Laird Hamilton Talks Teahupo‘o

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Koa Rothman on what would have to be considered one of the best waves of his life. Photo: Bielmann

Laird Hamilton Talks Teahupo‘o

The pioneer of tow in surfing and tackling giant Teahupo‘o talks about Koa Rothman’s ride, how to tap into the fountain of youth, and paddling versus towing in at the world’s heaviest wave. This is an extended interview from the pages of the upcoming issue (September 2013) issue of TransWorld SURF magazine…—Justin Cote

TransWorld SURF: Tell me about towing Koa Rothman in on that big one. How did that all happen? How did you end up with Koa on your ski?

Laird Hamilton: It seems whenever the surf is big, you kind of go “Okay, what’s in store for me today?” If I’m not able to get one of the bigger waves during the day, then maybe I could be the fortunate person to give one. And as much as I would have liked to have ridden the wave Koa got, I think it was equally as satisfying—if not more satisfying—to turn him on to that ride and see the reaction and expression from him. Because we’re in such a taking world, people don’t realize that giving is such a greater feeling. I always tell people “Are you happier for what you did or are you happier for what you give?” Look at peoples’ face and look at the reaction when you give them a gift. In a way, I just got to be the fortunate bearer of that gift, of that ride to Koa, and that’s a great feeling.

When you were circling out the back, could you tell it was a really big wave before you whipped him in?

Oh yeah. You know right away. I mean, I’ve been there enough times and spent a lot of time in the ocean there, to know which ones are really big. You just know what they look like. You don’t always know how they’re going to manifest themselves once they hit the reef, but you definitely could tell by the energy in that one. I mean, could I say that I knew that one was going to be exactly what it was? Probably not. But could I tell that that was a substantial wave of that swell? Yeah. I knew that was going to be, as everybody describes it, one of the bombs of the swell.

Koa Rothman

Koa Rothman on a big one at Teahupo‘o. Photo: Bielmann/SPL

Was there any moment where you were like “Oh shit, that’s a huge one!” or did you have enough confidence in his ability to ride that big of a wave?

I wouldn’t have towed him if I didn’t have the confidence in his surfing, period. But, you tow him in, then he disappears, and after the wave finished there were a few moments where I was worried because Makua had gotten hurt earlier. So, all the sudden Koa disappears and I couldn’t see him. His board popped up right in the channel, so I told Arsene [longtime local surfer Arsene Harehoe] “Grab the board!” because he was on a ski right next to me and I went to get him. When I finally saw him, he’d been blown across the reef all the way into the lagoon. That doesn’t happen very often, I think I’ve had that happen to me maybe one time at Teahupo’o in all the times I’ve been there. That just doesn’t happen, to get blown all the way across the reef into the lagoon in one shot, there’s got to be some serious energy.

A lot has changed at Teahupo‘o and big wave surfing in general. But what hasn’t changed? What’s timeless as far as surfing big waves out there?

The one thing that hasn’t changed—and ultimately never will—is that the ocean will have the last word. The waves are going to have the last say and no matter how good we get, how courageous we are, and how dialed in our equipment is, the waves dictate it. And what I really love about Teahupo’o is the line is so defined from paddling to towing. It’s clean; there is no gray area. There is no “I can paddle that.” Or “That was paddle-able and that’s not.” It’s clear as the day and I like that fact. I like the fact that the waves and the ocean, especially at that venue, are so clear, like, “No. That is not rideable unless you use the technique of towing, period.” And yeah okay, you want to dabble with inches and try to say where’s that line and how far can we go. That’s cool, but inches are nothing. Another thing that doesn’t change is just the beauty. The beauty and the power—it’s just awe inspiring. What an incredible thing to even see, to even be near. I mean, that kind of power and that beauty, you know that is never going to change. It seems to put everything right in line and put everything into perspective.

At age 49, you’re one of the older fellows out there. Can you do this into your 50s and 60s? How do you know when it’s time to pull the plug on surfing waves like Teahupo‘o?

I think it’s in your heart and I always say where there’s a will there’s a way. If you have that desire then I think you will physically prepare yourself to be ready for it, but once that desire leaves it’s kind of, you know, gone. They did a study about video games where they asked “Who’s the best at the video games?” and everybody said, “Kids are the best,” and they said “Actually, no. Adults that really like video games are the best.” It’s just that there are so few of those people because at a certain point when you’re an adult, you don’t care. I’ve got some buddies that are 70, 80-years old that are gnarly. Are they going to be like a 20-year old? Maybe not, but the fact is that they can still do things at a high level. I’d put my buddy whose 80 on his bike against an average 35-year old and he’ll hammer the guy. So, I think that’s yet to be determined for me personally.

All right, last question: How freaking awesome is Raimana?

Oh, Raimana Van Bastolaer is a complete gentleman. But don’t be deceived by his polite, jolly nature because he’s a warrior and he’s dead serious. I think he’s deceptive in that you might underestimate his drive, his passion, and his warrior mentality. He’s gracious and concerned about everybody else’s needs and making sure that everybody is taken care of out there. He’s still out there to catch the biggest wave, and ultimately there has to be a certain pecking order in the lineup and you need people like Raimana in order to create organization in the lineup. Otherwise it goes to chaos and that’s where it starts to get a lot more dangerous because it’s already an extremely hazardous activity.

Laird Hamilton Teahupo‘o

Laird Hamilton at Teahupo‘o May 2013. Photo: Brian Bielmann