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Surf Legend Laird Hamilton Talks Pushing Boundaries & Chasing Big Waves

Surf Legend Laird Hamilton Talks Pushing Boundaries & Chasing Big Waves

Laird Hamilton riding a huge wave

Surfing legend Laird Hamilton is an icon of big wave riding, having conquered some of the largest breakers the mighty ocean has ever conjured. But he’s much more than just a surfer, he’s also huge in the world of fitness and an entrepreneur who fizzes with creative ideas, many of which have been transformed into seriously innovative products. Whether that be superfoods to perfectly optimise our performance or hydrofoil boards to reinvent the way people surf.

Most recently Laird has been putting his considerable energy into writing his book, Liferider. Rather than a straight autobiography, the book is a wisdom packed guide to the secrets behind Laird’s success, broken down into the principles that have motivated his extraordinary life.

It looks at what it means to go beyond and make the very best of one’s potential. We caught up with the man himself to talk about pushing our limits, the fabled Laird Hamilton workout and just what it feels is like to ride a giant wave.

The MALESTROM: Your book Liferider as a whole is about tapping into the potential inside ourselves. How would you suggest people begin to do this? What are those first steps? 

Laird Hamilton: Well being honest with yourself is probably one of them (laughs). I think that would be a foundational step. First of all, it’s hard to tap into something you don’t know. So I think being honest begins to help you know yourself.

I think facing things, in general, is helpful. Whether facing your fears, or facing your vulnerabilities, or your strengths and weaknesses. That’s all part of knowing yourself, those are the steps towards opening the potential you have.

And you have to have belief. It’s interesting when you start to dissect it, it becomes somewhat faith driven. I’m a believer in all things, but it almost gets religious in a way, which always gets a little scary because of the dogma and all the stuff that goes with it. So that can block you from the real.

There’s obviously stuff in all faiths that have evolved over time for a reason, so you know someone didn’t suddenly just think it up one day. It’s evolved over generations and generations. And a lot of that, like it or not, influences you, cause it’s in your DNA. Belief is in your DNA. It’s also about believing you can, you have to believe you’re able to.

I had a lady come up to me once who said, “I want to be a better surfer, I really suck.” So I said, “Repeat after me – I don’t suck.” And she repeated it and that was her first lesson, to be a better surfer don’t believe you suck!

TM: You mentioned fear just now. What’s your mechanism for coping with fear? Or do you encounter so many scary situations you easily handle it?

LH: There’s always a certain level of fear in our being. I think it’s a mandatory emotion that we really need to embrace as we do with sadness and happiness. Being scared is a very normal thing. First of all, it’s about not making it something that’s so bad, it usually puts us into heightened awareness. So fear heightens our awareness and can be very helpful.

Slowing things down is one thing that always works when you’re in danger. There’s perceived fear versus actual, and it’s about how we differentiate between those two.

Obviously, when I’m out of my comfort zone in areas where I don’t have a lot of experience or expertise, that fear mechanism is heightened, but I also have a relationship with the sequence, so I’m able to deal with it a little better than most. Just because of that experience. So I can be thinking, I’m scared, this is dangerous, now what do I do?

It’s about measuring twice and cutting once, making everything really deliberate. But I think fear is super healthy, the problem is people don’t get scared often enough anymore. I think there’s also an addiction to being scared. Once the body gets to experience all the chemical reactions that fear brings on, people are like, I want more of that, I like the way that works on my system.

But you definitely have to burn that off. If you get scared you have to go for a run and get rid of that adrenaline. If you get scared and don’t do anything that will eat you inside. But I think we have a natural craving for being scared, proof of that is the success of horror films.

TM: Do you still get scared these days when you’re about to drop in on a huge wave? 

LH: It’s always new, it’s always a new situation, it’s always a new day and I think that complacency is a liability. If you get complacent and drop your guard, you’re going to get it! The good thing about the ocean is it spanks you pretty readily. You get a good beating regardless of your expertise, skill and all of that stuff.

The ocean doesn’t give out any preferential treatment, you get your bell rung and that keeps you honest. That’s one of the things I love about the ocean, it doesn’t discriminate. I mean as you grow and you have a greater volume of experience, I think it takes more and more to get you to react. Because you’ve gone through so many situations that you’ve recovered from, the body just doesn’t want to act so severely.

