By Jeff Gorra

“Surfing is like art or music. The great thing is there’s no wrong way to do it. The only wrong way to do it is if you’re not having a good time.” (Laird Hamilton – Iconoclasts)

Laird Hamilton is one of the world’s greatest athletes and a big-wave surfing legend. His wife, Gabrielle Reece, considers him to be in the 1% of the 1% – in a league of his own when it comes to ability. Physically built as if he was chiseled out of stone, Hamilton solidified his place in history with his epic surf at Tahiti’s Teahupo’o break back in August of 2000, successfully riding what’s known as the “heaviest wave ever ridden.” A feat that had never been done before. Though he has an abundance of athleticism and strength, Hamilton’s most potent wave is his mind. The attitude he demonstrates is infectiously inspiring. His accomplishments of making the impossible possible are true examples of will power.

Hamilton also has a tireless work ethic. He does things his way. He credits an early age visit to Waimea Falls in Oahu with his stepfather, as one of his first examples of living life to the fullest. At Waimea, he noticed the 60 foot cliff. When his stepfather looked away, he turned and jumped. It’s a spirt Hamilton says he’s always had. To be bold and live with no regrets.

A pioneer behind tow-in surfing (using a jet ski to tow you into the wave), Hamilton proudly considers his inventions to be some of his most rewarding accomplishments. Innovative breakthroughs such the “Surrator” stand-up paddle board, the Golfboard, and XPT pool training allow for a completely new experience within their fields.

Alternative Nation recently had the opportunity to converse with Laird Hamilton about his overall approach to life, surfing and just how much music influences his every day. Did I mention he’s also a big Pearl Jam fan?


How important is music in your life?

Music has been an intricate part of my life since I was a little kid. My mom loved music. People ask me if I play an instrument and I say “no I surf.” People ask me if I do art and I say “no I surf.” I express my music and my art through my surfing. I always have a tune of the season. Whether I’m working out or on long endurance trips or even when I surf, I have a song in my head that I listen to on repeat that I basically have as a soundtrack. No matter what I do, it seems like music is always present.

How do you go about identifying what your song of the season is going to be?

It’s the way it moves me. It’s the rhythm or something in the music that has a symbiotic relationship to the motion. It’s like what makes a good soundtrack for a seagull flying or riding a wave? There’s a relationship between the music that you listen to and the way you perform. If you’re riding smaller waves and there are some tricks involved, it would have to be lighter and more melodic music, but if you’re on a giant wave and it’s more intense, there has to be more intensity to the music. That’s what I look for most in songs, to connect to an emotion and for it to match what’s front of me.

What is your current song of the season?

“Under the Desert Sky” by Operatica, that’s an incredible song. Then there’s a few by Stan Lee that have been ringing in my head a lot lately as well.

“Under the Desert Sky” by Operatica

You’re a big proponent for not only following your passion but also living with passion. Do you find adding an element of music to what you do enhances your passion?

Absolutely. I think there’s a science behind listening to music and its ability to strengthen your performance. Not only in the way it affects your body but the actual activity itself is changed because when you listen to music, a certain part of your brain is occupied and stimulated, which results in you using different neuropathways more than you normally would. Classical music is a good example of this. You are forced to be more efficient with the techniques that you are using to accomplish the physical act itself. So there’s a true performance enhancing aspect and I definitely feel that.

The commitment of living through your passion; sometimes the biggest challenge is deciding to dedicate yourself to your passion no matter what. Was there ever a time when you thought about going in a different direction, maybe a more common direction for the sake of just making a living and providing for your family?

At certain points, I wasn’t always able to make a living from my passion so I’d subsidize it. I used to subsidize my surfing though excavation now I subsidize my excavation with surfing. There have been many times where I’ve had to do certain types of work in order to continue to pursue it. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve had sponsorships throughout my career that help me to be able to focus on my skills. But you do have to pay bills and sometimes early on, you end up doing things that are not necessarily right in your wheelhouse.

You have always been adamant about surfing being an art form for you as opposed to a competitive sport, how did you arrive at that?

