On the north shore of Kauai, near Hanalei, I drive past the back entrance into Princeville and the pavement stops and the road goes dark as it burrows into the mango and hau trees. Down about half a mile I come to a lone, gray, windowless, and unmarked building—a small house or garage by the look of it—and park the car.
Stepping out into the cool, mosquito-rich morning, the air is filled with sweet-and-sour tropic aromas and the familiar buzzing shriek of a planer. The door is open. Inside, the building is divided into three or four rooms. In one of them, I find a masked glasser, John Rogers, laying up one of Bill Hamilton’s patented fabric-railed longboards. In the next room, I find Hamo himself in a paper mask and foam dust, shaping a shortboard for one of his team riders. When he sees me, he shuts off the planer, pulls off the mask, and flashes a big grin. It’s been a while.
In fact, except for a very brief visit in August of ’98, I haven’t seen much of Bill since the late 60s and early 70s, when he was living on the North Shore at Pipeline, and then on Kauai. At the time I regarded Hamilton as one of the most impressive surfers in the world, having pulled off a great feat indeed—transitioning from a great longboard stylist to a great shortboard stylist, a phenomenon about as rare as a silent film actor going on to make it in the talkies. Moreover, rather than losing something in the transition, the shortboard exposed Bill Hamilton for what he really was—a very radical guy disguised as one of the sport’s most genial and easygoing gentlemen.
In truth, I’ve never known Bill Hamilton well, but I nonetheless felt a strong connection to him over the years. Maybe it’s because the first time I had an article in Surfer magazine (the March ’68 issue), he was on the cover—a beautiful late afternoon silhouette captured by Ron Stoner and captioned by John Severson: “Billy Hamilton jams a turn out of the soup at Cotton’s Point in Southern California. The shot typifies 1967—the year of the high performer.” A listing of the United States Surfing Association ratings for 1967 appeared in that same issue. Hamilton wasn’t on it.
More likely my sense of connection to him came through the MacGillivray-Freeman film Free and Easy, and then The Sunshine Sea, which was being made when I first got to know the co-stars, Billy and Mark Martinson. I met them in Puerto Rico, and then got to know them on the North Shore. This is what I wrote in one article when I was editor of Surfer, describing the winter of ’70-71: “Billy Hamilton! Power hungry Mr. Smooth. Setting up and following through: Arc… arc… arc-sweeeeeeep! Into a full cutback. And driving! Sports car surfing sorta! With the fire lit! Cool and hot.” That was the year I first saw the latent Hamilton fire, as he and his old friend Corky Carroll played a game of “Spit”—a card game that might as well be played with knives—and more than held his own.
Yet when he won 5th-place (for ’67) at the ’68 Surfer Poll banquet, emcee Hevs McClelland said Hamilton was being “recognized for his ability in spite of his abstinence from contests.” Accepting his award, Billy said he was “one of those guys who doesn’t like to sit out there wearing a colored vest. I guess I’ll leave the competition to the other surfers.”
But the North Shore brought out the wild man in Hamilton, and it brought out the competitor, too. He was already in the groove, and now he got into the spirit of things, placing 9th in the Duke Invitational in ’69, then 6th in 1970, and second in ’71, when he was runner-up at the Smirnoff, too—all events held at Sunset Beach, which he loved. He was also a more-than-credible performer backside at Pipeline, where he was a participant in the Expression Sessions of ’70 and ’71. But that was it competition-wise. Then in the early 70s, he pulled up stakes and moved over to Kauaihe with his wife JoAnn and their two blond-haired boys, Laird and Lyon. I saw them out there once; they were living in a little tin-roofed house alongside the road out past Hanalei, about two miles shy of the end of the road, and Billy had a big grin on his face.
He seemed stoked at the time, shaping a few boards, growing some herb, surfing mostly empty waves, and enjoying a more simple and relatively solitary life. Why exactly he wanted that life, I never thought to ask at the time, because I felt I understood. I felt affinity. I liked his independent and adventurous spirit, which found voice in a poetic sensibility that seemed to flow from a visionary but common-sense philosophy
I knew he’d gotten into commercial fishing in the 70s (so did Mark Martinson), seeing that as a lifestyle career that could work. But fishing is a tough career in Hawaii, and it got much tougher in the 80s when fleet sizes surged and fish populations declined. He’s been fishing only recreationally for the past ten years. Ironically, some of Bill Hamilton’s greatest adventures have been at sea as a fisherman. There’s a risky life for you. Anything can happen, and it always does to somebody.
To me, Bill Hamilton is one of those people Bob Dylan described in the line, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” He marches to his own drummer. He’s faced real challenges and come through. He has a presence, a keen awareness; he’s fully there. And he’s been there for a while.
In fact, over the years and decades, Bill Hamilton has continued to hold a unique position in surfing. Emblazoned in our memories by the sunny cameras of MacGillivray and Freeman, his reputation as one of the supreme California surfing stylists has endured, even grown.
Career-wise, if you can call what a lifetime hardcore surfer does to earn a living a career, he surfed back into our consciousness with the Bear logo under his feet. It was Bear this and Bear that, all over the place. The Bear logo was the one in John Milius’ 1978 movie Big Wednesday. The original concept for this pseudo-historical Malibu film was that the roles of surfers would be played by surfers. Recommended by second-unit director MacGillivray, Hamilton was considered for a part; he auditioned, had a screen test. Actors were hired, ’cept for Lopez.
Anyway, Bill did some work on the film, then started building boards and printing T-shirts with the Bear logo, then he cut a deal with the Ochwat (aka JIP) brothers, then it all stopped. Now he shapes for the Bill Hamilton label, which makes a lot more sense to me. I mean, who’s got a better name in surfing? He’s a journeyman shaper, too. Taught by John Price and the shapers at the old Surfboards Hawaii shop in ’67, he built boards for Country Surfboards in Haleiwa in the late 60s, Lightning Bolt in the early 70s, and somewhere in between he did production work for Chuck Dent in Huntington Beach
All this kind of stuff is on my mind as he tours me around his shop—glassing room, sanding room, finish room, shaping room, and a front room—in which he stacks finished surfboards, tow boards, and the very occasional surf ski and a small, archetypically dusty office corner. He shapes an average of ten boards a week, and the majority are longboards. (Like most of the top shapers resurrected in the last decade’s so-called “longboard renaissance,” he also has models built to his exact specifications in California.)
The walls are covered with surf photos, stickers, letters from customers, phone numbers, job orders, and assorted memorabilia. Predictably, one of the largest and most impressive images depicts his stepson, Laird, with his feet in the straps on a pornographically oversized wave at Jaws. Now, there’s a starting point.
You may have read how Bill met Laird met JoAnn back in ’67: Bruce Jenkins wrote about it in the Fall 1997 issue of this publication (“Laird Hamilton: 20th Century Man” in Vol. 6, No. 3). This was just how it was, Bill says: After enjoying some ocean play together one day, two-year-old Laird just walked up to him and said, “I want you to be my daddy.” The kid and his mother, JoAnn Zyirek, were staying at the house MacGillivray and Freeman had rented for the winter, but Bill hadn’t even met JoAnn yet, so Laird brought him to her, and so it goes.
What Jenkins’ excellent story failed to mention was that Billy Hamilton’s first encounter with Laird presaged a recurrence, a fateful replaying of the essential elements of his own youth in the idyllic South Laguna Beach of the 1950s.
Just back from the shop, I take a double-track dirt drive that works its way down toward the Hanalei River. The incline is slick with wet leaves, rotting fruit, and the henna red mud for which Kauai is so famous. I use the gears and stay away from the brake pedal so I don’t go into a death slide, plunge into the canyon, and set off an environmentally damaging firestorm.
I roll gingerly down onto the flats and come to the small house Bill shares with his wife, Rhonda. Strategically situated around the yard are several ramshackle structures sheltering an assortment of blanks, lumber, bikes, car and boat parts, junk, and one very old and nearly organically-reclaimed 1965 International (aka “future restoration project”).
A few steps across the lawn, past the grave of Visa, their beloved lab of 15 years, is the languid opaque stream that flows down from mountains—Kawaikini, Waialeale, and the Kalalau Ridge—in veins of silver. There’s a small gazebo there with a few chairs and a set of weights. That’s where we sit in the afternoon shade and talk about Bill’s life.
His father, John Robert Hamilton, was from Illinois, an electrician by trade, but a musician by heart. He played trumpet, Louis Armstrong-style, and had an orchestra in the 30s: Bob Hamilton and His Orchestra. They played from Virginia Beach in the East to the Rendezvous & Avalon ballrooms of the West.
His mother, Giselle Cochran, was from a large, established New England family. She was a watercolorist and a cello player, “a beautiful woman and a very kind and gentle person,” Bill says admiringly. She worked as a nurse in a V.A. hospital in North Carolina during the War. She was working there when she met John and they fell in love. She became the black sheep of the family when they left for California to build a new life together. Thing of it was, Giselle came to the marriage with an infant son; his name was Gordon
They moved to South Laguna in 1946, and Giselle gave birth to William Stuart Hamilton in Long Beach, California, on August 27, 1948. He was named after his grandfather, a minister named William Stuart. Through his mother, he is distantly related to James Watt, inventor of the steam engine. “I inherited his genius for invention,” Bill jokes. “Right now I’m working on a new battery that uses only positive energy.”
In those days, South Laguna was a paradise on earth. Wandering the low-tide universe with his springer spaniel Honey Boy, the magic of his situation wasn’t lost on young Billy. Three Arch Bay—the beach between 8th and 11th Streets—was his playground, and his older, more world-wise step brother was his mentor.
“Gordon was fearless of doing radical things,” Bill recalls. “All of our friends were amazed by him—bodysurfing the biggest waves, hitting a bird with a rock, leading reptile hunts, and later riding motorcycles. He was a tough guy but very multi-functional. I don’t know if he was so much a hero to me, in the sense I chose him to be a hero. He was more of a mentor. Although I think, yeah, he probably was my first hero.”
Three-and-a-half years older, Gordon led Billy on treks up Emerald Canyon north of Laguna. “It was a real virgin place,” says Bill, “Deer, rabbits, rattlesnakes…” Gordon got into falconry, stole a pair of crampons from the back of a phone company truck, and Billy was his “support team.” They went hunting; Gordon was a crack shot with a .22. He could blow the head off a woodpecker at 100 yards. “Kids murder animals without conscience,” Bill sighs with a smile.
