Kitesurfing pioneers: the story of Laird Hamilton
- 31 October 2017 | Kiteboarding
Laird Hamilton was one of the first watermen to test the kites developed by the Legaignoux brothers. Here's how he lived the early kiteboarding years.
When kiteboarding was born, Laird John Zerfas was already an accomplished wave rider. His stepfather, Bill Hamilton, was a phenomenal, well-respected surfer.
Today, the Hawaiian athlete-businessman lives in Kauai surrounded by women - his wife and three daughters. And they all share the same passion for water and the ocean.
Laird learned to swim at the age of two, on the North Shore of Oahu. Even his zodiac sign (Pisces) is connected with the liquid element.
Hamilton had his first experiences in the waves using a piece of wood or broken surfboards - surfing was an activity reserved for adults.
But because his stepfather was a shaper, the always-active blond-headed kid had the privilege to have his own board quite early in his life.
The Love For Sails
Before Laird Hamilton got into wind sports, he tried everything he could - swimming, boogie boarding, and bodysurfing kept him entertained for years.
But he needed something for those windy days and unbearable flat spells that arrived during summer. The answer was "windsurfing."
"Sails fascinated me," reveals Laird Hamilton. "Mike Waltze and Gerry Lopez were the first ones to use a surfing board to practice windsurfing. The long and heavy boards made at the beginning of this sport were definitely not for me, whereas the short boards caught my attention."
Hamilton started windsurfing in the early 1980s, but he kept chasing his wildest dreams. When winter hit the Hawaiian island, the young waterman found happiness in Banzai Pipeline.
Speed windsurfer and world record holder Fred Haywood started hearing about Laird Hamilton, and invited the California-born adventurer to go windsurfing in strong 50-knot wind conditions in Maui.
While enjoying an intense session, Haywood asked whether Hamilton would be interested in practice windsurfing, be sponsored and train with him.
Laird was ecstatic and immediately moved to Maui. He stayed with Jimmy Lewis and Mike Waltze precisely when windsurfing was exploding and evolving quickly.
Windsurfers were pushing their limits, the equipment was constantly changing, and Maui seemed the perfect place to be. It was the center of the world, a fact that can be confirmed in "Trade Wind: The Wavesailing Film."
That's when Laird travels to France for his first speed windsurfing contest. He had something to fight for - a first or second place in the rankings would earn him a sponsoring contract by NeilPryde.
Initially, he was not doing very well but, in the end, Hamilton managed to finish first, broke a world record and got the sponsorship deal.
Bill Roeseler And His Kite Ski
Later, in Camargue, France, Laird Hamilton spotted Bill Roeseler with a kite ski. The sport seemed difficult to set up, and the rides were short. Bill would travel three meters, and then his kite began to fall and sink into the water.
Hamilton was not impressed, and so he decided to try something completely different.
When he returned to Maui, he bought ram air kites from the French brand ITV and hit Ho'okipa with a short boards equipped with foot straps.
The initial experimentations were not successful, but they had a lot of fun.
"Either we would crash into the water and had to swim to the shore with all our equipment, or we crashed onto the beach, which was not much better. It was as if you would launch a rocket and hope that it would not explode in mid-flight," says Hamilton.
Nevertheless, and because all the gear fitted in a backpack, the new outdoor activity was not abandoned.
Kites Hit The Maui Skies
Meanwhile, people in Hawaii already knew that it was possible to ride a kite on the water. Bill Roeseler and his son Cory had made a few improvements, and Laird wanted to be one of the first to try it.
However, he was not profoundly impressed - the kite didn't have the power of ram air kites, and so he stuck to his old formula.
When Manu Bertin came to Maui, Laird Hamilton taught him to ride a kite using a rope attached to a truck that prevented the pupil from flying in the air and getting injured.
They trained in local pastures where the grass was always smoother than tarmac.
By that time, Laird had already suffered an accident that resulted in a broken ankle. The new sport could be dangerous.
But they all knew that when in the water, they needed an inflatable kite that would take off after falling in the water. Manu Bertin knew of an inflatable kite that was connected to a catamaran, in France.
That's when Manu met Bruno Legaignoux, who provided two prototypes: one for Laird and one for Bertin.
Laird Hamilton contacted NeilPryde. Would they be interested in developing a new product for a completely new sport? Not at all. At least for a while. Because later, the windsurfing company teamed up with Pete Cabrinha to produce kite gear.
Business Vs. Fun
Laird Hamilton still thinks that it was good that things happened this way. He wanted to focus on the sports as an athlete, and be less involved on the business side of things.
The Hawaiian waterman considers that while it was good to witness and participate in the birth of kiteboarding, he prefers to let others develop the products so that he can test them.
Today, Hamilton appreciates the simplicity of stand-up paddling and the adrenaline of tow-in surfing. Still, he was one of the first to practice kite foiling, in the early 1990s.
From time to time, Laird gives kiteboarding a go, but he now manages his time more efficiently.
A Waterman With A Surfer Heart
Laird Hamilton says he loves windsurfing and kiteboarding, but he will remain a surfer at heart.
"Surfing on a wave, feeling its power and the freedom that it brings you is at the heart of my existence as a waterman. I come back to it, over and over again," notes Hamilton.
His priority is surf foiling. Because he cherishes big waves, and hydrofoils work very well in all types of conditions.
Hamilton sees himself surrounded by water and big waves until he's 100 years old. All he needs is an open mind and an inner fire that drives him forward.
"I no longer need to prove anything about these big waves. I do not want to feed my ego and to only limit my existence to that. Ego inhibits inspiration and curbs evolution," concludes Hamilton.
The story of Laird Hamilton and his involvement in the birth of kiteboarding is featured in "Kitesurf: Du Rêve À La Réalité"