"It's areality that somebody will die [at Jaws] soon. That's a 100 percentfact."
--Kelly Slater,seven-time world surfing champion, Nylon
On the big daysthe golf carts head to the cliff before dawn. The men driving them have beenawake most of the night because they know what's coming: a rare mashup of wind,water and fury that began brewing three days ago in the Aleutian Islands. Thestorm has barreled across the Pacific at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, and isnow headed toward this cliff on Maui's North Shore. When it arrives here, laterthis morning, all of that deep-water momentum will slam against a reef thatrises to within 30 feet of the surface. This collision will force the swellupward until it explodes into giant waves; monsters with 60- to 80-foot faces,and possibly larger. The break is called Pe'ahi, also known as Jaws, and itswaves are the aquatic version of Everest. ¬∂ The men in the golf carts havespent years watching Jaws--fearing it, analyzing it, dreaming about it and,finally, riding it. They know its moods and how it's likely to behave on a daywhen the trade winds are blowing versus a day with Kona winds. They know how itfeels to run a hand along the face of its spitting barrel, and they know whathappens if you don't make it out the other side. Jaws is fiercer, thicker andfaster than other waves its size, and a wipeout here can have terribleconsequences. In the 15 years surfers have been braving this spot, there havebeen countless shredded joints and shattered limbs, near drownings andharrowing rescues, but miraculously, there have been no deaths. Yet. Beware ofdog reads the sign on a gate just off Maui's Hana Highway. This is not the kindof warning you ignore when the gate protects the home of big-wave surfer LairdHamilton; his wife, the athlete and model Gabrielle Reece; and his twodaughters. If you've seen the American Express TV spot of him tearing up a75-foot face on Jaws and then leaping off a 100-foot sea cliff, you can onlyimagine what kind of guard dog Laird Hamilton might have--a rottweiler? Amastiff? Cujo? Two hundred yards down the driveway the house comes intoview--low-slung, expansive, almost minimalist--surrounded by green pineapplefields. Hamilton, in blue, flowered board shorts and orange Crocs, is sortingtools in his garage. Next to him stands Pinot, a sweet-tempered Chihuahua.
At 6'3" and215 pounds, Hamilton looks more like a linebacker than a surfer, and themuscles in his back are so defined that they seem to push him forward. Anoverwhelming intensity comes through his eyes and in the way he moves--nothingtentative there; no defense, all offense. Imagining him in a different life islike imagining a panther pulling a hansom cab through Central Park.
August 6, 2006
The garage has thesprawl of an airplane hangar, with barn doors on either end and many, manysurfboards, of course; but also bicycles, tricycles, motorcycles, baby-joggers,trailers, Jet Skis in various states of repair. Two 20-foot walls are linedwith tool cabinets stocked with every possible wrench and drill bit and file.There's a clutch of trophies tossed in the corner and a heavy machete on acounter; three pickup trucks and a tractor parked out back.
All the gear is areminder that big-wave surfing isn't a solo sport, and during the afternoon theplace fills up with Hamilton's crew. Loch Eggers, a burly, sun-baked guy,drives up with a hacksaw and a bag of 9/16-inch screws for the latest project:a Jet Ski launch ramp. Then Brett Lickle, tough and jovial, arrives with histwo young daughters. Next is Dave Kalama, who stops by with his daughter andson. After a while Gabby comes downstairs with two-year-old Reece, both of themstartlingly beautiful, and barefoot.
Hamilton makesespresso, takes calls, sorts tools and discusses plans with his team. Endlesslogistics and maintenance are part of their daily routine: a new Jet Ski needsto be delivered; a vehicle known as the Mule, used to get around on theproperty, has a busted four-wheel-drive. It sits out front, surrounded byReece's toys. And beyond that, a 10-minute golf cart ride away, is Jaws."To get any closer, I'd have to be a pineapple," Hamilton says. That ittook him a decade of waiting and campaigning to get his hands on this propertysays everything about what's important to him. It's as though Tiger Woods haddecided to bunk down on the greens at Augusta.
For as long asanyone can remember, surfers have been coming to the cliff and marveling at thefierce beauty of Jaws. "That is a super freak wave," surf icon GerryLopez says. "The sight of it makes you physically nauseous." He andmany of the other big-wave pioneers from Oahu's North Shore made pilgrimages toPe'ahi in the 1960s and '70s. None of them believed that it could beridden.
