Laird Hamilton found fame and fortune surfing the worlds biggest breakers. But, as he tells Tim Lewis, his daredevil streak could easily have led him down more dangerous paths as a young man. Plus, he reveals his life secrets for staying ahead of the curve
Laird Hamilton has ridden many of the tallest, heaviest, fastest and longest waves ever conquered by a human being. Even people who dont like him of which there are a few have to concede that hes one of the greatest big-wave surfers of all time, if not the greatest. Even if you dont have the slightest interest in surfing, theres a decent chance youll have seen mesmerising stills or footage of Hamilton streaking down waves the size of a seven-storey building or, somehow, miraculously emerging from the wreckage of one that has curled over and smashed with the force of a Hollywood explosion.
But Hamilton, who is now 54, and who has been catching waves for half a century now (yes, he started when he was three years old) is both the archetypal surfer and not his wife Gabrielle Reece, a professional volleyball player and model, notes that he has never said the word dude in his life. In a sport famed for its laid-back vibe, he has always been driven, even ruthless. Hamilton has become a millionaire many times over, splitting his time between Malibu, California and Kauai, Hawaii, because he has become that most un-surfing thing: a brand. You can wear Laird Apparel, eat Laird Superfoods and drink the same creamer he uses to jack up his coffee.
Underneath it all, though, Hamilton still goes out on his board pretty much every day. And the tale behind how he became the most famous surfer in history is a remarkable one. I think Ive had a few lives already, he tells me on the phone from Kauai, one of the wettest spots on earth. I know I feel sometimes that Im maybe like a cat.
To start at the beginning, Lairds father was off the scene before his first birthday; Laird eventually tracked him down when he was 21, but there was little interest on either side to pursue a relationship. His mother, Joann, moved from San Francisco to Hawaii and the story goes that three-year-old Laird was messing around in the surf on Ppkea Beach one day when he got the attention of a surfer, Bill Hamilton, then 17. Joann and Bill clicked, Joann got a husband and Laird got a stepfather or, as Laird puts it now: I had an incredible mother and I had a superhero father turned into ultimate rival.
Early on, Laird found solace in water that he didnt have on land. With his blond hair and fair skin, he was relentlessly bullied by the Hawaiian kids at school. Today he would have probably been diagnosed with ADHD, but back then he was just considered wild and out of control. Bill Hamilton was young, had a fierce temper and struggled to deal with his often errant stepchild. At least once he struck him with a pipe. Going through it at the time, not so wonderful, Hamilton recalls, but what doesnt kill you makes you stronger. And the fact is that being an outcast has allowed me to do all the things Ive done. So in the end, I can only be thankful for that.
In Take Every Wave, a recent documentary made about his life, Hamiltons half-brother speculates that without surfing, Hamilton would have ended up in prison. Theres probably some truth to that, he laughs. Definitely the ocean was my saviour. It saved me from a lot of destruction. Or Id say self-destruction.
When Hamilton was in his late teens, a friend introduced him to the photographer Bruce Weber and he did some modelling. He was cast as a cartoonish baddie in the surfing film North Shore. However, while other surfers raised their profile by taking part in competitions, Hamilton never did. He says now that he hated the idea of being judged, but theres another theory: he couldnt stand losing. He guffaws. Well, Id definitely agree that Im a terrible loser. And competitions would have been disastrous. I think my nature of competitiveness is such that its not meant to be used in sport. Its meant to be used in survival.