What do you really know about the story of Laird Hamilton?
Big wave pioneer. Equipment pioneer. Millennium wave. Foil-boarding, SUP. Laird's an accomplished and proficient waterman, capable of hucking over lips on a variety of watercraft. His impact on the surfing world is undeniable and, at times, has been one of the more controversial figures.
Yet, there's only so much story you can tell and, with a few documentaries already in the bank about Laird, where do you go next? In this latest offering Take Every Wave: The Laird Hamilton Story, directed by Rory Kennedy, it is the nuances, the sacrifice, the trials and split life, the balance in play and family, that are candidly explored throughout.
We get a stripped back, access-all-areas look into his personal life. Did you know that the advent of bringing skis into the lineup at Jaws had a huge personal impact on Hamilton? Nearly cost him his marriage. And it is these moments that make this movie compelling.
Anyway, we caught up with Laird for a glance behind the curtain of Take Every Wave. Dive in.
So, tell us a bit about Take Every Wave. What's its premise and how did it come about?
LH: When we first started developing this project, I wanted to do an updated, performance-driven film.
When we had the opportunity to work with Rory Kennedy, the director, I said, 'you're a story-teller, you do what you need to do to try and make this. Take whatever you want from my life to tell the best story with the most impact.' I wanted to tell a human story.
And that is what comes across. The film's incredibly candid. How did the partnership with Rory come around?
We've had some mutual friends and it was Paul Speaker (ex-WSL CEO) who mentioned Rory. I didn't want anyone in the surf world – not in a negative way, I mean I wanted an outside perspective from someone who didn't have an opinion about it. I said, 'I'd love Rory to make it if she will'.
When the film was presented to her, Rory's initial reaction was like, 'hey, I'm not going to make a surf movie,' and I thought, OK, no problem. I wouldn't want anyone involved in the film who wasn't passionate. And then there were a few more conversations and I think Rory felt she knew me.
My original intention was not to convey my life's story, but once Rory said 'hey, this is what we want to do', I said, ok, fine, I'll give you everything
And that is an ongoing problem in my career, when people think they know who you are, but don't really know who you are, they just know what you do and think who you are is something connected to what you do. So, after she spent a little bit of time with us, Rory said she would be excited to do the project.
My original intention was not to convey my life's story, but once Rory said 'hey, this is what we want to do', I said, ok, fine, I'll give you everything, names, numbers – whether they like me or not [laughs], and just go with it. Just wanted it to be as full disclosure as possible, because I felt that would be the best way to maximise the film's potential.
And Paul Speaker was on board from the start?
Yeah, I would give Paul a lot of credit for seeing the vision and potential for what this film could be. And what it can be for surfing. The fact is, I represent a certain part of surfing that a lot of people can relate to.
Paul is, of course, the ex-CEO of the WSL – did your paths cross one day and hit it off, or what's the story there?
I didn't know Paul but he approached me when he began the transformation project for the WSL. They were consulting with me in regards to what I thought about the WSL format, just as another perspective, I guess maybe because they asked me because of my notoriety [laughs] and thought that'd be helpful for the WSL. Or for the business itself to at least understand my perspective.
I went to some of the big wave events and was supportive of the WSL for the whole time and that's how we were initially in contact. He asked me if I would help support the events with the league and I said yes, absolutely.
And what was the experience like working with Rory?
We've become really great friends. Rory experienced our dedication to the project and became very protective of us, she felt our willingness to disclose intimate things and knew the project would hinge on that.
Rory's an interesting character...
Yeah, she's connected to the ocean, you know? We have that in common, she grew up near the ocean and her family were sailors and in the water their whole lives. That was one of the things that we bonded over. Rory was involved in my life, she knows everything – comes over and trains at my house, she sees the dedication.
The title of the film, Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, what's in the title? Is that a metaphor for life – carving your own path, or it quite literal, take all the waves in the lineup?
I think there's multiple metaphors in there. It's a line I say in the film, when I'm surfing Pipeline and guys are pulling into giant waves at Backdoor and, up until that time, no one did that. That kind of opened the door to go and approach Pipe like that. But, yeah, take every wave. Take every opportunity there is, take it, do it. It's a metaphor for life, life's for living so you'd better go for it.
There's a part in the movie where the advent of tow surfing is discussed and how its introduction to the lineup impacted your personal life. What sort of emotions were you feeling after pioneering tow surfing, seeing its rise and how the effect it had on surfing?
I felt like, well, we'd been benefitting from tow surfing for quite a while. We would go out and ride as many bigger and longer waves than guys have done in their entire career [laughs].
it was a bit like a nuclear power plant – it can either make electricity for everyone or just blow everything up
I think as the abuse of the technique came along and it developed, it was a bit like a nuclear power plant – it can either make electricity for everyone or just blow everything up. And that's the negative and positive of tow surfing.
I always say it was a bit like the gold rush, in the beginning you're finding gold nuggets in the river and then, before you know it, the guys are strip mining and digging up the hills.
Where do you see the future of surfing going?
I think, right now, we are in it, a little bit. With foiling – now with small waves, the discipline of foiling creates an opportunity for the masses. And translating some of that to prone and stand up, there's a wide spectrum of what can be accomplished. There's that saying, 'only a surfer knows', well, we say, 'only a foiler knows'.
You look now and we've got Kelly's wave and we're in the Olympics, I was just down at Trestles and you see John John and the tour guys flying in the air. Doing all these what used to be considered skateboard tricks.
