An Epic Week in Malibu: Laird Hamilton on Shooting the Pier and Saving Lives

Maybe you heard that the Tropical Storm Marie swells in Malibu topped 20 feet last week; that the waves were the biggest locals had seen in 35, 40 years; and that a certain big-wave surfer not only tamed them, but also dove in to save an injured surfer being pulled out to sea.

We just want to set the record straight here: This was actually the second guy Laird Hamilton saved that week. 

“On Tuesday, there was a guy who got hit in the head, and I saw him out in the water — I had a buddy out there, and the guy was laying on my friend’s board — so I paddled out and I helped them get in,” Hamilton told us over the phone one week later. “That guy had a concussion, so we got all his gear to shore, and took him home.” 

The next day, Hamilton’s heroics cranked up a notch.  

“I was down at Surfrider Beach, where the Pier is, and I came in to switch boards. I saw a guy out in the current waving his arm. Judging by the way he was waving, he looked strong, so I didn’t go running out there. But after a few minutes of him not coming in, I thought, ‘Better get my fins on,’ — I always have fins in my truck — and I threw them on and swam out. Another surfer paddled out, got the guy on his board, and we pushed the guy in on a wave, and we bodysurfed in. Come to find out that the guy had a wipe out, crashed, and dislocated shoulder. He was a little scared, and he was out in a pretty good rip current with a dislocated shoulder and only one arm to swim — he wouldn’t have made it back in.”

The week wasn’t all surfer-saving, of course. Hamilton also “shot the pier” — riding a massive wave to thread through the raised pylons of a pier. The surf giant had done it a couple times before, though not for the last decade, and this time, he says, “I shot it on my first wave.”

“I was excited more than nervous. You don’t know if you’re going to be able to shoot it until you get to it, then you have to make a split second decision on which pylons you’re going to go through — some are further apart than others, because Malibu’s not a perfectly engineered pier. So you choose your line, and make sure you don’t hit — that’s a nice added incentive — and you either don’t go through, or you go through and make it.”

The feat makes for some sweet surf video, but Hamilton hesitates to rank it amongst the gnarliest waves he’s done. “I rank it high in the amount of people who knew I did it, you know? That news seemed to travel like wildfire. It sounds funny to say it, but in my world, I do stuff all winter long that’s crazier than that. It’s a little like that saying, ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one sees it, did it fall?’ This just happened to be one of the trees that everybody saw.”

Which made us suggest that, maybe for prosperity — or at least YouTube — Hamilton should just rig his SUP board with a camera. “Oh, I got the new GoPro, plus found a company that makes video drones that follow you around — so we’ll see how that goes.”

Because you want your first meeting with the big-wave surfer on land, not sea. 

Don’t go solo. “Surfing is a dangerous game, and stuff happens, especially on big days like what happened in Malibu. If you’re going out in bigger surf, do the buddy system, which always works well. It’s what allowed me to go into bigger surf last week, and to help a guy who needed it.” 

Be realistic about your skills. “Imagine if you surf a spot every single day, then you come down and it’s bigger than you’ve ever seen it. You think you can handle it because, hey, you’re there all the time. But you don’t realize that you’re in over your head. That’s when it comes down to knowing what you’re proficient in, and what you’re not.”

If you get tired, call it. “The only way you learn is to go out in bigger conditions and get the experience, yes, but at the same time, you have to be responsible for yourself. If you’re lagging, feeling fatigue, or questioning yourself, you can’t be surprised if something happens. Go in.”

Don’t rely on the lifeguards. “The guards were busy pulling people out of the water in Malibu that day, and they couldn’t be everywhere at once. People get too reliant on that safety net, thinking it’s going to protect them. The guy who dislocated his shoulder? He was on the other side of the pier and going down the coast — and not coming back to the beach on his own accord — and they wouldn’t have been able to get to him.”

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