The legendary waterman on pursuing his ‘art’.

In an exclusive interview, the legendary waterman tells HUCK about his estranged father, his distrust of people, his love for red wine and Jimi Hendrix, and his boundless commitment to pursue what he calls his ‘art’.

It’s 2:15 on a Thursday afternoon. I’m in southwest France, the weather’s pretty good, and I’m about to meet Laird Hamilton. I should be stoked, not least because Laird has been a hero of mine for years. But instead I’m walking gingerly from my hotel to my meeting, head pounding, eyes squinting from the glare of the sun, body aching as if I’ve been pounded with a sledgehammer all night. My condition, as I am about to meet the epitome of health, vitality and masculinity, could be better. The problem is that I was whisked off to a party thrown by Laird’s sponsor, Oxbow, the previous night. This shouldn’t have been a problem at all, but I am to free champagne what Laird is to big waves: totally fearless. I’ll take on as many glasses as you like. Trouble is that unlike the Hawaiian waterman, I suffer for my art. Laird is apparently indestructible but come Thursday lunchtime I’m barely capable of stringing a sentence together. Worse still, the interview – originally scheduled for Friday – has been brought forward by a day.

Spencer, the photographer, calls to tell me this. I groan, tell him I’ll see him soon, and haul myself down to Les Cavaliers beach, the scene of the Oxbow Pro World Longboard Championships. As I’m walking along the well-heeled roads of Anglet I find myself thinking of Al Alvarez’s Feeding the Rat. Alvarez, an acclaimed writer and poet, wrote the book as a testament to his long-time climbing partner, Welsh legend Mo Anthoine. Anthoine explained his compulsion to keep pushing himself, to take ever-greater risks, by the notion of feeding a rat that lurked perpetually inside him:

The rat is you, really. It’s the other you, and it’s being fed by the you that you think you are. And they are often very different people. But when they come close to each other, that’s smashing, that is. Then the rat’s had a good meal and you come away feeling terrific.

Just as I’m wondering if Laird’s life is explicable via the same metaphor, the man himself appears.

“Hey guys, how’re you doing?”

So says Laird as he ambles up to Spencer and me at dead on 2:30. Smiles all round as I lie and say, “Very good, thanks, how are you?” We shake hands and I’m relieved that the expected bone-crusher of a handshake doesn’t happen. Laird is genial, relaxed, full of bonhomie. He is also somehow not as physically imposing as I’d imagined. Without further ado, he and Spencer set off for the photo shoot, and again Laird is all smiles and conviviality. I watch him disappear with Spencer and reflect that, actually, when all is said and done, he is huge. He’s 6’3” tall and weighs in at 220 pounds of pure muscle. That’s a heavyweight in anyone’s books, and it occurs to me that maybe he didn’t seem overwhelming just then because he chose not to be. As I sit waiting for the shoot to end, my head starts to clear and I cast my mind back over Laird’s life. As I do so, an idea crystallises: Laird Hamilton is a man who, from a very early age, showed an almost preternatural ability to make exactly the right choices for whatever situation he happened to find himself in.

It started before he’d even got to school. Laird and his mother, JoAnn Zyrik Zerfas, had recently moved from California to Hawaii. It’s impossible not to speculate that the move had its genesis in the ‘go west’ mantra of the American Dream: west in search of riches and betterment, and, in JoAnn’s case, the chance to start a new life after her alcoholic Greek husband walked out on her when Laird was an infant. Once in the promised land, a visit to Oahu’s North Shore gave rise to a chance meeting that would change the course of modern surfing.

Laird was bodysurfing as sixties longboard style-master and big-wave charger Bill Hamilton walked along the beach. The story has been retold by both men many times, not least in Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants, and if Laird’s age at the time of this fateful meeting tends to vary – sometimes he is two, others three, while Peralta’s film has him as a four-year-old – there is no doubting its essence. Hamilton senior, one of the North Shore’s most accomplished surfers and shapers, went bodysurfing with Laird, and their bond was instantaneous.

Laird, fatherless, knew exactly what he wanted. “I want you to be my Daddy,” he said to Bill, then not even twenty. He took Bill to meet JoAnn, and another immediate bond materialised: the pair fell in love and married soon after. As Bill has said of Laird: “He’s been bold since Day One.”

Laird’s decisiveness continued to set him apart as he grew up on the North Shore, a Caucasian among Hawaiians, superficially the incarnation of the haoles who decimated native Hawaiian culture. He learned to stand his ground and fight, and stories abound of the times he was only too ready to shoot first, ask questions later. He hurled himself, aged eight, from high cliffs adjacent to a waterfall (as Bill looked on) and he proved himself in the coliseum that is the North Shore. He decided to quit school at sixteen and become a model, but despite being good enough for the pro surfing circuit knew even then that this would not be his theatre. To Laird, indeed, contest surfing was more in the nature of a circus. Instead, he set out on a watersports odyssey, paradoxically animated throughout by the kind of competitive drive that dominates all great sportsmen, from Muhammad Ali to Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher to Kelly Slater.