The firstchallenge was getting through the shore break, a surging wall of water thatwill paste a surfer to the rocks. Paddling through it on a big day isimpossible. "The energy of the wave goes all the way to the cliff,"Lopez says, describing the shoreline--composed entirely of boulders--as "abig-sand beach." Then, of course, there's the wave itself, which is massiveand moves with terrifying velocity. A surfer on his board would have to betraveling faster than the wave--imagine keeping pace with an avalanche to avoidbeing buried by it--and on faces this large, no one knew whether the laws ofphysics would allow this. Add to this concern the fact that Jaws got itsnickname due to a nasty habit of suddenly snapping shut and swallowing whateverwas inside it. Which leads directly to the next worry: The churn of whitewaterafter the wave breaks is a four-foot-deep froth that isn't dense enough tosupport a human body. A surfer hurled into that would try to claw his way tothe surface, but it would be like clutching at mist. Or perhaps he'd be pinnedon the sea floor, or sucked into one of the reef's many caves and jaggedpits.
The solutionHamilton and his friends came up with involved several years of research anddesign to create the ideal equipment and then test it out by trial and error.Borrowing ideas from windsurfing and snowboarding, they created shorter,heavier surfboards with foot straps and thinner, stronger fins, and then addedJet Skis, water-ski tow ropes and flotation vests to the mix. Tow surfing'sbreakout day came in late 1991, when Hamilton, a surfer named Buzzy Kerbox andbig-wave guru Darrick Doerner pulled one another into a handful of howling50-footers, and made history. It's not that they were the first to rideJaws--windsurfers had done that--it's that they tore it up. The tow surfers didnot simply survive the wave, they rocketed down its face. Hamilton went deep,into the barrel, and barely outran the collapsing lip. He then bunny-hoppedover the chop and exited with an exuberant backflip. This wave has a fifthgear, he remembers thinking. Others have described riding down the face of Jawsas how they imagine it would feel to be shot from a cannon.
The new equipmentdid its job, but something more significant happened that day: Hamiltoninstantly knew that this was it. Here was a new level of surfing that wastailor-made for his abilities, his physical stature, his desires. And for allbig-wave surfers, the stakes had been raised. "It was like walking on themoon," Lickle recalls. "You just couldn't make mistakes."
Giant waves areamong the Earth's most fearsome forces--they can cripple a supertanker, level acity, sink an oil rig. A 70-foot wave is powerful enough to tear a 50-tonboulder out of the ground and hurl it 150 feet; it's humbling to imagine whatit might do to a human body.
Hamilton's grouppracticed rescues, considered them from every angle. Having reliable teammatesbecame key because--somehow--in the 10-second intervals between waves, a driverhad to sight his partner's head as it popped up in the whitewater (Godwilling), dart in, grab him, then hightail it out of the impact zone before thenext wave came hurtling down. Every time they went out at Jaws, their liveswould be in one another's hands.
Kalama and Licklegot a harsh reminder of this on New Year's Day, 2000. The wave's face wasstudded with bumps, and when Kalama hit one the wrong way he found himselfflying backward, looking up at the curling, menacing lip. He remembersthinking, This is going to get interesting.
Sucked over thefalls, the most disastrous place to be, he caught a flash of blue sky beforebeing slammed into the boiling whitewater and driven 20 feet deep. Panickingburns oxygen, so he tried to stay loose, tucking in his arms and legs, takingthe beating as the wave passed and then making for the surface. He was inchesfrom getting a breath when the next wave hit, sending him back down. This mightbe it, he thought, but let's see.
When that wavefinally released him, he broke the surface and saw Lickle nearby. Kalamagrabbed the rescue sled, but another mountain of water was already upon them.When it hit, the Jet Ski was sucked backward into a whitewater hole, and Kalamawas ripped off the sled and thrust down again, even deeper this time. "Icould feel it by the pressure in my ears."
Whitewater blocksout the light, so below the surface everything was black. Kalama, exhausted anddisoriented, didn't know which way was up. He began to convulse, his bodystraining to take a lungful of water while his mind was still barely able toprevent it. Later, he would be told that this is the first stage ofdrowning.
