Surfer rides business wave

To date, many of Hamilton's innovations have been too extreme to sell to the masses. For instance, using jet skis or helicopters to tow or lift into waves too big to paddle into is hardly something weekend athletes will emulate. Nor is his idea to add hydrofoils to surfboards, causing them to lift up several inches from the water to travel faster.

But stand-up paddling is a different opportunity. It is to surfing what cross-country skiing is to the downhill slalom. Rather than springing up on a board and being propelled at high speed behind a breaking wave, stand-up paddling is more akin to standing on a kayak. Because it can be enjoyed without mastering the hardest part of surfing — popping up from a prone position and actually catching the wave — Hamilton says it stands to be the biggest thing to hit his sport in years.

It's ideal for older recreational athletes whose knees don't have the same spring they used to. And because stand-up paddling doesn't require waves, it's available to people who may live near a lake but not an ocean. "This is revolutionizing the whole industry," says Hamilton.

There's already an online magazine, launched a year ago, dedicated to the sport. "Local shapers can't supply the demand for the boards," says Stand Up Paddle Surfing Magazine editor Nate Burgoyne.

Stand-up paddling has come on so fast that trackers of the surfing industry are trying to catch up. Neither the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association nor Board-Trac have numbers on the sport. But surfboard makers acknowledge the surge and welcome the chance to sell the big boards that go for $1,300, well above the average for traditional boards.

But Hamilton has a difficult balance to strike as he expands from surfer to entrepreneur. If he goes too commercial, surfers will accuse him of selling out. At the same time, he doesn't want others to usurp the profit from his innovations.

Hamilton maintains he is not launching businesses just to make money, saying that's the mistake many athletes make. Yet he admits that success in business affords him the money and resources to do what he wants.

Hamilton's supporters say his bravery in the water will serve him in business. Thomas Barrack, CEO of Colony Capital, a Los Angeles-based private-equity firm that hired Hamilton to speak to its investors last year, says, "Laird could be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a hedge fund manager. What he does in evaluating risk, dedication and pushing through comfort barriers is the same process needed in business."

But there are certain to be skeptics and critics, especially about Hamilton's bold predictions for stand-up paddling. Surfing Magazine published a scathing editorial that called it a fad designed to generate revenue.

"Before the novelty of SUPing wears off, a lot of surfers will have been milked of their money (for extremely oversized baggage fees, if nothing else) and missed hundreds, maybe thousands, of waves trying to learn this fad," the editorial said.

"I can't blame him for looking for a new way to ride waves," says Evan Slater of Surfing Magazine, who did not write the editorial. "It's the offshoot that causes the conflict."

Ocean nuisances?

Slater says Hamilton wannabes are crowding popular surf spots with enormous boards that are dangerous for everyone. "You get yahoos who think they can act like one of the guys," he says. "I'm surprised how much this has taken off worldwide."

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