Laird Hamilton is as tech savvy as surfers get. Here he looks at the shapes and materials that make boards great—what's changed over the years, and what hasn't:
With the advent of foam and fiberglass and now carbon fiber, surfboard design and technology have come a long way in the last 30 years. Some of the sports that benefited from that technology were obviously wind surfing and tow surfing.
For tow surfing, we changed the design of the boards. Normally in conventional prone surfing, to ride a giant wave you need a huge board. What we did was because we already had power, and were already at speed, we just figured out how to make a little board act big. So we changed the shape of the board and made it act big by making it able to turn at speed better. That design fed into kiting as well.
Surfboards originally influenced wakeboarding, before they had double under-wake boards and bindings and the whole set up. We used to free board when we were kids, and now they call it wake boarding, but it was free boarding. You towed a surfboard behind a boat. A lot of that board design has fed into the industry.
I describe it a little like snowboarding and skiing, where skiing already had skis and ski technology and ski materials, and so when snowboarding came along, it made huge leaps and bounds. You've got all that infrastructure already in existence—besides ski resorts and chair lifts, you had all the R&D and ski design that had been going on for years and years. Snowboarding could just benefit immediately from it. If you look at it now, actually, the snowboard gave back to skiing, with the side cut. It's weird how one will take from it and grow because it's already at a certain point, and then the other takes back and grows. It's interesting to watch how design and materials affect each discipline.
As far as the comeback of wood, in surfing, I'll just say right now all of my best boards for big wave riding are wood and they've always been wood. When you're out there risking your life and the surf is 80 or 100 or however big, however many feet you want to call it, once I rode wood I couldn't ride anything else.
The thing is that wood has a damping and an absorption ability that really no other manmade material does. That's the reason why they make wood violins and wood baseball bats, because wood itself has a structure that man has yet to duplicate in its dampening of vibration and a couple other key elements. That really makes it play into these activities that we do, whether it's baseball or surfing or even skiing: Skis have wood cores, snowboards have wood cores. Anybody that really demands at the highest level, that's where you go.
I think that certain new materials help us. Obviously carbon fiber is an enormous improvement on aluminum and wood when it comes to paddles and stuff like that. It can be extremely light. Bicycle and windsurfers can get away with being really rigid. But when you look the art of wood and making stuff with wood, a lot is lost. A lot of knowledge of how to treat wood and what to do with wood to make it be stronger and lighter and all that stuff. For as much as we know, there's probably as much we don't know.
Technology and modern materials allow us something more immediate to grasp hold of. It's maybe a little more available in the sense that we can mass produce it—people can put it together. If you get a handmade violin by someone who has been doing it their whole life, it's a piece of art. But it's a problem if you can't produce thousands of them, and not everybody can get one.
Laird Hamilton has been a surfing hero since the 1980s, solidifying his reputation as the king of big wave surfing when he conquered Tahiti's Teahupo'o Reef at its most perilous in August 2000. As an innovator, he pioneered many new activities including kitesurfing, tow-in surfing and hydrofoil boarding. He's on the board of directors at H2O Audio, makers of pro-level waterproof iPhone and iPod cases, and has his own signature line of Surge waterproof earphones, proceeds of which are donated to the Beautiful Son foundation for autism education.