to 100-foot tsunamis that pre-Hamiltonian surfers considered certain suicide.

The photos and videos of Hamilton toying with fearsome office-building-sized  waves are the kind of man-versus-nature images that transformed surfing from an obscure Polynesian water sport, banned by 19th-century Congregationalists in the name of their cold-climated New England god, into what became an entirely new American culture.

Millions of people, often living thousands of miles away from a coast, embraced the fashion, sport, mystique, and philosophies emanating from distant places on the planet where water, wind, and physics conspire to heave aquatic giants up from the sea floor. The result is a brief, awesome interaction between human and H20 seconds before those waves dash themselves to death, periodically taking surfers with them, in the rocky backwash of a coastal shore. It is not too much to say that even for many nonsurfers, surfing has become a religion.

The holiest place for riding giants is Waimea Bay, 20 miles north of Honolulu and a few miles short of traditional North Shore surfing spots such as Sunset Beach and the Banzai Pipeline. For a millennium, Waimea has been a sacred spot for Hawaiians.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, the spooky, intimidating “realm of the giants”— where huge breakers and boiling surf tempted and discouraged generations of wave riders with 40- and 50-foot spinal-cord snappers—became known for its murderous rocks and powerful riptides, notorious for sweeping unawares swimmers out to sea.

The challenge of Waimea Bay remained unanswered until 1957, when Greg Noll, the North Shore’s ubersurfer (he is affectionately known as “Da Bull”), brought a group of surfing fiends together to surf Waimea’s winter breaks, which were a frightening but doable 15 to 18 feet.

Ever since Noll’s Everest-scale conquest, Waimea has become one of the prime tests of surfing cojones. Since 1986, it has also served as the home of a competition held in honor of the late, legendary Hawaiian waterman Eddie Aikau, aka Mr. Waimea. Aikau was renowned as the lifeguard who saved dozens of in-distress surfers as well as acted as the peacemaker among various often-hostile North Shore surfing factions. Aikau was lost at sea at the start of a 1978 expedition to sail a replica Polynesian catamaran to Tahiti.

Today, whenever Waimea Bay’s winter waves exceed 20 feet, word goes out over the “coconut telegraph” signaling the start of the Eddie, the world’s best big-wave contest and celebration (the official name is the Quiksilver

in Memory of Eddie Aikau). Even at the Eddie,veterans generally ride out waves bigger than 25 feet. The problem with riding these giants is less a matter of careening down the flanks of an ambulating liquid mountain than of actually hitching a ride in the first place. The physics are immutable. The bigger the wave, the faster it moves and the harder it becomes to paddle to catch up with the wave’s crest. Only then can you hurl yourself out into the void, freefalling a life-threatening 20 or more feet down the wave wall before, hopefully, stabilizing at the wave’s base, where you can gain some horizontal leverage and begin the actual surfing.


Until the advent of the Age of Laird, it was surfing dogma that it was physically impossible to catch waves larger than 25 feet. Mark Foo, one of surfing’s brightest stars until he drowned during Northern California’s 1994 Mavericks Surf Contest, was renowned for having caught a 25-footer at Waimea before losing his board during the fall down the

wave. At that point, a Coast Guard helicopter swooped in and rescued him. Foo understood the price of tempting what he termed “the unridden realm.” Foo would tell fans, sadly prescient, as it turned out, “if you want the ultimate thrill, you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price.”

Big-wave surfers are a different breed from the pros who make their living on Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) tour events, winning points, trophies, cash, and ranking for their radical cutbacks, tube-shooting, length of ride, smoothness, and control. In his exceptional Stealing the Wave: The Epic Struggle Between Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo, author Andy Martin distinguishes what he calls the “20-foot-plus guys,” who, on their oversized, narrow “guns”—the towering, 12-foot-plus surfboards built for giant waves—were somehow deeper, more obsessive, warped, twisted, sublime, courageous, insane, and radically dysfunctional than their ASP brethren. The stories about the maniacal Bradshaw may sound apocryphal, but they are documented, including the incident one winter’s day at Waimea when Bradshaw, angry at Foo for “stealing” his wave, literally took a bite out of Foo’s custom surfboard after deciding that pummeling him was not enough.

Every so often, someone describes me as fearless. That's like calling me an idiot.Every so often, someone describes me as fearless. That's like calling me an idiot.In terms of his surfing personality, Laird Hamilton fits somewhere closer to the smooth and savvy Mark Foo than to the dark, obsessive Ken Bradshaw. At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Hamilton is chiseled and buff. He is the archetype of the multitalented, multisport waterman equally at home on a surfboard, sailboard, kiteboard, catamaran, wakesurf board, hydrofoil board, or stand-up paddleboard. He has made a second career as a fitness and diet guru, as well as a popular model and television actor.

For Hamilton, however, his life’s passion is the art and science of “riding giants,” which is also the title of his 2004 documentary. Hamilton is a natural, according to Greg Noll, who calls him “no question, the best big-wave surfer in the world.” In addition to riding the wave at Teahupo’o break, Hamilton is celebrated for conquering north central Maui’s Pe’ahi reef (pronounced payah-hee), a massive, murderous formation known as Jaws.

His breakthrough flash came while he was snowboarding in Montana, and it has been key to unlocking the secret of riding the world’s largest, scariest waves. Hamilton recruited a team that has helped him refine what he calls “tow-in surfing.” Borrowing from wakesurfing and waterskiing, Hamilton uses a posse of jet skis to tow him into position, slingshot him up to wave speed, and then release him at the crest of a wave of virtually any size.

Hamilton realized that with a takeoff assist, he no longer needed to use the speedy but ungainly guns to catch up to the fast-paced giants. Thus, instead of a big board, Hamilton was able to design a much smaller board that, equipped with foot grips, enabled him to maneuver nimbly down the face of the 50- to 100-foot monsters that he can now scale. At ride’s end, the jet skis move in and, in a choreographed exercise, snatch the surfer out of harm’s way before he is buried and pinned to the bottom, as was Mark Foo, by the tons of water from the collapsing curl.

Although there are critics who view Hamilton’s team approach as the antithesis of the singular surfer challenging the elements, in a matter of just a decade, Laird Hamilton’s tow-in technique has revolutionized big-wave surfing, allowing him and his surfing compatriots to shoot the curl of waves of unimaginable size and power—and come out alive. And he promises that there are more extraordinary feats to come. “I don’t want to not live,” Hamilton says, “because of my fear of what could happen.”

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Last modified on Tuesday, 14 June 2011 16:23

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