I’m reflecting on all this and beginning to think that there might be a darker side to Laird. His life – or, as I learn is his term for it, his art – is simply too extreme for him to be merely the affable individual I met a little earlier. Just then he reappears, all one-liners and amiability. My hangover assails me as if to remind me of my unworthiness, but I hold it together and off we go to have a coffee. Or rather, I have a coffee. “I’ve had so much coffee all day that I’m overdosing on it,” says Laird.

If Laird escaped the contest carousel, he did not evade its close cousin – the media circus. He has been with Oxbow for sixteen years and with the release of Riding Giants acquired fame beyond the world of surfing. He is married to Gabrielle Reece, a professional volleyball player and model, and the duo form a kind of uber-couple among celebrity pairings: she is as tall, statuesque and downright perfect as he is square-jawed, muscular and handsome. It was that streak of decisiveness that took Laird to Gabrielle: he met her when married to Brazilian bodyboarder Maria Souza (with whom he has a daughter, Izabela), when Gabrielle interviewed him for The Extremists, an American cable TV show. Just one week after the meeting Laird had left Maria to be with Gabrielle in Los Angeles.

A psychologist might wonder at Laird’s replication of his biological father’s behaviour, and it is said that when he returned to Maui with Gabrielle, many of his friends questioned his actions. And yet, as we get talking, it is impossible not to warm to him. He answers every question with openness and sincerity, and seems wholly at ease with an existence in the public eye. As he puts it:

“I like people, I like engaging with them and communicating, so I don’t find it difficult to do the promotional stuff. I appreciate the opportunity to do so – I have a responsibility to the kids and the media. It’s all part of my job. It’s an honour that people want my autograph. You should worry when people stop asking for it.”

This, though, offers a radical contrast with his avowed devotion to all things oceanic. This is the man who pioneered the journey into ‘the unridden realm’, riding giant waves – most notably at Jaws on Maui – as if they were no more threatening than a benign six-foot pointbreak. This is also the man who, at Teahupoo on 17 August 2000, took surfing to a place that no one could have imagined. That day, Laird dropped into a wave of diabolical proportions, one whose lip and face was so thick and unforgiving that a fall would have meant certain death. Somehow, he conceived of a low crouch with the hand of his trailing arm almost level with the outside rail of his board, an instinctual act to counter the hydraulics of the wave and one which saw him spat out, alive and unscathed, to the astonishment of the surfing world. And instinctual is the word, for only Laird Hamilton could have ridden that wave, in that way, at that time. For all his protestations about enjoying the responsibilities of fame, does he feel more at home in the water than on land?

“It’s true that I like to be alone too, and I get that in the ocean. The ocean gives me solitude – there’s no access, no one can get at you there. When I’m out there I feel like I wouldn’t come to shore if I didn’t have to eat and drink.”

Perhaps this is why he exudes nothing but confidence when surfing at Jaws, Teahupoo or any other potentially deathly break. He is able to surf these places because, quite simply, he feels most at home in their environments. But does he ever feel afraid?

“I feel fear – you have to. It’s part of the respect for the ocean that you have to have. If you’re not fearful you’re ignorant and blind. So I feel afraid, yes, although I also feel totally at home in the ocean.” He adds that he also loves his family time: “When I’m back from this trip I’ll spend as much time as I can with my family.”

Laird has another daughter with Gabrielle – Reece Viola, born in 2003. As a family man myself I can empathise all too easily with the desire to get home to one’s children after time away. What I struggle to understand, though, is how you can put yourself in a near-death situation when you’ve got kids.

“That’s a fairly asked question,” says Laird. “I’ve thought about the answer a lot. I want people to value me for who I am, and the ocean is who I am. I brought my kids into the world – they didn’t ask to be born – but it seems to me to be wrong if I stop being myself because of them. It’d almost be cheating them.” He adds that he gets more afraid flying than surfing, and then says: “Surfing is what I do. It’s where I’m comfortable. The ocean is reliable. It’s consistent. People aren’t.”

That Laird should characterise people as ’unreliable’ resonates with some irony given his day-to-day life as a big-wave tow-in surfer. Ever since he and an elite crew including the likes of Buzzy Kerbox, Dave Kalama and Darrick Doerner started towing in at Jaws in the early 1990s, Laird’s living has entailed placing complete trust in his fellow watermen. In other words, he needs people – those inconsistent, unreliable beings – to be as predictable as the ocean. He cites Dave Kalama – his regular tow-in partner – as the waterman for whom he has the most respect: “He’s exceptional. He respects the ocean and puts himself on the line every time. You can’t not respect that.”

Many of the eulogies about Laird talk in awed terms of how he ‘conquered’ Teahupoo and ‘mastered’ Jaws, but the man himself does not agree with such metaphors. Indeed, respect is absolutely key to Laird’s existence: “Surfing’s not about conquering the ocean. You’re given an allowance and you survive moments. When you surf a wave well, you’re maximising the ocean’s allowance – that’s all it is. You’ve been allowed to be on that wave. You need to keep this in mind and be careful not to set yourself up to get spanked. There’s no discrimination in the sea, no referees, no time-out, no room for being ‘too tired’, it’s just you in the sea. You don’t go around telling everyone about the big waves you’ve ridden, showing them posters – you let your actions speak louder than words.”