By luck or skillor grace he broke the surface, and he made a desperate lunge for Lickle's sled.But Jaws wasn't done with him yet--another wave exploded on top of them, andsent the ski tumbling. Lickle's feet smacked Kalama's head, but both men heldtight and in 30 seconds they were back in calm waters.
"Kind of arough way to start the new century," Kalama says. "It was baby steps tobuild my confidence back up. It took me three years to feel like I was incontrol again."
Nearly drowningwhile being savagely beaten hardly sounds like an appealing prospect, but thereward for making it down the face of Jaws without a wipeout, surfers say, is aeuphoria that is spiritual, chemical, almost sexual, and 100% addictive. Thebody pumps out some heady chemicals--endorphins and hormones--when put in ado-or-die situation.
Greg Noll, 69, thestar of the recent surf documentary Riding Giants who redefined big-wavesurfing in the '50s and '60s, taking near kamikaze risks on Oahu's North Shoreand pulling them off, puts it this way: "When you blow down the side of awave and you make it and the thing's growling at you and snorting and it'strying to grab you by the--I shouldn't say it, but--balls, and you just barelymake it out the other end.... The feeling? It is indescribable."
Which may explainwhy, regardless of the possible consequences, everyone who successfully rodeJaws wanted more. And Jaws obliged, spitting out some of the biggest facesanyone had ever seen. Hamilton matched it, pushing himself to the edge and thenbeyond. Kalama noticed that on the most dangerous days, Hamilton was"willing to put absolutely everything on the line.... And not just once.Time after time after time."
By definitionbig-wave surfing involves pushing the limits, but watching Hamilton at Jaws,people began to ask: Are there limits?
For a surfer oneof the most frustrating things about giant waves is their rarity. From Novemberthrough March the big-wave hunt focuses on the northern Pacific beforemigrating to the Southern Hemisphere for the other half of the year. Epic dayscome at Jaws only two or three times a season, if that. Which means that all ofHamilton's training is aimed at a very narrow window of time. It also meansthat when conditions are right, every surfer in the big-wave world is trying topush through that same window.
After a decade ofacting as though tow surfing was akin to cheating, the $7 billion surf industryembraced it, and crowds have swelled at the most dangerous big-wave spots:Mavericks in Northern California, Cortes Bank off San Diego, Oahu's North Shoreand, especially, Jaws. In the past riding giant waves was considered adistraction from the lucrative pro tour and a one-way ticket to injury; now itis seen as the fastest shortcut to fame.
"The BillabongOdyssey will reward the surfer who rides the biggest wave of each year with acash bonus of $1,000 per foot of face height," announced TransWorld SurfBusiness in 2001. The Odyssey's organizer, Bill Sharp, took his prize over thetop in an interview shortly thereafter. "Whoever rides the 100-foot wavewill get half a million dollars," he said, "and I think he woulddeserve it."
Though opinionsvary as to when a surfable face this size will appear, it is no longer thoughtthat 100-foot waves are as mythical as sea monsters. Scientists now know thatthey break in the ocean with chilling frequency: recent satellite imagesrevealed 10 waves topping 90 feet in a single three-week period. Known asrogues or freaks, they are believed responsible for the mysteriousdisappearances of more than 200 ships in the past two decades. No one canpredict when these waves will strike, but they're out there, as are certainsurf breaks capable of producing such a behemoth. The question about the100-foot wave these days is not if someone will ride it, but when.
Everything aboutthe idea of a big-wave bounty irritates Hamilton. To his mind competitionsdiminish the experience in a ludicrous way, like trying to put a price tag onthe ocean. And not only that, rating waves by their face size is wrong.Hamilton says, "Would you rather be attacked by a Great Dane or a pitbull?" In other words, riding a thick 50-footer is harder than tackling asmooth, thin 100-foot face. When he talks about the bounty his voice becomesurgent, his cadence faster, until the words tumble out: "It's all aboutpeople wanting to box it up. 'So-and-so rode the 100-foot wave.' That's bychance. I don't want 'by chance.' I want more performance. What are you doingon this 100-foot wave that you're supposedly riding? Are you running for yourlife on the shoulder? Are you barely making it? Or are you ripping it apartlike it's a 20-foot wave?"
