Laird Hamilton

Laird Hamilton (born Laird John Zerfas on March 2, 1964 in San Francisco) is an American big-wave surfer, co-inventor of tow-in surfing, watersports celebrity-enthusiast, television personality, commercial product endorser and spokesperson, recent philanthropist, and occasionally a mens' fashion and action-sports model. He is married to Gabrielle Reece, celebrity women's professional sports competitor, television personality, author, and women's fashion and action-sports model. Hamilton and his family split time year round between residences in Maui, Hawaii and Malibu, California.

Childhood and his Early Years

Laird was born in San Francisco on March 2, 1964, in an experimental bathysphere designed to ease the mother's labor. [Cite web
last = Turner
first = Miki
author-link =
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title = 10 Burning Questions: Laird Hamilton
publisher =
date = 2004-07-09
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accessdate = 2008-01-11
] Laird and his mother, Joann Zyirek Zerfas, moved to Hawaii when he was still an infant, after the departure of his Greek birth father, L.G. Zerfas, before his first birthday. Even as a child Laird showed an unquenchable thirst for adrenaline; footage has been released of him jumping off a sixty foot cliff into deep water at just 7 years old.

As a young, fatherless boy living on Oahu Island, Hawaii, Laird had a coincidental encounter with later-legendary 1960s surfer Bill Hamilton, a bachelor at the time, on the sands of Pupukea beach of the North Shore of Oahu. As chronicled by Laird on film in the big wave riding motion picture documentary Riding Giants, the two became immediate companions and after bodysurfing with his new acquaintance, the young Laird "coerced" Bill Hamilton to follow him home to "meet my mom". As Laird's telling of the story goes, Bill Hamilton is smitten by the beauty of Laird's "mom". Laird proudly earned match-maker credit for introducing the bachelor Hamilton to his then-single mother, Joann. Bill Hamilton married Joann, and became Laird's adoptive father. [ MJ FEATURE: Last Man Standing - Surfer Laird Hamilton ] ]

Bill Hamilton was a professional surfboard shaper and glasser on Oahu, Hawaii in the 1960s-1970s, and owned a small business that made handmade custom high performance surfboards for the famous Oahu "North Shore big wave riders" of the era. The Hamilton family later moved to a remote valley home on the island of Kauai. Joann and Bill had a second son, giving Laird a younger half-brother (and a surfer), Lyon Hamilton.

In Laird's childhood, teen years, and early adult years, he had the reputation for an aggressive, if not violent, demeanor around others of his general age. This hostile attitude was, in part, due to the predominantly Hawaiian-ethnic localities in which he grew-up--Laird and his brother Lyon were under-sized (compared with their classmates), fair-skinned, 'tow-head' blonde youngsters--in a way, freaks and outcasts in their Hawaiian-populated neighborhood. The role of the 'outsider', started in his childhood, profoundly affected Laird through his teen years and early adult life. He preferred being on the 'outside', and was uncomfortable being in the 'center' of anything. Also, Laird Hamilton was known for his phyical toughness and mental toughness; nothing and no one seemed to intimidate him."Riding Giants" motion picture, directed and produced by Stacey Peralta, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, 2004.]

Later on, Bill and JoAnn divorced in the 1980s. JoAnn later died of a brain aneurysm in 1997. The young Laird Hamilton grew from child to manhood, from the 1970s through 1980s, in a location that is known as one of the greatest surfing regions in the world, the north coast of Oahu, as a backyard playground enjoyed with a well-known surfer as his father and coach, and helped along by all of the other surfing greats of the modern surfing era who were his father's friends and customers. This unique environment molded young Laird Hamilton into the man who would become the greatest big wave surfer in history and who would conquer the largest and most tempestuous ocean waves ever ridden, as documented in film and photographs.

Mens' Fashion Modeling

At the age of sixteen, Hamilton left the eleventh grade at Kapa'a High School to pursue a modeling career and work in construction. At seventeen, Hamilton was discovered on a beach in Kauai by a photographer from the Italian "Men's Vogue" magazine "L'Uomo Vogue" which subsequently saw him land a modeling contract and later a 1983 photo shoot with the actress Brooke Shields. From the early years, Hamilton continues to do occasional mens' action sportswear print modeling to the current day.

urfing career


By the age of twenty, Hamilton had already become an accomplished surfer and could have easily left modelling to pursue a different career on surfing's World Championship Tour. However, competitive surfing and contests never appealed to Hamilton, who had watched his father Bill endure the competitive surfing contest politics and the random luck of the waves in organized championship surfing events. Bill Hamilton regarded surfing more as a work of art, rather than based chiefly on wave-by-wave ride performance scored by judges. As a young Hamilton once said, "Contests are less about the one big wave than about your performances. Surfing is about your body of work. It's about art. I would snap if I was letting someone other than the audience determine my fate. How does a musician judge his thing? By how many people love his music?"

