60 Minutes Laird Hamilton profile

Posted: Jul 14, 2004

A post from “60 Minutes'” Braden Bergan:

My family isn’t shy about giving me story ideas for “60 Minutes,” but my definite favorite was Lesley Stahl’s 2004 profile of big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton.

The idea came from none other than my much-younger brother, Will. In an effort to stay close during his teen years, I stayed up late with him watching movies like Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer II. From the first time I saw Laird Hamilton using a jet ski to tow into waves too big to paddle into, I was fascinated. How could anyone surf waves that giant? Laird is a huge guy, but he looked about as big as a cricket, zooming down walls of water 50-feet tall.

In the summer of 2003, I was in Los Angeles working on a story that had nothing to do with surfing. But surfers seemed to be everywhere, reminding me of those movie nights with my brother. I began to wonder whether I could possibly “pitch” a story to Lesley Stahl about big-wave surfing. I couldn’t quite imagine it. But since I was in California anyway, I contacted Laird’s manager and the next thing I knew, I was calling Will to tell him that Laird and I were having lunch the following day. He told me flat-out that if I ended up doing a story on Laird Hamilton, I’d better make sure he got a surf lesson!

Laird and I had a great talk at lunch, and he told me how he developed “tow-in” surfing and why he feels compelled to ride the biggest waves in the world. Once I got back to New York, I shared the idea with Shari Finkelstein, one of Lesley’s producers. At first, Shari laughed. But she also listened as I explained how Laird had revolutionized the sport with the addition of the jet ski. And then I showed her footage of Laird surfing waves that looked like sky-scrapers. It didn’t take long for Shari to agree to produce the piece with me, and even better, she went with me to convince Lesley that the time had come for a 60 Minutes correspondent to hit the waves. By November, we were all in Maui with Laird and some very big waves.

One of my favorite moments during the shoot was when our sound-man, Matt Magratten, had the brilliant idea to put a wireless microphone on Laird’s life vest. As you can see when you view the piece, Lesley was able to watch from a helicopter while Laird talked to her about each wave . . . while surfing it. I’ve seen a lot of surf movies, but I’d never seen this. And after the story first aired, it was one of the things that people found most remarkable.

P.S. So, my brother never did get that surf lesson from Laird, but on my last day in Hawaii, I figured it was finally time for me to learn, first-hand, what this sport was all about. Laird wasn’t my teacher. The waves weren’t walls of water, and luckily there were no cameras rolling. It turns out that I am much better at watching waves than riding them.