That said, it'snot like Hamilton will be sitting around at home on a 100-foot day. His dailytraining program is beyond intense--hours of weightlifting, mountain biking,long distance paddling--whatever it takes to be ready for the meanest elements.He has already practiced towing behind a helicopter, for when he encounterswaves so big that a Jet Ski won't do the trick. And he's so intrigued by theidea of surfing in a hurricane that he has invented a hydrofoil surfboard thatglides over even the roughest chop. He's even got his eye on a wave off Kauaihe believes could produce a 200-foot face. The only hitch is that it breaksonce every 10 years.
No, it's not thedesire to ride the biggest wave ever that Hamilton dismisses--it's the factthat the bounty will inevitably attract some surfers whose main motivation isthe cash. And the cruelest irony is that Jaws, his home break, is the placewhere the bounty seekers are most likely to catch the winning ride.
December 15, 2004,should have been one of the best days ever at Jaws--70- to 80-foot waves wereforecast--but instead it was a goat rodeo that began at first light. "Thefirst thing I saw was a guy cartwheeling in the barrel," Kalama recalls. Inpast years there might have been six tow teams out on a big day, all of themfamiliar faces, and the vibe was deadly serious. Today, though, the scenelooked like something straight out of Six Flags.
Two thousandpeople lined the cliff while below the water teemed with photographers andsurfers and Jet Skis and boats full of gawkers. There were at least 40 towteams zipping around and a swarm of other vessels, including a floatinghamburger-and-hot-dog concession that bobbed in the channel next to the wave.Helicopters circled overhead. Many of the best big-wave riders in the world hadcome to Maui for this swell--and for the Billabong bounty--but so had dozens ofsurfers whose best credentials were that they could get their hands on a JetSki and find someone to drive it.
People had worriedthat the 100-foot wave prize (now called the Billabong XXL) would lead surfersinto situations that were over their heads, and the chaos at Jaws seemed toprove them right. "When things go wrong," Doerner says, "they goreally wrong."
For many at Jawsthat Dec. 15th, the main goal was to escape a maiming. Medevac choppers hoistedpeople out all day for injuries ranging from whiplash to dislocated shoulders,ruptured eardrums and a stream of broken arms, legs, ankles and collarbones.Several Jet Skis lay smashed on the rocks. One surfer took such a beating inthe whitewater that his flotation vest, rash guard and surf trunks were tornfrom his body, and he lay naked on the rescue sled as he was driven back to thechannel.
It was like goingfull-speed down the autobahn with brick walls installed at random intervals.Hamilton recalls pulling out of a solid 65-footer, barely making it through awall of disorienting spray, and almost running into a boat. On deck a womanapplying suntan lotion was startled by his sudden appearance.
"I watchedguys take off on a 50-footer, no skill whatsoever. Whole thing hammers them onthe head," Lickle recalls. "They take another five waves on the headand then get back on the ski and do the same thing over again. What's thatabout?"
"A lot ofthese new guys don't understand the pecking order," Noll says. "Theydon't understand how the hand-me-down from the first guys who surfed Waimea towhere Laird's at now has been an interesting and respectful evolution. Thereare gonna be some tombstones on the beach if they think they can pay theirmoney and go around the experience part of it." Lopez agrees: "All ofthem have been real lucky so far."
Doerner is evenmore direct. "This is the sport of kings. It is not the sport ofbozos."
On Thanksgivinglast year Hamilton and a few of the boys were taping tablecloths onto picnictables as a light offshore breeze caused them to flutter like flags. By lateafternoon 30 people had arrived. There were strong-boned Hawaiians andsun-scoured haoles, and all of them had the kind of self-assurance that you'dwant on your team regardless of what you were up to. Gabby circulated in fullhosting mode, while Reece ran after her and occasionally, when she stopped tospeak to someone, attempted to climb up her leg, holding her hand and pushingoff in a back somersault. Hamilton held court in the garage, making sureeveryone who wanted a beer or a glass of pinot noir had one.
