Laird Hamilton: A exclusive interview – Part One

Posted: Jul 21, 2010

Part One:
The iconic waterman talks about his scariest moments; life without surfing; tow and foil board design and much more. Kelly Slater is the only six-time world champion. Andy Irons owns back-to-back world titles, the last with Slater nipping at his heels. Makua Rothman rode a 60’+ wave at the age of 18. Jamie O’Brien toys with ferocious Pipeline. Lots of surfers’ exploits make them seem larger than life. But all of their exploits combined pale in comparison to Laird Hamilton’s. Laird rode the unrideable at Teahuppo. He ripped the unrippable at Peahi. He’s a champion sailboarder and a determined long distance paddler. Laird tears apart Malibu via an unconventional standup paddle surf method. He’s innovating the foilboard concept into what he thinks will be the next spin-off sport from traditional surfing. He’s the key figure in mainstream theatrical surf releases, most notably Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants. Laird Hamilton is a unique amalgamation of pioneer test pilot and waterman, a sort of Chuck Yeager meets Duke Kahanamoku, if you will. He is not only relevant, Laird Hamilton defines what will be relevant. He’s forging our surfing future— that’s right, yours and mine– at an exponential rate. And oh yeah, he hangs with James Bond. Laird came by the SURFER magazine office to discuss the Purchase the new DVD The Ride / The Day: A two-part expose into the world of Maui’s most notorious surf spot and the principals who claim her as their own. The Ride, the first segment of the DVD, was a big winner at X Dance Film Festival, receiving Best Film honors. In a unique twist to the traditional interview, the message board regulars were queried for questions to ask Laird, and they didn’t let me down. Of course the occasional “Why did you have to pull Rick Kane’s leash?” had to be tossed out. But for the most part our website regulars came up with some thoughtful and intriguing questions for Laird, and for that I am thankful. What follows is a Part One of a two part series, with Part Two to be released next week. Enjoy. – Scott Bass

SURFERMAG.COM: Let’s start off with some equipment. Towboards, could you please describe the design elements of the modern towboard: the size, the width, the rocker, the bottom contours, the weight and the materials. I noticed Derrick pointed out some Brazilian wood in part of the flick Purchase the new DVD The Ride / The Day.
LAIRD: If you look at the modern towboard it’s really similar, in design expectation, to the boards that Andy Irons or Kelly Slater, guys like that are riding. They are narrower and…someone like myself, I’m six-two and a half, my boards are around six-two and a half. Widths are below 16 inches wide, single concaves, concaves in general seem to be working pretty well…inch and a half, inch and three-quarters, inch and 5/8ths thick. I prefer solid wood boards, a spruce stringer and balsa wood.

SURFERMAG.COM: Why the wood material?
LAIRD: Wood has some absorption power that foam doesn’t have. Foam is kind of crunchy. You wouldn’t really have a foam guitar or a foam violin, there’s something about the absorption ability that wood has that I like. The dampening effect that wood creates, and then also it’s a nice core weigh to start with instead of having a light blank and glossing it real heavy. Then you have this kind of egg, kind of crunchy hard outside with a hollow interior, which adds a whole ‘nother type of rigidity or structural integrity which is different than lets say a wood core with less gloss that ends up with the same weight, or more. Strength, absorption power, overall board weight, those are some of the factors for having wood boards. Now I have foam boards that have really heavy foam with multiple stringers that are almost a similar type feeling. But I still kind of always end up [with wood]. I think my three favorite boards are balsa wood.

SURFERMAG.COM: And what about weight? What’s the average weight on one of the boards?
LAIRD: Well, our weights are fluctuating between 15 and 16 pounds, up to 21 or 22 pounds, depending on the performance you are looking for from the board and conditions you are riding in. People in places with less wind tend to talk about lighter boards, but they are able to get away with having a lighter board. It’s not that it is necessarily better, it’s just that the wind doesn’t effect the board as much. Where in our conditions, with all the wind, the heavier boards are a must.

SURFERMAG.COM: One of the things I noticed about the boards when I was watching The Ride / The Day is they seem to work unreal except when you’re dealing with chop. It seems like chop is the main issue for board design.
LAIRD: And speed, speed, speed! You know, speed makes chop more exaggerated. The faster you go the sooner you get to each one, so the more choppy it seems. You know if you’re going slow, each chop comes slower and you’re less effected by it and also chop comes in a few different ways. It comes in from the wind, it comes in from refractions off of the mountains, cliffs, jet skis. There are a bunch of factors that create chop and each chop acts differently. There are boils on the face that create bump. Everything has a different characteristic, but in general chop, yeah chop, that’s our biggest issue with going fast and trying to keep it together.

