Flea Virostko's victory in the Men Who Ride Mountains surf contest (SI, March 1) may have been awesome, but the man many aficionados call the world's best big-wave surfer didn't show up to ride the 40-footers at Maverick's, off the northern California coast. Laird Hamilton was in Maui, where he likes to surf even bigger waves—the 70-footers at a break called Jaws. Hamilton disdains competition. "I'm not interested in winning," he says.
Laird, the son of 1960s surf star Bill Hamilton, was born 34 years ago in an experimental vacuum birthing chamber. He seemed destined to grow up to be Aqua-Man. The kid could swim at six months old. At 11 he leaped 60 feet off Waimea Falls on Oahu, where he was raised. "I like jumping off high things that get to the realm of dinosauritis," Hamilton says. In his teens and 20s he became a local surf hero, styling his way up and down giant peaks but avoiding competition—a result, he says, of having seen his father fall victim to the whims of contest judges. By the time he was 14, Laird was a match for his dad in the water. He thought nothing of windsurfing the 70 miles from Oahu to Maui. He has made a living as a host of extreme-sports TV shows, and as a male model ("the human specimen," one rival calls him) and a body double for Kevin Costner in Waterworld.
Along with a few friends at Jaws, Hamilton also helped develop the technique of tow-in surfing. Since Jaws's biggest waves sweep forward too quickly to be caught by a paddling surfer, tow-in surfers get help from partners piloting Jet Skis. Once the surfer lets go of his tow rope, though, he's on his own atop a mountain of water up to 70 feet high, hurtling ahead at 30 mph. Hamilton, who has broken his left ankle five times in wipeouts while surfing, motorcycling and snowboarding and has learned to hold his breath for well over a minute under duress, calls riding waves with seven-story faces "the ultimate sensation."
Hamilton created a sensation in November 1997 by marrying his longtime girlfriend, volleyball star and model Gabrielle Reece, who tries not to worry about her husband's penchant for risking his neck. "She knows a gladiator needs a battle," says Laird. He taught Gabrielle to surf—"I block people from the waves she wants to ride," he says—and spends hours crafting furniture and wooden valentines for her. He has even taken up her sport. "I've evolved into an average volleyball player," he says, smiling.
Hamilton is in no hurry to surf Maverick's. "I'd like to ride there," he says, "but not in a contest. I don't like man-against-man competition. I'm man against the elements."