Gordon would climb huge trees to capture red-tailed hawk babies at the pin-feather stage and raise them—there were cages in the backyard. He caught peregrines, Cooper’s hawks, and various owls, too. He’d rappel down hundreds of feet to check an eagle’s roost up Aliso Canyon. Once he donned thick fatigues and leather gloves to go after baby red-tails, and the feisty female wouldn’t allow it. “He got his ass kicked by the mother,” laughs Bill. “Never got the babies.” Usually, however, Gordon was successful at whatever he did.
“He brought me into the mountainside of existence, but the ocean, too,” Bill explains. “Spearing sheepshead, halibut, corbina, plus lobsters and crab. As kids at low tide in South Laguna, the black abs were thick on the rocks like limpets. There were about ten of us kids, and we’d pry ’em all, scoop ’em out, and put ’em in a tide pool. When the tide came in, the moray eels would come in to feed on ’em, and we’d spear ’em with three-prong Neptune spears.”
Moray eels are tough and dangerous critters. Spear one in the wrong place, and it will wrap itself up the spear shaft and bite you back, and sometimes kids did get bitten. But they had their revenge, too. “I was the executioner,” Bill recalls. “There was a big flat rock, and it was a ritual execution. The best day we got 15 morays, and the biggest was 7 feet long with a 10-inch diameter.” Of course, Gordon was the instigator of it all.
Young Billy was learning to enjoy the hunt, and one of his favorite hunts was going after octopus at low tide. “You’d find ’em in holes on the flat part of the reel,” he remembers “I’d reach into the hole, let the octopus grab me, and pull ’em out. But this one time, I reached in and it grabbed me, and I tried to pull it out, but it wouldn’t come, and it wasn’t letting go, and the tide was coming up. His tentacles had gone up my arm and they’re holding me, and I can’t get away. I’m really scared. The tide is up to my chin. I’m gonna drown. And then I relaxed, and the thing let go of me. After that, I didn’t do that.”
These experiences and many more, inspired by Gordon or coming out of Billy’s own curiosity and instinct, grounded the young man in the ways of the wild and instilled in him a passion for life on the edge. At the same time, South Laguna was not Borneo or even the north shore of Kauai. Civilization was near at hand. There was culture here—art and literature, especially in his own home.
“My mom was a voracious reader,” he recalls with obvious pleasure. “We had a library in our house—hundreds and hundreds of books, stacks of magazines. Her real wealth was all this reading material, so that was probably real influential to me in the sense that my mom’s love of the arts and living in Laguna helped my own creativity.”
Along about the fifth or sixth grade he read a book called The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, and then he read a small book of poems by Thoreau, words on the relationship of man and nature. “I was interested in religion when I was younger,” he says, “religion in the sense of meditation.” At the same time, in his imagination he saw himself as a cowboy: “I remember I had a hat and two guns and my make-believe horse…and I was out West.”
But it was a different west on the beaches of South Laguna. “Rock Hudson would bring his boyfriend down, and they’d oil each other all over,” Bill laughs. “And Sterling Holloway, who wrote ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow,’ he had a house right above my house.”
Laguna was, after all, an artists’ community, and Billy acquired an artist’s perspective. “It was so rich with eccentric talent,” he wags his head. “I was fortunate enough to grow up in an era, a time and environment surrounded by people that were very free creatively. At my parents’ place, I lived with all these great people that were drawn there like birds of a feather.”
He recalls the two guys who’d come up from La Jolla and sit on the beach. “They’d pass around a wine bottle, and they’d play this beautiful music called flamenco. They’d go to Spain every year to study this music, which was kind of an unknown exotic music at the time. I remember when I first heard it I just fell in love with it, so I bought a guitar in Tijuana when I was 14, and I’ve been playing flamenco pretty much ever since.”
Perhaps the biggest cultural influence came from a young “beach” couple with a wonderful slant on life—Dick Pettit and Joyce Van Every. “She was 24, and Dick was 29,” Bill recalls wistfully, remembering how he first fell under their spell in the summers of the late 50s. “They were young, vibrant people who had an A-frame on the beach, and it was just like Tahiti in the summertime. They had a palapa and a Tahitian bungalow…there was always a hammock. She painted Popeye cartoons, and he worked for a fiberglass company.” And they were water people.
Billy spent his days at the beach with them, swimming and diving, fishing and riding waves. Joyce was a close friend of Giselle’s and became Bill’s surrogate mother. “She was absolutely gorgeous,” says Bill. “I had a huge crush on her. I remember wishing I was 10 years older.”
The beach offered plenty of other inspirations, too. There were the lifeguards, like Jim Kauer Sr. at 9th Street Beach (“When the siren went off, they’d run up all those stairs with their packs—it was a generation of strong beach people.”) and Dean Baugess, a decorated UDT diver in WWII. “The men wore tight-fitting bun-hugger trunks,” Bill recalls, “and when they went diving, they’d stuff the abs in over their cheeks. One hot summer day, Dean’s buddy wasn’t around, so he asked me to go diving with him, out to ‘visit his refrigerator.’ We swam out, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, they’ve got a refrigerator on the bottom!’ He swam down 30 feet and came up with the biggest, pinkest ab I’d ever seen. ‘Hold this,’ he says, ’got another one down there.’ He came up with it, and then he speared a 20-pound halibut on the way in. It was like swimming with Neptune!”
Very rich days indeed, says Bill. “A great time to grow up!”
He bought his first surfboard from Joyce in 1959, a ’58 Hobie double-ender—heavy pigment blue with a 3″ balsa center on the left side, orange with an eighth-inch S-turning redwood strip on the right. After an inaugural season in the Three Arch shore pound, Dick and Joyce started taking him surfing with them—to Dana Point, down to K-39 in Baja, then up to Rincon on winter weekends. It was at Rincon that he received the wisdom of a passing guru: “No, no, no!” the older surfer interrupted. “You don’t want to wax your board like that—not in a circular pattern. You must do it in a directional pattern, in one even stroke. This is how you do it.” And that turned out to be Tom Morey. It didn’t take long before Billy knew where his life was heading. “When I was 12,” he says, “I decided I wanted to be one of the best surfers in the world.”
It’s early and it’s still dark and I’m rolling down Kuhio Highway toward Bill’s with my friend Stephen Connella, a surfer who found a way to live on Kauai when he bought a primitive soap-making operation and turned it into the very successful Island Soap Company. Steve’s the host of “Acoustic Cafe,” a tasty weekend show on KKCR, Kilauea’s public radio station, and he’s been trying to get Bill to come on the show and play some flamenco guitar. But this morning we’re just going surfing.
We arrive in the chill of early dawn, pull on our rash guards, and get our boards together. Bill loans me one of his designs, a 9’0″ built by Gary Young over on the Big Island. Instead of fiberglass, the classic longboard shape is laminated with a bamboo mat—very handsome. We wax up and follow Bill down to the funky wooden platform that serves for a dock, load the boards into his small aluminum boat, and step gingerly in. A few gallons of green rainwater slosh in the bottom, washing the grass and dirt from our feet. Bill asks me to untie the line, and I do as he hits the starter. The engine warbles to life, and he gives it a couple of warm-up vrooms as we drift out onto the river.
We motor downstream a bend or two, slipping past a few darkened homes, sort of the backside of Hanalei town, then we round the corner and head out into the river mouth. The scene is odd from our position low in the boat as we drift through the cut in the beach—the silhouetted shapes of surfers standing around their parked cars on the beach is incongruous, and the ones heading down to the water seem strangely tall and solid. This effect is compounded when we run aground in the shallows and have to jump out until the boat clears the stream
Once we’re on the bay, however, the boat seems a much better idea as the world spreads out around us. It’s a good, long paddle across the shallow “infield” at Hanalei, and as we swing around toward the cement pier and follow the arc of deep water out to the lineup, the surfers who looked so large on the beach are reduced to small paddling specs. Bill parks the boat off on the shoulder and we watch three-foot sets wedge and bowl and pitch, then crackle along the reef toward us. It’s cool and gray and there’s already some wind on the water, and it’s crowded, so Bill throttles off toward Middles, a spot about a mile across the bay.
The scene is primordial as we approach the reef at Middles. Jagged, green spires rise into the glowing morning clouds, framing a smoking peak with six-foot sets, which are being worked by three friends. They’re not happy to see us and start in on the stink-eye and verbal abuse until they recognize Hamilton, and then all is right with the world. As it turns out, there’s plenty for all. Everybody gets waves (my “Hamboo” is smooth as silk off the bottom), and then it blows out, so we scramble into the boat and head back across to the main Hanalei break.
As we hum across the bay, I notice the gnarled architecture of Hamo’s right elbow, which has been shattered on various occasions. The first time, he says, was playing football at Laguna High School. He was a good athlete, enjoyed football and track. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and agile, and the coaches wanted him to play on their teams, “but of course I fell in love with surfing, and that was that for team sports.”
Years later, that elbow met his board going over the falls at Pipeline, then an eight-foot bomb landed on his three stringer board while he valiantly held on. “The board broke around that elbow,” he laughs. Finally, he was straightening out on a 15-foot close-out at Hanalei—“I took a direct hit on that old elbow by my board when I was being hammered.”
I sit in the boat and shiver while Hamo and Steve ride a few. He may paddle like a crippled duck, reminiscent of Bob Simmons with that bad elbow, but once he slips down the face of a peak, stylistic equipoise dances away all sense of gravity, and he flies across the curling walls like a boy on fire again.
And he was a boy on fire, to be sure. “Being raised in a beach town had its advantages,” he tells me later, as we head back in and up the river. “Diving, fishing, sailing, surfing, bodysurfing, volleyball—these were all avidly pursued by the people I grew up with,” he tells me with feeling. “That activity in itself is a lifestyle, and this puppy was severely branded in his infancy with the beach doctrine.”
Living in Laguna Beach was strategic. The Hobie crew was just a few miles to the south in Dana Point, and Joe Quigg’s crew was just up the road in Newport Beach. “I had an abundance of talent to draw from,” he says, “and my early influences were guys about ten years my senior, guys like Dean Baugess, John Parlette…these guys are bigger than life for me, and when I saw my first surfing movie—I think it was Barefoot Adventure or one of Bud Browne’s early movies—I remember seeing Miki Dora, Mike Doyle, L.J. Richards, and those guys, and I remember in my 12-year-old brain goin’, ‘I want to be just like those guys.’
