Gerry Lopez Goes Inside the Mind of Laird Hamilton
This spring in Malibu, Calif., nearly a century of wave-riding mastery came together when surf style icon Gerry Lopez and standup paddling innovator Laird Hamilton sat down for the SUP magazine interview. The exchange ranged from the origins of standup paddleboarding to the spiritual force of the ocean and the future of the standup game. During two hours of unguarded, flowing conversation, these two old friends shared a journey deep into the essence of the waterman philosophy. That passion pours out into the following pages. Enjoy the ride. —Joe Carberry
Gerry: Before you and your mom came to Hawaii, I ran into her right across the street from the Hansen shop in Encinitas, California, and she told me, 'Oh, I gotta go do something, can you watch the baby?' That was the first time I met you.
Laird: My first time I remember you would have to be Pipeline. You were the king of Pipeline, and I was on the beach, and I knew who the king of Pipeline was. I was probably your biggest fan.
Gerry: And then all those guys used to come to see your dad and get boards. Like Juan Harlow and Angel and Cole.
Laird: Yeah, everybody. Big wave riders.
Gerry: So that must've had an influence on you, too.
Laird: I think that shaped me. Those were the guys I was trying to mimic as a little kid. But Pipeline, obviously, being there and being exposed to you and my dad—the most beautiful surfers to watch.
Gerry: So everyone knows your accomplishments in big waves but let's talk about standup. I think it's the most fun thing I've almost ever done. I try to think back: Was regular surfing as fun as this?
Laird: When you were like, 12, maybe.
Gerry: I have a story to tell you because I've always thought you were the guy that started standup paddling. I remember telling you over the years that when I was in high school, there used to be this guy [standup paddling] at Tongg's. Last month I was in Hawaii for the big swell, I asked George about it. And he goes, 'Oh yeah, Zap.' So we went over to [John Zapotacky's] house, right above Tongg's, Hibiscus Drive, right where I used to see him surfing when I was 13, 14 years old. Sweet, sweet man. Ninety-one years old. He came to Hawaii in 1940 from Philadelphia. He was in the Navy, mechanical engineer. He went to Waikiki and saw the guys surfing, and he got out there but he wasn't having a lot of success. Then one day he saw a Hawaiian guy catching waves standing up the whole time with a big paddle. He followed the guy in and said, 'Tell me about this.' Guy says, 'Yeah, get a paddle, get a big board.' That guy was Duke Kahanamoku.
Laird: That's what somebody said, that The Duke used to do it.
Gerry: The Duke.
Laird: Exactly. It's an ancient discipline.
Gerry: Tell me about your first inclination to do this. What prompted you?
Laird: I don't know if I was at Waikiki when I was 3 and I saw somebody do it or what—if there was some seed like that. I do know it started with having my first daughter and wanting to tandem surf with her. I thought, 'If I'm gonna be surfing with the kid, I wanna get used to riding the board.' I'd kick out of a wave, and Maui's windy, so I'd just stand there on that big board and the wind would blow me back out. And [Dave] Kalama and I were out at Maalaea one day when it was one foot and I had the tandem board in the car and Dave had a couple outrigger paddles.
Check out the video on this interview here
Gerry: Mud Flats.
Laird: Mud Flats. A 6-inch wave. I'm like, 'Dave, lemme have one of those paddles.' So we went out and we were doing this little squat paddling on the board, standing up. And then I came back here to Malibu and I had a big board and it was flat a lot. So I just started taking kayak paddles and cut the tops off and put PVC Ts on them. That was the only thing long enough. I broke all those. And then you and Ron House made the boards for me and that's the progression of it. It really started with the big board for the kid. Innocent.
Gerry: And no going back.
Laird: After standing up it's hard to lay down. It's a little like when you're a child, you crawl. But as soon as you learn how to walk, you don't crawl anymore.
Gerry: But you draw the same lines on the wave.
Laird: Same lines. Same lines on a 2-footer as a 30. And I feel so much stronger. Imagine how many hours it takes to get an hour or two standing on a conventional board? If you took every ride at a long spot it's 20 seconds. So three waves is a minute. Do the math. Most surfers really are leg weak. We're more like swimmers where we have big upper bodies and bird legs. And when you get a wave that's a minute long, you're shot, your legs are like rubber.
Gerry: Not anymore.
Laird: I feel like I've never been stronger. There's not one thing I could've done in my life that enhanced my surfing like standup has. I just feel the benefits instantly.
