interviews -

Laird Hamilton: Made of Stone - Huck Magazine

The world knows him as a fearless superhero who rides mountains of water. But, as Alex Wade finds out, there’s more to LAIRD HAMILTON than massive waves and daring surf antics. 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 stumbling along the well-heeled roads of Anglet, the man himself appears. “Hey guys, how’re you doing?” 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.

Later on, 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 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 honor 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 wife Gabrielle - Reece Viola, born in 2003.

As a family man myself I can empathize 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.”

To read the full version of this exclusive eight-page Laird Hamilton feature, check out Issue 006 of HUCK magazine, out now.

Alex Wade is a writer and freelance journalist. Among his various interests are surfing, poker, skateboarding and boxing. His first book, Wrecking Machine, was a Sunday Times Sports Book of the Week and his second book, Surf Nation: In Search of the Fast Lefts and Hollow Rights of Britain and Ireland, has just been published to critical acclaim by Simon & Schuster.