Most will see this surfing documentary because surfing is inherently stunning to watch, and its star, Laird Hamilton, is a god of the sport. He’s been on the water practically since birth, and has been riding bigger and bigger waves as his skills have developed. He never competes, probably because he can’t stand to lose, but is inescapable in surfing literature, probably because he and his wife look like this:
This picture was taken last year, when he was 52 and she was 46. Surfing sure seems good for you! Hamilton actually supported himself by modeling when younger, and now has clothing and equipment lines.
His big contribution to the sport was the invention of tow-in surfing. In the early 90s he and some pals discovered a new break off Pe’ahi on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The waves were too large and the break too far out to reach by just paddling, but they found that they could ride out there on Jet Skis. These have propellers on a inlet inside the craft and so are much safer for people in the water. They worked out how to add a sled to the back so surfers could get on and off easily, and how to gauge what waves to ride. They called themselves the Strappers, since they liked to fasten their feet to the board to do kitesurfing stunts.
Being Americans, they then thought of how to make money at it. That came with a documentary, Riding Giants (2004, clip here), which led to the mobbing of the site by idiots driving outboards. It also led to the breakup of the gang, since the director only cared about the most attractive of the group. The rest were paid off with small checks. It’s a familiar story of startups – everyone is excited by this new endeavor, and works together communally on it, but only the leads make any money. His old comrades are interviewed here, and they still sound rather bitter.
Hamilton continued to tune up his ability to ride larger and larger waves, and found that the limit was the hydrodynamics of the board. He just couldn’t surf fast enough to avoid getting crushed. So for the last few years he’s been working on foilboards, where a hydrofoil beneath the water lifts the whole board out of it. The only contact is on a slim fin, so there’s far less water resistance. He’s been building foils himself and testing other people’s. There’s an astonishing final shot of him riding for what seems like minutes up and down one wave after another.
It looks like something few people can master, and it may be his last hurrah. He has arthritis in his hips now, and broken ankles bother him. Two big inventions is pretty good, though, and it’s extraordinary to see an athlete in his 50s performing at this level. I hope enough people see this movie to keep him on the water for as long as he can.