Gerry: Yeah. I took a standup board last year to the southern Mentawais. I had a nice little 8'10" swallow-tail quad. Big Thunder, big Lighthouse, big Muts, Lance's Right, Lance's Left, all 8 feet or up on the standup board. Oh, man.
Laird: Cherry picking?
Gerry: Oh, brah.
Laird: Or as you'd say, 'Gerry Picking?'
Gerry: Why do you think it's so fun?
Laird: I don't know if you can isolate it to any one thing. I think the whole act of standing, first, is so natural, to be up, and to be up on top of the water is something that makes it fun just paddling out. All of a sudden the paddle back out becomes an art. It's like this nonstop fun. The whole idea of surfing is paddling out, catch the wave and then ride it. And you have fun during the ride and it's work to get back out again. Now it's like the wave continues, the wave just doesn't stop. It's a constant ride.
Gerry: Well maybe that's it then. Just the newness of it, the freshness of it.
Laird: I keep saying that, but I'm eight years in now, and it's not stopping. With other interests I've had the nuances wear out—kiting, windsurfing. This thing is not like that. It keeps going.
Gerry: So, what about Teahupoo (Tahiti)? Some of the pictures I've seen of you on the standup board, I stare at the same picture for 30 minutes without taking my eyes away from it. I don't know what I'm trying to see, but I'm just mesmerized by that.
Laird: I think it's a little bit like going backwards to go forwards. All of a sudden, when you have a paddle you add another dimension to the situation. You've added another element. That adds a whole other challenge: How big can we standup paddle at Teahupoo or at Jaws? And that barrier really is new. What is that limit, and how big a board can you get in the tube and really ride?
Gerry: And you put yourself at Jaws on a standup board and you don't have the 'ski to run away when the set comes. You gotta be paying attention.
Laird: And then when you finally catch one, you better be on that thing that you're riding, which is giant. You're still going to tow when it's huge, but you have to go backward to go forward. By going back with our equipment and getting more primitive, in a way, you create a new challenge. There's no days at Jaws for tow-in to push the barrier unless it's the biggest winter ever. Now there's 20 days because we're standing up. Imagine after you surf 50 years, Gerry, and all of a sudden you're catching a wave and it's like you're back to one of the first ones you rode. Wow. So that means you got 50 more years.
Gerry: Yeah, I better stay in shape.
Laird: You got standup for staying in shape, too.
Gerry: I guess you're right about that image thing, though. 'Cause I look at a million pictures of these guys on shortboards at Teahupoo in great positions, deep and everything. And I just glance at 'em. Oh, that's nice. But I swear there's only been a few images of you on the standup board there, and I stared and stared at those things. The big board actually made it look more artistic, in a way.
Laird: Well, it's more challenging. Try to drive that big board through that barrel. There's not a lot of room. People talk about how in the old days how cool those giant boards looked at Waimea, just the aesthetics. It's a little bit like a runaway train. You see the vulnerability of it with that board.
Gerry: Modern equipment has limited the surfers of anything less than the very cream, the very top edge of the skill level. Only the very best guys can really ride those boards to their full potential. And the rest are kind of struggling. It's limiting.
Laird: Stagnating. And then unless it's the most perfect day in 30 years it becomes a frustrating sport. And that's why I think there is a lot of frustration in surfing. I know when we go out with guys in the wintertime and we got 10 guys standup paddling, and it's like, everybody go on the wave. You don't care; you go straight. I'll catch set waves straight down and ride 'em all the way into the beach and paddle all the way around just 'cause it was fun. I don't have to be in the perfect spot and scream at three guys to make sure I get the wave.
Gerry: That's what surfing used to be like. It was how many guys you could stuff on one wave. Everybody going.
Laird: And you ride together. You laugh and it's the camaraderie and the joy and the fun. I just feel like, the more we get back to that, that's what I want to do. I want to have fun. And I look to you as an example of that. The only sin that I could really do in my life, besides all the ones that are listed in the Book, would be to stop loving the ocean and stop loving surfing. And I know, for me, if I stayed at Pipeline, and I rode a thruster at Pipeline for the last 30 years, I wouldn't be smiling. Ya know what I mean? I probably would be pretty frustrated.
Gerry: You told me about the new bumper sticker that says, 'Blame Laird.' And I think it's kinda incomplete, because those guys haven't discovered how great standup is. It should be 'Blame Laird for everyone having fun again.'
