What Makes Laird Hamilton Tick

According to the new documentary Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamiltonwhich premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival, even as a kid growing up on the North Shore of Oahu, Laird Hamilton ignored the rules. Once, as a toddler, after his mother put him down for a nap, he crawled out of the window, went down to the ocean, and was found playing in the surf. In grade school, when a teacher threatened to wash his mouth out with soap for cursing, he went to the bathroom, grabbed a bar of soap, and started eating it. And eventually, after years as a rebellious teenager, he dropped out of high school and devoted his life to surfing.

Through interviews with Hamilton’s friends and family, like wife, Gabby Reece, stepfather Bill Hamilton, and fellow surfers, documentarian Rory Kennedy unpacks the legend of Laird and offers a nuanced portrait of the big wave surfer credited with revolutionizing the sport. The film touches on Hamilton’s rough home life; his experiences being bullied as a kid; growing up surfing Oahu; co-creating tow-in surfing with the so-called Strapped Crew; and his current focus on foil boarding. Ultimately, the documentary shows how his iconoclastic streak, combined with a life-long love of the ocean, fierce discipline, and voracious desire to surf bigger waves, made him one of the most innovative surfers of all time.

We spoke to director Rory Kennedy about what makes Hamilton tick, his complicated relationship with the surfing community, and why the filmmaker wasn’t surprised when during the Sundance Film Festival, she found him pushing cars out of the snow in flip-flops.

Why did you want to make a movie about Laird Hamilton?

I was interested in taking the question of what motivates Laird, what drives him, what gets him to surf these ginormous waves and not just push his own limits but also push the sport. He has really been an innovator and has really changed the sport pretty single-handedly and more significantly than anyone in the last, I would say, 100 years. I think that story line was interesting to me, someone who has really forged their own path without a lot of resources to begin with. He grew up in poverty, in a broken family and everything he has done he has really done from his own self-motivation. I think he has a story that a lot of people can relate to or at least maybe be motivated by.

What drives him?

From a very young age he had a natural draw to the water. They used to tie a line to his leg, and tie the other side to a brick that was clamped down in the ground so that he wouldn’t get pulled out into the surf beyond a certain distance. So I think there was something about him that, from a very young age, he was inclined toward water. Then he had a lot of hardship, and I think it was a difficult childhood and he ended up finding solace and calmness in the water, which is, on some level, ironic, because most of us look at the waves that he rides and it looks very chaotic and insane and out of control, but his experience is that you know what you are getting in those waves, and if you mess up, you are impacted by that, and if you do something right, you are rewarded. In the Hawaiian culture, where he was one of the few white people, it was the way to prove himself, and there was respect for people who could surf waves.

Why is he sometimes seen as a controversial character in the surfing community and even within the local North Shore community?

Laird is someone who forges his own path, and he doesn’t adapt to an environment, and that can create conflict. For example, we’re here in Utah, and it is a total whiteout, the storm of the century, and he’s walking around Main Street in his flip-flops pushing cars. He is not adapting. Most people might wear boots, or a sweater, or a jacket or a hat, but he is who he is. Also, Laird is not going to compete even though that’s how most surfers get their name. He doesn’t want to be judged by someone, as to whether he surfed well or not. I think a lot of it is about not wanting to be in a position where that judgment matters. If you forge your own path you are less dependent on others.

In the film, Gabby Reece said his personality relies on friction, what does that mean?

If you look at Laird and his life and going up against these waves as a metaphor for friction that is coming up against fear and conflict, and addressing those challenges. I think that is how he goes through life as well. If there is something that is uncomfortable, Laird veers toward it and not away from it.

What does he do to insure his success?

He is extremely disciplined, he is disciplined about how he eats, his workout regime, his commitment to surfing and spending as much time as physically possible and being out on the water and learning from it, and he has created a life where he can do it. But with all of his dedication, he also has a good sense of humor and doesn’t take it too seriously.

He has a very interesting relationship with fear.

I think a lot of people think of him as fearless given what he does and how he goes about it. But what he says is that he has a relationship to fear in which he is conscious of it and tries to work through it. He has spent a lot of time in that room, so instead of something that makes him react unconsciously, as I think most of us do when we are fearful, he recognizes it as an emotion that is in a part of his brain that he has more control over than one would have if you just let it dictate what you did. On that level I think it is kind of a spiritual exercise for him.

What was it that allowed him to make these contributions to the surfing community?

I don’t think he went into it consciously saying, "I want to change the sport of surfing.” He wanted to go into bigger and bigger waves. So he said, "Let’s get on a small board. Then a jet ski. And if we are being pulled into these big waves, what if we put straps on these?" Same thing with foiling. He came across an idea, and it opened up a whole new world to him, not as close to the beach and where there are no other surfers. He was trying to have as much fun as possible — and it meant changing the sport so that it could adapt to his needs. 

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