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"It's a reality that somebody will die [at Jaws] soon. That's a 100 percent fact."
-- Kelly Slater, seven-time world surfing champion, Nylon
On the big days the golf carts head to the cliff before dawn. The men driving them have been awake most of the night because they know what's coming: a rare mashup of wind, water and fury that began brewing three days ago in the Aleutian Islands. The storm has barreled across the Pacific at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, and is now headed toward this cliff on Maui's North Shore. When it arrives here, later this morning, all of that deep-water momentum will slam against a reef that rises to within 30 feet of the surface. This collision will force the swell upward until it explodes into giant waves; monsters with 60- to 80-foot faces, and possibly larger. The break is called Pe'ahi, also known as Jaws, and its waves are the aquatic version of Everest. � The men in the golf carts have spent years watching Jaws--fearing it, analyzing it, dreaming about it and, finally, riding it. They know its moods and how it's likely to behave on a day when the trade winds are blowing versus a day with Kona winds. They know how it feels to run a hand along the face of its spitting barrel, and they know what happens if you don't make it out the other side. Jaws is fiercer, thicker and faster than other waves its size, and a wipeout here can have terrible consequences. In the 15 years surfers have been braving this spot, there have been countless shredded joints and shattered limbs, near drownings and harrowing rescues, but miraculously, there have been no deaths. Yet. Beware of dog reads the sign on a gate just off Maui's Hana Highway. This is not the kind of warning you ignore when the gate protects the home of big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton; his wife, the athlete and model Gabrielle Reece; and his two daughters. If you've seen the American Express TV spot of him tearing up a 75-foot face on Jaws and then leaping off a 100-foot sea cliff, you can only imagine what kind of guard dog Laird Hamilton might have--a rottweiler? A mastiff? Cujo? Two hundred yards down the driveway the house comes into view--low-slung, expansive, almost minimalist--surrounded by green pineapple fields. Hamilton, in blue, flowered board shorts and orange Crocs, is sorting tools in his garage. Next to him stands Pinot, a sweet-tempered Chihuahua.
At 6'3" and 215 pounds, Hamilton looks more like a linebacker than a surfer, and the muscles in his back are so defined that they seem to push him forward. An overwhelming intensity comes through his eyes and in the way he moves--nothing tentative there; no defense, all offense. Imagining him in a different life is like imagining a panther pulling a hansom cab through Central Park.
The garage has the sprawl of an airplane hangar, with barn doors on either end and many, many surfboards, of course; but also bicycles, tricycles, motorcycles, baby-joggers, trailers, Jet Skis in various states of repair. Two 20-foot walls are lined with tool cabinets stocked with every possible wrench and drill bit and file. There's a clutch of trophies tossed in the corner and a heavy machete on a counter; three pickup trucks and a tractor parked out back.
All the gear is a reminder that big-wave surfing isn't a solo sport, and during the afternoon the place fills up with Hamilton's crew. Loch Eggers, a burly, sun-baked guy, drives up with a hacksaw and a bag of 9/16-inch screws for the latest project: a Jet Ski launch ramp. Then Brett Lickle, tough and jovial, arrives with his two young daughters. Next is Dave Kalama, who stops by with his daughter and son. After a while Gabby comes downstairs with two-year-old Reece, both of them startlingly beautiful, and barefoot.
Hamilton makes espresso, takes calls, sorts tools and discusses plans with his team. Endless logistics and maintenance are part of their daily routine: a new Jet Ski needs to be delivered; a vehicle known as the Mule, used to get around on the property, has a busted four-wheel-drive. It sits out front, surrounded by Reece's toys. And beyond that, a 10-minute golf cart ride away, is Jaws. "To get any closer, I'd have to be a pineapple," Hamilton says. That it took him a decade of waiting and campaigning to get his hands on this property says everything about what's important to him. It's as though Tiger Woods had decided to bunk down on the greens at Augusta.
For as long as anyone can remember, surfers have been coming to the cliff and marveling at the fierce beauty of Jaws. "That is a super freak wave," surf icon Gerry Lopez says. "The sight of it makes you physically nauseous." He and many of the other big-wave pioneers from Oahu's North Shore made pilgrimages to Pe'ahi in the 1960s and '70s. None of them believed that it could be ridden.
The first challenge was getting through the shore break, a surging wall of water that will paste a surfer to the rocks. Paddling through it on a big day is impossible. "The energy of the wave goes all the way to the cliff," Lopez says, describing the shoreline--composed entirely of boulders--as "a big-sand beach." Then, of course, there's the wave itself, which is massive and moves with terrifying velocity. A surfer on his board would have to be traveling faster than the wave--imagine keeping pace with an avalanche to avoid being buried by it--and on faces this large, no one knew whether the laws of physics would allow this. Add to this concern the fact that Jaws got its nickname due to a nasty habit of suddenly snapping shut and swallowing whatever was inside it. Which leads directly to the next worry: The churn of whitewater after the wave breaks is a four-foot-deep froth that isn't dense enough to support a human body. A surfer hurled into that would try to claw his way to the surface, but it would be like clutching at mist. Or perhaps he'd be pinned on the sea floor, or sucked into one of the reef's many caves and jagged pits.
The solution Hamilton and his friends came up with involved several years of research and design to create the ideal equipment and then test it out by trial and error. Borrowing ideas from windsurfing and snowboarding, they created shorter, heavier surfboards with foot straps and thinner, stronger fins, and then added Jet Skis, water-ski tow ropes and flotation vests to the mix. Tow surfing's breakout day came in late 1991, when Hamilton, a surfer named Buzzy Kerbox and big-wave guru Darrick Doerner pulled one another into a handful of howling 50-footers, and made history. It's not that they were the first to ride Jaws--windsurfers had done that--it's that they tore it up. The tow surfers did not simply survive the wave, they rocketed down its face. Hamilton went deep, into the barrel, and barely outran the collapsing lip. He then bunny-hopped over the chop and exited with an exuberant backflip. This wave has a fifth gear, he remembers thinking. Others have described riding down the face of Jaws as how they imagine it would feel to be shot from a cannon.