Laird: And then go back, go further, and blame The Duke. When The Duke spread surfing around the world, it was fun. It was about how much fun you could have. It wasn't about the contests. It was like how fun it was and how far you can ride and, ultimately, I think, finding what brings you satisfaction. I know, for me, if I was letting other people's attitude dictate the fun you're having, we'd all be miserable.
Gerry: That's true. There's a lot of miserable surfers out any given day.
Laird: You're missing the whole point behind the sport. Why do we do it? We do it 'cause it's fun.
Gerry: Yeah. To get in the water. Any excuse. Surfing to me is like a good way to make yourself go in the water.
Laird: You know when you're first learning how to surf, it doesn't take much? I know as a kid, if I just had a broken surfboard—a piece of a board—and I could slide down the beach, I could spend the entire day sliding down the beach and slamming into a wave. And that brought me as much joy as any kid could have. And I did that for years as a kid.
Gerry: I remember that.
Laird: And then eventually you get a little better, and pretty soon you can body surf. And before you know it, maybe your dad gives you a board or you get somebody else's reject and you're in the water, but it was just an excuse to be in the water, to bring you there.
Gerry: I betcha The Duke never really worried that much about money, ya know? Surfing was gonna pay him. But to me, he was the richest guy in the world.
Laird: That's right.
Gerry: He just didn't have any money.
Laird: But he didn't need any money. Ya know why? 'Cause all the money in the world can't buy you the joy that surfing can bring you, if you know how to let it.
Gerry: And it's free.
Laird: Free. Free! Oh my goodness. What a concept. Free and fun. Those are two important words.
Gerry: You never forget that first wave, you never forget that feeling that you had. It's just some deep, emotional feeling. I've thought about it a lot. It's something very, very spiritual. It's something that affects your soul. It's something that touches you down in a place where maybe you'd never been touched before, never realized it before that moment, and that's why people do it. But, because it's so easy to do that, so many people do it now, and you get in a situation where there's only 25 waves all day, and there's 300 guys that all want to get that wave. And with the equipment they have, they have to get that wave by themselves or it's not gonna work. Mathematically that's impossible. Hence you have a lot of tension and dissatisfaction and frustration.
Laird: And standup is something new to point that frustration at.
Gerry: Convenient target.
Laird: And yes, are there standup paddlers that are giving standup a bad rap? Absolutely. And do they need to be educated about the pecking order and the lineup and the etiquette in the lineup? Absolutely. But that still doesn't make it not surfing. That still doesn't make it not fun. Because the ocean's for everybody.
Gerry: You said something really good earlier, when you said, 'I don't care if people are cussing my name, as long as it's in the name of fun.'
Laird: Listen, the amount of joy that I've seen standup bring to great surfers, great watermen and people that have never surfed—I'll take all the criticism. I'll be the front guy. You can blame me. You can scream at me, you can do whatever you want, 'cause all the joy that I see people getting from this far outweighs any of the criticism. At the end of the day, standup ain't going anywhere. We're not stopping. Maybe somebody can get a petition to stop it from being at one break or whatever, but that'll fade away, too. 'Cause at the end of the day, it's just like snowboarding and skiing—they try to ban snowboarding on every mountain, and now there's only one mountain in the entire world where they don't allow snowboards, ya know? It's surfing. And anytime anybody tells me it's not surfing, then we have a problem. Surfing is not defined by your equipment: Surfing is foiling, surfing is bodyboarding, surfing is boogieboarding. Surfing is the act of riding a wave. It's the art of riding a wave. That's the reality. And I get the brunt of a lot of it, and at a certain point…
Gerry: Well, you got wide shoulders.
Laird: Yeah, exactly. Normally it's not to my face. But that's okay.
Gerry: Never to your face.
Laird: But you know what's interesting is that it's talking. It's not action. At the end of the day, I always say, 'Less talk, more action.' Try it. Have an opinion from an educated point of view. But you have people that are talking about it that really have no experience at all. And like I said, the joy it's bringing people that have been in the water for 30, 40 years. It's like, I'm sorry, but this is probably the best thing that ever happened to us. It's also incredible for the industry. You got all these board makers still in business. Retail stores are in business. You have a lot of people that would not have jobs right now. And there's more opportunities for young, surfing athletes in standup and will continue to be more than there is in the normal disciplines of surfing. The growth is gonna happen in this area. And we're eventually gonna have support from people paddling lakes in the middle of the country that are gonna be supporting surfers riding waves in Hawaii. Obviously, I don't feel passionate about it [laughs]. Did you foresee, though, that the surf industry was gonna do what it did when it was happening years ago?
