Laird Hamilton — co-inventor of tow-in surfing and arguably the reigning king of big-wave surfing — is most known for riding a Teahupo‘o wave dubbed “the heaviest ever ridden.” He shot out and over the wave’s shoulder – intact and undead. Whether it’s been pushing the boundaries of big-waves, jumping 30 feet out of the water on sailboards or extended SUP journeys, he’s been at it ever since.
We caught Laird on the phone at his home in Malibu, California for his thoughts on life and the ocean, the bliss of surfing, and the importance of a morning routine that begins with the sunrise.
The Clymb: You’ve spoken before on the importance of early rising. What’s it do for you?
Laird Hamilton: I get up in the dark, before the sun rises and hopefully watch the sunrise, doing some solar gazing is a great way to start a morning. There’s just something about our relationship with nature that’s important. I think greeting the day is part of that, to be interactive with your surroundings. Mornings set the precedent for the kind of day you’re going to have. It’s when you’re the strongest; your cortisol levels are at their highest. Doctors tell you it’s the best time to do anything stressful.
The Clymb: What’s your routine like?
LH: I start my day with quite a bit of water with lemon and salt, then I’ll move in to some kind of stimulant, espresso or coffee, coconut oil, that kind of stuff, then a stretching or breathing routine before doing a workout. Then start your day training, working out.
The Clymb: So you do your morning routine and then jump straight into exercising. If not surfing, what do you do for fitness?
LH: Summer time is our pre-season, getting ready for the winter. I have a tendency to get into a stricter regimen of working out – gym training every other day, some kind of pool training, cardio activities, biking, elliptical, running. I’ll go paddling or surf if there’s a nice south swell in southern California. I’ll always change my program and take advantage of the waves, because they’re not here all the time. I’m a much better person to the world and myself once I’ve exhausted myself and have eaten. Then I’m ready to participate in the more sedentary activities.
The Clymb: I know it’s impossible to understand without experiencing it, but can you describe what it’s like to tackle a monster wave? What’s that feel like?
LH: The best description of big wave is the act of surfing in general. It’s a very present experience. It’s all about the moment, where time has no beginning or end. Big waves, or giant waves – however you want to describe them – is that same experience, just exaggerated. There’s an incredible feeling of fulfillment. The thrill and rush and anticipation of being towed into a giant wave and dropping down into one, and the demands on all of your senses, you’re dealing off of your instincts and unconscious skills that we have. They’re so intense. That’s where the feeling of fulfillment comes from, there’s an intensity to it, and very few things in life really envelop you quite like that – [laughs] – and most of them are illegal.
The Clymb: Do you ever freak out going into huge surf? Do you get that anxiety that comes with a potential-death experience?
LH: The hardest thing for me is watching big waves…the anxiety of watching them versus when you’re out there. Before it gets big, the night before some dread comes on, the anticipation of how big it will be can feed into some dread and anxiety, but once you’re in the activity itself, I think dread would be a limitation, and a liability actually. You might dread making a bad decision while you’re on a big wave, putting yourself in a position where you might get annihilated, but you don’t want that to be in the forefront of any of your decision-making.
The Clymb: Clearly you’ve been a person who either feels comfortable pushing the boundaries of what’s considered possible, or you just push through fear, anxiety, whatever. What holds people back in your opinion?
LH: Sometimes people are so caught up about what they can’t do that they don’t look into what they can do. Having variety, having a constant evolution of learning where you’re always trying to learn new stuff helps that. Humans are always looking for the path of least resistance. We want to get into a routine, to know how far we’re going to run, how many weights we’re going to lift, how far we’re going to paddle, how big we’re going to ride. We want this information so that we can prepare for it, but also, ultimately, to figure out how to make it easier each time. I try to avoid that wherever I can. Whenever you learn something, you’re a lot more mentally and physically challenged. You get way more out of it. To do that, you have to constantly drive yourself.
I’m still easily deterred into the rut of routine. But I know that I do like that process of learning something new, being a beginner, and then evolving until you’re good at it. I feel like you can be as easily addicted to that as being addicted to the one thing you’re good at and only doing that.
The Clymb: I read a profile of you once that made me wonder if you got into surfing to fit in, or because you actually loved it.
LH: No one likes to be a beginner. There’s a reason flexible people go to yoga, short guys go to gymnastics and tall guys go to basketball. We gravitate towards things that are easy for us. It’s the nature of: “We like to be comfortable and be good,” not realizing that things are always changing, and if you’re not getting better you’re getting worse, no matter what you do.“The core of it though, is that [the ocean] is my church. It’s this place of peace and sanity and horror and fear and all of these things that I need to feel alive and accomplished. There’s a certain amount of duty and obligation in that, but none of it overrides my sheer love of riding a wave and being in the ocean.