Photo by Ray Collins
Surfers can (and do) argue about where to find the best rides in the world, but the origins of the sport are undisputed. Polynesian tribes brought the practice to Hawaii prior to European contact and perfected it on the archipelago’s enviable waves. Laird Hamilton, big-wave champion and co-inventor of tow-in surfing, grew up riding Oahu’s notorious Pipeline break and is now one of the most celebrated names in surfing. He divides his time between California and Kauai, traveling to Maui’s north coast to tackle monster waves every winter.
“They call the North Shore of Oahu the ‘Seven Mile Miracle.’ I mean, it has some of the best surf in the world. Without those waves it would just be another side of one of the islands. Without a doubt, the waves have shaped that place more than any place in Hawaii. Pipeline, Sunset, Waimea—that coastline is where all the big surfing competitions go. I grew up at Pipeline. Any surfer in the world who was trying to make a name for themselves, or just challenging their own skill, had to come to pretty much my front yard.
Most of the men I grew up admiring were what we called ‘watermen.’ They could sail, they were great fishermen and divers, and they were skilled at surfing—they could do all of these different things in the ocean. I think for the Hawaiians that was a necessity, because they lived off the ocean, so they had to have the skill to be in the waves. Eventually they started riding them and turned it into fun instead of survival. What started as a necessity turned into an obsession. The obsession and the necessity go hand in hand.
The most amazing surfing experience I’ve ever had was this day in Maui when we rode some of the biggest waves I’ve ever seen. It was a story that ended up getting depicted in the book The Wave by Susan Casey. That day we surfed waves that were more than 100 feet high. A friend of mine got hurt, and I had to do somewhat of a miracle rescue. But we went back out, and we saw these waves that were so majestic and so rare that it was a little bit like seeing dinosaurs, to see the ocean with that kind of rage and power.
When the surf is big on Maui, when it gets gigantic and mesmerizing, people line up for miles and miles to see it. Of course, that really only happens in the winter, in December and January. But that’s probably one of the most special things you can ever see in Hawaii. It’s like if you could say to someone, ‘A Tyrannosaurus rex is gonna run down the road, come and see him.’ People are going to want to see that.”