“That whole group that came before us—Phil Edwards, Dora, Johnny Fain, Doyle, Rusty Miller, Richards, Butch Van Artsdalen, Skip Frye, Hobie, Mickey Muñoz, and the Patterson brothers—were the established great surfers, and I was growin’ up in those ranks.” And he was inspired and informed by them all, rapidly synthesizing what he saw and experienced into his own template for a surfer’s lifestyle, filtered perhaps through the proactive attitude taught by his mentors, notably Gordon.
Almost from the beginning, Hamilton had a special sensitivity, a decidedly different approach. It was all about flow and positioning and attitude, but a positive attitude—that was one difference. Mark Martinson told me he used to pick up Bill on his way down from Long Beach to surf the Trestle. “I used to pick up Corky Carroll, Mike Koontz, the Newport guys like Herbie Torrens, and Bill down in Laguna. There was kind of a group of us, and I was always the driver; I had a red ’52 Chevy wagon. But when we got to Trestles, Hamilton would take off in front of me. He always used to ride the inside, and I’d get on the inside and there he’d be, a big smile on his face, and he’d take off in front of me, and I’d go ‘But I gave you a ride down here!’”
Mark joked that he and the other guys at Trestles used to describe Bill’s surfing as “stand-tall-and-do-nothin’-at-all.” He thought maybe it was their abusive comments that propelled Billy to greatness.
“I’m glad that Mark thinks he was a huge influence on my surfing,” Bill laughs, then grows pensive. “I don’t know,” he says. “If I’d been called a poser when I was young and surfing, I would have gotten pissed off, ’cause I never did…I mean, a poser is somebody that goes up there and looks like a hood ornament when you shouldn’t be. The thing is, it’s the way you move your body in relationship to the energy—it’s a full exchange of energy, whether it’s cool or it’s hot or it’s radical—that is the individual expression of what that is, and that’s gone beyond posing, I think.”
“So,” I ask, “is this grace under pressure, always making it look easy?”
“Yeah, but it’s also how you are deciphering and using your body in connecting to the energy that’s coming toward you. It’d be like if you were flying, or if you were running, or if you were skiing, or anything gymnastic-wise—there are moves that your body does that are directly influenced by the situation, and your style is synonymous with the expression of that connection, y’know?”
Hungry for that kind of expression, Billy surfed every chance he could, catching rides wherever his network of friends were headed. As his range expanded, so did his surfing. He was hotter by the week, and there was a buzz on the coast about this very smooth, stylish kid from Laguna.
Then, in 1963, Billy was invited to join the elite Windansea Surf Club. This not only drew him into the San Diego County surf scene, it almost miraculously put him on the fast-track to Hawaii. He joined in selling raffle tickets, and suddenly he was on a plane for the Islands and the annual Makaha Surfing Championships. “That was January 1964, before jets,” he recalls. “We flew from San Diego in a prop plane (a Connie) that took like 10 or 11 hours to get to Honolulu. I could hear the drone of the engine inside my head for days! But it was a helluva flight. We had Chuck Hasley, Butch Van Artsdalen, Skip Frye, and all these guys on board—that was a fun flight.”
They camped out at the Waianae Baptist Camp under the supervision of Thor Svenson and prepared for the contest. “The first time I ever surfed big waves, really, in my entire life was at that Makaha meet,” Bill says, remembering, “I was in the junior division, and it was like 12-foot, and the bowl at Makaha was just starting to form up. I remember paddling out and being pretty scared—it was really kind of a big experience for a 15-year-old kid and there’s Joey Cabell, and he’s one of the lifeguards. So, everybody’s paddling out to the point to go ride the point surf, and he says, ‘Billy! Psst! Hang over here! Hang over here! This is where the good waves are.’ So, he got me to take off on a couple of bowl waves, he was coachin’ me in, y’know. And then he left and went outside. So I was there all alone, and I turn around and here’s this gigantic set, so I get caught inside and lost my board. But instead of getting in the white water and swimming to shore like you’re supposed to do, I got into the channel and started goin’ out toward Klausmeyers, y’know? So here I am bobbin’ around out there in sharksville—didn’t know any better—and this big Hawaiian guy comes out on his tandem board and goes, ‘Hey what, haole boy, you need some help?’ And I go, ‘Yeah.’ And he says, ‘Hey, hop on, kid. I give you ride.’ It turned out to be Blue Makua Senior.” Blue Makua was one of the all-time great Hawaiian beach boys. “I think I got 8th in my heat.”
Slouching back to camp, Bill pondered. “It was a real clubby kind of a camp thing that I just wasn’t agreeing on”—so he bailed on ambiguous Makaha and headed for the North Shore. “I think I was lured away by Rich Chew and some of the older guys.”
It was the prototypical decision of a soloist. As it would so often turn out in the future, fate was kind to young Billy. He found a place to stay at the Arma Hut, in Butch Van Artsdalen’s bunk! “I lived over there for three or four days, slept in Butch’s bunk, and kind of hung out with the older guys and discovered Rocky Point and Pupukea and all those spots.” After tasting all that, he went back to California with a purpose. “I got my butt kicked, but I enjoyed it. That trip really opened my eyes and got me focused on saving my money and working toward coming back to Hawaii to live.”
By the following summer, Joey Cabell and Buzzy Bent had opened their second Chart House restaurant, in Newport Beach, and Bill got work bussing tables, working with the same guys he was now surfing with: Bill Fury, Denny Buell, Mike Haley, John Thurston, Pete Syracusa, Mark Martinson, John Creed, and plenty more. “They were surfers and skiers—great fun-loving, life-loving people.”
The Chart House was a magnet, and Bill was immediately drawn into the whole Southern California surfing scene. In addition to hiring the top local surfers, Joey’s Hawaiian friends would frequently show up. “Tommy Lee and I became pretty good friends,” Bill says. “I remember one day Tommy and I and Paul Gebauer were out at a restaurant—I was like a junior in high school—and I remember they were sittin’ there smoking breadsticks, looking at each other knowingly and laughing. ‘You know what we’re doin’, Hamilton?’ I said, ‘Yeah, you guys are makin’ like you’re smokin’ marijuana, aren’t you?’ And they look at each other like this kid’s not too dumb is he? So those were the first guys ever to turn me on to smokin’ marijuana, and that was in 1965. And that was my introduction into the drug scene.”
Fast-forward a few months, and Billy’s riding shotgun in a truck, heading north to surf the Hollister Ranch. Jackie Baxter was at the wheel, and big-gun shaper Dick Brewer was sitting between them. “Up to that point, as kids, we just had alcohol, and now this new, emerging substance—not really, my father tried it in the 30s, a lot of musicians and creative people did. But we started, and Dick, of course, was a notorious beer drinker and never dabbled in the stuff. So I had this big bag, and I was rollin’ up these things the size of a cigar, and we kept the windows rolled up from Torrance all the way to Santa Barbara!” Bill laughs. “I mean, there was no chance that he didn’t take a puff.”
The Ranch was a wide-open frontier in those days, if you could make it past Floyd at the gate, which they did in the middle of the night, hitting the beach at 60 mph and racing up to Lefts and Rights to spend the night in a driftwood shack. “That was quite an experience,” he sighs, “but Brewer owes me from that day.”
Along about then, soon after he turned 16, John Creed sold Billy a ’56 Chevy, which made the commutes to Newport a lot easier than on his beat-up Honda 50; it also brought San Diego County closer. He’d drive down there with his friend Juan Shelton and stay with Larry Strada or Kurt Slater in La Jolla, and then they started hanging with the guys from Point Loma. San Diego had great waves and a newly awakening spiritual consciousness. It was 1966.
“I remember when Hynson brought down the first vial of acid, the purple Owsley.” Bill tells me. “Mike had connections, a chemist from San Francisco that he knew. So, we took the big leap. Taking LSD’s kinda like going sky-diving—maybe with a chute or maybe without one. And then, of course, it was an unknown drug. The first time I took it was with 15 other people; we went down to Black’s Beach at 3:30 in the morning and came on all at one time—it was a sequential event that happened right at sunrise. We’re all holding hands, and it started with somebody laughing, I think it was David Rullo or maybe Strada, and that laughter rippled through every single one of us. It was like, when he laughed, we laughed.”
It was just like surfers to approach LSD as a go-out on a big day, and very much like Bill Hamilton to ride the transformation with an open awareness. “Surfers being the thrill-seekers that they are, we were virtually taking off on a big wave. We were throwing ourselves into a situation that could have taken us in another direction. Maybe it was the purity of the drug, but I went to another place that day in my consciousness that I’ve gone just a few other times. It’s a state of consciousness where your eyes literally turn into microscopes, and you see energy that you don’t normally see—that does exist—and my acid trip, that day, became a molecular experience. Very much so. And then I went to the ocean to go surfing, it was such a sensorially overpowering experience—just to be in the ocean—that I sat on my surfboard probably for two hours feeling the ocean going up through my spine and bathing my head with this warmth. Meanwhile, the clouds are going by like the fast movie clips—it’s making that flickering—and everything was molecular. It made me very, very aware of things that I wasn’t aware of. I would say that if there was a benefit from any of that, of the psychedelic era, it was that it opened up our Western minds to the Eastern forms of thought and belief and philosophy and a really interesting kind of thinking.”
Waves of Change
The house is small—a living room-bedroom combo, kitchen, and bath—but it’s raised up high and there are big windows and screens to let in the light and color of the riverside setting (and visquine shades to roll down when the rain comes sideways). There are a few other homes, not many, along this jungly stretch of water, and the scene is classic old Hawaii—this despite the fact that Hanalei has become an increasingly popular surf and tourist destination over the past 20 years. Al and Tipper Gore stayed at Michael Crichton’s house here last year, a tiny scoop of Lappert’s ice cream costs at least $2.50, and tourists unknowingly tromp across an ancient heiau. But you’d never know it here, a couple bends upriver from the beach, a couple bends downriver from the backside of Hanalei town.
We sit in comfortable chairs, and Rhonda serves cold slices of apple, pineapple, and mango. Ridge, the Rhodesian-Doberman they acquired in Laird’s breakup with his first wife, Maria, sprawls on the rug like…a rug. Bill is telling me the next big chunk of his story—how he got here.
“I graduated from high school, packed my bags, and flew to Oahu to live on the North Shore. I had been voted the 6th best surfer in the world that year in the Surfer magazine poll, but that amounted to jack shit the first time I paddled out to Sunset Beach and got my white little butt kicked all the way to the beach.”
