Laird Hamilton Talks Big Wave Surfing

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.

Oxbow Water­men Expe­ri­ence — Laird Hamil­ton from OXBOW on Vimeo.

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.

Laird Hamil­ton from pat solomon on Vimeo.

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.