Laird Hamilton (March 2, 1964) is an American big-wave surfer.
Laird and his mother JoAnn Zyrik Zerfas moved to Hawaii when he was still an infant, after the departure of his birth father before his first birthday. While a young boy, Laird met legendary 1960's Big-Wave surfer Bill Hamilton on the beach of the North Shore of Oahu, and Laird introduced Bill to his mother. Bill Hamilton went on to marry JoAnn, and become Laird's adopted father. JoAnn and Bill divorced after ten years of marriage, having given Laird a younger half-brother (and surfer), Lyon. JoAnn died of a brain aneurysm in 1997.
Laird thus grew up in the 1960s and 1970s with one of the greatest surfing locations in the world on the north coast of Oahu as a playground with a legendary big wave surfer as a father and coach to mold him into the art of conquering big wave surf.
Laird's first marriage was to Brazilian bodyboarder/clothes designer Maria Souza, with whom he has a daughter, Izabela, born in 1995. He is at present married to model/pro athlete Gabrielle Reece, with whom he has a second daughter, Reece Viola, born in 2003.
At the age of sixteen Hamilton left school to pursue a modeling career. At the age of seventeen, Laird was discovered on a beach in Kauai by a photographer from Italian Men's Vogue magazine L'Uomo Vogue which subsequently saw him land a modeling contract and later a 1983 photo shoot with the actress Brooke Shields. By the age of twenty, Laird had already become an accomplished surfer and could have easily left modeling to pursue the well-worn path from clothing endorsements to dominance on the prized World Championship Tour. However, competitive surfing and contests never appealed to Laird who had watched his father Bill suffer thoroughly in organized championships. Bill Hamilton regarded surfing more as a work of art rather than based chiefly on performance. As a young Laird once quoted "Contests are less about the one big wave," he says, "than about your performances. Surfing is about your body of work. It's about art. I would snap if I was letting someone other than the audience determine my fate. How does a musician judge his thing? By how many people love his music?"
In the 1987 movie The North Shore, Laird played the antagonistic role of "Lance Burkhart."
Despite further success in modeling during the 1980s, Hamilton, with his professional surfing upbringing, had always intended to venture into a life of surfing. But, Laird's rejection of, and disposition toward, the contest circuit meant that he had to devise an alternate route to fame and international recognition. An early attempt at media recognition was his quest to be the first surfer to complete a 360 loop while strapped to his board. The attempt was chronicled in the ski film Groove - Requiem in the key of Ski by Greg Stump (1990). Thus he embarked on famously, in the early 1990s with Maui's legendary 'Strapt' crew, a group of eight or so friends that included fellow all-star Rush Randle which aimed to push the restrictions and boundaries of contemporary surfing beyond people's wildest imaginations. The Strapt crew amazed spectators by tackling bigger wave surf and featuring stunts such as launching 30-foot jumps on sailboards, then mating the boards to paragliders to experiment with some of the earliest kiteboards. In late 1992, Hamilton with some of his companions, such as Darrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox, started using inflatable boats to tow one another into waves which were too big to catch under paddle power alone. The technique, which would later be modified to use jet skis, was a revolutionary innovation. Tow-in surfing, as it soon became known, pushed the confinements and possibilities of big wave surfing to a whole new level. Although met with mixed reactions from the surfing community, some of whom felt that it was cheating and polluting, Laird explained that tow-in surfing was the only way to catch the monstrous sized waves such as those that can be seen at Jaws (Peahi) off the coast of Maui and the coastline of Tahiti. Using tow-in surfing methods, Hamilton quickly learned not just how to survive 70 foot waves but to carve arcs across walls of water that could literally sink ships. This put a high level of drama back into a sport long preoccupied with small-wave hopping tricks that had become a cliché in competitive surfing.
Soon, Hamilton was receiving the recognition he had long craved for. In 1994 he appeared on both ESPN (with his first wife, Brazilian bodyboarder Maria Hamilton) and the cover of the magazine which gained him attention from a number of sporting agencies who recognized his potential, landing an exclusive sponsorship from the French beachwear company 'Oxbow' surf later that year which he still endorses, modelling their clothes and featuring in their adverts.
However in 1995 Laird's life took an unexpected detour. He left his wife and baby daughter and moved in with professional volleyball player and model Gabrielle Reece in Los Angeles whom he met following an interview by her on American television. He went on to marry Reece in November 1997. Hamilton's climb to fame was greatly helped by Gabrielle Reece's expertise in the media machine who "knew all about being in a sport where you had to create something out of nothing," as she says. She soon set Hamilton up with her own talent manager, Jane Kachmer, who recommended that he needed some professional organization and publicity to achieve his potential. In short order, Hamilton's career began looking a lot more like Reece's. In 1996, People magazine named him one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World, and he actually replaced Reece as correspondent for the syndicated cable series 'The Extremists'.
By the late 1990s Laird whilst gaining more attention, had become a truly all-round waterman, gifted in a number of other watersports such as windsurfing, waterskiing and developing his kitesurfing abilities as a pioneer of the sport. In 1996 Laird and Manu Bertin were instrumental in demonstrating and popularising kitesurfing off the Hawaiian coast of Maui.
Demonstrating his superb ability in the water, in 1999 Laird sailed his windsurfer between the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai, some fifty miles away, an endeavour he completed in just five or six hours. He later sailed his windsurfer back again. Hamilton has also been credited with inventing the foilboard, which he has also developed in, an innovative surfboard which incorporates hydrofoil technology allowing a higher degree of precision and effectiveness of aerial techniques within the water.
However, it was Hamilton's death-defying drop into Tahiti's Teahupoo break on the morning of August 17, 2000 which became the benchmark in his career and his life, and cemented his reputation as the greatest big wave surfer of all time. A wipeout in Teahupoo, a particularly hazardous shallow-water reefbreak southeast of Tahiti, means almost certain death. At Teahupoo, Laird dropped into what is widely considered to be the most dangerous wave ever ridden. His ride there is known by surfers worldwide simply as 'The Wave', and a shot of him riding The Wave made the cover of Surfer magazine, accompanied by the caption: "oh my god...". Afterwards even Laird admitted that even he was pushing himself to the "max, max, max". Hamilton is now widely regarded as the best of the best at big wave surfing, regularly surfing swells of 35 foot (11 m) tall, and moving at speeds in excess of 30 miles an hour (50 km/h) and successfully riding other waves of up to 70 feet high (22 m), at up to 50 mph (80 km/h).
He has often been credited for being able to conquer such enormous 'big wave' surf because of his exceptional physical conditioning and tall stature. At 6'3" (1.90m) and 225 pounds (102kg) he is able to take on larger waves which many smaller surfers could not physically handle.
- Maverick's: the story of big-wave surfing by Matt Warshaw, Chronicle Books.
- 20th Century Man: Laird Hamilton by Bruce Jenkins, The Surfer's Journal, Vol. 6, No. 3.
- Laird Hamilton's Web Site
- Laird Hamilton on IMDb
- 60 Minutes Laird Hamilton Feature
- Global Surf News
- The Baltimore Sun Article
- Most biggest dangerous surf wipeouts caught on camera
- Men's Journal Article
- The famous Surfer magazine cover of Laird Hamilton riding The Wave at Teahupoo, 17 August 2000
- Another set of photographs of Laird Hamilton riding The Wave at Teahupoo, 17 August 2000, by Tim McKenna
- Surfline: Biography of Laird Hamilton.