He was 17 years old and his waterman’s apprenticeship was being taken to a new level. “Looking back, I just have to cherish my great fortune at being part of a time where one generation of accomplished watermen—awesome swimmers, divers, and big-wave riders—still existed.” He cites Peter Cole, Jose Angel, Kimo Hollinger, Ricky Grigg, Warren Harlow, Kealoha Keio, Buzzy Trent, and Tiger Espere.
“The legendary Greg Noll would arrive every year hunting for elephants, and for a few years I remember stellar Waimea performances by Butch, Rusty Miller, Doyle, Felipe Pomar, Jackie Eberle…the list goes on and on.” His peers, those who would succeed this great North Shore peer group, were Jock Sutherland, Jeff Hakman, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Gerry Lopez, Reno Abellira, and “the truly great big-wave rider of our generation, Eddie Aikau.”
But, like it or not, they all rode big waves, and if anyone else was surfing, Billy would paddle out. “You could not hold down a position of respect without riding all sizes of waves equally well.”
At first, whenever the surf was big, he’d have to borrow a board. “I really had to rely on the more established equipment of the time, which were artillery pieces from the mid 60s—big, wide, straight-rockered shooters that felt like out-of-control buses when you made it over the ledge.”
He lived with Jock for a while, at his mom’s house near Chuns Reef, and Jock would loan him a Dick Brewer gun. Then he moved into a house at Pipeline with his friend John Thurston, right where Gerry Lopez’ Pipeline house sits today.
“Jose Angel had a wide selection of guns that he was kind enough to loan me,” Bill says. “I always used this 11-footer shaped by Pat Curren. That board actually taught me how to find the sacred mid-face trajectory, plus the thing weighed close to 40 pounds, so the strong offshore winds had little affect on it. I used to piss off Butch when I brought that thing out to Waimea. For some reason, I had this knack for always taking off in front of him. He’d always come out cursing and frothing, calling me the green-water kid, always on the safety of the shoulder. I never thought it was much of a shoulder.”
A year or so earlier, Laguna Beach cinematographer Greg MacGillivray, well aware of Billy’s surfing talent, had tried to enlist him for a new film. “When I was a beginning filmmaker,” MacGillivray tells me, “my main emphasis was on the fluid nature of surfing—and how that grace and beauty, when combined with music, created a dance and flow that was unique in sports.” One of the surfers best able to deliver that kind of surfing was Bill Hamilton, and Greg and his partner, Jim Freeman, wanted to take Bill, Mark Martinson, and Paul Strauch on an exploration of South American surf. But Hamilton’s parents declined. “I wasn’t doing that well in school,” Bill admits. “They wanted me to graduate, so they kept me from going.”
As fate would have it, that South American footage was never used, but then along came Free and Easy and a co-star role with Martinson.
“Mark and I got along good,” Bill says. “He and I competed in the same circuits. When we were going through high school together, we were all kinda friends—Corky Carroll, Mark, and I. He was in the Long Beach Club, I was in Windansea, but basically it was MacGillivray and Freeman that brought us together as partners. He and I were not alike, in the sense that when I was growin’ up, when I was 16, 17, 18, I was smokin’ pot, and he never did. He was a drinker. He liked to drink. So, of course, we’re diverging friends there, but we also kind of have the same nature—we like the adventure, we like to surf, we like to have fun, and he’s funny. He’s got a great sense of humor. And Mark is a great surfer. He’s one of my all-time favorite surfers, and I think we complemented each other, because he was the dark guy and I was the blond guy, and I think in Greg’s mind there was something to that.”
MacGillivray and Freeman arrived on the North Shore shortly after Billy had moved there. They spent some weeks shooting an array of Oahu action, then they invited Billy and Mark to go on this outer island journey to Kauai.
“That was December of ’66,” Bill recalls with a grin. “This was virtually an untouched place; it was like coming back into a time warp. There was a handful of guys that surfed out here at Hanalei regularly, but the whole time we were here, we never saw anybody.” Although he returned to the North Shore and lived there for another five years, Bill was haunted by the Garden Isle from then on. “In the back of my mind, I always knew I wanted to live here on Kauai.”
One of the reasons that Kauai made such a powerful impression on Billy was likely the state of consciousness he was in when they were there. “Actually,” he admits, “all of Free and Easy is me on acid. I was eatin’ that stuff like candy back then. Greg didn’t notice, but Mark…you could see it in the film. I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ and Mark was like this little bulldog. He’d be drinkin’ his rum and Coke, and I’d be smokin’ and takin’ lysergic.”
This was during that great period of exploration and change, and the North Shore was an epicenter. “Jock used to come by, and it’d be like second-reef Pipeline and nobody was out, and we’d smoke a joint and paddle out there and…get scared! It was influence after influence.”
It was around this time that Bill met Laird and JoAnn, who were staying at Greg’s house up in Pupukea Heights. Laird was not yet three and had no father, and JoAnn was five years older than Billy, but there was something fate-filled about their encounter. “We all fell in love,” Bill says. “I had a strong bonding with both JoAnn and Laird. It was one of the channels that changed my life.” He pauses and looks out the window and across the river. Rhonda moves quietly through the room, doing her daily things and keeping us fed and watered. “It’s choices. Every day all these choices that make all the difference, one way or another, radical or otherwise. I was 19 years old, thinkin’ it all out, makin’ the decision to do this.” He ponders briefly, then adds, “Maybe I’d been prepared by my childhood.” He had to be thinking of Gordon.
Perhaps he simply accepted what seemed so inevitable, but there was clearly joy there, too. Billy and JoAnn were married in February 1967, in Julian, California, a mountain town inland from Leucadia, where John Price had signed him as a Surfboards Hawaii team rider, then put a planer in his hands for a crash course in surfboard shaping. Billy’s model, incidentally, was called The Stylist.
During that time, he had a shot or two at a real career, but he was never really tempted. “I’ve always been really fortunate in being in the right spot at the right time,” he says, “but it’s also true that I really pursued my lifestyle—the surfing lifestyle. That’s why I build surfboards, and that’s why I still surf, because of my love for it, and being honest to that love. I had an opportunity one time when I first met JoAnn. My friend Juan Shelton’s father, who invented the fiberglass chopgun, had a dinner for about eight couples one night, and he asked us all individually what we wanted to do with our lives. When it came to me, I told him that I wanted to move to Hawaii, and I wanted to be one of the best surfers in the world. So at the end of the evening when everybody’s goin’ home, he puts his arm around my shoulder and pulls me into his beautiful library with these five giant piranha in this built-in aquarium, and he says, ‘Bill, you know Juan tells me that you’re quite good with metallurgy, with silver and gold’—cuz I got pretty good at making jewelry in school—and he says, ‘Y’know I own a couple of silver mines in New Mexico. I’d like you to go down there sometime, learn about the metal, learn it from the laboratory up, and then, when you get out of that laboratory, how ’bout we put you through school, and when you finish, I’ll open up a business for you here in Laguna.’ I had an opportunity like that from a very wealthy man—literally handed to me on a plate, and I thanked him and said, ‘Well…’ and he said, ‘Don’t make your decision now-think about it.’ So I came back the next day, and I said, ‘I want to thank you very much for your generous offer but my heart is set on what I want to do.’ I was at the crossroads there, but it wasn’t too hard to say no.”
So, the young Hamilton family was soon ensconced at the Pipeline house, which is where I met them. I remember climbing the wooden stairs to a second-story entry, framed in some flowering vine and set into the corner of the house. There was sunlight streaming through windows onto shelves filled with beautiful shells, and JoAnn was smiling, and there was that radical little blond buzz saw they called Laird. As it turned out, Bill was there to midwife his stepson into one of the most incredible lives on the planet—a boy’s life on the beach in Hawaii, a surfer’s destiny. Laird was the student, and he had the intelligence to know that his stepfather was a worthy teacher. The boy was able to perceive the same qualities that surfers saw and felt in Bill Hamilton, qualities that caused him to pull top-ten Surfer poll finishes without a full contest dance card.
More importantly, the Hawaiian surfing elite behind the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational saw the right stuff in Bill and welcomed him into the contest during the first year he lived on the North Shore, 1967. Here was an unproved small-wave California stylist getting invited to the most prestigious surfing event in the world, personally greeted and gifted with the traditional kukui-nut lei by Duke Kahanamoku. Clearly, he had impressed some people the winter before. Perhaps his solo session at Waimea had something to do with it.
“Actually Sweaty Betty (Dick Brewer’s wife) was kinda responsible for that one,” he laughs. “Dick and I and Betty were drivin’ around the Bay and there was nobody out, and the winds were kinda blowin’ Kona, and she goes, ‘Come on, Dick, go out! There’s waves out there! Go on, Dick, get on out there!’ And Dick was goin, “Nah.’ He had work to do or something, and then she said something like, ‘Yeah, well, men just aren’t like they used to be. And that really challenged my ego, made me kinda mad, and I thought, ‘I can do that by myself, ‘cause I’m a man.’ So I went and got my gun, and I paddled out to Waimea all by myself. It was like 18-foot, maybe some 20-footers. I caught one wave, and I came in and went, ‘I did it! I’m a man!‘”
But the biggest factor in Bill’s celebrity was the movies. He’d appeared as “the kid” in a couple of Bud Browne’s films, and his good looks and physical elegance made him the perfect choice for the co-lead in Free and Easy, in which Billy and Mark were so classically framed. When the film did well, Hamilton and Martinson became two of the most recognized surfers in the world. The irony was that the guy who wanted to be the surf hero really just wanted to lead a nice, quiet life (punctuated, of course, with the occasional near-death experience), close to surf and nature.
Bill was just settling down to that down-home country living when the phone rang. It was MacGillivray, and he was doing a new movie, one that would showcase the budding shortboard revolution and the new style of surfing it was ushering in. Mark and Bill worked so well in Free and Easy, why mess with a good thing? Audiences wanted to see the new surfing, and what better guys to bring it to them than the guys they saw last year on longboards? The project was called Waves of Change, and it was a journey.
It started with a stopover in New York City, where the recent release of The Endless Summer had created quite a stir, and traveling surfers passing through town was worth Ed McMahon’s introduction on The Tonight Show. Ironically, it turned out he met Johnny all right, but it wasn’t Johnny Carson.