At around 6 p.m.,as the turkey was about to be carved, word came back from the cliff: Jaws wasbreaking. Hamilton announced that he and Eggers were headed out; did anyoneelse want to go? The wave was minimal by Billabong XXL standards, 20 feet orso, but perfect for his latest invention: stand-up paddling. In an attempt torecapture the initial rush--and joy--of surfing on days when 70-foot wavesweren't handy, Hamilton had come up with a twist on the sport that involvesstanding on a 12-foot longboard and stroking with a long outrigger paddle, inthe manner of ancient Hawaiians. It was unanimous: Dinner could wait.
Guests piled intogolf carts and sped off, led by Kalama driving one emblazoned with orangeflames. Lickle rode shotgun. The convoy blasted over red-dirt paths through thepineapple fields. Everything seemed peaceful this evening, but locals say thaton the giant days, the ground shakes from the wave's impact, mist clouds theair, and the roar can be heard from five miles away. At the cliff Lickle raisedhis beer in a toast. "Welcome to our paradise," he said. "Up hereit's a show. Down there it's real."
Photographs don'tdo Pe'ahi justice; they can't capture its power or the majesty of this place.Surfers aren't the only ones who worship it: Native Hawaiians talk about itsspiritual vibe, and how this valley was the site of sacred rituals. The wavewas only 300 yards offshore, and it sparkled in a spectrum of blues, from deepazure to brilliant aqua. It was alluring water, the kind you wanted to diveinto, except that even a small break at Jaws could instantly pulverize you.
As the sun settledbelow the horizon, all the blues and greens and reds got washed with gold, andHamilton's paddle gleamed in this rich light. A bigger set rolled in, fourstories above his head, and he wheeled around on the 12-foot board and aimedfor the center of the wave, arcing into the deepest part of it, then headingleft. "Oh, he's running the rocks," Lickle said. "Oh, no, don't dothat!" He paused, and then smiled as Hamilton exited the wave flawlessly."Just so you understand, that was very dangerous. Fall and you're gonna dosome time."
Of course, no onereally thought that Hamilton would wipe out. In the same way you just knew thatJordan was going to nail a jump shot at the buzzer, that Armstrong was going towear the yellow jersey--Hamilton was going to make the wave.
In big-wavesurfing, one of the most-feared injuries is a psychological one, any doubt oranxiety that might creep in and take hold. Hamilton does not like to talk aboutfalling, or even allow the concept much room in his mind. Fear is a constant inthis sport, managing it a job requirement, which is why Hamilton hates to hearthat people consider him immune to the emotion, as though it makes ridingmassive waves easier for him than it is for others. "Fearlessness isignorance, and it's lack of respect," he says. "Without fear, humanswouldn't have survived. Maybe I'm the most scared."
But everyone'sscared that that crazy Dec. 15, 2004, was a sign of the future for big-wavesurfing. So many people are waiting for the same thing--the next huge swell atJaws--that when it arrives, so will the circus. Though the Billabong XXLorganizers have stressed safety, made their contest an invitation-only eventand tried to limit the number of competitors vying at Jaws, Sharp admits hisconcern. "It's really disappointing to ... see how some people have decidedto be a little reckless," he says. "It's a sport that's just notregulated--it's about freedom, and if someone wants to be a little unwise, it'sdifficult to stop them." Perhaps it was inevitable that a sport asdangerous and compelling as tow surfing would be discovered, and hyped. Andperhaps it all comes down to human nature, to the fact that wherever there arechances for money and glory, there will be people taking outsized risks to getthem and countless others who want to watch.
While Hamilton,Kalama, Doerner and Lickle detest the idea of policing Jaws's lineup, the fearthat someone's going to die here is a painful motivation. In the past all ofthem have raced out to rescue surfers whose tow partners were tooinexperienced--or too scared--to do the job themselves. Unfortunately the dayswhen they could help anyone who needed it are over. "It's putting us injeopardy. And there's too many of them," Hamilton says. "It's becomelike a stampede. You gotta step back and say, O.K., let the cattle go, let 'emrun." He pauses. "The first reaction is frustration and anger. But youknow what? The ocean's going to take care of itself. It will have the lastsay."
For video of Laird Hamilton surfing with friends, go toSI.com/laird.
"That is a super freak wave," says surf iconGerry Lopez. "The sight of it makes you PHYSICALLY NAUSEOUS."
On the most dangerous days Hamilton was "willing toput abso lutely everything ON THE LINE ... time after time after time."