The most famous big-wave surfer on the planet doesn’t just want to ride waves. He wants to ride fairways.
When surfer Laird Hamilton ditched his still burgeoning modeling career at the age of 17 and joined the 1981 World Championship tour, it was already clear he was an outlier, a laid-back Hawaiian with freakish natural abilities. But Hamilton was never much of a competitor. He was more interested in challenging himself, taking on big waves all over the world. He pioneered tow-in surfing, which allowed him to ride 70-foot waves and—more as a side effect than a direct result—got famous. But he never stopped tinkering with his boards.
Hamilton has experimented with all sorts of different rides over the years, building some and testing others, but his latest brainstorm is one of his strangest (and most marketable). Laird is now riding the Gold Board, a sort of Hawaiian answer to the golf cart that allows duffers to carve around bunkers and water hazards. He talked to Maxim about why he was interested in golf technology and why surfing is more of a design approach than a sport.
You are the world’s most famous big-wave surfer, but you don’t seem content to just be a powerhouse in your sport. Is that because there are limitations to what you can do without killing yourself or because you view surfing as something bigger than just riding waves?
If you look at surfing as a discipline, you see its influence on the world. Surfing is a sport that was created by the Hawaiians in Hawaii, and it’s the art of standing on a board riding a wave. But you can implement it into the world in all these other things. Take skateboarding: Skateboarding came from surfers who didn’t have waves and, in the summertime, they put wheels on a little board. Surfing created skateboarding, created wakeboarding, and created wind surfing. We have kite boarding, snowboarding, and stand-up paddling. We have all these derivatives of surfing.
Now, with the Golf Board, you’re essentially adding a motor into the equation. But why do it for golf courses in particular?
First of all, you get the sensation of board riding but on a golf course, and you get that whole perspective. You’re standing and you’re moving through a beautiful medium, which is the golf course. Then there’s a bunch of different things: it makes good golfers play better, it speeds up the game, it allows you to go directly to your own hole, and it’s a good workout. There’s a multitude of things that the board brings to the course.
Why do you think surfing and golf, of all things, would turn out to be such a good combination?
There are a lot of similarities to golf in that golf is an extremely hard sport and surfing is an extremely hard sport. Golf is an individual sport and surfing is an individual sport. You never really master the game of golf and you never really master surfing. So, in a way, there are a lot of similarities between the two—as different as they are.
Does it feel like a skateboard?
A skateboard on steroids. The tire we use is the number one turf tire for golf mowers, so it’s an inflatable tire. The board is bigger and it has a handlebar so you can turn with the bar as well. It’s not like a skateboard other than that it has four tires and a board; those would be the only similarities. It’s designed so you can put your clubs on it, and it’s designed to be on a course and be stable.
This is just your latest invention. You’re first big breakthrough as an inventor was actually the foilboard. Can you explain where that idea came from?
You know, it started originally like most of the ideas I’ve been involved with, because of boredom.
So you just try stuff then refine it?
Over the last 15 years or more, we’ve been evolving the board and modifying the foils and have brought it to the point now where I spend the majority of my winter season focused on foiling. Foil surfing is really the kind of most evolved discipline with the surfing genre. It’s the most efficient. I describe a foilboard as the most efficient wave riding vehicle ever created. If you look at what foils did for America’s Cup, they revolutionized it.
Do you think they’ll do the same for surfing competitions?
They had the Kite Foiling World Championships in Europe this last summer. Kite foiling definitely has a whole competitive thing to it. Why I continue to pursue foiling is that, after some of the things I’ve done in big wave riding, I realized in order to ride some of the biggest waves in the world, you need to be on foils. The competitions I’m in are the challenges that I set for myself.
You don’t treat any of these boards as different from each other in practice.
Stand up or golf board or foil surfing, whatever one, it’s all derived from this sport of surfing, which was created by the greatest navigators in the world, the Polynesians. It’s funny: From a little set of islands in the Pacific, you have this activity that’s influencing the world globally. It’s pretty amazing.