Laird’s latest oceanic challenge sees him reviving stand-up paddle-surfing. He has paddle-surfed big waves at Jaws and plans to do so at Teahupoo. He tells me that he still windsurfs as much as ever, keeps fit by dragging logs in the sand, running up and down sand dunes and peddling up hills holding his breath; that he has snowboarded in Alaska for the past sixteen years and enjoys shooting a bow and arrow (though he adds that he doesn’t like killing things). He likes cycling, and loves Jimi Hendrix.

“There’s a big connection between music and surfing,” he says, his ochre-yellow eyes intense and penetrating. “They’re both about fluidity and rhythm. Especially Hendrix. There’s a lot in Hendrix that can be applied to surfing.”

Curiously, of all the things this multi-talented waterman does, what he calls ‘normal surfing’ is not often one of them. “It’s the thing I do least of,” he says, reiterating that he sees paddle-surfing as offering “more than I can handle right now.” The reason for his gravitation to it is, though, straightforward: “It’s a way of bringing surfing back to its individual essence.”

We’re nearing the end of a lengthy interview, one in which Laird has been loquacious and charming to a fault. I realise that my hangover vanished some time ago and wonder if Laird ever drinks too much. It doesn’t seem his style, but he says that he likes red wine, and, with a wry smile, adds that he sometimes indulges too much. He is so relaxed, so easy to talk to, that I decide to venture into potentially awkward territory.

“Did you ever meet your biological father?” I ask.

Laird replies without hesitation. “Yes, I did. I tracked him down when I was twenty-one. It was something that I felt I had to do.”

How did it go?

For once, Laird seems a little vague. “Meeting him answered my questions,” is all he seems to want to say, but then he elaborates. “A Dad is someone you have childhood memories with, but that wasn’t the case. Instead I had multiple other fatherly influences, from Bill Hamilton to Don Wildman, Brian Kennelly and Paul Miller. They were all good, positive male role models. My real Dad surfed when he was with my mother and we shared a lot of genetic similarities, but that was it. We had nothing other than genetics in common. He died a couple of years ago, when I was forty-one.”

Had his father’s early abandonment contributed to Laird’s extraordinary drive?

“I guess so. I did have some built-in resentment, yes, because he hadn’t supported my mother.”

If resentment is a factor in Laird’s achievements, those who share an element of childhood dysfunction would be doing well if they could sublimate it even half so successfully. In an age of celebrity, one which elevates the asinine to the features pages, Laird Hamilton stands apart, the embodiment of the human being whose life genuinely has become art. This, indeed, is exactly how he sees it: “Patient is the surfer who rides big waves, and I’m a patient man. I have to be. It’s my life’s work, my art. Surfing for me is an artistic expression. It’s who I am.”

Later that evening, I had a meal in Biarritz with Spencer. Laird’s presence, and his words, seemed to hover around us like the sea spray on the beach.

We talked in awe of his ride of the Teahupoo wave, of how he had solved an argument raging inside his mind: “Part of me kept saying ‘jump,’ another part was saying ‘don’t jump,’ and that kind of inner turmoil is normal in a situation when you feel your life is vulnerable. The argument inside went on, but on that wave time seemed to slow down. It was an extremely emotional situation, a dream come true, you’ve been gearing your life for this moment and suddenly you get the chance to experience it. That wave broke the barrier, it made it easier to do other things afterwards. It was like breaking the sound barrier or the four-minute mile.”

We spoke of Laird’s views on localism: “The worst localism seems to be in places where there’s no surf. People have nothing else to do so get into the abuse of transient users, people who don’t respect the pecking order. But there does need to be a pecking order, especially at a place like Jaws. I see a lot of guys go out at Jaws and at other breaks but they’re not experienced. This is part of the deception of tow-in surfing – you get people who aren’t that good on a wave, they get their picture taken – but they’re not really riding the wave. Often those people are jerks and they’re the ones causing hassle. You’ve got to remember that for me and other regulars there this is what we do. Waves are like gems, and they don’t come along all the time. So when they do come along the guys who’ve dedicated their lives to finding them should be respected. A pecking order helps with this. If you respect it, you’ll be OK.”

I remembered two other things. Laird does not read much – “the Bible is about the only book I read” – and he has a goal that anchors him firmly in the lineage of Tom Blake, the revolutionary waterman of the early twentieth century. Blake was a spiritual man and coined the idea of ‘the blessed church of the open sky’ to describe the environment in which his spirituality blossomed. This, too, is where Laird Hamilton – for all his undoubted contradictions and paradoxes – belongs. He might well have a rat inside him, gnawing away until its next feed, but it’s taken him to some very special places.

“My biggest objective is to remain passionate about the ocean and being in it,” he said, gesturing at the large surf pounding the shoreline at Les Cavaliers. “The biggest sin in the world would be if I lost my love for the ocean.”