I've never been on a surfboard, and based on my embarrassing attempts at skateboarding, doubt that I'd be much more than amusing entertainment for anyone who happened to be in the vicinity. But I find the phenomenon of big-wave surfing fascinating, and that fascination was fueled by the excellent documentary Riding Giants. The movie covers the history of big-wave surfing, from the days when the first rowdy Californians headed to Hawaii to see what all the fuss was about, to the day when Laird Hamilton and his buds figured out that, armed with a jet-ski, a helicopter, and cojones the size of boulders, you could surf just about any damn place you wanted to, regardless of how far it was off shore.
Waiting to get my hair cut today, I was perusing the most recent edition of Men's Journal (I have to admit I had no idea that Jann Wenner was publishing that sucker these days), and stumbled across a great article about the big-wave surfers, an account of the freak storm conditions last December which resulted in record waves, from Hawaii all the way to the legendary Mavericks wave off the coast of California. It's not a happy story - it focuses on the death of Peter Davi, who lost his life on a wave at Ghost Tree, and the near death of Hamilton's close friend Brett Lickle, after the two bought it in a big way on a wave off of Maui:
Laird Hamilton had guessed right. The farther offshore from Maui he and Lickle got, the clearer it became that the storms' big swells were setting up hills of water 50 feet high, hills that were crashing over the reef and offering rides three quarters of a mile long. "It was absolute perfection," Lickle says. "Not a drop of water out of place." As the waves grew, the pair found it nearly impossible to control their skittering boards, so they returned to shore to pick up Hamilton's favorite: a six-foot-seven wood missile shaped by Hawaiian Dick Brewer, thin as a water ski, heavy, and fast. By the time they returned, Outer Sprecks had gone mutant.
Helicopter pilot Don Shearer, who's flown film and rescue missions during Maui's hairiest swells, flew in under the low ceiling and was completely awestruck by waves 12 to 15 stories tall. "I've seen every big swell that's come in since 1986," he says. "This was far and away the biggest I've seen in my life."
"They were sucking the water off the reef, breaking top to bottom," Hamilton says. "We could barely get into them, even at full speed."
The aluminum fin on Lickle's board had bent, so Hamilton lent him his Brewer. The foot straps were too wide, but Lickle couldn't resist the opportunity to chase down "the two biggest waves of my life." But as he blasted down his third the entire wall reared up in front of him. With no chance to outrun it, Lickle swung to the top, narrowly flying over the back. He was done. Then the horizon went dark: It was a rogue wave, straight out of The Poseidon Adventure. Hamilton wanted it. Lickle pegged the throttle.
After letting go of the rope, Hamilton felt as if he were flying. Plunging down the wall, he had to make split-second adjustments to deal with the warbles and ripples in his path while also focusing far ahead in case the wave lurched up into a closeout. Then he realized that was exactly what was happening. Tearing along at 40 knots, Hamilton's only hope was to dive into the wall, kick like hell, and pray he didn't get sucked downward as the wave thundered shut.
Lickle, tracking behind, was horrified when the wave closed out. Then his buddy popped up unharmed, but waving frantically: The next one was even bigger. Hamilton grabbed the sled and Lickle nailed the throttle, shooting toward land at 50 mph. It wasn't fast enough.
Neither was killed, though Lickle survived injuries which easily could have killed him had Hamilton not had the presence of mind to act quickly and fashion a tourniquet out of part of his wet suit (for all the gory details, you'll have to go buy the magazine).
When you think about what guys like Laird Hamilton are doing these days, it's clear that they're wired differently than the rest of us. But this story makes me wonder whether the limit has finally been reached - because if Laird Hamilton and Peter Davi have found waves that they can't handle, then maybe it's time to pack it in and call it a day. But something tells me that's not in Hamilton's nature.