“So we’re going up,” says Bill, “and there’s this guy in the elevator and he’s about six-six and old, and this old lady’s with him, and maybe when she was younger she was quite beautiful, and the guy looked really familiar, so I go, ‘Excuse me, but you look really familiar to me, what’s your name?‘ And in a big deep voice he goes, ‘My name’s John Weismuller.’ And I reached up and I said, ‘I want to shake your hand, Mr. Weismuller! I’ve heard about you forever,’ and his hand totally swallowed up my hand. He had the biggest mitt of any person I’d ever met in my life, and it was one of those things—like meeting Duke Kahanamoku.“
So the traveling quartet was introduced on Carson, then on to France, where they stayed in Biarritz for a month or so in 1968, surfing perfect waves at Hossegor alone and running with the bulls in Bayonne, where Bill taunted a bull, unwisely wearing a pair of red pants, and it doesn’t go for the film bag he’s shaking at it, he goes straight for Bill’s legs. “The bull hooked me right between my balls and my asshole and flipped me up in the air,” he grimaces and laughs. “I remember I landed hard, right on the small of my neck, and just kinda crumpled up for a minute, but I got up right away…because I hadn’t fought the bull yet! The bull got the better of me, and I was pissed off!” Greg and Jim caught it all on film.
This was during the early days of the shortboard revolution, and Bill and Mark rode relatively crude, wide-tailed 8’6″s. Then they connected with Australian surfer Keith Paull there; he was surfing the latest in foiled shortboards from Down Under, and he became part of the film as they traveled through Spain to Portugal and back to France.
“The shortboard really opened up surfing for everyone,” Bill says. “It was like gettin’ a brand new paint brush; it opened up the whole maneuverability thing—the turns, the drop, the ability to move a lot quicker on the wave. That old, ancient long equipment really kept us in one spot—not only me, but Mark Martinson and Corky Carroll.”
They bumped rails with another Australian contingent in France: Nat Young, Wayne Lynch, and Ted Spencer were at work on Paul Witzig’s new film, Evolution. The atmosphere between the two factions was competitive and sometimes tense, and the two crews tried to avoid each other…until they got to Puerto Rico for the World Contest and found themselves in neighboring bungalows on the hillside above Rincon, “so we had to communicate,” Bill chuckles. They found out they had a lot in common, and then “we were surfing the same spots together, and then I saw Nat bodysurf, and I just had to be friends with this guy now because the guy is awesome! He’s like a fuckin’ fish. I had renewed respect for him, and he’s a hell of a nice guy—really intelligent and funny. I remember one day I was sick, I had a 102 degree fever, and—typical Australians—they’re always making up games, so I’m walkin’ up the road, and Ted and Wayne and Nat, they’re throwin’ rocks at me, and I don’t feel like doing anything; all I wanna do is crawl into bed man, I’m sicker than a dog and dodging rocks and one hit me, and they’re goin’, ’Come on Hamilton! Throw back! Throw back! Come on!’ And I said, ‘No, I’m sick. I just wanna go to bed.’ ‘Ah, fuck ya, Hamilton,’ they go. ‘Ya’ve no ’art.’ And they throw down their rocks and walk away. And I go, ‘I do, I got plenty of heart, but I’m sick.’”
Bill gets up and fetches an artist’s notebook and hands it to me. It’s filled with pen-and-ink drawings, sketches, notes, and poems. The mental edge work exhibited is exhilarating. “A lot of these drawings and poems were done at the Villa Isabela,” he tells me.
He picks up his guitar (a Montavina he found about a year ago for only $1,000) and plays a series of lovely flamenco rills as I page through the book. There’s psychedelic stuff, religious stuff, surreal stuff, and when I point to one complicated fractal pattern done in Rapidograph, he nods, “Yeah, mescaline.” When I point to another, he answers, “Kif.”
I read a nearby phrase aloud: “The mind is full of unconnected, unconceived amounts of thought patterns. We call this portion of accumulated energy the imagination. Here lies the fantasy of one’s being, one’s dreams unfulfilled, and countless other variables untold….” And then another passage: “Once upon a time there was a ship born unto a man…ebb tide of the moon, highs and lows, and unto its sturdy bows a soul would proudly charge upon the ever changing sea, boldly, adventuring forth to overcome the supreme trial of hardship….”
It seemed so apt, so purposeful—from Hawaii to France to Spain and Portugal, and back to the U.S. via Puerto Rico, and back to Hawaii—the pilgrimage of a White Knight, navigating through spiritual waters, a journey of self-discovery in the three-dimensional world of illusion. As it turned out, the self-discovery was just getting started, and movies would play a major role.
He left Puerto Rico before the World Contest. “JoAnn and Laird hadn’t seen me for a long time, and I had to get back.” For one thing, he now had a family to support, working construction, like many surfers did, and shaping surfboards were about the only two legal means he had to do it. Fortunately, again, he was in the right place at the right time.
“There was a transition period goin’ on,” Bill recalls. “Dick Brewer came up with this new rail design, I don’t know if Hynson influenced him or he influenced Hynson—but that really changed everything. That adjustment was like putting on the third fin for that era, and all the surfboards were going toward that Brewer look. I was a couple of years into my shaping. I’d made a number of boards, but I wasn’t expressing myself the way I should, so I asked Dick to make me a board. At the time, he was making guns for all the best surfers on the North Shore, and he was also pretty secretive about his shaping. But I reminded him that me and Jackie Baxter were the first ones to turn him on to that evil smoke, and he goes, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I’ll let you in, you can watch.’ So I sat in a chair in the corner and watched him, watched what he was doing.”
He watched Mike Diffenderfer, too, and Mike Turkington and Steve Gaines and then Larry McElheny. “Larry made me a really beautiful board right around 1969/70 that was, to this day, one of the best boards I’ve ever ridden.”
It was a seminal time, and Bill Hamilton was in the right place. “We were the ‘on the cusp generation,’” he says. “The old was giving way to the new. The pocket rocket revolution, led by Dick Brewer, brought on a whole new era in wave-riding aptitudes and attitudes. Places like Pipeline and Sunset were being ridden with new authority. New paint brushes opened up the canvas in ways never seen before. The emphasis was on creativity and performance, and professional surfing contests were on the move.”
At the same time, the old guard was fading from the scene. “I remember the day Warren Harlow told me he wasn’t going to surf Waimea anymore. I remember that day so clearly. Here was a 40-year-old man telling me, a 22-year-old, that he was hanging it up. He loved the thrill of the drop probably more than most; he was a Waimea regular, and the day he stopped was like a flag post in the sand for me—really the end of an era. For many years, Waimea Bay was the focus of surfing on the North Shore—there and Sunset—but I think with the advent of the newer equipment, true big-wave surfing took a back seat to performance surfing. It’s just been in the past few years that big-wave surfing really came back into the limelight.”
Ironically, Bill was closer to the older man than Harlow probably knew. As he mowed foam and worked to make a “country” living, he was increasingly discouraged by the growing popularity of the place he called home. And now, with a new baby, Lyon, soon born, he was feeling pressured and boxed in, and with financial pressures mounting, cracks began to appear in his marriage.
“At a certain point there, the North Shore almost became overwhelming to me, in the sense that it was getting really populated, really crowded, and I was seeing…there was a lot of stuff goin’ on. I remember when this kid got shot in the A-frame houses—it was a drug-related thing, and they got the wrong guy. It just seemed like the North Shore was changing, the whole vibe was changin’ there, and I felt like I was getting claustrophobic, and I was having some problems in my marriage, too.”
About this time, 1970, he was prominently featured in John Severson’s environmentally outspoken final surf film, Pacific Vibrations. The philosophical sense of the film’s message only reinforced his sense of angst.
As fate would have it, a sensational and eccentric young surfer by the name of Bunker Spreckels was living on top of a hill up from Pipeline; he was living in…a bunker, a WWII pillbox. The “genetic space child” would come down early in the morning, crack some waves at Pipeline, then take a shower at the Hamiltons’ and fall into Laird’s playpen for a nap. In other words, they were friends.
“That was before he inherited his money, the Spreckels fortune,” Bill chuckles. “Well, once he inherited his money, he moved off to Kauai, and he got this big house, and he got the boat, and he had Clark Gable’s jeep (Gable was his stepfather), and he had motorcycles, and he didn’t have anybody to play with. So he invited me and my friend Brian Kinley to come over and visit, and we ended up living with him out in Haena, and I just saw that Kauai had so much beautiful surf, and I loved the quietness and the privacy…you have to understand, man, I was this little kid that grew up pretty much alone on this huge beach in Laguna in the 50s, and coming to Kauai was like comin’ back home, I loved it.”
After about three months with Spreckels, he met a man by the name of Henry Tai Hook, who was instrumental in Bill’s transition from one kind of country to another. Hook was very influential in the remote north shore area. He was patriarch of a large local family; he owned land, and he liked Bill and Brian enough to let them build a house. “Yeah, you can build over there,” he told Bill. “I own over here, and I own this, and I own that.” It was in the era and neighborhood of the internationally known Taylor Camp, where hippies, societal dropouts, and consciousness researchers “hung out” for however long near the end of the road past Haena. And at the end of the road begins the serpentine Na Pali trail into Kalalau and the other north shore valleys.
Bill had been doing some construction work on Oahu, so on trips back to Oahu, he and Brian would raid construction sites and rummage around in the scrap piles. “Like a lot of the surfers out there, I was working construction,” Bill says. “Wahiawa was bein’ built; we broke ground on Mililani Town, working for Ben Hayashi Construction, and there were piles of good scrap—4′ x 8′ sheets of plywood, lumber—so we built a pretty nice little house up there.”
But he found himself missing JoAnn and Laird, “and I had a newborn child by the name of Lyon (born in 1969), so I came back to get my family and move ’em back to Kauai.”
They left the North Shore of Oahu at the peak of his surfing career—a reputable shaper and popular star of two successful surf films (three if you count the fact that Waves of Change was blown up to 35mm and shown in theaters as The Sunshine Sea), he was also, ironically, emerging as one of the very best competitive surfers in the sport. (“I competed,” he says, “but my heart wasn’t really in it, and that’s why I always got second, y’know?”) To complicate matters, JoAnn was a gregarious and very social person, so she went reluctantly into what she, a non-surfer, viewed as needlessly primitive conditions.
