Sunday, January 29, 2012

Kaua'i -- Laird Hamilton Foil Boarding

North Shore Kaua'i at dawn, with Kilauea in the distance
In case you didn’t know, I am weirdly obsessed with Hawai’i.  My Etsy shop is named after a beach on Kaua’i (Barking Sands, now part of a military base over on the west side).  I’ve been visiting the island for a number of years now, so it is comfortably familiar to the point that I resent the idea that I might still be considered a tourist and not a local.

I am a north shore kind of girl--which seems kind of surprising to me, as I don’t necessarily think of myself as a laid-back hippie type, which is what the north shore seems to attract.  From Kilauea to Ke’e, Kaua’i is green and lush and quiet.   Hanalei is the center of activity here, a wisp of a town on a beautiful, mountain-ringed bay.  A fair amount of tie dye, dreadlocks and Birkenstocks can be found here, mingled with the retired tourists and honeymooners from Princeville and beyond.    

I’m not sure if my obsession with Hawai’i came first and it led to a fascination with surfing, or vice versa, but the two go nicely hand in hand.  I always visit Hawai’i during the winter months when storms in the north Pacific push swells of energy to the islands’ shores.  Those swells bring surfers from all over the world to ride the waves.  Oahu's Waimea Bay ranks first, of course, but on Kaua'i surfers gravitate to the classic breaks at Hanalei Bay. 

Those wave may look small from this distance, but they are well over 10 feet high and on the rise.
This morning on Kaua’i’s north shore I awoke to a large northwest swell, which brought huge waves along with it.  I stay in at a little condo on a cliff above the water, so I have a nearly 180 degree view of the ocean and the corduroy of incoming waves.  The roaring of the wind and waves gets louder and louder and I can tell without looking that the surf is growing. 

In the past, when the waves reached a certain height, there have been tow-in surfers just off my lanai.  Tow-in surfing, where one person will ride a jet ski and pull the surfer into the surge of a big wave, was pioneered by Laird Hamilton, waterman and surfing legend.  Hamilton seems to have a deep reverence for the ocean and general disdain for the crazy world of competitive surfing, both of which, among myriad other accomplishments, have elevated him to the level of an icon.  Hamilton by no means invented big wave surfing, but he has pushed the pursuit to a higher stratus of the surf world.   The revival of stand up paddle boarding can be attributed to Hamilton, too.  He surfs the unsurfable and doesn’t seem to give a whit what anyone thinks. 
Weird, jury-rigged photo taken through my binoculars--somehow they came out smaller, not larger than I saw them?
The waves were convincingly big this morning--I wasn’t out there with my tape measure, but the forecast heights were 20 to 25 feet. I watched hopefully for some tow-in surfers.  Nothing for a while, but then two teams showed up.  And they were not just tow-in surfing, they were foil boarding.  And I am pretty sure that one of them was Laird Hamilton, who lives a good part of the year on Kaua’i, and according to his lovely wife Gabrielle Reece on their blog, has been out foil boarding nearly every day since the start of this year.
Hamilton being pulled into a wave
Holy crap.  Laird Hamilton!  With my own two eyes I am watching Laird Hamilton surf!  It feels like I woke up and found myself on the 50-yard line at the Superbowl. 

Hamilton created foil boarding by adding a hydrofoil to the bottom of a short board and connecting snowboarding boots for better control.  When riding a wave, the foil cuts through the wave and lifts the board up and out of the water, which eliminates much of the bump associated with the speed of large waves and gives the strange appearance of floating above the water.  

I curse my ordinarily great camera for not being up to the task of taking pictures of this!  I watched through binoculars and it was awesome.  It looked like this photo from Hamilton’s website (click on the image to see more):  
Laird Hamilton Foil Boarding, from
Hamilton--blond, thickly muscled and in plaid trunks--would be whipped into the wave by his partner on the jet ski then fly down the face of the wave with arms and hands outstretched like the wings of a bird on a thermal.  He would often glide to the top of the wave, just as it was cresting, and then float down the face, with a little bounce towards the end of the ride to pick up further energy.  These waves were big, triangular slabs without a lot of curl to them, which made for decently long rides.
It was amazing to see.  Hamilton seemed so free and open and relaxed on the wave.  His partner (Dave Kalama?  Terry Chung?) and the other team all surfed as well, but none had the effortless appearance of Hamilton.  He even drove the jet ski with aplomb, using it to surf the wave he towed his partner into and still keeping a close eye out for their safety.  Can you be relaxed and intense at the same time?  That’s how he came across as I watched him.

I spent the entire morning watching the surfers foil down the waves--not performing for cameras or an audience, just out on a Saturday morning enjoying the gift of a big swell.  Whales were breaching in the background.  The whole thing was awesome.  Another big swell arrives Monday.  Can I be greedy and hope for a repeat performance? 

To get a little more info on Laird Hamilton and foil boarding you can watch a quick video here.

© All text and images are copyright of Jeni Sandberg except where noted

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