Part of it is I don’t like to be told what to do. I was never really good at that. I don’t want to be told when to go in and when to come back. I’ve always resented judgement. I think there’s confusion in it. Because surfing is an art form, how do you judge it? If it was timed or something more tangible, then maybe I could understand it. It’s an opinion of so-called experts and there’s always some kind of bias involved in that process. Just look at gymnastics. I was fortunate enough to be involved in surfing during a time where many of the surfers were artists. The competitive aspect of it was only one part, it wasn’t the entire thing. You can just be a great surfer. So the possibility of doing it that way was always available to me. There was also the fact that I watched my stepdad surf competitively. I saw what he and others in his peer group went through with the disappointment of the judgement and all the confusion. I vowed that if I ever had any choice to control that I would avoid subjecting my performance to a panel of judges. I opted more to subject my performance to an audience, which is ultimately the public, and let them decide. It all stems from my desire to not want to hurt my love of it. I wanted to make sure I didn’t ever do it in a way that would make me resent it or make me stop enjoying it. So I thought, the less rules that I had, the more opportunity I had to make it something I’d always enjoy. And I did my way, how I wanted, when I wanted, which ultimately reflects freedom.

“Isolate” by Bender from the 2001 Laird film.

When I look at people who navigate their path in their own way, the first thing that jumps out at me is the environment they are in. For example, the ocean or nature for you. I think about a pen and a pad or a computer for me and that seems incredibly boring. But then I realize the real environment is your mind. And if that’s the case, your environment is anywhere you want to be and anywhere you explore. It’s everywhere.

Absolutely. That’s it. You start to realize the discipline it takes. If you think of the ocean or the mountains, it seems like an easier environment to subject yourself too, but if you have the discipline, you can be anywhere and be in the right space if you are introspective enough. That’s not an easy thing. It’s a lot easier to subject yourself to a beautiful day in the ocean or a gorgeous day in the mountains, an environment that can do a lot of the work for you. Ultimately, it is just a state of mind no matter what. You are always alone in there too, it’s just you.

You have a concept of fear where you accept it and take it on, how do you turn fear into motivation?

You learn over time that it’s always a lot less scary than you think. You learn that by subjecting yourself to the things that you’re scared of. It’s all a willingness to confront it. For a lot of people, it could be just failure in itself. People fear failure and because of that they don’t allow themselves to experience the different things that they could. If you’re scared of something, go near it, understand it more and truly learn about it. From there, you fear it much less. Then overtime it becomes almost a formula that you subscribe to, you get in there and come to grips with it. It becomes something you embrace rather than run from. If you can tap into that as an energy source, it changes the dynamic. You then know you’ve been there before and that you can handle it, so you turn it into power.

In the film Riding Giants, after you rode that historic wave in Tahiti back in 2000, there’s footage of you still in the water sitting on your board and you have your head in your hands looking very emotional. Almost like you had just caught the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl. How did that moment feel?

Well the first thing was that we never knew if it was possible to ride those waves. It had never been accomplished in that way. It was like drawing or reading cartoons. I think that’s the initial reaction for all people who have that moment, remembering that beforehand, you had no idea if it was even achievable or if you would survive it. This all is unknown. It then becomes a culmination of your life’s work and your life’s dream at the same moment. So it’s a dream you’ve had since you were a little kid, you worked your entire life for it, but the whole time you were unsure if the situation even existed. If it did, would you even get to be in it? To have it all come together like that and then to have the wave, to be able get the wave, to be able to ride the wave and then to make the wave, there was an incredibly emotional impact that really the entire experience brought me. It was a whole life of dedication, training, injuries and all those things I went through to get there and pull off what I wasn’t even sure was possible.

Do you remember what you were thinking during the actual ride?

Oh yeah, I had a little internal battle going on. I was scared for sure. I remember the internal dialog, having one little guy with the horns telling me to jump off and then the other little guy with the halo telling me to stay on, I could do it. They were battling back and forth and thankfully the guy with the halo won. He was basically telling me I can’t make it if I don’t stay on. At that point I thought to myself, “I’m going to have to be knocked off of this thing for me not to nail this.” Once that argument was over it was just a matter of finishing off that ride.

One of the things I love about snowboarding is that I really can’t think about anything else other than my current ride down the mountain. Is that how it is for you with big waves?

I always say this about the act of riding; whether it’s on a wave, on a mountain, on a motocross bike or whatever it is, the act of riding really has no beginning and no end. When you start, it’s a place where you last left off and when you end, it’s a place where you will eventually start from again. It’s the purest form of being in the moment that I know of. There are no distractions and no restrictions. It’s just pure. A pure essence of being, with nothing else involved. I think of it as a form of meditation that you get addicted to, that you seek out and cherish.

In the Iconoclasts show you did with Eddie Vedder, you have an intense conversation about “Post Big-Wave Syndrome,” basically the aftermath of a big accomplishment. How do you recover and get yourself out of that?

