Surfer Doc Life of Laird Hamilton Captures Aging Athlete Caught Inside the Wave

By Liam Lacey


Over the last two decades, Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, has made numerous serious documentary films (Ghosts of Abu Grahib, Last Days of Vietnam). And at first glance, her plunge into the world of surfing and its most famous star, Laird Hamilton, seems like a detour.

Hamilton, the blonde surfer with the comic-book hero physique, was already the star of Stacy Perralta’s 2004 documentary, Riding Giants, when he was in his prime. Hamilton is now in his 50s, with hip problems and enough fractures that his orthopaedic surgeon says it’s only a matter of time before he is forced to give up the surf for the turf.

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This is Kennedy’s profile in courage, a film that explores the connections between the great man and the “incorrigible egomaniac,” as one of his colleagues describes him. For all the archival awesome-but-familiar surfing footage for the extreme sports fans, Take Every Wave is a serious film about the death-or-glory attitude of an extreme athlete.

According to his own well-honed myth, Hamilton was born in an experimental salt-water sphere, bonding him to the sea. Then, as a toddler, he selected his own stepfather, bringing home a 17-year-old pro surfer, Bill Hamilton to meet, and subsequently marry, his single mother.  The amiable-seeming elder Hamilton admits he sometimes beat the child. Though the abuse isn’t glossed over, it’s treated as part of the hero’s education.

Later, as a rebellious student and outcast, Hamilton found solace in the ocean, which teaches you “courage, fear, respect” though not necessarily how to play well with others. As a teen surfer, he avoided competitive surfing because he said, he hated “judgement” (though a friend suggests he just really hated to lose.)  

Instead, Hamilton pursued his own path, developing the sport of big-wave surfing with the assistance of a jet ski and later, “foilboarding” — using surf boards that rode above the surface of the water.  A long section of the film focuses on his relationship with a group who surfed off the coast of Maui, known as the "Strapped Crew" because their feet were strapped to their boards. While their innovations were a collective enterprise, Hamilton ended up taking most of the credit, leaving behind burned bridges and sore feelings. 

Given that this feels very much like an “authorized” biography, Kennedy doesn’t scrutinize Hamilton’s dark side too keenly. There was a first wife, barely mentioned. Most of the attention given to Hamilton’s second marriage to former model, TV presenter and volleyball pro, Gabrielle Reece, a partner who articulates how Hamilton’s achievements are related to his fears. She seems to have taught him to behave more like a human being though we’re left to wonder where The Life of Laird Hamilton goes next: Will he continue to push his aging body to the breaking point? Or can he satisfy his ego on shore, marketing his brand, reliving the past and revelling in those awesome surfing movie clips? 

Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton. Directed by Rory Kennedy, with Laird Hamilton and Gabrielle Reece.  Opens October 20 at Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre, Vancouver (International Village) and in Montreal.