“It turned out it was too much of a Spartan existence to bring a family into,” he admits. “No hot water or anything.” But Joey Cabell owned a small but beautiful house up in the Wainiha Valley, and since he was traveling a lot at the time, he rented it to the Hamiltons. And then there was the situation of bringing two blond haole boys into one of the most intensely local neighborhoods in the Hawaiian Islands.
“Just being in that valley and living a real here-and-now kind of existence, kind of intermingling and melting into the fabric of that society out there, we just gradually became accepted, and the boys started elementary school here in Hanalei, and they both went to Kapa’a High School and learned to deal with the racial thing. I read what Laird said in some of his interviews, and I can see how it shaped his character in a lot of ways. It was a profound experience for all of us. Really, the interrelationship of being a white person here in an area where it was predominantly local. It was really interesting.”
Bill puts the guitar away and asks me if I want to hear a story. I nod. Bill’s a great storyteller. His depiction of accents—especially local pidgin—is nonpareil…and so you tend to hang on every word.
“In the 70s and early 80s, a few families controlled things out here. It was a reign of terror, of intimidation—rape and pillage, you name it. One family was the main problem; now it’s referred to as the blue truck era, because they all drove these blue pickup trucks with chrome rims and big studded tires—they were ahead of their time. It was a period known for its local hostility, and that’s where Kauai got its bad reputation.”
He says that one day, Lyon came home from school with a bloody nose, and Bill wanted to know who did it. When Lyon said it had been two bigger kids, brothers in the dominant family, Bill told Laird, who was big and quite experienced in these matters, to look into it. So Laird confronted the bullies, who then ran to their father, who was the baddest of the bad, and the kids brought back the message that their father wanted Bill to come see him at work at 3 o’clock. Instead, Bill went immediately.
“I was mad, and I wasn’t waiting for 3 o’clock.” So he showed up at the place at 11 or so, and there were somewhere between 3 and 23 sizable clan members around, and the father says, “I thought I told you 3 o’clock,” and Bill says, “I don’t work for you, and I don’t do what you say. If you want to talk, let’s talk—now.” The locals gathered around.
After a terse laying out of their philosophical differences, the father becomes directly threatening and the backup shows its willingness to join in, but Hamilton is not afraid and points out that such a big bad man shouldn’t need help. So the father punches out on the time clock and says, “Come with me, Hamilton,” and he leads Bill off into the woods. Not being one to follow far, Hamo pulls him around and says they can take care of anything right there. They square off, and the father pulls out a big knife, at which Hamo, true to his training from Gordon, takes off his T-shirt and wraps it around his hand, and says, “Okay, let’s go!”
“I was raised by a Hells Angel,” Bill chuckles. “Gordon taught me how to defend myself against knives.” Seeing the haole’s level of preparedness, the father briefly considered the situation and put away the knife and goes, “Hey, Hamilton, this should be between the kids, eh?” And Hamo goes, “Not when it’s two big kids on one little kid it isn’t. I don’t want my boy getting beat up anymore, understand?” And the father goes, “Okay, brah, I talk wid ’em, eh?” And that was that. From then on Bill Hamilton was given a wider berth and a greater measure of respect.
A couple of years earlier, Gordon’s body (a skeleton by then) was found up in the mountains above Laguna in his old stomping grounds. Apparently he’d shot himself: he was wrapped around a .22, and his head was missing.
The Lay of the Land and Sea
With few surfers and not a lot of construction going on, Kauai was a tough place to eke out a living for a family of four. Certainly he wasn’t going to make it if he continued as a dishwasher at the slow-moving Anchorage in Hanalei. So he scraped together enough cash to buy a used boat, some gear, and got into fishing. After all, he knew how to fish, right? But Hawaii is still a wild place, the most remote land in all the world, and Kauai is at the northern end of the archipelago. Huge natural forces range over the vast, untracked plane of the northern Pacific Ocean, and these islands are barely blips on their radar. Although the weather is generally benign, there are the huge swells and the occasional hurricane (like Iniki, which leveled Kauai in 1992) to remind you of where you are.
“I like to tell the Jehovah Witnesses this one,” Hamilton begins, ”because this was really the first time I’d ever prayed and had my prayers answered. I had a little boat—about a 12-foot boat—when I was first learning how to fish out here, and I left early in the morning and went up past Kilauea Lighthouse—about a four-mile run—and then I got into chasing the birds around, so I went out and out, and it was a beautiful day. I wasn’t thinking, obviously, but I was new to this whole deal, and I learned real quick. I was gettin’ kinda low on fuel, so I turned for home, and as I was coming into Hanalei, about two miles out, I ran out of gas. So I thought, ’No problem, I’ve a spare engine’—it was a little Seagull engine that carried a quart of gas, and a quart of gas would normally take you at least an hour before you ran out. So I took the bigger engine off and put the small one on, and it’s about noon, 12 o’clock, and I’m about two miles out. I motor on for about half an hour, and I make it in maybe three-quarters of a mile—there’s current that I’m not seeing, and the wind is kind of pushing me sideways. I run out of gas. I don’t have any oars, I don’t have any fins, I have nothing. So I jump overboard with a line attached to the boat, and I swim for three hours without stopping, and I’m further out in the ocean than when I started, ’cause the current was so strong. So I climb back in the boat. By now it’s about 4 or 5 o’clock. The sun is getting down toward sunset. I’m drifting down the coast, down off the Napali, next stop’s Niihau. If I miss Niihau I’m goin’ to Tahiti. I’ve caught one fish—about a 20-pound fish—and I have no water. I have a T-shirt, trunks…and that’s it. It’s looking pretty grim, and by now I’m about five miles out. And I wouldn’t be able to swim because of the way the current was, and because I also remembered Coast Guard Rule Number One: You always stay with your boat. So the sun was sinking lower, and I was getting pretty scared. Reality was setting in, and I was thinkin’ about Laird and Lyon and JoAnn, and how they’re gonna start to get worried, and nobody knows really where I went—I didn’t have a float plan. I was kind of surveying all the things that I didn’t do right, and I was goin’, ‘Wow.’ So I just sat for a minute. I put my head down and prayed. I said, ‘Jesus, you say ask and ye shall receive, and I am asking you with all my life to help me.’ And then I realized…
“I had these little bamboo outriggers for spreading the lines out from the boat so you can run more of them, so I tied my blue T-shirt on top of the outrigger and started waving it back and forth. I did that for about an hour, and the sun is setting, it’s gettin’ dark. And out of nowhere—and this is 1976 and nobody was out there in those days—there was a fishing boat comin’ up from Napali and a sailboat! And they both converged on me at the same time.” He laughs with revisited relief. “I tell the Witnesses that one. I tell them I know all about Jesus. That was the one time when I ever really p-p-prayed for my life,” he answers, the stutter a clue to the intensity of the memory, “because I knew I was a dead duck.”
There were other close calls, too, of course. Overall, the fisherman’s life is more dangerous than the surfer’s. Once he was very close to capsizing about 12 miles outside, another time he was almost pulled overboard by a big tuna and only saved himself by cutting the line at the last moment. But he learned his lessons well and grew more accomplished. He bought an 18-foot Glaspar, a nice, beamy, floaty boat with twin engines, and built a small cabin on it.
“I could take two or three people with me,” he shrugs, “but I like fishing alone. I love being out there and communicating with the ocean. Me and the boat. And it was the hunt. I was the hunter, and I made money doin’ it. I had that lifestyle for a while; it was really fun. I really enjoyed it. I did it for about eight years, on a semi-commercial level. Anyway, it’s just such a beautiful thing, really—to come home and arrive at the dock. It was like I was some Ernest Hemingway.”
Then his eyes sparkle for a moment with the onset of another story. “Y’know,” he says, “I was the big hero here for about a week. I caught three big ahi by myself. It usually takes three guys to get these things in the boat, and between every fish I had to sniff down my medication cuz I was having a full asthmatic episode.”
It was a lovely day and a friend had spotted a huge bird pile and called him. Hamo headed out alone as usual, four miles straight out of Hanalei. He was running seven lines, and all seven got hit. It was, he says, “the pin symphony (they’re pin reels) and everything’s just screaming: it’s one of the greatest noises—as a fisherman, it’s awesome!”
Everything on the boat was rigged for one-man self sufficiency, he could handle a big fish, no problem. Still, the first one took an hour. “With tuna, when you get ’em close to the boat, they start doing these tight circles and you can’t get any purchase on the line except there’s one part of the circle where they lose the strength of their head, so I’m standing and every time he does that, I get one crank. So I’ve got my gloves on, and it’s taking me a long time, but once I got him in, I got a good gaff on him, and I’m still strong, and the timing was right, and I just managed to drag him up over the gunnel, and dump him in the boat.” It was a big one: 165 pounds.
The next one took longer. He thought it was about the same size as the first. “The reel I’m using is 10″ in diameter and holds 600 yards of 135-pound test; it’s kinda like a big winch, and I’m sitting in a chair with the reel in a gimbal with my harness on to take the strain off my arms and wrists, and now I’m gettin’ kinda tired, and I’m taking my time, just kinda gettin’ in the rhythm of it, goin’, ’Oh, man, this is great!’ Kind of excited by the whole deal, and I’m gettin the fish close, and it sees the boat on one of its passes, so it makes this horrendous run.”
Bill says that in the days when they used coconut fiber for line, when the Hawaiians hooked one of these big tuna, the line would run out of the boat so fast it would smoke and even catch fire. So they named the fish ahi, which means fire.
“So this ahi’s making this horrendous smoking run,” Bill continues, “and I’m letting the harness do all the work, and the thing’s makin all this noise, and suddenly my strap breaks and the poles ripped out of my hands, and I’m watching the pole fly through the air, and as it’s going over the side, the reel hits on the transom and gets stuck there—just for a second—and I grab the butt of the reel, and now I’m in this tug-of-war thing, and this is a fighter—a-a-a-r-r-g-g-g-h-h-h-!”
So Bill gets the fish going in circles under the boat, works it to the surface, gets a gaff in it, and raises his hammer (an outboard drive shaft with a giant ice pick welded to top) to administer the death blow, and the fish moves, and he grazes it, and the fish makes a run straight down with a gaff hangin out of his face. He works it back to the surface again, tries again and misses, and the fish takes a second gaff and heads back down, and now there’s a lot of blood in the water and Bill’s worried about sharks.