SURFERMAG.COM: When you’re designing the board, I’m wondering if there are any things you do to the board.
LAIRD: Yeah, well we try to first of all make ’em forgiving up front. Its gotta have the right nose kick, soft rails up front, softer more forgiving up front and the right rocker obviously because that’s going to set up your impact and then of course foot straps and all that become such an essential part of [the board]. That’s the main reason for being connected to the board (shrugs shoulders), just dealing with the chop, but in board design itself the weight effects chop probably the most. You know I always use the example of a light car on a bumpy road. You drive down a really bumpy road with a really light car at a high speed and the car is just bouncing all over the place. You get a big old Cadillac you know weighs four-thousand pounds and you drive down a bumpy road and you barely feel it. The tires might be vibrating under the car but the car is not jumping around, so there is something to that.

SURFERMAG.COM: Dave Kalama had some interesting fins in the DVD The Ride / The Day. Can you speak a little bit about fin design… LAIRD: Fin design has a lot to do with it. The faster we’re going, we’re going a lot faster, so we’re more sensitive to fin design. The faster you go the less fin you need, but the better foiled it needs to be. I think sometimes outline is given a little bit too much credit versus foiled shape. Sometimes the foil is more important than the outline itself or the rake. I think that you can get away with less rake or more rake on a well foiled fin than you can with a badly foiled fin.

SURFERMAG.COM: Would you say that the fin design and the foil of the fin is probably where you’re going to see more performance changes with the board? Is it kind of coming down to the fins like it has with contemporary boards?
LAIRD: Well, yeah…it is because that’s what’s creating the most drag. The fins are in the water and you got angles on them, which is creating drag. Ultimately it would be nice to get rid of the fins completely. That would be where we would love to be because that would be the least amount of drag. That’s why boogie boards go so fast, the less fin you have the faster you go. The faster you go, the less fin you need, so… We learned a lot about our fin development through windsurfing because we were able to find out a lot about cavitation.

SURFERMAG.COM: Explain cavitation?
LAIRD: Cavitation is when you get a big air pocket on the side of your fin through a bad foil and it aerates, and once there is air there, there is no lift. And then, the board goes sideways. SURFERMAG.COM: This is a good segue to the foilboards, which is the next thing I wanted to touch on. Describe the design elements of the basic hydrofoil. LAIRD: The foil itself, that’s underwater, it’s hard for people to understand how does this even work, but really it’s an airplane (spreads hands). It’s a miniature airplane and the airplane is underwater. So as soon as the airplane comes out of the water it doesn’t fly anymore (hand motion coming up). So the trick is to keep the plane below the surface. The way you fly this plane is by standing on top of it, so the way we connect the plane to the board is we use a strut. So there is an arm that connects the board to the airplane. And then you’re standing on this board but you’re really standing on a plane. You’re flying the plane by leaning forward, the plane dives; lean back; lean right, the plane turns right; lean left; and then everything in between. The only difference between the foilboard and a normal surfboard is that a normal surfboard is more one-dimensional. The surface dictates the angles of what the board does, you can’t really lift and fall on a board. You’ll turn and go on an edge or another edge and maybe you can pop and air and get off the water, but you’re not constantly riding in this kind of three-dimensional element. It’d be like if your board was able to go a foot or two below the water and then come to the surface, and that’s how you surfed your board through the water, you could actually go below the water. We can’t do that with our surfboards, but with the foilboard you are able to, so it adds a whole new element to your riding, to the way you look at what you’re doing, the way your brain evaluates what exactly is going on.

SURFERMAG.COM: Do you foresee a time when you will be able to ride the foilboard without getting up to speed with a tow. In other words…
LAIRD: Self-propelled.