I don’t know if you saw Alex in Free Solo, climbing Yosemite, they did a brain test and it showed his [brain] didn’t react like other people. That made complete sense to me, because if you’re put in a dangerous situation ten thousand times, your body tells you, I can’t afford to be scared that often, not that much for that long, it’s too exhausting. Your body says, well we didn’t die, so we’re not going to make you scared.

Laird Hamilton looking at a camera wearing a grey sweater with 'In at the deep end' written on it
Credit: Jennifer Cawley

TM: You very much believe in people pushing their limits as you’ve done throughout your career. You’d essentially like people to get out there and live their lives more?

LH: I hope. I’m hoping that’s the effect the book can have on people. Listen, you’ve got one round down here and you may as well go around and experience some of the stuff there is to do. I mean there’s a lot of pretty phenomenal things. Just to sit somewhere and live your life out not seeing and feeling and touching, it’s crazy we can live lives of such complacency.

But it doesn’t take much to go outside of your little world. If it’s like the island that I grew up on, half the people on one side of the island haven’t been to the other side of the island. Seriously! But that’s kind of the point I guess.

A big part of it is people not wanting to get out of their comfort zone. They have their house in their town, they go to the pub, they have their friends, they have their job, they stay in one little circle and never venture out into the unknown.

First of all, you won’t appreciate where you are and what you have as much if you don’t go out there, people need to do more, try more, experience more, I think that would make for a more fulfilling world.

TM: And you advocate working out in the outdoors rather than being stuck inside a gym?

LH: Yeah. I mean there’s a time and place for being in a box and doing what you have to do. But part of it is engaging with nature, that’s where we’re at our optimum anyway, that’s where we get all these physiological effects on our system.

We’re from nature, it is us, we need it. And then it’s also nice to have a certain distraction when you’re doing the effort because you’ll do it longer.

TM: You mention in Liferider about how your training is heavily weighted towards the cardio – or the heart driven type. What does a typical Laird Hamilton workout look like?

LH: You know it varies at times of the year. During the season I’m in the ocean a lot. Normally we create some complexity within the training, whether we’re hill climbing on some device with nose breathing only, or I have a whole elaborate pool with training stuff.

We have different kinds of circuits, we also do beach training. Again it depends on the time of the year, and if there’s surf or no surf, I find myself wanting to be in the ocean and to ride waves when I can.

Really my ideal training lifestyle is variety and consistency and listening to your body. Like hey, now’s the time to go hard and let’s do some reps, but we’re always doing breath work, we’re always using heat and ice, these are the foundational elements that we implement into our training.

And then it’s just regular good old work. Dig holes, climb trees, carry logs, move stones. There’s nothing like that stuff to make you strong. But look, you can pick flowers and make it into a workout if you want to.

Laird Hamilton working out underwater
Credit: Instagram/ @lairdhamiltonsurf

TM: Looking at your morning routine, coffee is obviously a big part of that, along with your superfood creamers. How important is that first cup of the day?

LH: It’s important enough that I travel with a little kit, and then I really have to implement some self-discipline to take a break from it. If I’m going to do a fast or something like that, it takes some effort.

I can be somewhere and be like ok, no coffee, no this, no fun and it’s all good. I try not to set myself up to be so vulnerable that if I don’t have my concoction I can’t operate, it’s not like that.

But also I think when you’re eating very well, getting good rest and nurturing the system, I think the body can handle sporadic stuff.

But my morning ritual that’s a pretty consistent thing, because that sets up my morning so I can be out in the ocean for four or five hours in a row without eating anything and just having my coffee and my creamers, I call it my morning concoction. That gets me to my first meal of the day which is usually early afternoon.

TM: You’re a great innovator – Is there a particular time or place where you come up with your best ideas? Is it sat at home? Or maybe when in the ocean waiting to catch a wave?

LH: Yes, I think it’s in the ocean when you’re waiting for a wave they come to you, I think that’s a muscle you develop right? A creativity muscle, an idea muscle that if you’re using it on a regular basis and practicing with, that’s something that becomes stronger.

If you use it more and more, those things come to you more and more and at all different times. Once they come it’s grabbing them and locking on to them. That’s the bigger issue, trying not to let go of them.

