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Laird Hamilton on the Wave That Nearly Killed Him

“The wave held me underwater for 30 seconds. I couldn’t move. I tried not to panic."

Even if you've never tried surfing, you know who Laird Hamilton is. One of the biggest names in extreme sports, he practically invented the modern form of big-wave riding two decades ago. And today, at age 53, he remains one of the most superbly conditioned athletes in the world. Here, the subject of the new documentary Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton recalls the time when he faced down some truly monster waves and lived to tell the tale.

"One morning I heard the monsters stomping off the north shore of Maui. The big waves often kick up during the night. You lie in your bed and try to sleep, but you can feel the waves building. When an 80-footer breaks, the foundation of the house trembles. That's why I live in Maui: The waves come to you. It's my job to be ready for them.

"Word spread pretty fast that huge sets were forming; not at the world-famous Jaws break at Peahi, which on a clear day I can see from my house, but at a point a few miles west, called Outer Sprecks. I phoned my longtime surfing partner Brett Lickle and headed for the beach.

"Brett had been a member of the 'strap team' of the early '90s, the crew of big-wave surfers that I worked with developing the technique of surfing using personal watercraft to tow a surfer in fast between waves. The tow-in style lets you get in there to ride waves big enough to sink ships. A lot of my best rides on the biggest waves have been caught on camera. But this morning, high winds, rain, and lack of visibility grounded helicopters. No cameras today.

"Brett and I rode out from Baldwin Beach Park on a three­-seat watercraft. A little less than a mile offshore, we reached the Outer Sprecks break. The waves rolled up in immense swells, producing faces ranging in height from 50 to 80 feet. Just incredible. Imagine a 10-story building hurtling at you at 30 miles an hour, followed, every 30 seconds, by another hurtling 10-story building.

"That morning there were no wipeouts, just one superlative ride after another. Brett would say later that he thought I was surfing better than I ever had, and that not having cameras there made it even more special. We surfed through the morning, took a lunch break, and then headed back out. The waves rose even higher than in the morning and were bunched even closer. Then Brett towed me into a goliath, an 80-footer, at least, as big a wave as we had ever seen.

"The tow-in and release proceeded smoothly, but I hit the wave a shade high on its face. I tried to go lower on the wave and tuck into the barrel, but I adjusted a beat too late. Looking back, Brett and I did everything right. But sometimes in the ocean, being tight isn't enough. I pulled out, jerking my board to the right and jumping out the back of the wave, escaping the crush of water.

"I bobbed in the swell, and Brett swooped in on the watercraft to pick me up. The next wave bore down on us, so the instant I was aboard, Brett tore for shore. But I could hear the roar of the wave behind us. A split second later, we were swatted off the watercraft as if by a giant hand.

"The wave held me underwater for 30 seconds. I couldn't move my arms or legs. I tried not to panic and waited for my flotation vest to lift me to the surface. But holding your breath for 30 seconds when your heart is hammering 200 beats a minute is like holding it for 5 minutes when you're sitting in a chair.

"Four giant waves pummeled us. Finally, we were driven out of the crash zone. Brett floated about 50 feet away from me, but the watercraft was a quarter mile away. I looked over at Brett, and his face was gray. 'I need a tourniquet,' he shouted.

"The aluminum fin of a spare board had sliced open the back of Brett's left leg from the knee to the ankle. Blood gushed from the cut, clouding the water. I immediately thought, It opened up his femoral artery.

"No other surfers were in sight, and we were half a mile offshore. I realized it was all on me. I stripped off my wetsuit and tied it around his leg above the wound. Then I swam in a dead sprint to the watercraft, thinking all the way, Brett's bleeding to death. And all that blood will bring in the Tiger Sharks. Man, what do I tell his wife? What do I tell his kids?

"I got to the watercraft and fired it up. The onboard radiophone still worked. So there I am, stark naked, reeling from the half-mile sprint and the beating I took from the waves, calling 911 as I raced back to pick up Brett.

"Sharks hadn't found him yet, but he didn't look any better. I screamed into shore with one arm around Brett, and an ambulance met us on the beach. It turns out that Brett's femoral artery was intact, but the wound would eventually require 53 staples to close.

"Once the ambulance took Brett away and I knew he'd be okay, I turned and looked out to where the monster waves were still breaking on Outer Sprecks. I had to go back out there. Immediately. It might seem strange, but I live by a certain code. I don't compromise it. Going back out would honor my fallen friend. It would also address any lingering fears. I see fear as a healthy, constructive emotion. In fact, as part of my training regimen, I've always set a goal of being frightened once a day. I went back out there and rode. And it properly closed a day that was both terrible and triumphant.

"See, I look at my life as following two lines on a graph. One line shows my physical systems, stuff like conditioning, VO2 max, and fast-twitch muscle fibers, and that line is either flattening or very gradually declining as I get older. The other line shows the intangibles—maturity, experience, judgment, passion, perspective-steadily rising. The two lines cross at an interesting place, and I regard that place as my peak. It's not a point, but a plateau. Your peak isn't really a product of your body, but of your enthusiasm. I intend to live on that plateau for a long, long time."

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