Friday, June 19, 2015

Laird Hamilton

There are strong young guys. 
But there's nothing meaner and more experienced than a fifty-year-old tough guy.

I long for the waves these days.  I often do during the long New England winters, of course, but it is especially acute in the summer when the demands of job and family keep me from the singular joy of reducing my core body temperature in the pre-dawn ocean waters to a dangerous level, getting knocked silly by a surprising strong swell [or some dim teenager's runaway surfboard], and convincing myself that if I can still balance on a working surfboard then I'm not yet elderly.

I'm often bored by people who tell me that nature is their "church".  As if it's an either/or situation, that one can either "go to church" or abide in nature.  I realize it's a mere excuse for indolence or indulgence in narcissistic activity ["On Sundays, I like to go running, golfing, gardening, etc."], but what reveals such an attitude as nonsense is that truly spiritual people have an innate understanding of how nature, worship, and community inform and reinforce one another.

Too long away from nature, or too long away from community-based, supportive worship and fellowship, and spirituality will flatten.  This is why the relationship between nature and spirituality has powered human inquiry, whether it was in the formation of the scientific method, created by thinkers from Christianity's monastic institutions, or in providing the educational system that enabled countless scientists to continue developing our understanding of the world and cosmos.

But I digress, especially since this is about surfing and not about pure science or theology.  Actually, it's about what happens when a creative mind looks at something as simple as surfing and finds new ways of experiencing that remarkable, and occasionally dangerous, communion with an expressible, spiritual sensation.

Before we continue, we have to acknowledge the distracting reality that our subject, Laird Hamilton, is a good looking guy. So good looking that he made a living as a model and occasional actor.  He was even Kevin Costner's stunt double in the movie "Waterworld".  He's married to Gabrielle Reese, a former professional beach volleyball player who is also a model.  They, and their three daughters, are an impossibly good-looking family.  The fact that his good looks enabled him to make a lush and easy living that permitted him to surf anytime and almost anyplace he wanted makes his life an enviable one for those of us in the waterman community.  If I weren't a Christian, I'd hate this guy.

Except, Hamilton is rather self-effacing and of a character that challenges convention.  Surfers are more envious of that latter quality, perhaps, as it has permitted Hamilton to alter the sport and practice of surfing in ways that brought about the great "re-awakening" of watersports.  His route to that status was not the easiest.

Born Laird Zerfas in San Francisco in 1964, his father abandoned him and his mother before Laird's first birthday, necessitating his mother's move to Hawaii [where else?] for work and permitting her son access to the waves and surf of the Sandwich Islands.  Paradise is anything but, however, for a fatherless haole among the tribal and often [I'm sorry to say] unwelcoming local population, so young Laird spent his school days developing an aggressive and physical persona that ensured that his teenage years would be described in biographies as "troubled".  This began to change as he worked with surfing legend, Bill Hamilton, then shaping surfboards on Oahu's North Shore.  The elder surfer took young Laird under his wing, taught him how to surf like a pro, how to shape surfboards and work with fiberglass, and generally behave according to the strict, if nebulous, standards of the Watermen.  Just to make his tutelage complete, Bill Hamilton married Laird's mother [their first meeting having been arranged by the young Laird] and Laird happily took the name of what Hawaiians would honor as his hanai father.

At 17, while enjoying a day's surf, Hamilton was discovered by a fashion photographer on the beach, thus beginning one of his two well-compensated careers.  At its apex, he was posing with Brook Shields and hanging out with Hollywood trash.  At the same time, and with equal aplomb, he was beginning his competitive surfing career.  Sooner or later he had to choose one over the other, and he chose surfing, although not the conventional route as, like many of us, he did not find competitive surfing compelling [so spiritual can the experience be that a surfing contest makes about as much sense as a praying contest]. Instead, he had begun to explore what would become the next stage in surfing's development and, by extension, athletic achievement.

That's when Laird Hamilton's story gets really interesting.

In the early 1990's, Hamilton and couple of his equally mind-addled friends sought to design a surfboard, and related board technique, that would allow them to ride only the very largest of waves.  At first, they experimented with strapping their feet to the boards so that the volume of water and energy would not blast them off their mounts.  Later, in order to ride the truly large waves that are nearly impossible to reach in a conventional manner, they hired inflatable boats to tow them out to where the monstrous waves would be found and, in so doing, created the sport now known as "Tow-In Surfing".  Inflatables were eventually replaced with Jet-Skis as the new sport was refined.  It isn't for the faint of heart.

While a photo can certainly give one the impression of size, to stand on a beach mere feet away from one is another matter.  It's not just its scope, but a staggering vibration of power and unbelievable amount of noise.  It is raw nature and it is breath-taking.  Now, imagine what it's like prone on a floating board at its crest, then coming to a standing position about two stories in the air and sliding down the roiling face at several miles an hour.  That's just a standard surf wave.

As Hamilton perfected big wave surfing, he sought bigger waves and greater challenges.  That was when he discovered in Tahiti the surf break that is known as Teahupoʻo .  [I'm not sure what Teahupoʻo means in English, but I suspect it's something like "Wall of Screaming Death".]  If a respectable wave is twenty or so feet in the air, imagine what it is to ride a wave that's 70 feet high, especially when it sucks away water from the shore in such volume that the surfer, seven stories above, can see the hard coral bottom waiting for him should he commit even the smallest of errors.

In such circumstances, and without hyperbole, to fall off of one's surfboard is to die.  These are the waves that Hamilton decided to conquer.  He made his attempt on August 17, 2000, a date which now carries historical importance among watermen.

Here's how the Dictionary of Surfing describes it:
One week prior to the opening of the 2000 Tahitian Pro, local pro Briece Taerea was caught inside by a 15-foot set wave and driven into the reef, broke his neck and back in three places, and died. Four months later Hawaiian big-wave hulk Laird Hamilton towed into a 18-foot Teahupoo wave that nearly beggared description; photographer Jack McCoy saw the 6'3", 220-pound Hamilton as "a little speck of human, charging for his life, doing what none of us ever imagined possible" as the wave poured over him "like liquid napalm." Hamilton made the wave, then sat and wept in the channel.

Hamilton now serves as an "ambassador" for surfing and related watersports.  He does not self-promote much and generally takes a quiet, supportive role in the industry.  Concerned with the oceans and the environment, he spends much of his time ensuring that there will be clean, open, wild waves for generations to come.  An excellent documentary of his big wave surfing, "Riding Giants", is available through a variety of formats, he has been interviewed and profiled on 60 Minutes and in the pages of every surf and sport magazine in publication.  He even appeared in a series of American Express commercials and published a book of aquatic philosophy.  

Last year, during the storm surge created by Hurricane Marie, at the age of 50, Hamilton decided to ride a speed wave off of Malibu.  It was just another moment of legend for him.

He often appears on FitTV to offer physical fitness tips, especially for those around their mid-century mark.  Given that big wave surfing requires a developed musculature so that one isn't crushed by the volume of water, it is prudent to maintain strength and mobility.  It's also good for those of us who just want to ride a 4 footer while watching the sun rise off the Jersey shore.