Surfer rides business wave

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

That's where stand-up paddling comes in. He first actively revived stand-up paddling in Hawaii eight years ago. Hamilton says he loved the challenge and immediately saw it as a great way to work out muscles that regular surfing missed. But, as is often the case when he tries new things, he was frustrated trying to find the right equipment. He'd ask local shapers to make boards of the right size and would experiment with different paddles.

Four years ago, Hamilton turned his quest for gear into a business. He teamed with Surftech, one of the world's largest makers of surfboards, to design a stand-up board for him. At first, Hamilton simply wanted to get his hands on a board that met his exacting standards.

Now, the board is one of the company's hottest sellers, and it ships them to customers almost as fast as they're made, says Duke Brouwer, promotion manager at Surftech, a private company that doesn't disclose financial results.

Hamilton, for his part, declines to put numbers on the extent of his success.

But that's just the beginning of Laird Inc. Hamilton this year joined the board of directors of San Diego-based H2O Audio, which makes products that waterproof digital audio players, such as iPods.

Hamilton's business efforts extend further yet. He's done motivational speeches for companies and is releasing a fitness manual, Force of Nature: Laird Hamilton's Handbook for Peak Living, in November. He also buys, develops and sells real estate in Hawaii and is developing property on Maui and Kauai.

But paddling out into the business world is a new thing for Hamilton, who has been more concerned with mastering the waves than profiting from them.

And it appears he could already be headed for a business wipeout. In spring, Laird launched a clothing line called Wonderwall sold at retailer Steve & Barry's, where most clothes sell for about $10. The retailer, though, filed for bankruptcy protection last week, and its future is murky.

Promotion for the sake of business might be relatively new to Hamilton, yet he shows up for an interview wearing a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the Wonderwall logo. Despite a laid-back surfer attitude, complete with greeting visitors with an "Aloha," his fierce competitive streak bubbles up when talking about business.

Hamilton says nothing would make him happier than to make some of the entrenched surf companies, which he says gouge consumers for products while shortchanging surfers, suffer.

Why the bad vibes? To date, the best way for surfers to make money is by tying up with a giant surf products company such as Quiksilver or Billabong and competing in contests they sponsor for money. But Hamilton, under the guidance of stepfather and pro surfer Bill Hamilton, scorned such contests.

He says he resents the pressure these companies put on their athletes to win, only so they can charge large premiums for the products they sponsor.

But not going along with the corporate game means Hamilton has had to find his own ways to earn money. He disdainfully talks about how surf companies have "squeezed" his friends and the difficulty he has had making money despite his skill.

"I'm doing this because I love it, but I'm not going to be stupid on the business side," he says. "You see guys on the street corner (who may have) created (an invention) but didn't know the business side."

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."

Clark Riedel, owner of traditional surfboard-shaping company Evolution Surf in Del Mar, Calif., says stand-up paddlers trying to be like Hamilton have become ocean nuisances. They travel in large groups and monopolize the water because the larger boards let them catch waves earlier than traditional surfers can.

"Surfing was never a team sport. Now, it's the herd," he says, adding that surfers call stand-up paddle boards "barges."

"Laird has created new things to market," Riedel says. "But surfing is about simplicity."

Meanwhile, just as snowboarders were outcasts at ski resorts at first, stand-up paddlers are finding resistance on the water. Surftech's Brouwer says he's been told by officials at reservoirs and lakes several times to get out of the water, even when boats are coasting by.

Hamilton thinks that eventually surfers will get used to the newcomers, and stand-up paddling will be welcome. "I'll ride where I want. Write me up. Arrest me," he says. "It's part of sharing the ocean."

It's that break-through-the-barriers attitude that bodes well for Hamilton's business life. "If you don't believe in something, how can you sell it?" he says.