Surfing's greatest innovator

Posted on 12/02/2016 by Ant Williams
Surfer LH

Image by SURFER Magazine

Before freediving my life revolved around surfing. Nothing beat spending time in the ocean surfing great waves with good friends. So I felt hugely honoured when I recently had the good fortune of meeting Laird Hamilton, a man whose innovations literally changed the sport of surfing. At age 32, Laird made history by surfing the heaviest wave ever ridden at the notorious Teahupoo surf break in Tahiti, then went on to pioneer tow-in surfing. That’s where you whip a surfer in to a giant wave behind a jet ski that couldn’t otherwise be surfed. He mixes it up constantly with new surfboard designs, exotic diets, and radical ideas on how to train for big wave surfing.

Despite riding some of the biggest waves in the world Laird does not see himself as a risk taker. Rather he believes that with intense training, preparation and experience comes the ability to push our human limits to lofty new heights while managing the risk involved. Little wonder the Washington Post labelled him the world’s greatest athlete. Meeting Laird was a great opportunity to get inside the brain of a sporting legend. Being a massive surfing fan, I wanted to find out how he kept at the forefront of the sport for more than two decades.

You’ve come up with some of the greatest innovations in surfing. So what’s next?

I’m looking for a way to ride inside large waves. It is something that will combine surfing with freediving. The greatest obstacle to solve is how to maintain enough speed to keep up with the wave. I need to find a wetsuit and technique that enables me to travel as fast as a large wave. I’m training now to increase my breathhold ability and beginning to experiment with different equipment to take my surfing underwater. 

When I was young you rode the biggest wave ever caught on camera. From the pictures in the surfing magazines it looked like certain suicide. Do you see yourself as a risk taker?

No, I’m not a risk taker. Before each surf I plan meticulously and reduce every risk that I can. I invest in the best equipment and tools to keep me safe and get me out of trouble. In big surf you have to have the right gear. I wear a life vest and won’t hesitate to use it in a heavy situation. I don’t believe in taking unnecessary risk with my challenges.

You’re 52 now but you don’t seem to be slowing down or having any less fun!

It’s all about enjoying the most important moments in your life. Moments where you are tested and have unbelievable experiences. You have family and friends but you also need those moments of adventure to feel like you have accomplished something. The biggest element in the world is the ocean and we need to develop a relationship with it. Stopping adventure just because you have kids is a cop out. Don’t blame them for your choice to give up your sport. We need to appreciate the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

What goes through your mind before surfing giant waves? Do you have any fear?

I get very anxious and nauseous in the morning of a big wave session. I slow down and don’t even want to walk. It doesn’t feel like I’m pumped up for it. It’s like my body is preparing for what lies ahead and conserving every ounce of energy as I am going to need it later.

Do you innovate with your training as well?

Life is meant to be seasonal. Beers hibernate in the winter and so should we periodise our training. You must have variety in your training and always look to innovate and extend outwards. Using surfing as my foundation I am always on the lookout for new innovations in training and nutrition as that is what drives growth and adaption.

What advice do you have for others who want to surf bigger waves?

Don’t be in a hurry. Those big waves have been there for a long time and they will continue to be. Have the right gear and wear a vest. Be good at showing restraint on days that don’t feel within your reach at that time. Have discipline in your training and work on your breathing and flow state with meditation. You need to learn active meditation to clear out the mind.

For more from Laird, find him at or at the twitter handle @LairdLife