Third time up, he finally makes the kill, but when he tries to bring the fish aboard, he sees how big it is—as tall and big around as Hamo himself. “By now I’m pretty tired, and my asthma condition’s comin’ on, so I’m sittin in my chair, and the fish is dead, and I have it cleated off, and I’m doing these breathing exercises, suckin’ on my inhaler, trying to get my strength up before the sharks show up.”
He slips a meat hook into the cheek of the fish and ties a line from it to the gaff on the other, so I can create a purchase for two hands, and I’m timing the swells as they lower the side of the boat, raising the fish at the same time, but I can only bring him up so far, this thing’s so fucking heavy, and I go back to my inhaler, wheezing like an old locomotive.”
He let himself calm down, then worked on visualizing Arnold Schwarzenegger, took a series of big, deep breaths, then went back to the fish. “I waited for the swell, then I let out this big primordial scream, and pulled, and right when I got it up to shoulder level, the vertebrae between my shoulder blades separated—I felt an audible pop—and I slipped and fell, and this fish landed on top of me with its mouth opened and all these sharp little teeth raked the side of my body from my breast all the way down to my thighs. It was a bloody mess.” That was number two: 230 pounds.
“So, I’m layin’ in the boat, and this big, slimy fish is layin’ on top of me, and the boat’s kinda listing now because there’s about 600 pounds all on one side, so I readjust, and I see that the other fish is still on. Fortunately, it was only 150 pounds; after you go through a 200-some-pound fish, that thing looked so small to me! It came over the side just like it was a small person. Plunk! So when I came in and unloaded my boat, a couple of guys come down and go, ‘Hey Hamilton, y’catch anything?’ ‘Yeah, I gotta couple.’ ‘Aku?’ Because that’s what everybody else was catching. ‘No, I got a couple ahi.’ ‘Ahi?’ And they look in and go, ‘Whoooooaaaaaaaa!’ It was the talk. I was really proud of that feat because it’s hard to do. I called Martinson, and I go, ‘Hey, Mark, you wouldn’t believe what I caught on a bamboo pole the other day!’”
The Three Stages of Drowning
Fishing can be dangerous, but this is not to say Bill hasn’t come close to the edge in the surf. In fact, he’s conversant with the three stages of drowning: “First it’s sparks,” he says, “then it’s black coming in from the sides, and then it’s a complete blackout.”
One of the blackouts came when he went over the falls on an 8-foot wave and was shoved into a cave at Pipeline, a narrow crack where he’d gotten turned around so his shoulders were hitting the bottom of the crack. “After all the turbulence had cleared, I had just enough time to turn sideways and come up out of the crack and get hit on the head with another 8-footer, so I never got a breath, and I went down, got pummeled and drug across the reef, and I was seein’ sparks underwater—Fourth of July was goin’ on in my brain—and when I came up, I was inside where the current runs sideways to the beach, and I saw the black coming in from the side. That happened to me once at Sunset, too.”
He was also hit in the head at Hanalei and came up vomiting water. “I think I got hit in the temple with my board, I don’t know, but I was under for a while, and I wasn’t right for a few hours after. It felt like I’d taken a heavy psychedelic drug—these mountains were shimmering. I had a concussion. That stuff is hard on the brain; you get senile too early.”
In the midst of it all—trying to make a living, learning to fish, dealing with the neighborhood, all the time shaping some boards—he was steadily becoming one of the very best surfers to ever ride the challenging surf at Hanalei and the other significant Kauai spots, especially Tunnels and Cannons, and he loves bodysurfing the stream-mouth at Lumahai: “That place is gnarly in the wintertime! Since I’ve been here, that place has eaten 20 people. It’s a great training ground, though. Laird loves it.”
But Hanalei is the spot. He calls it the “Phantom of the Opera,” because “it’s as heavy as any big-wave spot on the planet, but nobody knows. It’s a world-class wave like Waimea or Sunset, and what it lacks in height it makes up for in volume.” He recalls coming here in the early 70s and experiencing big Hanalei for the first time: “Terrifying,” he summarizes. ”I was dialed in on the North Shore; I was a pretty good surfer. I’d surfed Waimea and big Sunset. Big second-reef Pipeline, no problem. But the first time I surfed big Hanalei it had me shaking in my boots.”
He says other top surfers also find the place daunting, and few have excelled there. Why? For starters, it’s thick and it’s shallow, he says. “The take-off is like Waimea, the middle is like Laniakea, and the inside is like the bowl at Sunset on a northwest swell. It’s a full-commitment wave all the way—you can’t straighten off, and you can’t cut out.”
Joey Cabell surfed it well in the 1960s, and Titus Kinimaka does well now, says Bill, and a few local guys like Terry Chung, Celso, and Charlie Cowden have it wired. But when he considers surfers of note who’ve handled it well, it’s a short list: Rusty Miller, Cabell, and Mike Doyle and Chris Waite. And I think you’d have to add Bill Hamilton who still surfs it as well as anyone.
It is another afternoon on Kauai, and I’ve been in the room with Bill watching him shape a board. Now we’re outside, and he’s swatted off the poufs of foam dust that drift languorously through the mottled sunlight. He peels off the face mask, grins, and leans back against an old table.
“Where were we?”
“In the depth of the 70s,” I remind him.
Those were tough times, he says, for JoAnn and the two boys, too—back when the fishing was still new and none too profitable. Then Bill got the call he didn’t know he was waiting for.
“I’d been living kind of like in a hermit-like existence, and I’d stopped competing,” he says. “At first I was flying over to Oahu, competing, and coming back here. Then around ’73 to 74, I dropped out of the picture over there and pretty much devoted all my time to being here. And then (1976) I get this call through MacGillivray’s office that they wanted me to do a screen test up there.”
“Up there was L.A., and the screen test was for Big Wednesday. I read with Billy Katt,” Bill says, “but I’d never really been an actor. I look good on screen, but I don’t come across acting. Anyway, they said, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’” He laughs. As it turned out, he was the surfing double for Jan Michael-Vincent—a “distant double” because at 29 he already had a noticeable receding hairline. But in the process he enjoyed eight weeks in El Salvador. “This was when the Iran-Contra thing was starting,” he says. “The second day we were there, they found the ambassador to Guatemala down the road in a ditch with about 14 bullet holes in him.”
The place was called La Libertad, and they had a great time, although there were some tense moments when the El Salvador Army confused their elaborate equipment and activity with an armed invasion. Then JoAnn joined him for a few days. “I could hardly wait until she left,” he admits, “cause I hated it. And that was the beginning of the end of our marriage, because I was changin’, and I think she was changin’ too. We kinda both went our separate ways.”
There was one other role for Bill to play in the Milius movie. The script called for a lifeguard boat and the lifeguards in it to go over the falls on a huge wave (after all, it is BIG Wednesday!), and they wanted Bill to do it. At first, they were gonna pay $25,000 or so for him to do it, but push came to shove when the film was running way over budget, so Bill agreed to do the whole scene on a total budget of $5,000. It wouldn’t be over the falls where they’d get caught inside and bail—but it’d be a big wave, and it’d be at Sunset Beach. So it was a go, and Bill nickel and dimed the thing—bought a wreck of a boat from an old Portuguese guy for $150, trailer included, bought yellow lifeguard paint, got a 40-hp engine running on only three cylinders from Flippy Hoffman, and picked up some surplus khakis so he and a friend, Mike Meyers, would look like Malibu lifeguards. The scene came off epic enough to do the job, but Bill still laments that Meyers jumped off the boat a little too early. “It was weird, just sitting there in that boat watching that huge wall of white water coming at us.” The boat went straight to the bottom.
But perhaps the most lasting image of John Milius’ film was the Bear Surfboards logo. Conceived by Milius, the fictional icon combined a type style the director liked with a Jacobs-style geometry and the head of a stuffed bear from his Warner Brothers office. The original art for the logo was rendered by artist Terry Lamb.
According to Hamilton, toward the end of the filming, one of the film’s co-producers, Buzz Feitshans, suggested Bill should use the logo for a new surfboard line; he said he was sure Warner Brothers wasn’t going to do anything with it. Bill says he asked about the legal implications, but Feitshans assured him the company wasn’t interested in the Bear logo, so Hamilton returned to Hawaii with a copy of the logo he claims Feitshans gave him and started putting it on surfboards—at first his personal boards, then on others. After a while he had some T-shirts made up, but no big deal. Bill Hamilton wasn’t the only one using the Bear. Chuck Dent, Peter Townend, lan Cairns, and Randy Rarick all used it during the late 70s and early 80s (Rarick is still licensed to do so today in Hawaii and Japan).
And so life went on. The fishing was good at times, other times it was bad. But JoAnn was burned out on Kauai country living, and tensions on the home front ran high for a few years. Finally, toward the end of 1977, they decided to divorce. Bill got into fishing even more heavily then, and then that vein began to peter out in the mid 80s.
“What got you out of it?” I ask.
“Just the extent of it, the costs—the gasoline and the ice and the equipment. I’d blown up a couple of engines, had to replace one, there were big down sides to it. Plus I kinda got tired of the hunt. It’s a predatory thing, and I think I experienced a lot of great experiences out there, having caught big fish, and I think I just kinda used it up.”
After that, he and a friend started building houses—custom spec homes out here on the north shore. But no one would confuse that with something a great surfing stylist like Bill Hamilton would want to do forever and then…the Bear thing started really heating up, and he found himself with the time and resources—and the demand—to spend more time back in the shaping room again.
What goosed both the Bear thing and the demand for boards was a combination of a hot surf-fashion market, rekindled by the longboard renaissance, the booming new sport of snowboarding (which immediately identified with the Bear logo), and a licensing deal he made with two brothers by the name of Ochwat who had a company called Just Important People (JIP). By 1988 and ’89, they were doing a few million in Bear apparel, and Bill had himself a couple of relatively fat-and-happy years there, until he was shut down by a cease-and-desist order. For a while, his life was filled with lawyers.
It is the position of John Milius (and Warner Brothers, I assume) that Bill Hamilton never had rights to the Bear logo. Apparently lawyers for JIP saw the writing on the wall and paid out a lot of money to Milius/Warner Brothers (Hamilton says $400,000).
