Hamilton has dealt with natural furies his whole life. The rest of us are evaluating a quieter kind of risk in the midst of the latest deathly wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Everyday decisions have become forehead-creasing calculations, with costs that could bury you. How risky is it to send your kid to school, to eat in a restaurant, to travel for a holiday? Listen to one of the greatest risk-takers on the planet, dragon slayer of 70-foot colossus swells, when he said that before you go into a wave, be damn sure you know what you’re about and are prepared for the consequences. Because Hamilton has seen too many dabblers and swaggerers who didn’t study the shape of a wave, who thought they could handle a backhand from nature when they couldn’t.
“I always say, whenever you’re out, and it’s big and you’re in the impact zone and a giant wave comes and you’re going to get caught by it, your intentions will tell me how you’ll react there, at that moment of truth,” he said by phone from his home in Malibu, Calif. “If you’re there for a pure reason, you will respond correctly. … And if you’re not, if you’re there for any other reason, then you’ll wish you weren’t there, and you’ll freak out. And at that point, you will be incapable of making the right decisions to help yourself out of that situation or to deal with it.”
Dealing with a large wave requires understanding its structure and behavior. People misunderstand the risk element: It’s not a thrill-seek but a studied pursuit that requires caution and a certain cooperation with nature. “You’re always looking to minimize the danger within it,” Hamilton said.
There are a lot of great wave riders these days, but none is a more fluent conversationalist on the subject than the 56-year-old Hamilton. He talks in blasting sea sprays of ideas, which gives you a clue how he came to his innovations in kite boarding, tow-in surfing, standup paddleboarding, foil boarding. Most recently, he turned a private experiment with a plant-based diet into a health-food company. But really what Hamilton has is an engineer’s mind, a sense of how things work and move. His latest sea quest is riding huge mid-ocean swells on a foil board, rides of six or eight minutes long, in which he has approached 50 mph. It requires measuring shallows and depths and how the ocean heaves at a particular spot. “High assessment,” he said.
The most famous ride of his life, in 2000 at the hurling Teahupoo reef off Tahiti, was another measured experience. The cover of Surfer Magazine showed him in a blue barrel of centrifugal reversion, with a murderous ledge over his head and the headline “Oh My God …” But what Hamilton knows about waves is that they have an inner structure, a repetitive shape and dynamic, and if you solve their equation you can collaborate with them.
“Nature, that’s some disciplined s--- right there,” he said. “The ocean has a real discipline, a reliability and consistency within all that’s perceived as chaotic.”
But it’s essential to meet that discipline with his own. Often the safest line on a wave is the one that “can create the most speed, and the irony of that is it will probably be the most critical position,” he said. Which means he had better be well conditioned, and well schooled in self-rescue. Any good surfer can catch a big wave — the real test is who can withstand the fear and the friction and emerge from it.
He doesn’t take chances for the sake of indulgence. He has been frightened many times, and he attests that fear is a good and necessary emotion. “There’s nothing better in the world than a little bit of scared to get you doing the right thing,” he said.
He trains his mind as much as his body. He has studied breathing techniques employed by Navy SEALs and Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof, not just to develop a longer breath-hold underwater but also to self-calm. He needs muscle, but weightlifting can wear on joints and reduce flexibility and doesn’t help much with struggling in heavy water, so he developed a lower-impact pool workout that involves crawling along the bottom while dragging weights. His food company grew from the necessity to feed himself in a way that doesn’t make him sluggish or sickish in the water but clear and optimal.
All of it has given him something that might be called enlightenment.
Like all extreme athletes, Hamilton has the ability to slow down time, to perceive high-speed events with an extra beat of relaxation. But it’s not a natural gift, he said — it’s learned. Anxiety, Hamilton believes, can be mitigated with systematic practice. “If you want to make something go slower, what do you do?” he asks. “For one thing, you breathe. What you notice about all this stuff is that it’s stress-related. Getting to the walls of discomfort and dealing with that discomfort, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, it’s a mechanism that can be trained.”
He and his wife, former professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, have exported the idea via a conditioning program for nonelite athletes and now train a wide range of professionals out of their home, from actors Will Smith and Orlando Bloom to business executives. It’s based around the notion that anyone can condition themselves to react better under high intensity and stress, no matter what sort.
Hamilton teaches himself and others to manage reactions by simulating discomfort artificially, with ice and heat. He plunges himself into ice baths and superheated saunas. Heat and ice are therapeutic — and also are intense neurological experiences, hard to bear for long without a sense of alarm. So he forces himself to do something difficult: to sit still in them.
“You want to get out,” he said. “Your body is saying, ‘Hey I want to get out!’ And you’re like: ‘But you’re not going to get out. You’re going to stay.’ Eventually you do get out because you succumb to it. But just the process of having that exposure, forcing your body to stay in that stressful position, it makes you deal with any kind of stress better.”
The body under stress doesn’t necessarily recognize what it’s being stressed by, Hamilton believes. He might be stressed because his daughter took the keys to the car and she’s late getting home. He might be stressed because he has a speaking engagement. Or he might be stressed on a wave. They are all basically the same: keen, tense experiences that make him anxious — and that require a moment of disciplined stillness.
“There are a lot of reasons to be disciplined, but the biggest part of it is it’s the only way to go about what I do with any confidence or comfort,” he said. “I look at ocean waves, brain waves, sight waves, sound waves, and they all have a discipline. And when I look at any kind of discipline, there is a common denominator: Through observation, we learn. We watch nature, and we learn.”
We learn, even as the wave breaks and passes by. It can be highly forgiving — if approached with the right observance and devotion. Approach it with carelessness, take ignorant or undisciplined risks, and it’s pitiless.