Flea Virostko's victory in the Men Who Ride Mountains surf
contest (SI, March 1) may have been awesome, but the man many
aficionados call the world's best big-wave surfer didn't show up
to ride the 40-footers at Maverick's, off the northern
California coast. Laird Hamilton was in Maui, where he likes to
surf even bigger waves--the 70-footers at a break called Jaws.
Hamilton disdains competition. "I'm not interested in winning,"
Laird, the son of 1960s surf star Bill Hamilton, was born 34
years ago in an experimental vacuum birthing chamber. He seemed
destined to grow up to be Aqua-Man. The kid could swim at six
months old. At 11 he leaped 60 feet off Waimea Falls on Oahu,
where he was raised. "I like jumping off high things that get to
the realm of dinosauritis," Hamilton says. In his teens and 20s
he became a local surf hero, styling his way up and down giant
peaks but avoiding competition--a result, he says, of having
seen his father fall victim to the whims of contest judges. By
the time he was 14, Laird was a match for his dad in the water.
He thought nothing of windsurfing the 70 miles from Oahu to
Maui. He has made a living as a host of extreme-sports TV shows,
and as a male model ("the human specimen," one rival calls him)
and a body double for Kevin Costner in Waterworld.
Along with a few friends at Jaws, Hamilton also helped develop
the technique of tow-in surfing. Since Jaws's biggest waves
sweep forward too quickly to be caught by a paddling surfer,
tow-in surfers get help from partners piloting Jet Skis. Once
the surfer lets go of his tow rope, though, he's on his own atop
a mountain of water up to 70 feet high, hurtling ahead at 30
mph. Hamilton, who has broken his left ankle five times in
wipeouts while surfing, motorcycling and snowboarding and has
learned to hold his breath for well over a minute under duress,
calls riding waves with seven-story faces "the ultimate
Hamilton created a sensation in November 1997 by marrying his
longtime girlfriend, volleyball star and model Gabrielle Reece,
who tries not to worry about her husband's penchant for risking
his neck. "She knows a gladiator needs a battle," says Laird. He
taught Gabrielle to surf--"I block people from the waves she wants
to ride," he says--and spends hours crafting furniture and wooden
valentines for her. He has even taken up her sport. "I've evolved
into an average volleyball player," he says, smiling.
March 22, 1999
Hamilton is in no hurry to surf Maverick's. "I'd like to ride
there," he says, "but not in a contest. I don't like
man-against-man competition. I'm man against the elements."