In the 1987 B-Movie on pseudo-surf culture entitled "North Shore", Hamilton played the violent, antagonistic role of "Lance Burkhart" (no natural actor's ability evident at this point in Hamilton's career).Despite further success in modeling during the 1980s, Hamilton, with his professional surfing upbringing, had always intended to venture into a life of surfing. But Hamilton's rejection and disposition toward the contest circuit meant that he had to devise an alternate route to fame, earned income and growth in personal net worth, and international recognition.


An early attempt at media recognition was his quest to be the first surfer to complete a 360 loop while strapped to his board. The attempt was chronicled in the ski film Groove - Requiem in the key of Ski by Greg Stump (1990). In the early 1990s with Maui's legendary "strapped crew" of the reef at Jaws , a group of eight or so friends that included fellow all-star Rush Randle, which aimed to push the restrictions and boundaries of contemporary surfing. The Strapped crew amazed spectators by tackling bigger wave surf and featuring stunts. Stunts included: launching convert|30|ft|m|sing=on jumps on sailboards, then mating the boards to paragliders to experiment with some of the earliest kiteboards. The video "Strapped" chronicles their feats.

In late 1992, Hamilton with two of his close friends, big wave riders Darrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox (also an occasional mens' fashion model; Hamilton and Kerbox later lost their friendship over a property disagreement.), started using inflatable boats to tow one another into waves which were too big to catch under paddle power alone. "The un-catchable (the biggest and fastest waves) was now catchable. Bingo!" said Doerner. This event is chronicled in the motion picture documentary film Riding Giants. The technique, which would later be modified to use jet skis, was a revolutionary innovation. Tow-in surfing, as it soon became known, pushed the confinements and possibilities of big wave surfing to a whole new level. Although met with mixed reactions from the surfing community, some of whom felt that it was cheating and polluting, Hamilton explained that tow-in surfing was the only way to catch the monstrous sized waves such as those that can be seen at Pe'ahi (pronounced pay-ah-hee) (also commonly called "Jaws") off the north central coast of Maui, and the coastline of Tahiti. Using tow-in surfing methods, Hamilton quickly learned how to survive convert|70|ft|m|sing=on waves and carving arcs across walls of water, the size of which could literally roll a ship over.

In 1994 he appeared on both ESPN and the cover of the magazine which gained him attention from a number of sporting agencies who recognized his potential, landing an exclusive sponsorship from the French beachwear company 'Oxbow' surf. However, in 1995, Hamilton's life took an unexpected and, more or less, permanent detour. Hamilton met famous women's professional volleyball player and New York fashion model Gabrielle Reece in Los Angeles, California after a television interview. They later married in November 1997.

In 1996, People magazine named Hamilton one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World, and in the same year Hamilton pushed for and took from his future wife the correspondent positon for the syndicated cable series 'The Extremists'. Ironically, regarding recognition of the pair's world class physical beauty in print, previously in 1989, his wife Gabby Reece, already a successful fashion model and women's sports figure, had been named by ELLE magazine as one of the Five Most Beautiful Women in the World.

By the late 1990s, Hamilton was continuing his love affair with the water by windsurfing, waterskiing and developing his kitesurfing abilities as a pioneer of the sport. In 1996 Hamilton and Manu Bertin were instrumental in demonstrating and popularizing kitesurfing off the Hawaiian coast of Maui.

In 1999 Hamilton sailed his windsurfer between the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai, some fifty miles away, in just under six hours. He later sailed his windsurfer back again. Hamilton has also been credited with inventing the foilboard. The foilboard is an innovative surfboard which incorporates hydrofoil technology allowing a higher degree of precision and effectiveness of aerial techniques within the water. Most recently, he has become the most public practitioner and proponent of stand-up paddle surfing, an ancient Hawaiian technique that requires an enormous longboard and a long-handled paddle, as well as considerable skill, strength and agility. Some "purist" surfers have blasted him for this, but Hamilton has called it a return to an old, traditional Hawaiian way of surfing, some say practiced by King Kamehameha and his queen Ka'ahumanu almost three hundred years ago.

2000-present; the Ride at Teahupo'o Reef on "The Wave"

It was Hamilton's death-defying drop into Tahiti's Teahupo'o break (commonly known as, CHOPU) on the morning of August 17, 2000 which has become the measure of his surfing career to date, and firmly established his reputation as the greatest and bravest big wave surfer in the recorded history of surfing. A wipeout at Teahupo'o reef on a 'big day', a particularly hazardous shallow-water reef break in southeast of the Pacific Island of Tahiti, could result in a surfrider's death.

