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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, June 16, 2005

Extreme surfer to be honored at film fest

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

With the big-screen success of "Riding Giants" and "Step Into Liquid," surf films are popular again, and it appears huge waves, tow-in surfing and extreme Maui waterman Laird Hamilton are at the center of the surge.

But is the popularity threatening the sport?


Hamilton's newest DVD, "All Aboard the Crazy Train," debuting at the Maui Film Festival Sunday, describes the emergence of Maui's Jaws surf break as the world's premier tow-in surf spot. It also warns about the growing congestion on the famous break.

"The message is that it can't just go on like it's going. Somebody's going to pay, and it might be one of us," Hamilton said in an interview this week.

"Crazy Train" follows the Pe'ahi exploits of Hamilton and his fellow tow-in pioneers, Dave Kalama, Darrick Doerner and others, while riding the waves of epic sessions in the winter of 2004-05.

It's been more than a decade since they discovered the power and size of the Pe'ahi surf and helped develop tow-in surfing, where surfers are pulled up to huge, previously unsurfable waves by personal watercraft.

Tonight, Hamilton and tow-in buddy and BamMan Productions partner Dave Kalama will be awarded the film festival's Beacon Award "for sharing the infinite possibilities of the commitment to live a life beyond limits, outside of fear, inside of courage and inspired by wonder and to bring the inspiration that results to millions of people around the world through their envelope-pushing extreme sports documentaries."

Maui Film Festival director Barry Rivers said Hamilton and Kalama have helped revive the surf film genre, as well as act as surf mentors to his 27-year-old sons, Kiva and Tide.

"This is personal," Rivers said. "They are special guys, living legends of surfing."

On film, Hamilton was featured in "Riding Giants" and "Step Into Liquid" and worked as a stuntman on "Waterworld" and as stunt coordinator for the big-wave sequence in the James Bond feature "Die Another Day," doubling for Pierce Brosnan. Kalama also appeared in "Step Into Liquid," "Riding Giants" and "Die Another Day."

Hamilton is 6-foot-3 and literally a towering figure in the world of surfing. He grew up on O'ahu and Kaua'i and lives in Los Angeles during the summer and on Maui in the winter. He and wife Gabrielle Reece recently built a house not far from the Pe'ahi shore, following eight straight years of renting different homes.

So why are surf films so big?

"Surfing is at its all-time high popularity. It is natural," Hamilton said. "There is a certain freedom and artistic value that makes people appreciate it. It's not so boxed up with rules. Life is complicated, and there are more rules and restrictions than ever.

"Big waves represent the apex of surfing. It has brought surfing to its rightful position."

But maybe too much success. During one December day, dozens of tow-in surfers flew in as an armada of boats, personal watercraft and helicopters looked on. At least two people suffered broken bones and were rescued by helicopter, and a few personal watercraft were smashed.

The problem has been worsened by surf companies awarding prize money for riding the biggest wave. That has unleashed a wave of inexperienced surfers unprepared for the Jaws' power.

While others have accused Hamilton and his friends of glamorizing Jaws, he insists they have not. "We've been operating with a lot of respect for the waves."

Hamilton said Jaws really needs the good old-fashioned structure of a surf lineup. In the past, the Pe'ahi regulars have ignored the chaos, because they didn't want to be distracted from the dangerous work at hand. But he said they can't ignore it anymore.

"In the end, it's a lack of respect for the wave. The ocean's always going to have the last word, period."

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.