Al Layer greets me at the Maui Country Club wearing wraparound sunglasses and grinning through a gray Bob Weir–esque beard. The 62-year-old extends a hand to get us reacquainted after a four-year gap, having last met at the 2017 Florida Surf Film Festival, where his son, Albee, premiered his award-winning film, Nervous Laughter.
Since retiring three years ago from Maui Emergency Medical Services, Al surfs nearly every day and plays golf three times a week. In a protective outdoor shirt, hat with flaps to keep the sun off his neck, and hiking shoes, he is ready for our round and generously pays my greens fees.
The Layer family’s journey to Maui began in 1981, in Cocoa Beach, Florida, where Al met his wife, Connie, a registered nurse. Al and his fire station coworkers would often slip down to Costa Rica on ten-day runs between shifts to rinse off the month-long Florida flat spells, scoring empty waves on a $20-per-day budget.
In 1988, Randy Rarick was scouting locations for The Endless Summer II and asked Al for suggestions in the country. He takes subtle credit for the movie revealing Tamarindo Bay to the masses.
“Fuck it,” Al jokes. “I was going to Maui anyway.”
Then came a six-month search for a home through the Caribbean Sea aboard the Dolphin, a 37-foot 1957 Creekmore, one of the first-built fiberglass boats. But Connie had Hawaii in her sights after reading an article in Windsurf magazine, so they sailed on to Maui.
“We were looking for locations that included all three: work, surf, and [a] living situation,” Al says. “If I had known about Bocas del Toro, we may have stayed.”
The Layers settled on a half-acre lot, where they self-constructed a home with a wild garden of avocados, citrus, kale, onions, and tomatoes, as well as a variety of surf setupsr their son to explore nearby.
“We had our own version of The Search,” Al says. “We drove to [the edge of the] cliff at the end of every pineapple-field road to look for waves. [Albee] went out to several of these spots, but they were too gnarly for me.”
Coincidentally, their new house sat next door to Laird Hamilton, who would many years later tow a 12-year-old Albee into Jaws.
“Do the nerves in your gut fire up when you see your son spin and go?” I ask.
“Not really,” says Al, drawing out his answer. “Albee’s pretty calculated. When he started competing, that’s when he started taking more chances.”
With his sunglasses off, Al’s blue eyes, offset by tan cheekbones, cut a nice contrast among his golf pals. John, a retired ER doc who’s clearly the charismatic leader of Al’s regular group, tells me about an unofficial club the two are members of.
“We’ve both been shot!” John chuckles.
In Al’s case, John is referring to an incident when, during a call to rescue an elderly woman, a .22 caliber pen gun hidden in a nightstand went off and caught Al in the ass. Later, while dropping off the patient at the hospital, he felt a sting, put his hand down his pants, and pulled it back covered in blood.
We all know about Albee’s penchant for surviving the hazardous. And it’s not just Al’s side where he gets it from. During World War II, goes another family tale, Connie’s dad had to bail off the fiery deck of the USS Franklin after a plane was struck by gunfire during takeoff. Into the flaming, oil-drenched surface he went, splashing away petrol to take burning breaths while searching for clear water. Rescued by a destroyer, he was traded back to the aircraft carrier for a 55-gallon drum of ice cream.
Listening to these and other stories, it’s no surprise where Albee gets his seemingly fearless approach. It doesn’t hurt to grow up next to Laird, but his mom and dad’s homegrown, DIY upbringing has produced an extraordinary waterman.
In the living room, Albee’s wearing a Damian Lillard jersey and taking a break from editing. He swears at the Portland Trailblazers game on TV before queuing up a preview of his new film, Rainbows in the Rearview. As Albee hits play, Al pops the top of a Red Stripe. We’re equally floored by what we are shown—green, 25-foot northside Maui wedges with Albee and his friend Matt Meola letting loose in the punishing surf.
Al and Connie have traveled back to Florida for the premieres of both of Albee’s feature films. A long list of friends and family also attends; the festival probably sells 45 tickets to the Layers alone. Al walks me to the door and says, “I guess we’ll see you in Florida.”