On a sunny weekday afternoon, a lone surfer skims across the water at one of America's most famous coastlines. But this is no normal surfer, nor is he riding a typical board.
Armed with a long black paddle in his hand, Laird Hamilton, revered as a god among surfers, stands on a massive 12-foot board and glides effortlessly across the ocean. His 6-foot-3, 215-pound body casts a silhouette that, for a moment, makes him look like a Polynesian warrior traversing the ocean in Hawaii. Today, Hamilton is stand-up paddling, a sport he's embraced and for which he is unofficial spokesman.
Stand-up paddling, a variation of surfing in which you stand on a board and propel with a paddle almost like a kayak, is taking beaches by storm, largely due to its endorsement by Hamilton.
The sport stands to change ocean recreation, much as snowboards changed the ski slopes. It is also the best chance yet for the 44-year-old waterman, famous for riding skyscraper-size waves big enough to make other surfers wet their wetsuits, to morph into an entrepreneur and find a way to profit from his talents in the water.
"This will be enormous," says Hamilton, acknowledging he's a bit of a reluctant entrepreneur. "I'm on for the ride. It'll be bigger than surfing."
Hamilton's championing of stand-up paddling is at the heart of his push to build a business around his name. Hamilton is tying his chiseled image to companies and products that produce the tools that make his oceanic escapades possible. With any luck, Hamilton's first success will be becoming the icon of stand-up paddling — what Jake Burton is to snowboards and Tom Morey is to body boards.
There's no question that what Hamilton does has pull. He sealed his reputation as arguably one of the best big-wave surfers ever, having taken on waves up to 80-feet high, or about the size of an eight-story building. His ride in 2000 on a massive wave in Tahiti's Teahupo'o break, a dangerous spot to surf because of large waves that break onto razor-sharp reefs, is still considered one of the most daring things ever done on a surfboard.
Hamilton's legendary status has been documented in surf movies including Riding Giants and Step Into Liquid, which feature some of his wildest rides that drop the jaws of even people who have never waded into water. His latest movie, Water Man, is due out in September and is the product of his production company, BamMan.
Oxbow, a French beachwear company that has sponsored Hamilton, also plans to tap the U.S. market this year with his help. Hamilton has also been a surfing body double for Pierce Brosnan in the James Bond movie Die Another Day and has been featured in an American Express ad.
That's not to mention his idyllic seaside life, split between Malibu and Hawaii, with his model wife and former volleyball sensation Gabby Reece and three daughters.
Despite Hamilton's picture-perfect life and mastery of the monster wave, there's one force he's yet to have reckoned with. While he's credited as one of the bravest surfers on the planet, he's now looking to parlay his love of the ocean and legendary status as a waterman into a business. And it's that big and unknown wave he's about to take on next.
"I need to pay for three weddings, maybe," he jokes.
Eight years ago