SURFERMAG.COM: Yeah, do you see that?
LAIRD: Absolutely. I mean, initially maybe it’ll be like a start thing, something that just starts you. Not necessarily a boat or a kite, but maybe something like some little arm that gives you a little start, you know, you start from a little platform or something and then you start and once you’ve started you can fly around on it. But eventually we should be able to get it to the point where we can actually self-perpetuate ourselves from a dead stop. Yes, that is part of the future of foiling. But this is all with time and R&D and development, and right now, you know, we are in kindergarten. This is kindergarten, we are just dealing with one plus one. We are not in calculus…

SURFERMAG.COM: We are still in kindergarten?
LAIRD: Yeah, yeah (smiles). No, I remember guys that were using wakeboard boots. There is a reason why we use snowboard boots and a quick release system, so you can get out of it because you are attached to an anchor.

SURFERMAG.COM: How heavy is it?
LAIRD: It’s about forty pounds.

SURFERMAG.COM: The entire system?
LAIRD: Yeah, which feels like absolutely nothing.

SURFERMAG.COM: Does it float?
LAIRD: Yeah.

SURFERMAG.COM: Everything floats?
LAIRD: Yeah, it floats.

SURFERMAG.COM: You kind of touched on this already but in The Ride / The Day you mentioned that foil surfing was the future of surfing, can you expand on that thought?
LAIRD: A future of surfing. The thing is, there are so many disciplines of surfing and I think people have a tendency to go “ohh this is surfing and we only do this” or “this is surfing and we only do this” (makes a box with hands and shrinks it). I mean surfing is any form of riding a wave. Or, for that matter, surfing is, if you look at how its influenced skateboarding, it’s really like a motion. It’s a motion and a rhythm you can do on the snow, which is why they have snowboarding; which is what you can do on concrete, which is why they have skateboarding The purest form of it, the part where it evolved from, is the sea. It’s like, it’s like evolution: We evolved from the water but now were running around on land. Bodysurfing is the first, purest, simplest thing, just with your body, nothing else. Then you have bodysurfing with the fins next, and then you have boogieboarding and there is an evolution of each one as we go along. But you start crawling before you can stand up and then you walk and then you run and then you can sprint. But foilsurfing is one of the disciplines in the future that will allow us to have a lot more areas to surf. Which we are going to need because we have a lot more people wanting to surf. It’s going to allow people that don’t necessarily have the time or the experience to go out and surf 20 feet and be in that environment because they’d drown and they shouldn’t be out there anyway, but they can experience riding those kind of swells in the open ocean or in the right locations in the ocean where they can ride without the consequences of falling and crashing on a giant wave. So its going to open up a lot more places to surf. And its just one of the new ways of surfing. It’d be like if you showed ancient Hawaiians shortboarding they’d be like, “that’s cool but that’s not the big longboard” and if you showed somebody else another discipline they’d go, “that’s cool but that’s not…” You know it’s all relative, they’re all disciplines of it, ones not greater than the other…they just are.

SURFERMAG.COM: It’s like dancing. You’ve got ballet, you’ve got Ballroom dance, you’ve got this, you’ve got that…because I’ve always equated surfing to dancing.
LAIRD: Yeah, absolutely. Or music or whatever, it’s like how many kinds of music are there? Self-expression (smiles).

SURFERMAG.COM: Exactly. Okay, changing directions a bit, what about portable oxygen canisters?
LAIRD: We thought, “how can we make this safer, what do we need to do to be safer?” Oxygen is great except compressed air is dangerous because you have to continue to breathe. And the first thing you learn in surfing, from the very beginning, is ‘suck and hold.’ That’s our number one thing we learn surfing, since we’re two years old. And so in the moment of disaster you’re going to resort to the most primitive aspect of you, you’re going to go to a totally subconscious behavioral pattern. When you suck and hold compressed air, you’re going to get the bends. Or if you break your arm, can’t get your oxygen tank; get knocked out, can’t get your oxygen tank. So, all of the sudden, we have all these things that oxygen doesn’t really help. We have all the oxygen we need on the top of the surface. Now, there is a one in a million or one in ten million chance that when you’re down thirty feet you’ll pull your spare air out and take a breath. But, the chance that you have all this other stuff happen are a lot greater. That’s why we went to flotation, because you get knocked out, you float to the top; you break your arm, you come to the top. It helps you swim to the top faster because you’re more buoyant so when you do swim, you’re stronger. The more buoyant you are, the more power you have and the sooner you get to the top (points up). So, there’s all these things that make flotation more important and, obviously, the more correct way to go when it comes to this particular thing.

SURFERMAG.COM: Interesting. Lets segue into your training, a lot of people on the website are interested in your training. Off-season I know that you do the standup-paddle surfing
LAIRD: Well that’s all year round, standup-paddle surfing.