On that particular day at Teahupo'o reef, Hamilton dropped into what is widely considered to be the most dangerous wave ever ridden, due to the sea 'sucking down' into a huge well and forming a never-before-witnessed enormous mass of moving water--under, behind and over Hamilton--throughout his ride. Certainly, for some in watersports, a "killing" wave. To ride such a wave defines the term: "death-defying".

On that day a larger than normal ocean swell, "The Wave" approached. Darrick Doerner piloted the watercraft with Hamilton in tow on his surfboard into position. In an instant, the big wave jumped and the ocean floor dropped into a monster wave, an "über" wave. Pulling in and gracefully releasing the tow rope, Hamilton physically 'drove' his surfboard and body down into the well of the wave's enormous tunnel vortex, possibly betting his own life on the wave-punishing "Kamikaze" ride, in full view of the boat-based photographers' and videographers' cameras recording the unexpected. With his signature artistic flair and grace on big waves, Hamilton continued deeply carving water through this high speed epic ride of a lifetime, emerging back over the wave's shoulder without a moment of faltering. Cheers and screams from all present on the surrounding watercraft who witnessed the feat. As if Hamilton had ridden the giant as a disciplined "wave-riding man-machine", his ride there on that day, chronicled in photographs and video, is known by surfers worldwide ever since simply as "When Laird Hamilton rode 'The Wave'", and a still photograph of him riding The Wave (appearing as if it were a giant mouth of water about to gulp him up) made the cover of "Surfer" magazine, accompanied by the caption: "oh my god..."

In the filmed coverage of this event in the motion picture Riding Giants, Darrick Doerner, pilot of the tow-in watercraft pulling the wave-bound Hamilton, said he had strong misgivings about towing Hamilton into the huge wave because it looked un-ridable and possibly could be a 'killing' wave. Doerner, fearing for Hamiliton's life at the time, poignantly said "I thought, 'Don't let go of the rope..' . . . then, I looked back at the tow rope, . . . . . and, it was too late . . . . . Laird had already let go of the tow rope and was in the wave . . . . . there was nothing I could do for him at that point." The fearless Hamilton admitted afterward that he was excited about the forming wave around him, disregarded the danger, and was pushing himself to drive to the "max, max, max, max". See video from "Riding Giants" of Hamilton's ride of The Wave at Teahupo'o reef, Tahiti [] .

Hamilton is now widely regarded by surfing historians as the "all time best of the best" at big wave surfing, regularly surfing swells of 35 feet (11 m) tall, and moving at speeds in excess of convert|30|mi|km an hour and successfully riding other waves of up to convert|70|ft|m high, at up to 50 mph (80 km/h).

Today, Hamilton prefers tow-in surfing the giant waves of the Pe'ahi reef (pronounced pay-ah-hee) (also known as Jaws) on the north central shore of the Island of Maui. He has often been credited for being able to conquer such enormous 'big wave' surf because of his exceptional physical conditioning, goal-specific mental courage, and physical stature. Hamilton is able to take on the largest waves, which many lesser-sized expert surfers might not attempt, possibly because he is more experienced and can ride the waves better, but certainly because his physique is substantial, and it has been trained and conditioned to endure the routine crushing, life-threatening "wipe-outs" in a mountain of falling water when a wave ride "doesn't have a happy ending". There are only a handful of risk-taking, big wave riders that will ride the enormous Pe'ahi break -- all are colleagues of Hamilton; and, along with pal Dave Kalama, they are the strapped crew's "de facto " leaders. When not performing tow-in surfing big waves for photographers and film makers, Hamilton and Kalama pursue virtually every other watersport; lately, it is ancient Hawaiian 'stand-up' paddle-boarding back and forth between islands of the Hawaiian Island chain.

In February 2008 Laird joined the board of directors of H2O Audio, a watersports music company in San Diego California. Laird will help H2O Audio guide its brand and develop its next generation of waterproof MP3 cases and waterproof headphones. He had used H2O Audio products on many of his long distance paddling endeavors before joining the company.

Despite his enormous accomplishments as the best known big wave rider of the modern era (since the time of the great Duke Kahanamoku), the matured Hamilton is a modest celebrity who avoids self-promotion, he has become a family man, a trusted colleague, and occasional lifeguard, to other tow-in surfers, an understated ambassador of surfing and watersports, and, along with his long time surfing pal, Dave Kalama, continues to be an organizer and promoter of public charity fundraising events, notably for Autism research.