Gerry: No, absolutely not. If I had I'd own this beach.
Laird: No you wouldn't. You would've done the exact same thing. You would've gone surfing.
Laird: But that's what you'd like to say.
Gerry: I guess so. We're not getting any younger. But we still, like that very first wave, go out there and have the same fun, the same thrill, the same joy that we ever did, and I think that is a wealth that's immeasurable. It's beyond the concept of value. It's just the most precious thing in the world. I mean, right there, it's the fountain of youth, and people are killing each other and spending all this money to try and find something like that, and there it is. And it's free.
Laird: And it's covering 75 percent of the world.
Gerry: Yeah, Planet Ocean. Have you ever heard of the 5220 Club? Well, after World War II, all these military personnel, soldiers or sailors, when they mustered out, the government gave them 20 dollars a week for 52 weeks. This is 1945, '46. Twenty bucks went a long way at that time. A lot of them went down to San Onofre and lived on the beach and bought beer for the guys that weren't in the Army that didn't have any money and went surfing all day. And ya know, there's always been people like that, that have had the kind of lifestyle that we've aspired to—to be able to be here at the water's edge. And they used to be called beachcombers, beach bums. That goes way back, the people that really saw that there was something really magic and special about the ocean and did whatever they could…
Laird: To be near her.
Gerry: Yeah. Which a lot of times entailed being really poor and being looked down upon by the haves as a have-not. But they really did have a lot more than the haves did, because they were here on the beach, in the ocean, spending those days near the fountain of youth. I dunno, I wouldn't trade my life for any other. I don't think you would either.
Laird: No way.
Gerry: So where do you think standup is going?
Laird: It's like a waterfall. It's falling water right now. You're not gonna stop water from falling.
Gerry: And ya know we're ocean guys. We like to ride the waves. But I live in inland Oregon, and we got a huge group of paddlers who, if they want a challenge, paddle against the current of the river or surf a standing wave. If they just want to cruise, they go up to one of the million lakes and paddle around up there. They get great joy and a great workout doing that.
Laird: They get that fountain of youth. They find it on a lake.
Gerry: It's not just saltwater. I've always felt, that the worst day, the worst mood you're in, you just went down to the ocean and jumped in—even though I don't want to get all salty and wet—if you just jumped in, afterwards you came out, you felt better.
Laird: I think there's a scientific equation for that.
Gerry: There might be.
Laird: I can't imagine what this next generation's gonna be doing, because we haven't even gone into the technical performance stuff that's gonna happen. I mean, you're gonna see stuff being done that's gonna be so far beyond what shortboard performance surfing is, I can't even tell you.
Gerry: It's too much speed.
Laird: Speed, the paddle, you're already standing, [someday] they'll use foot straps. It's just endless. And that's just one aspect of a discipline. Again, one of the biggest issues I think we had in prone surfing or in shortboard surfing, is that all the companies created this image that was so narrow and so limited, with who can do it and how they do it, that it ended up killing the industry because you don't have participants.
Gerry: So I think the end result is these kids are getting into standup and they become more complete as a person afterwards, because they're not so narrow-minded. Kai Lenny is a good example, because he's becoming well-known for his standup paddling, but he can do everything.
Laird: Everything, kite, windsurf…
Gerry: Yeah, really well. At the top level. He's 17 years old. He's a kid. And he's already very accomplished in a myriad of disciplines. Each one is a pretty all-consuming endeavor.
Laird: But each one enhances the other, too. People don't realize it. One makes you better at the other, and they all feed into the whole. It grows your skills, and really it grows your opportunities to have fun and enjoy the water. If a kid's whole thing is just the contests, it's not about having fun. There's only one guy that wins. So there's a hundred guys, one guy's happy, 99 guys unhappy. Go to the next event, one guy's happy, 99 guys unhappy. Next event. And then they just perpetuate that. So, you got a lot of unhappy people. That's the system.
Gerry: I think someone like Kai and, these other kids, the Trout kid, all these guys are really gonna…
Laird: They're gonna get other kids involved. Standup has yet to see a generation that learns from when they're little. And Kai's not gonna be the first one, because he already learned it when he was 15, 16. But what about the first generation of standup kids that start when they're 5. And they're gonna be 25—they standup for 20 years. It's gonna change the whole discipline. We haven't seen that. We just haven't seen that.