SURFERMAG.COM: Yeah, all year. Is there an off-season/on-season training? Is there one specific thing for off-season and one training? Whereas on-season training, just surf?
LAIRD: We talk about training for off-season and on-season, for me I just go training for life. Just to live, to be healthy, to eat good, to sleep well, to have all these things. Training is just an essential part of sanity. So you have training for sanity. Training to be sane. Like no training, you’re in trouble. There is just going to be one thing after the next. Before you know it you’re not doing the right things, you’re unhealthy, mentally unhealthy. You know physical health – strong mental health, there’s a relationship between those two. Variety of training is important because it keeps it interesting. Doing things that you enjoy, very important, because you do it more. And then also working on your weaknesses, working on your faults. Also sports specific, what really do you need? Don’t go out and get giant arms if you’re doing something that involves running.

SURFERMAG.COM: Well, what is your routine?
LAIRD: In our sport the weakest thing surfers have, we have weak legs, unless they are genetically already born with strong legs. It’s just surfers in general, we have weak legs because we run on our arms. We are all about arm strength because that’s where our power comes from. In our sport you don’t run down the court, you paddle down the court. And then the ride is 10, 15, 20, 30 seconds; it’s a short ride. So your legs really don’t really get pumped. I can remember going to Rincon when I was kid, and you know you catch four waves there, at the end your legs were shaking and it was because we didn’t really have the leg endurance, so leg strengthening is great. Biking is wonderful for that, any kind of sand work – sand dune, sand running.

SURFERMAG.COM: What about standup-paddle surfing for your legs?
LAIRD: The best.

SURFERMAG.COM: Because you’re standing all the time…
LAIRD: Yeah…arches, toes. A lot of people think it’s upper body because it’s with the paddle, but that’s actually the least of it.

SURFERMAG.COM: I see it as kind of a core area, middle body training.
LAIRD: Core, abs, rotational, legs, arches actually, feet, toes. It’s complementary, you’re in the water, its fun to do, you can go surf when it’s small so you’re surfing too. So again, here you are, before you know it, its three hours in and you’re like, “Ohh I’ve been doin’ this for three hours.” Instead of going to the gym, and you’re like, “How many more minutes is there?”

SURFERMAG.COM: I can relate to that.
LAIRD: That’s not good training. And then of course diet is a big part of training. You know, and that’s the hardest thing to do. It’s easier to go do physical activities for an hour or two everyday than it is to change the way you eat, you do that three times a day plus everyone likes to eat from their taste buds not necessarily from their body’s needs. So there again here we have another thing, it’s harder to eat correctly and not eat breads and not eat pastas and try to stay away from processed foods. Probably Burger King, Dairy Queen, McDonalds, Taco Bell is not the greatest place to go. You can get away with it when you’re young, that’s great. You can eat Oreo Cookies and a glass of milk and still grow and still have a lot of energy. But in the end, I say “potato chips in is potato chips out.” You eat potato chips, you’re going to perform like a potato chip. It’s just the rules. And if you’re able to get away with it because you’re that talented, you’re still just deceiving yourself because in the end you’re either going to have a short-lived career or you’re just not going to be performing at the level that you could. So either way you’re shortchanging yourself. But there is balance of course. You need to be able to enjoy certain things too. It doesn’t mean you can’t have coffee, but you need to have balance too. Everything in moderation, even moderation. There has to be a certain balance.

SURFERMAG.COM: I’ve heard that somewhere.
LAIRD: Or just no balance and be fully extreme about everything (throws arms apart), but that’s balance too. So either way you carry it, either you’re being mellow about everything or you’re being extreme about everything, but at the end things are offsetting the other.

SURFERMAG.COM: Ying and yang type deal.
LAIRD: Positive and negative makes a battery.

SURFERMAG.COM: Lets move into the tow surfing sessions themselves. How many tow sessions do you log each year, roughly? Is that a fair question or is it too hard to quantify?
LAIRD: I could say off the top of my head at least 30 to 45. If you include foiling it starts going to up. You all of the sudden start to get into 60, maybe more than that. 60, 75 something like that.

SURFERMAG.COM: So lots of tow sessions.
LAIRD: And foiling is part of that too. Foiling is a big part of that.