Personal life

In his teens and early adult life, Hamilton had been known for a violent temper, destructive with friendships, and frequent public outbursts. Entering fatherhood (now a third time) and approaching mid-life seems to have mellowed Hamilton's personality.

He was previously married to Maria (Hamilton), a one-time Brazilian bodyboader. They have a daughter, Izabella, born in 1995 (who now lives in the Hamilton-Reece family).

On November 30 1997, Hamilton married model and pro volleyball athlete Gabrielle Reece (also known as "Gabby"). They have two children together, daughters Reece Viola Hamilton (born in October 2003), and Brody Jo Hamilton (born January 1, 2008 in Hawaii), weighing 8lbs 2ozs. According to Reece, the Hamilton family splits time living in residences in Hawaii and California. [ "The Chelsea Lately Show" E Channel interview of Reece.]

Hamilton and wife Gabrielle are said to be part of the Malibu Mob, a celebrity group in the same vein as the Brat Pack. Other notable Malibu Mob members include Chris Chelios, John Cusack, John C. McGinley, Tony Danza, and tennis star John McEnroe.

In recent years Hamilton has used his celebrity to support public charity fundraising, notably for Autism research.

elected TV/film appearances

In the 1987 B-Movie on pseudo-surf culture entitled North Shore, Hamilton played the violent, antagonistic thug-surfer role of "Lance Burkhart" (no natural actor's ability evident at this point in Hamilton's career).

Hamilton has been featured in American Express credit card television commercials; an early 2000s commercial in the series "Hi, you probably wouldn't recognize my name . . . " and more recently in the American Express "My life, my card" commercial series. See two recent commercial videos of Hamilton and his tow-in surfing [] and a shorter version at [] .

Hamilton was a central real-life figure in the 2004 documentary "Riding Giants" about giant wave surfing; and the opening sequence of the 2002 James Bond movie "Die Another Day", as Pierce Brosnan's big-wave surfing double (shared with Dave Kalama). He also appears in "Waterworld", as Kevin Costner's stunt double in numerous water scenes. During the making of "Waterworld", Hamilton, who had been commuting to the set via jet-ski, was lost at sea when his jet-ski ran out of fuel between Maui and the Big Island. He drifted for many hours before being spotted by a Coast Guard plane and rescued; when the abandoned jet-ski washed up on shore on the island of Lanai, he went over to fetch it and drove it back home again.

In October 2006, Hamilton and another legendary waterman, Dave Kalama, biked and paddled the entire Hawaiian Island chain—more than 450 miles—in a week. The feat was featured on Don King's film "A Beautiful Son" in support of those afflicted with autism. [ [ "Hamilton and Kalama Lend a Hand" Maui No Ka 'Oi Magazine Vol.11 No.1 (Jan. 2007).] ]

In 2007, Hamilton, along with his wife Gabrielle Reece, appeared in the ABC reality television series , featuring a dozen celebrities in a stock car racing competition. In the first round of competition, Hamilton matched up against tennis star Serena Williams and former NFL quarterback John Elway. Hamilton was eliminated in episode 5.

He has appeared in the television show "Iconoclasts" with Eddie Vedder from the popular American rock band Pearl Jam

Footage of Hamilton is used on the video for "Dayvan Cowboy" from Boards of Canada.

In 2003, he was featured in the Dana Brown surf documentary film "Step Into Liquid".



last = Duane
first = Daniel
title = Last Man Standing
journal = Men's Journal
pages =
date = July, 2004
year = 2004
url =
last = Jenkins
first = Bruce
title = Laird Hamilton: 20th Century Man
journal = The Surfer's Journal
volume = 6
issue = 3
pages =
date = Fall, 1997
year = 1997
url =
last = Stahl
first = Lesley
author-link = Lesley Stahl
title = Surf's Up!
work = 60 Minutes
publisher = CBS News
date = 2004-07-24
year = 2004
url =
accessdate = 2008-01-11
last = Thomson
first = Candus
title = After shooting curls, he's chilling
publisher = The Baltimore Sun
date = 2004-11-30
year = 2004
url =
accessdate = 2008-01-11
last = Warshaw
first = Matt
title = Maverick's: The Story of Big-Wave Surfing
publisher = Chronicle Books
year = 2003
isbn = 0811841596

External links

* [ Laird Hamilton's Web Site]
*imdb name|0358007
* [ The famous "Surfer" magazine cover of Laird Hamilton riding The Wave at Teahupoo, 17 August 2000]
* [ Another set of photographs of Laird Hamilton riding The Wave at Teahupoo, 17 August 2000, by Tim McKenna]
* [ Laird Hamilton profiled on]
* [ "Surfer" magazine interview]

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