Laird Hamilton is as tech savvy as surfers get. He knows that the gear that takes him into danger also helps him out of it. Here’s a harrowing tale of surfing terror and the jet ski that saved a life.
The most commonly asked question I get is, what was the scariest wave I ever took? I used to get rescued probably three or four times a week when I was a kid, before I was five or six years old. I was known to be lost at sea, out in the ocean. The lifeguard used to come to my mom’s house and say, “Laird’s out in the rip again.” She’d be like, “No he’s not, he’s in his room napping.” And they’d be like, “No, he’s out in the rip again.” They’d get sick of rescuing me, so they finally said, “Hey Laird, we gotta fix that.” My point is, I’ve had a lot of extremely scary moments growing up as a young kid and young person.
There’s been a ton between then and now, but the most recent was one of the scariest things that’s ever happened to me and hopefully ever will. It was two years ago, on December 3. A friend and I were out in a surf that was over 30 metres—well over 30 metres—and I had dived off on a wave that might as well have been 30 or 60. I don’t know—at that point I didn’t have my tape measure—but it demanded every bit of my experience and strength. I came up to the back of it, and my friend who was on the back of the wave grabbed me with the jet ski.
We proceeded to try to run away from the next wave and got run down from behind by one of the biggest waves that I have ever seen. It was definitely the biggest wave to ever run me down from behind.
We were dragged an incredible distance underwater, anywhere up to one kilometre, I would say. I came up from a depth that I haven’t been down at on a wave before, got just one breath before getting hit by another one. I saw my friend and we got pushed in by probably four more, each one smaller. Finally we were pushed all the way to the inside.
My friend was severely cut and needed a tourniquet. All I had was a wetsuit, so that’s what I used. And then I made a decision: If I didn’t swim for the jet ski that was about a half kilometre from us, he was going to die and I wasn’t going to be able to do anything about it. I had to make a decision to leave him and swim to a jet ski and get back. It’s a close friend of mine. We both have daughters the same age and we’re best friends.
I got there and the jet ski was running. Had it not been running, I don’t know what would have happened. He might have bled out or whatever. But because it ran, I was like, “OK, saved by the ski!” You know?
I think that the fear of his death probably scared me worse than anything I’ve ever had happen to myself because obviously, when it’s happening to you, you’re not thinking about how bad it is, you’re just dealing with it. When it’s happening to somebody else—especially someone that you care about—that’s a lot worse. So the fact that he was good and I didn’t have to explain…that he made it, and I didn’t have to tell his family why he didn’t come home that day, that was a great thing. The dead aren’t worried about dying, it’s only the people alive, left here thinking about it, who are. It’s a lot harder on them than it is on the people who have died.
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.