For Hamilton, the Ocean Was an Escape

“Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton,”
The filmmaker Rory Kennedy captures Laird Hamilton as more than a daring surfer in her new film.

Like the waves he rides, Laird Hamilton is not flat. From surfing some of the biggest swells known, to paddling across the English Channel — even moving in together just days after meeting the woman who is now his wife — Mr. Hamilton’s devil-may-care approach plays into all aspects of his life, both in and out of the water.

Rory Kennedy, meanwhile, is a documentarian whose films, she said, are typically about “hard-hitting social issues.” She was intrigued, though, when a mutual friend suggested that Mr. Hamilton might make a great subject. She knew of his reputation as a big-wave surfer, but little more.

“I wasn’t interested in doing a typical surf film,” she said in a phone interview. “I like story and character, and structure, and I wanted to make sure there was a good story. After spending time with him, I knew I had a great character.” 

The decision to capture more than Mr. Hamilton’s aquatic accomplishments makes Ms. Kennedy’s new film, “Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton,” different from the usual stories, both print and video, about him.

From his track record and from filming, she understood that he was fearless, but his willingness to let her pry into his personal life also proved there is very little he is scared of. The film will be shown at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 4, at Gurney’s Montauk as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival SummerDocs Series, which will also screen “Trophy,” a film about endangered African species, on Saturday at Guild Hall.

Mr. Hamilton was born in California, but in the mid-1960s his single mother moved to Hawaii, where he grew up. Even as a toddler he loved the ocean, but as he got older it took on a deeper meaning. In the waves, he found refuge from a mercurial adopted father and bullying at school, where he was one of the few white children.

For him, the ocean was an escape. It evened out the playing field. Although an adept surfer, he did not compete in the sport, preferring instead to avoid the publicity that comes with being a professional.

“He hasn’t paid attention to the social norms,” Ms. Kennedy said. “And I kind of liked that.” Instead of focusing on his accomplishments, she highlights the indomitable spirit that drove him to challenge himself and become what she called “the great individualist of this generation.”

Rather than compete with others, he contended with himself, testing the limits of his body in what could swiftly become bone-crushing circumstances. In an effort to find and ride the biggest waves in the world, he established tow-in surfing and foil-board surfing, which gain more fans every year.

Although many of the waves he’s conquered have become common surf destinations in recent years, riding such monsters had been unheard of until Mr. Hamilton came along. Notably, he surfed Maui’s Pe’ahi, better known as “Jaws,” in the early ’90s, and in 2000 rode Tahiti’s Teahupo’o. Fame followed, and “Take Every Wave” duly records the price one pays for it.

Mr. Hamilton, now 53, has faced problems at home, and told Ms. Kennedy about them, and lost good friends to his renown, yet allowed her to consult them for the film.

“He called them and said, ‘Will you talk to Rory,’ ” she said. “He opened up his address book for me, and he literally gave me his entire hard drive.”

The filmmaker hopes that “Take Every Wave” inspires audiences to push themselves into uncomfortable territory. “If you look at it, he grew up poor, with very little education, and he has made this incredible life for himself because he pursued his dreams.”  ­