The great thing is, we just continue to have more ways of surfing. I look to that and that continued evolution of performance and equipment to push where we can go.
I think there's going to be some new stuff. But right now, there's quite a bit of evolution to come in terms of application and performance. Whether it's, small waves, big waves on the foils – change is happening.
Do you think facilities like Kelly's wave and wave pools have a part to play in pushing the progression of surfing?
I think they offer reliability. And that allows us to have a discipline in surfing and we're able to determine what that may look like. Look at how that can be applied to the Olympics – they can turn up on Sunday, know they're going to have their waves and it'll be some form of surfing.
The thing I love most about surfing, and will always love about surfing, is, there's no right or wrong way. It's about riding waves. It's about you. It wouldn't bother me at all if we had a little renaissance in the kind of freedom of riding a wave anyway you want to movement.
Come out and express yourself. If you want to ride a door, standing on your head, ride backwards – awesome
We have professional performance surfing, we have big wave riding, we have towing, we have all these different disciplines. But it's like art, I think there's no wrong way to ride a wave, it's self expression. Come out and express yourself. If you want to ride a door, standing on your head, ride backwards – awesome. I cheer that, and think that we limit ourselves when we try to define it too much. That's a danger in our evolution and in our performance, it can become like a cage.
It can hinder progression and if you funnel creativity down a linear path, you're going to get stuck, leading to stagnation, boredom and it doesn't breed any inspiration...
Exactly, for sure. I just went to Peru twice and rode the longest waves of my life, for the longest period of time and for me, I look at that when you've surfed as much as I have in all the places I have, and to then be able to go at this point and do something you've never done... for me, that's what it's about in my little piece of the world. It's about doing things you've never done.
What about forecasting? Do you pour over the charts or just look out the window and see it's pumping?
I'm kind of the middle. I look at it. But I think I've learned to have no expectations, no disappointments. When I see it, I'll believe it because of the nature of swells. But that's kind of how I live my life. Yet, to not use the technology is stupid.
It's a forecast, so you got to take it as it is. You look at buoys and the numbers and you see it's in the water, then it gets interesting because it is there, you know?
There's a a scene in the film where fear is being discussed and someone mentions, 'Laird Hamilton has a fear defect'. There's different ways to tackle fear, what's your take? A just do it approach?
Hmm, no, because that would mean I'm not assessing correctly. Do I think I have a fear defect? I think I have a different mentality when it comes to being in that position. Given the things I've been exposed to, the more dangerous and the more radical it is, then the more clear I am in my own mind.
A big part of what happened to me was, I grew up at Pipeline, I was sucked out in the rip tide every other day. And as a young child, these were horrific moments and I had so many of them that at a certain point I got a tolerance for it, based on years and years of being in that situation.
Sucked out to sea and getting absolutely pounded. That made me respond differently when I was scared Sucked out to sea and getting absolutely pounded. That made me respond differently when I was scared. I think being scared is an important emotion and harnessing fear is more important. To use fear as energy is really a thing that separates you from the next guy.
You here people like Greg Long talk about that state of mind, calculating risks. Then you speak to others who just say, I want to be in the heaviest situation...
When I hear people saying they just want to surf heavy waves and haven't really prepped, I really question that. It's either, ok, well, either you haven't had it heavy enough or you just haven't been doing it long enough to change your perception.
If you don't have some sort of respect for it which means reverence, which means fear – they both live together – then you're going to be a liability to other people and yourself. Then one day, something will happen and you'll do something you cannot recover from.
Denial, ignorance and experience. That's what we do
But then we all cover our tracks in different ways, we have our different ways of doing things. The truth is there's only three things we all have when we do something dangerous. You're either ignorant, you're in complete denial – which works – or you're operating somewhere within your experience and understanding, and maybe with that one, you have some of the other two thrown in as well. Those are the three ingredients and how much you have of all those might vary, but that's the foundation. Denial, ignorance and experience. That's what we do.
What's next for you, personally Laird? Any projects lined up?
I've got a bunch of different things going on. I've got a super food company that is exploding right now, which we're working on. The season's coming up. The training. A fitness, lifestyle programme that we take people through. Mostly, I'm deep in the parenting, the dad, the husband, the friend all that stuff.
OK, busy schedule. And how do you juggle big wave surfing and business and parenthood?
Homeschool. I'm homeschooled, I have people who we work with but, as a parent, you just do it. We spend a lot of time together as a family and you train every day, work on the business stuff, work with the family. You do it.
Just get it done.
That's it, get your head down, work hard and before you know it, you're way up the staircase.
For people who have seen the name of this movie and are wondering what they're going to take away from it, what would you say to them?
I hope it inspires people to pursue the thing they love. Even if it is just reaches one person in an impactful way, it makes the whole movie worthwhile. So, I feel like, we have the opportunity through this project to inspire some people.
Maybe they can relate to something, maybe there's something in the story that they can implement into their own life and use it as motivation and make them feel they're not alone. Whatever that is, I think that's a big take-away.
And maybe, just be entertained along the way. Listen, there's a lot of ways to go about doing things in life and this is my story and I hope people enjoy it. This is all I've got, my whole toolbox. If people can take one thing away, one note away from it, whether it's family, work, injury, whatever it is, then that is perfect. I just hope it inspires.
Thanks Laird, that's great, and good luck with the movie and the season.