Near the end of any modern surf history book, as the author gushes about the technological advancements of modern surfing and how tow-in, big-wave surfing will change the waveriding landscape, there will almost certainly be a photo of Laird Hamilton, perfectly coiffed, cruising around atop an unbroken swell strapped to a hydrofoil. Remember those? The 2003 Dana Brown film Step Into Liquid even devoted a segment to the hydrofoil, with Laird and Dave Kalama gliding over wind-hacked peaks on Maui. This is the next thing, we were told. Laird and his hydrofoils are all over YouTube. He even set, according to his website, the world speed record for “hydrofoil boarding” in 2012. Hydrofoils promised to harness the power of waves whether they were breaking or not, lifting the rider well above the surface, flaunting the wind and the chop. With almost no drag, ungodly speeds could be attained, taming the scariest waves on earth. “Over 100 feet tall,” Brown proclaimed in Step Into Liquid. Let’s see it.
Nazaré at size is barely a surfable wave. It’s more like a 70-foot version of what boiling water roiling around in a pot looks like. I watched people ride those hideous peaks on Monday, each death-defying (and nearly death-causing) ride still kinda underwhelming, as the waves stumbled and lurched all over the sandbar, threatening to break, but never really unloading, top-to-bottom. At least not in a manner satisfying for those of us watching web videos and drinking beer in the middle of the day. “Foilboards!” I suddenly barked out, halfway through this clip, startling the hapless plumber snaking my bathtub drain. If ever there was a day where the mythical 100-foot wave was likely to be ridden by a dude wearing snowboard boots strapped to a wakeboard attached to an airplane wing, Oct. 28, 2013 looked like a sure thing. It was too big/windy/fat/bumpy to really surf those waves properly on regular tow boards. But imagine Laird and Kalama swooping around the Nazaré lineup, way out to sea before the monster peaks had a chance to properly feel the bars beneath, catching 70-foot wave after 70-foot wave.
Mysteriously, Laird abstained. Yet the next day, he popped up on CNN of all places—a network that I assumed would have had far more important things to cover than surfing—there to piss in the Nazaré pool party by telling everybody that he could have been there had he wanted to, and that Carlos Burle’s thousand-foot wave didn’t count ’cause he fell, and that Maya Gabeira doesn’t have the skills to get mowed down by huge surf the proper Lairdian way. Dammit Laird, nobody was even thinking about why you weren’t out there until you appeared on the news and admitted that you’d declined an invite to surf with Carlos and Maya. But Laird did make some fair points. There would have been no debate about Burle’s wave had he faded to the trough, cranked a 100-yard bottom turn and high-lined it to the shoulder. And Gabeira is a far braver surfer than I’ll ever be, but it takes more than courage to know how to make a wave while avoiding death at a place like Nazaré. I think I might know what it takes though. I think it takes a hydrofoil.
Hydrofoils look impossible to surf, mind you. I wouldn’t try to ride one in waves of even middling consequence. But I haven’t spent the better part of two decades fighting my way to the pinnacle of high-tech giant wave surfing. Laird has. That’s what Laird’s built his entire career on. And I kind of miss him. It’s just not the same when Laird isn’t involved in the “biggest wave ever surfed” debate, other than to call bullshit on other surfers. We still haven’t seen a truly big wave at Nazaré surfed properly—Laird, you’ve got the skills and you’ve got the technology. You’ve got the ego. Show us how to really ride that place. Show us how to make it to the bottom out there. That’s what the hydrofoil is for right? Huge unbroken waves? Well, here you go. Show us that 100-footer.