Laird Hamilton is as tech savvy as surfers get. Here he discusses his part in pioneering the latest surfing techniques, such as jet-ski tow-in surfing, hydrofoil boards and kite boarding:
I've been involved in the conception of a few different activities or disciplines of surfing, however you want to describe them: Foil boarding, kite-surfing, stand-up paddling most recently, and then of course tow-in surfing, which kind of allows us to ride some of the biggest waves in the world.
I don't describe them as inventions, but really as a combination of a couple things that together created a new thing, a form of invention I guess, but we're never going to take credit for something that existed in some form before, that somebody else may have done.
Tow-In Surfing I just think we were the first people to realise that you needed a motorised vessel to give you the speed in order to catch waves that are beyond 20-metre faces. They move at 50 or 60 kilometres an hour and manually you're just unable to match the speed and the timing it takes to ride one. That's really where tow-in surfing came from—a necessity.
We were able to catch these giant waves with a wind surfer and ride them unlike when we were surfing. Then we had foot straps. We already had a relationship with riding these outer-reef breaks in real rugged conditions that you just couldn't get to by laying on your stomach, paddling around.
And once we realised it, we were able to do it. And we started with a Zodiac boat and an outboard. That was obviously a little fragile and dangerous, so then, eventually, came the jet skis; the Yamaha WaveRunner helped us evolve. Driving a Zodiac around in 10-metre surf is a lot trickier than getting on a WaveRunner. If the Zodiac gets tipped by a wave, you're over, whereas the jet ski doesn't do well but it can survive.
I describe it like the four-minute mile. Once the guy broke the four-minute mile, then 30 guys broke the four-minute mile, but before that it was this invisible barrier. That's a little bit like what's happened with tow surfing.
Hydrofoil Surfing As for the hydrofoil surfing, what we've found is that the foil board is probably the single most efficient wave-riding instrument that we know of today. The reason why we say that—and the reason why we know that—is because you can ride waves that don't break.
Now we have a thing that we can use on a day when we wouldn't be able to ride the waves on anything except maybe a jet ski or some sort of power boat. We get on them by being towed, and we ride these waves for kilometres at a time. By eliminating surface texture and tension, resulting in less friction, we created the ability to ride waves that don't break—to surf waves that were really unsurfable. Now we can ride a ground swell in the middle of the ocean.
We've also done it with the kite, but then you're obviously not going to let go of the kite—as you would a tow line—so then you're kiting-foiling instead of just foil surfing.
Kite Boarding We were involved with the conception of kite boarding as well. Not the first people to ever kite obviously, since they've been around for thousands of years, but we were first guys really to start, because we had these big wave boards with foot straps—the perfect setup for being towed by a kite. We had these kites that you get launched, but if your kite crashed you were done. If you were a kilometre out in the ocean and your kite crashed, you now had yourself a giant bed sheet and a small little board.
Inflatable kites really created kite boarding. We were able to get those from a French guy who had invented a blow-up kite and a blow-up little catamaran—you could have a backpack and go hike and launch your blow-up catamaran and your blow-up kite and go and sail around with it. We got a hold of one of those little blow-up kites and then one thing happened after another, then kite surfing or kite boarding was really born. Since then, it's been just a matter of evolution.
Laird Hamilton has been a surfing hero since the 1980s, solidifying his reputation as the king of big wave surfing when he conquered Tahiti's Teahupo'o Reef at its most perilous in August 2000. As an innovator, he pioneered many new activities including kitesurfing, tow-in surfing and hydrofoil boarding. He's on the board of directors at H2O Audio, makers of pro-level waterproof iPhone and iPod cases, and has his own signature line of Surge waterproof earphones, proceeds of which are donated to the Beautiful Son foundation for autism education.