In early 2020, a rare opportunity arose. A swell of ridiculous proportions was bearing down on Portugal’s most famous big wave. Nazaré surfers watched as the forecasted blob turned from purple to black. The very-first Tow Surfing Challenge was given the green light by organizers. Excitement was in the air. And Laird Hamilton was too. He hopped on a plane with something interesting in mind: foil surfing the biggest waves he could. He, along with Terry Chung, Luca Padua, and Benny Ferris have been experimenting extensively with different setups and techniques for years. That vast wealth of knowledge and experience is what made them feel comfortable enough to try something relatively novel in waves of serious consequence.
“The great thing about the foil is that it opens up the opportunities,” Laird said. “It opens up the playground. It opens up places that wouldn’t normally be looked at… we had some great conditions, but I would say they weren’t great conditions for the conventional Nazaré spot. It was a different wave. It was a wave that you wouldn’t even really look at unless you were a foiler. It just wouldn’t have the appeal. First of all, it was too fast — would you even make it — or could you catch it as early. So these conditions come along, and we get to ride a wave where we’re the only ones out.”
When you’re foiling, it pays to look at waves a little differently. Sure, you’re riding a wave, but the foil is a completely different beast. On the biggest day, Laird and crew were almost surfing a different spot. “We were positioning ourselves where we could use the foil,” Laird explained. “We’re not looking at the wave like a conventional tow surfer would or a prone big wave rider. We’re looking at it where we want to be (when riding) a foil… and that just happens to be another dimension.”
Laird is aware of the haters (of which there are plenty) but he seems to address them directly near the end of the video. “A great Hawaiian waterman, Brian Keaulana, once said, ‘don’t define me by my equipment.’ I think that’s one of the things that hold us back. When we get into the stereotypes and we start stereotyping equipment and stereotyping people. Foiling is surfing. I can tell you what: Terry Chung has surfed his whole life. I’ve surfed my whole life. Benny has surfed his whole life. These are all consummate surfers. Luca has surfed his whole life. And… you know. This is surfing.”