Once you became aware of it, that’s half the battle. In the old days I would drink three bottles of red wine and run around like a wild man. (laughs) The first step in any problem is realizing that there is a problem. Then you start to execute a plan. It’s matter of taking care of yourself and paying attention to the basic things like eating well, getting good rest, getting work done and acknowledging that there’s a comedown off of it and then not indulging yourself into the depression but lifting yourself out through taking care of yourself. You have to be aware that you are fatigued and can’t work out as hard as you normally do. You also have to make a conscious effort to treat your family right because you know you are going to be edgy. After a while, you know what to expect and can see it coming so it doesn’t really have as much of an impact as it once did.

How did you and Eddie become friends?

It was through Chris Chelios, who’s a great friend of mine and one of the best American hockey players to ever play. We had a couple of other mutual connections but it was through Chris originally. He had been friends with Eddie and Eddie had the connection to Hawaii as well. Given he’s an artist and I’m an artist in my own way, we hit it off pretty well from the start. We have a friendship and common interest in a lot things.

Are you a big Pearl Jam fan?

Definitely. It’s hard not to be. I’ve used a lot of their songs during some big winters.

“Big Wave” by Pearl Jam, with Laird Hamilton rocking out

Right on. Let’s talk about some of your innovative products. First, is your XPT pool training specific to your desire to surf under water?

It actually spurs from Polynesian rock training and running on stones. It also came out of my dislike of conventional swimming. I just don’t like to swim laps, it’s too monotonous for me. So that was the premise, but then it just evolved. It’s one of the most unique trainings that we have. It’s a combination of intensity with low impact and performance enhancement training no matter what activity you use it towards. It changes your relationship with water in general and it also changes your breathing techniques. I see it mostly from watching the affect it has on other people.

You’ve also released a new type of standup board, called the “Surrator,” the Golfboard and Total Wave Fitness recently. What’s fascinating is that they all allow you to partake in their respective sports in a totally different way.

I think that’s just the result of trying to inspire and keep things interesting. I enjoy the process of evolving and having an idea, then seeing it through and making something of it. I never settle for a “well that’s the way they do it” type of attitude. My thought it is “No, that a way to do it and there will be other ways to do it.” It’s nice to have an existing infrastructure also. With golf for example, there’s a standard way to go about playing, but now here’s a new way that changes the overall experience. The same with the ocean. I have a new thing I’m working on that’s a superfood creamer for coffee. It’s still coffee but adding the creamer will change the experience. So it’s nothing new, it’s just a new application of an old idea. I try never to be too proud that I’m the one that created it, I just have a tendency to see things I think sometimes before they exist. I just like that process. The whole idea of creativity and beginning an idea on a napkin. The way I grew up, most of the things we did, we made. We had to be creative because we just didn’t have a lot. That made us have an ability to be more imaginative. I’ve always loved what Thomas Edison said, “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” That’s almost become the thing that I enjoy the most. Big wave riding, yes that’s one of the disciplines of the things I do, but I really like innovation. A big part of that comes from the fact that I get bored easily and another part comes from I don’t like accepting there’s only one way. That’s my form of rebellion within a structured society where you can’t just do or be whatever you want and have to play by the rules. In a way, maybe it’s getting that part of my personality out and ultimately making it have a positive effect.

You’ve mentioned part of the reason you pursue coming up with these things is to make people more emotionally invested in the sport so that they want to take care of its environment. What is something people can do immediately?

First of all, make yourself happy and have some fun. That’s something the world needs. Have fun doing something you love. From there, let it lead you to helping other people enjoy themselves. Through this, maybe we can maybe start to make a difference. The health of our planet lies within the health of our people. Having happy and healthier people, then our planet, by side effect alone, will be a happier and healthier place. Part of the reason our planet is so messed up is because we’re so messed up. So maybe we have it backwards. Maybe we need to fix us and then that will fix it.

From your experiences, what advice do you give people in regards to finding your passion and just going for it?

It’s an attitude. I think one of the issues that we have is that no one has a sense of accomplishment. There are so few people who feel truly accomplished in a real human way. You have to make a conscious decision that you are going to give it all you have. Then you can experience what it’s like to really give it your all. If you are always restraining, then you are never going to get that feeling. Even if you’re doing a breath holding drill in the corner of your room, if you give it your all, when you’re done you are going to feel amazing. Sometimes you’re fortunate enough to be in incredible forms of nature where you are literally forced to give your all due to the situation, you don’t have an option not to do it. That’s a powerful and lasting lesson. But that formula of having the right attitude and giving everything you have; when you implement it into something you are passionate about, you are bound for success.