You have to be like a bloodhound, you get the scent and then you’re just relentless about it. Then I almost have to do something with the idea to get it out of my brain, otherwise, I keep going back to it wondering if it will work? I think that’s a natural behavioural pattern.

TM: We have to talk about your incredible life within the world of surfing. How do you feel when people talk about you as the greatest big wave surfer of all time? Do you feel honoured or entitled in some way because of what you’ve achieved and how you’ve innovated the sport?

LH: I think ultimately it doesn’t matter what people are saying, It’s how you feel about it. I know for me it brings me such pleasure and fear and such excitement, joy and all of these different things. I’m honoured always if someone appreciates my work, I’m always respectful of that, but I’m also a realist, that’s just one spoke on the wheel.

There’s a wheel of life and that’s just one spoke, I can think, cool that spoke’s nice and tight and straight, now I have to go work on the other one and make the wheel roll well.

Listen, when I was a little kid I was obnoxious, I know I was, and I know people that knew me who said I’d never shut up and I’d always say I was going to do this and going to do that, so there’s all that stuff, the tenacity, the qualities that you need.

I also know that all of this stuff is temporary and these are just judgments and people’s opinions, people’s opinions are what they are. At the end of the day when you really look at it, everyone wants to be a unique individual. I think we all just want to be unique because we are all different and we want to define our differences.

I can say I’m thankful and honoured… It’s like my Mum used to tell me when I was a kid,

“I don’t care what you do, do it the best you can. Even if you sweep streets, take pride and honour in it and do it the best you can and then you’ll never look back.”

So I can say one thing about big wave riding, for me at least, there’s no stone unturned at this point. I’m still pursuing things, but at this point no matter what, I can say there really is no stone unturned apart from what I haven’t done yet.

And that’s the most interesting part of the whole thing, I find I really like doing what I haven’t done, rather than continuing to do things that I’ve done.

I think that’s what we all have to be careful about, getting caught in that rut of I do this, this is what I’m known for and having to keep on doing it. It’s like being a boxer, you don’t need to go and keep doing it till you get knocked out. If you’re great, then you’re great. I think sometimes we all get trapped in that cycle of keeping going back and reproving what we do.

Laird Hamilton riding a hydrofoil
Credit: Instagram/ @lairdhamiltonsurf / @jennifercawleyphotographs

TM: It sounds like you’ve still got that desire for big waves…

LH: I do. Because I’m doing other disciplines within it. There’s an anonymous stuntman who said,

“Never let your memories be bigger than your dreams.”

So the bottom line is, I never want to be in a position where I’m looking back going “wow I did that” and “remember when we were the rugby champs back in grade school?”

No, we want to be looking forward to the future and have that be a bigger possibility than anything we’ve done. I make a conscious effort to do that and the fact is that’s real, there are bigger things to do and greater dreams than any accomplishment that any of us have, it’s just perspective.

TM: There are very few people that have ever experienced catching waves the size of which you’ve ridden, such as the famous Millennium Wave. For you is there a better feeling than catching and riding a big wave?

LH: It is the most present situation that I have experienced on this planet. You can never be more present than that, maybe except death and birth.

When you talk about living in the moment, there’s no beginning and there’s no end, there’s just that and you. You become part of something else, and I think that’s part of the experience, that you become part of the universe at that point.

Everything goes away, you’re just with the moment and there are very few moments in life which bring that demand on the system and also that separates us from ourselves. I think that’s what we’re looking for.

Laird Hamilton holding his Liferider book
Credit: Jennifer Cawley

TM: Your Liferider book is filled with wisdom, but we always ask if there’s a particular piece you’d like to share with our readers?

LH: I always say, and, this is my opinion and I could be wrong of course. But, any wisdom I have or I’ve experienced has come from other people who are a lot smarter, who I’ve been fortunate to be around, and it’s also about reading and hearing and seeing the knowledge in others and being attracted to what makes sense to me.

I’ll give you some parting wisdom, my Mum always used to say,

“If you can’t be true to yourself, you can’t be true to anyone else.”

And I think at the end of the day that’s probably the most important thing, if you’re true to yourself then you can actually be there for other people.

Laird Hamilton’s book, Liferider: Heart, Body, Soul, and Life Beyond the Ocean, is out to buy now.

The cover of the book Liferider by Laird Hamilton

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