Surf's Up!

<B>Lesley Stahl</B> Talks To Big-Wave Surfer Laird Hamilton

Meet a man who is to his sport what Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Lance Armstrong are to theirs.

You can't buy a ticket to his next game, or watch his latest victory on your local sportscast. In fact, most of you probably have never even heard of him.

He's Laird Hamilton, and he's a giant in the sport of big-wave surfing. Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports.
Like any serious athlete in any sport, surfer Laird Hamilton spends hours each day building up the strength he needs to take on the competition.

In his case, the competition stands 35 feet tall, and comes at him at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour -- and that's on an easy day. 60 Minutes first met Hamilton off the coast of Maui in Hawaii.

Hamilton considers a big wave a wall of water up to 70 feet high, the equivalent of a seven-story building. And these are the waves he lives for.

"It would be, like, if all of a sudden you saw a block of buildings come alive, and it decides that it's going to start falling towards you -- and you have to know where to go to get away from it," says Hamilton. "If you're up on top of it, you have to know how to get down it and get away from it."

What he's describing may seem like a nightmare to some. "Some people seek nightmares out," says Hamilton. "I mean, scary movies are popular."

Big-wave surfing occupies a small niche in the surfing world -- small because the playing field is so hard to find. There are just a few spots around the globe where waves ever get this big, and even in those places, they come only 15-20 days a year.

But to the several hundred men who chase these waves around the world, Hamilton is the best of the best.

"It's like being able to watch Willie Mays in his prime, or Jim Brown running the football," says Bruce Jenkins, a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Is big-wave surfing the most dangerous sport? "I really think so. I can't imagine anything that compares to it. Things like motor sports, you can back off a little bit, and not have to be the fastest guy, or make the riskiest turn," says Jenkins. "But in surfing, you're out there. And a wave can come that you're just not ready for. And you just can't hide from it."
Wipeouts in big-wave surfing are a scary thing to behold.

"You ever see a dog get a hold of, like, a little doll and shake it? That's how you kind of feel, the rag doll," says Hamilton. "We call it the rag doll. It just spins you, and flips you and shakes you."

In the past 10 years, four big-wave surfers have lost their lives.

Does Hamilton understand why he needs this danger in his life?

"Probably not. I know that if I scare myself once a day, I'm a better person. And I think everybody would be. I think it's part of actually existing," says Hamilton.

"I think that we've gone so far away from that [physical fear]. A dinosaur was chasing you [in pre-historic times] and wanting to eat you. I think we need [some fear]."

For as long as he can remember, Hamilton has been a daredevil. One of his earliest memories is the day he handpicked his own father. His biological father had abandoned him and his mother. Hamilton was playing by himself on the beach outside his home in Hawaii, when a pro surfer named Bill Hamilton, then 17, came walking by.

"I see this little blond-haired kid just rolling around in the waves, and just having a wonderful time. So I just dove in the water, and I said, 'Hey, what's your name? You wanna body surf,'" recalls Bill Hamilton. "He goes, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Hop on my back.' We just had a super connection … he was two and a half."

"I brought him home and said, 'Hey, you gotta meet my mom.' And he was like 'Oh, yeah. OK. I'll come meet your mom,'" recalls Laird, who adds that the two of them hit it off.

"I'm like, that's perfect, because usually they like my mom and then they go home. They're like, 'Oh, this is your boy?' So it was reverse role."

Within six months, Bill Hamilton and Laird's mother were married. By all accounts, Laird was a hellraiser of a kid, hard to control. He quit school early and worked at everything from construction to modeling to support his surfing. He was also the first man Brooke Shields agreed to pose with in 1983.
Hamilton's life today is still filled with beautiful women, but it's tamer than you might think. He's married to former professional volleyball player and model Gabby Reece. He has an 8-year-old daughter from his first marriage, and a brand new baby girl with Reece.

Is Laird fearless?

"No, I don't think Laird is fearless at all. I think that's what's so interesting about Laird and athletes like Laird," says Reece. "They are just as afraid, but they deal with it differently -- because if they didn't have fear, I don't think they'd be as good as they are."

Hamilton earns a living from a single sponsor, a French sportswear company called Oxbow, and supplements it with the DVDs he produces of his rides, as well as special projects like surfing in the opening sequence of the James Bond film "Die Another Day."

Throughout his career, he's been controversial. He's reached the pinnacle of big-wave surfing without ever entering a contest. He says the judging is too subjective.

Then, he went and did something his critics said took the soul out of the sport: He made it easier. In traditional surfing, the surfer has to paddle out past the waves, then wait and pick exactly the right moment to paddle in the opposite direction, and get up on his feet.

But when waves reach 50 feet or more, they move so fast, it's impossible. Surfers call it "the unridden realm" and Hamilton was determined to go there. His ticket was a buddy with a jet ski, pulling him at 40 miles an hour. It was a simple idea, but it changed everything.

It's called tow-in surfing -- no paddling or jumping up needed -- and the surfer can catch literally any size wave. The "unridden realm" was suddenly reachable. But a sport that was once about quiet communing with nature now involved fast, loud, smelly machines.

What was the reaction of the paddle surfers when they saw this?

"I think by and large it was, like, that's cheating," says Bill Hamilton. "Not only is that cheating, that's polluting. It's noise pollution; it's water pollution."

"There are people who are so enamored with the sort of bullfighting aspect, to paddling in with your bare hands," adds Jenkins. "People will say, 'Well, your grandmother could do that.' And, you know, quite literally, anyone could be towed into the world's biggest wave."

"But then you have to surf it. And of course, you're dead," says Hamilton. "It's just different. Everybody that's done it, I don't hear one of those guys ever say it's cheating."

While no one has died yet towing in, there is real concern, especially about inexperienced surfers finding their way onto these giant waves. Hamilton argues that towing in is actually safer, because the jet ski is there to race in and pull a fallen surfer out before the next wave hits. But his real defense of tow-in is what it has allowed him to achieve: conquering Teahupoo, a surf spot off the coast of Tahiti.

Teahupoo is so dangerous, not because of its height, but because of the thickness, or volume, of the wave, and because the water is extremely shallow. A fall on a big wave in Teahupoo means almost certain death. In fact, no one ever dared surf waves this big at Teahupoo until Hamilton towed into this wave four years ago.

That ride at Teahupoo made Laird a legend. But after that, he went back to his garage and tinkered with ways to revolutionize the sport yet again. This time, he came up with a strange-looking contraption he calls a foilboard, which cuts through the water like a knife, and allows the surfer to sail above the bumps on the surface of the waves.

"This board just cuts through the chop. But you've gotta keep your balance on it," says Hamilton. He makes it sound easy, but other surfers told us it's like trying to surf on a unicycle.

Hamilton believes that foilboarding will someday allow surfers to ride the biggest swells out in the open ocean for miles and miles.

Why does he continue to do it?

"I really just love it. I think it's one of the few times in my life that I feel totally complete, like, this is why I'm here," says Hamilton. "When I'm out there and I'm doing it, I don't have any doubts or any questions. I'm living it, and that's it."
  • Rebecca Leung

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