Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)
BIG WAVE SURFER
My biological father left my mother when I was very young. I never knew him. My mom and I moved to Hawaii when I was still an infant. I was definitely in search of a father figure, and when I was three years old, I found one at the beach. I had sneaked away from home and was playing alone in the waves when along came a popular surfer named Billy Hamilton.
He said, “Hi,” and asked what I was up to. I said that I was bodysurfing, and he dove right in to join me. We befriended each other. He put me on his back and we rode little waves together. When we finished I grabbed his hand and said, “I want you to come up and meet my mom.” I wanted to hook the two of them up. So he took me home, I made the introduction, and they fell in love. They were married within six months, and it wasn’t long before my little brother was born.
In the beginning, Billy was my hero. I looked up to him and was so happy and proud that he was my father. But he ultimately became a disappointment. All he wanted to do was surf (which I, of all people, can understand), but he wasn’t making much of a living from it and resented having to support the family. To him, it was as if it were our fault he had to work. We lived in an impoverished manner—our house was located next to a pig farm, had a tin roof, an outhouse, and no hot running water—and we ended up on welfare. Billy also had a temper that he couldn’t control. I admit to being a hell-raiser as a child, but when the time came for me to be disciplined, things could get a little excessive.
As I entered my teens and grew a bit more defiant, my stepdad became very disparaging of me. He would say things like “You’re never gonna be what I am.” I resolved to become a lot more than he was. My competitive feelings continued to grow as my respect for Billy diminished. Luckily, my mom was around to instill in me a good sense of self-worth or I would really have been in trouble. I do have a lot more sympathy for my stepfather now that I have my own kids and, ironically, I almost have to thank him for inspiring me to become both the athlete and family man I am today.
Billy wasn’t the only driving force in my life, though. There was a tremendous amount of racial discrimination in Hawaii back then. White people represented the descendants of Captain James Cook and the plantation owners who, according to the natives, “destroyed” the culture of Hawaii. They called us “haoles” and were extremely resentful of our presence. When I first went to school, we were the only Caucasian family in the neighborhood. My white-blond hair caused me to stand out even more. I had no friends and was constantly ostracized and tormented. I remember being invited by a group of kids to go on a hike when I was about seven years old. I was thrilled to be included—but they ended up leading me way up into the mountains and then disappearing. They were intentionally trying to lose me, and it worked; I didn’t know where I was. When I finally found my way back, they formed a human blockade to prevent me from reaching my house. I put my head down and ran right at them like an angry bull. They got out of the way.
Throughout my adolescence, I had no opportunity to date. Even if I liked a girl and she liked me, it was always “Sorry, I can’t go out with you ‘cause, you know, you’ve got blond hair.” I used to lie in bed at night and wish that I would wake up as a big strong Hawaiian guy.
The ocean was the one place I found equality, so I channeled all my energy and frustrations into the water. We lived right at the Banzai Pipeline, which is probably the best place in the world for a surfer to grow up. It was the mecca of surfing, where the pioneers of big-wave riding came to challenge and prove themselves. They went out on days when everyone else was evacuated, and I looked to them for inspiration. I became known as a fearless daredevil. That and being a troublemaker in school were my ways of changing the type of attention I received. When I did something outrageous, instead of kids saying, “Wow, look at him, he’s a white boy,” they would say, “Wow, look at him, he’s crazy!” My new identity created a safe place for me, a place where I was no longer a target.
My childhood as an outsider affected me in other ways too. I wouldn’t say that I don’t care what people think, but I certainly don’t allow it to prevent me from doing what I want to do. I would not have survived as a kid had I not developed this mindset. It’s enabled me to become an out-of-the-box thinker and innovator.
My goals are constantly evolving so I never entirely achieve them. This is actually a good thing, because once you realize your goal, then where do you go? That’s your crescendo. I’ve seen this happen to a lot of my friends. They set a goal to be World Champion of X, or even something far more modest, and then once they attain it, they live a life of disappointment. If you don’t continually revise your goals, the only place you’ve got to go is down. So I keep thinking of ways to reinvent wave riding.
When I cocreated tow-in surfing, a method of accessing a previously unridden realm of waves by being towed into them by a jet ski, it revolutionized the sport but it was also met with much criticism and resentment. People felt it was cheating and decried the noise and exhaust created by the engines. But we forged ahead, and before long, people started to emulate us. Today, it’s widely accepted as a legitimate sport. I continue to run into a lot of resistance whenever I innovate, but having experienced this kind of confirmation enables me to get through it.
There are two somewhat related mottos that I literally live by. The first is an old aviation saying, but it applies to any potentially dangerous field: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots; but there are no old bold pilots.” Fearing perilous situations is intelligent. Humans would never have survived without this characteristic. I try to understand my fear and use it to make good decisions. If you want to stick around, you have to be cautious. Which leads me to my next saying, and I made this one up myself: “Potato chips in is potato chips out.” Sounds funny, I know, but it means that what you put into something is exactly what you can expect to get out of it. Although my mother had a great work ethic, there’s been no person—or thing—that’s taught me this more often and deeply than the ocean. I’ve been sucked out to sea and pounded by waves many times after already being exhausted from hours of surfing. If I get too tired before I’m able to make my escape, I’m going to drown. There’s no room for slackers in my field. A large part of being cautious means being extremely prepared, both mentally and physically. I put in hours upon hours of strength and endurance training. I also make it my business to understand everything I can about the environment I am working in and only partner with people I have complete faith in.
While I may still look like the daredevil of my youth, the risks I take today are extremely calculated. And although parts of my life have been tough, I wouldn’t change any of it if it meant not being the person I am today.
I am frequently asked if getting married and having children (I have three daughters) has changed my behavior. The answer is, “not in the water.” It is essential to have the support of the person you are in a relationship with. If your partner prevents you from fulfilling your potential, it’s not good for anybody. My wife understands what I do and knows that continuing along the path I’m on is part of what I need to be happy. I also feel that it’s important for my daughters to know the real me—the guy who comes in from riding giant waves and has that look in his eye. I want them to see what it does for me so that perhaps one day they can find the thing that gives them that feeling.