SURFERMAG.COM: You mentioned in The Ride / The Day after you had the big session in November you said, and I quote, “The day brought relief to me,”. I’m wondering, do you ever feel chained to this existence. In other words, could you walk away and be happy with yourself?
LAIRD: Now probably more than ever before in my life. I could say, yeah I could. Walk away from surfing (perplexed look)?

LAIRD: It’d be hard to walk away from surfing because that’s part of who [I am]. That’d be like walking away from my wife, or walking away from my daughter, or walking away from food, or walking away from an essential element of my life. It’d be difficult (slight laugh). Surfing for me isn’t something that is a job. Because it’s different, for some people what they do is a job almost or it’s become a job for them to the point where they’re not going to go do it on their vacation. Like if I go on a vacation, I want to go somewhere where I can do an activity. But it’s also because I do a variety, a bunch of stuff. But could I walk away from it and feel satisfied, I mean yeah. If I said ‘I’m going to walk away and not ride big waves anymore and no problem” would I feel like I’m missing something?

LAIRD: No. And that happened a few years ago because I think a couple things: When you first realize things are out of your hands because even if you’re dedicated to it and going everywhere and chasing it you’re ready for everything you could be sick. You’re sick and its 35 feet – 40 feet, the biggest swell, and you’ve got a 106 temperature and you can’t move, you’re just on the floor sick, you’re hurt. It’s out of your hands. And once you really, really realize that it truly is out of your hands, then you kind of relinquish that you are in control of it. Because as long as you think somehow that you are in control of it, that you can always have it when you need it and all that, then you’re always going to be striving, trying to get it because you think you’re in control of it. Versus you know what, this is really out of my hands and if I have the fortune to be prepared, ready and healthy to go on the day that it happens and not hurt or whatever the circumstances then that changes it a little bit. Then you go, “you know what I’m not supposed to” (throws arms up) versus “how come I can’t” (lets out a big laugh).

SURFERMAG.COM: What’s the scariest moment, Laird, in your surfing career?
LAIRD: (Contemplates) Scariest moment in my surfing career (contemplates more). Well you know, it’s hard for me to have one moment you know. I’ve had enough broken ankles that I started to wonder if I would be able to surf again. Enough time goes by and you start to think you know…

SURFERMAG.COM: But has there been a wipeout or a situation in the water?
LAIRD: Well, I’ve been lost at sea. That was scary.

SURFERMAG.COM: That sounds pretty scary. How did that happen?
LAIRD: I was jet skiing between Maui and the Big Island and had really bad visibility from the volcano. I got pulled off course by the current, it was like triple the normal current strengths and it drew me way off course. I was like 60 miles north of Hilo and it was getting dark. I had been in the water since like 5: 00 a.m., and I just wasn’t sure if I was going to make it back to land. That was scary.

SURFERMAG.COM: How did that turn out? GPS or…
LAIRD: EPIRB, it worked. It was older one, I was glad the batteries were working (smiles). They found me with a chopper. The Coast Guard rescued me and plucked me out of the ocean but I had a lot of time to think. I mean I’ve had some bad wipeouts. You know people ask me a lot, I’ve been asked a lot, especially touring around talking about this movie, and they ask me, they always want to know about the wipeouts. Of course I’ve had some horrendous wipeouts. For example, the one I got with Pete Cabrinha in Endless Summer 2. I straighten-off behind him and I get mowed by a big one and that’s all pre-flotation. Guys always say “they wear flotation,” but in the beginning all we had was surf shorts on. And, you know, I got wiped out pretty bad on the foilboard with boots on, but a lot of my most traumatic stuff happened when I was so young that I imagine those were…You know you’re 30 years old, you’re at the top of your physical strength and you go through these wipeouts, they’re nothing like when you’re four or five years old and a four-foot wave gets you and pounds you and rips you out with the current and you’re out there getting sucked out to sea as a little kid. So it’s all relative. I think I’ve had so many of those that I’ve had less ocean related traumatic experiences than I would maybe if I had started later. I’d remember these other ones better if I hadn’t had non-ocean or non-surfing related ones. But I think maybe for me the worst thing was having my friend down. I had a couple situations where I had people that I cared about that were below and they weren’t coming up. For me that was way, way, way, way worse than me being down there. ‘Cus if it’s me down there, it’s me. I’m down there, I gotta deal with it. But when it’s someone else…

SURFERMAG.COM: Kind of not being in control of it, if it’s somebody else.
LAIRD: The worst. Those were scary.

By Scott Bass Editor