“I used the logo from 1978 to 1992, unimpeded by anybody, much less Warner Brothers,” Bill tells me. “It was only when I needed a copyright that I approached Milius. My lawyer had advised me that he could go to Warner Brothers to find out who owned the Bear copyright, but I opted for Milius because of our long-term friendship and the potential of making Big Wednesday II. When Milius found out that JIP and myself had created a $7 million clothing company, man, did his eyes turn green. He literally tried to divide and conquer my relationship with JIP by turning those guys against me. In the end we stuck together and lost a million-dollar lawsuit to a guy who had more money. I would like to tell the world that it was Noel and Bill, the owners of JIP, and myself that made the Bear logo a commercial success and no one else. If Milius was really smart, he should have taken the percentage we offered him in the first place and watched the royalties roll in. As it was, we built a successful business, until it was stolen away by a very greedy person.”
In the middle of all of this, in 1992, Bill found himself in California at his mother’s bedside. She was dying of lung cancer. “There I was,” he says, “Milius is suing me, and I’m watching television, seeing Hurricane Iniki coming toward Kauai, and my mom said, ‘Bill, dear, I know you have things to attend to.’ Those were her last words to me, and that was the last time I saw her.”
The details of the Bear “situation” and all the machinations behind it have been testified to in a number of conflicting depositions prior to the settlement. Suffice to say, there is little agreement between Bill Hamilton and Team Warner Bros. In the end, the brothers went away, former Surfer (and currently Longboard) magazine editor Paul Holmes is employed by Milius to handle licensing and other business for the much-shrunken Bear, and Hamilton feels bitterly burned by the whole thing, “Bill Hamilton backed the wrong side,” Holmes summarizes.
“I told Bill that Warner Brothers owns the Bear,” Milius tells me. “We’re not gonna give it to these creeps. I said [to Bill] it’s very clear which side you should be on.” He says he feels that Bill “betrayed us.” Ironically, Milius says he doesn’t own the Bear surfboard company. “I gave that to Leonard [Brady].” Brady, a creative albeit controversial figure in the North Shore surf scene for many years, has been an assistant to Milius for over a decade.
Both Milius and Brady remain anathema to Bill Hamilton. It’s an ugly situation. “It wasn’t a question of being on the wrong side,” he explains. “I offered John $40,000 for the copyright, but he went to Warner Brothers and got it for himself.”
Bill looks off into the jungle around his shop, letting it go for now. He asks me if I’d like to see the balsa trees he’s planted and leads me up into a clearing where a couple of tall, thin trees reach for the light above. On the way back, he picks up the thread: “Milius is the only guy in my life I’ve been so angry with I wanted to kill. I was so angry I grounded my planer for the first time in my life—three passes on a blank, and my negative energy just froze the thing. I came out here [he points to the punching bag hanging outside of his shaping room] and let all that negativity just go away. I had to.”
He’s trying to grow philosophical about it all, to be grateful for what he has, and to not get caught up in what might-have-beens. “It was my first swim in the garment industry in the surfing world, and it’s not exactly clean water. I learned a lot of bitter lessons on that one. It was literally from rags to somewhat riches and back to rags again. It’s a heavy business, but there’s money to be made. There’ll always be money to be made.”
“Which do you like better,” I say, asking the obvious, “rags or riches?”
“Oh, well,” he says without hesitation, “I like rags better. I don’t like talkin’ to lawyers every day.”
Help Me, Rhonda!
What carried him through—what bridged then to now—has been his second wife, Rhonda. Rhonda Elizabeth Reimers was born in Glendale, and grew up in Burbank, California. She came to Hanalei to visit her sister on vacation in 1972, and she stayed on to go back to school to become a nurse. While she was going to school she did some babysitting, and two of the babies she sat on were Laird and Lyon Hamilton. “I finally had to stop because Laird would drive me crazy,” Rhonda admits. “He’d get me in tears, because he was such a bad boy.”
After that, although they were all good friends, they drifted apart, and Rhonda eventually moved to Oahu to work at Kapiolani Children’s Hospital. But she came back to Kauai for a visit in 1981 and ran into Bill at a May Day program. This time there was a new recognition in both of them.
“We went out once over here,” Rhonda recalls, “and then I went back to Kapiolani, and Bill called me, but he didn’t tell me he was coming. He went to Molokai on business, and then he came over to Oahu, and he was going to surprise me when I got off work, but it was my day off, and I was really missing Bill; I was wishing he would call, and I went down to Ala Moana Beach Park, and I was sitting there on the beach, and it was raining, and I was looking out across the water thinking that Bill’s over on Kauai, and I’m here, and I wonder where this is going, and all of a sudden I felt something—really just this presence—and I turned around, and there was Bill. He had no idea I was at that beach; he went there to kill time until I was off work, and from that point on we were really…”
“We were connected from that point on,” Bill says, the thought. “You couldn’t even pry us apart. We were one person, actually.”
That one person is extremely self-sufficient, too. “I’ll tell you something,” Bill volunteers. “The only person I really associate with—besides my three good friends, me, myself, and l—is my wife, and when Laird comes I have some communication with him. And then there’s Lyon—I really relate to Lyon. Otherwise, I have a handful of friends who I cherish, and they know who they are. But by and large, through choice, I lead a life that is alone, and not in the terms of loneliness. I enjoy being able to create, and as you can see from my lifestyle, I have a choice in what I do with my life there. And I’ve got lots of work. I’ve got my surfboard business, and I still surf avidly, so…that takes up time.
“You can ask Rhonda, you can ask anybody, I like people. I don’t not like people, but I just don’t tend to frequent with people very much. I was alone a lot as a child, and I enjoyed being alone. I loved the solitude. I loved the solace, the peace.”
But, like the bear that has brought so much grief into his life, Hamilton does emerge from hibernation at crucial times. “I’ve always been the environmental rabble-rouser.” He’s been known to take the podium to debate land-use issues that threaten the north shore’s rural character, and he has been a critical voice in the controversy over the local commercial tours fleet, taking on the lobbyists for the expanding number of boats (and their associated noise and pollution) taking tourists into the Kalalau Valley area. The primary staging area for these expeditions has been the Hanalei Bay and River.
“They can convert places like this into marinas,” he says. “That’s what scared me right away. But I also saw that their stewardship of the land—this estuary area and how it was being commercialized—was so narrow-sighted and devoid of those generational time frames that I see, it pissed me off! So, once again I put on my armor and went out there and got nose to nose with heavy politicians.”
He spoke before the State Legislature in Honolulu, and one of the senators made copies of his speech and distributed them to his colleagues. What Bill basically said was, “I’ve come over here representing a majority of north shore Kauai citizens, but you’re listening to a small group of people who are trying push through a law behind everybody’s back, and I am part of a group that has seen some of their backhanded political moves, and we’re bringing it to your attention.”
At first the locals weren’t with him. After all, millions of dollars were being made in the community. But as Hawaiian sovereignty issues began to rise in the public consciousness, the situation was cast in an entirely new light. “These [sovereignty] issues came about at just the right time,” Bill says, “because suddenly they’re seeing these commercial boaters going out through the Hawaiians’ harvesting area, across their sovereign land, and the shit hit the fan. The Hawaiians went down there, held hands across that river, and boats couldn’t exit. The natives were pissed off, they were throwin’ rocks at the boats. The police came in, and then the local mayor backed down and kind of shut everything down. And now, the key to this whole thing is that the Hanalei River was made one of the 10 most pristine rivers in the U.S., and vice-president Gore comes and stays down here on the beach, right? So I see Gore and the Secret Service and the family paddling up here a couple of times, and then right after he leaves, Governor Benjamin Cayetano comes over, meets with the vice-president, and the day after Gore left, he shut down boating here forever.” [Except for seven parties permitted in legislation enacted just prior to Iniki.]
I ask him about Princeville, an exclusive and historically expansionist development crowding the bluffs above Hanalei town.
“You can never stop change, but it can be done with class, y’know. It can be done with some foresight; that’s the thing.”
Then I ask him if it’s possible to really be a citizen of the community and a surfer at the same time. His answer, as usual, goes deeper than I expect.
“Y’know, that’s an interesting question because the surfing lifestyle really lends itself to the very fringe of society—it’s such a free-and-easy lifestyle, and it has so much to do with individual freedom—an almost irresponsible kind of freedom. Especially I get that feeling from some of the old photos from the 30s—that there was this beach community, like at San Onofre in those days, and those guys went down there for weeks, and they lived and played music and drank and lived off the ocean and fished and dove and whatever. They kind of left the material world behind, and I think, in that sense, surfers are edge-riders. We’ve made a decision—especially with a person like myself—to live on the fringe of society and not be active citizens and participants in society, unless we want to. Like I’ve been politically involved on this island in a very strong and very verbal way, and I’ve gone right at the powers that be, to the very structure of society and questioned their value system. But, would I do that on an everyday basis? No. Like when the mayor asked me, ‘Why don’t you run for mayor?’ I said, ‘I’m too selfish.’ And y’know what? That’s what it is. The act of going surfing is a very selfish endeavor. It’s an experience that has nothing to do with anything except you and the ocean, period. And what you get out of that the value that you get out of that communication, which I see as a total positive reaction is what we come and give back to the human or social side of our lives. And I think that surfers generally do contribute positively to society in a lot of different ways. On the whole, if you look at the society of surfers, it’s a pretty positive group.”
I told him that Nat Young had told me something similar, that when you come home from surfing and you’re stoked, then everybody at the dinner table is stoked—your wife’s stoked, the kids are stoked, the neighbors are stoked when you talk to them because you’re stoked…
“That’s it,” Bill chimes in. “It’s a chain reaction.”
“Right,” I agree, “you’re spreading the gospel of stoked. When you think back, what did Christ do? He just went around and spread the gospel of stoked.”
“Well,” says Bill, “he had a direct connection to the cosmos. Sure he was stoked. There was no reason NOT to be stoked! He had a father that owned the estate.”
Down by the River
For the time being, Bill says, he and Rhonda plan to continue renting this little riverside haven. “I love it down here,” he says. “It’s kinda perfect for what I do in my life. There’ll be a time at some point to move onward. We have property up the coast; it’d be a great place to retire.”
But even as he says this, I can sense the inertia of his being right where he wants to be, after all that’s gone before. It’s a beautiful evening here by the river, and his son, Lyon, has joined us for dinner. He’s big and solid and darker than Laird, an echo of Bill himself, but almost—who can account for the weirdness of some genetic leaps—an echo of Gordon, too. Lyon’s living in a condo just up the hill in Princeville. Still, he doesn’t come around much, Bill says, but he’s always happy to see him.
Earlier, Bill read me a birthday card he received from Lyon a few years ago: “Well, I think after 37 years of surfing, my dad would give up, but no, every birthday he just keeps getting better. Your two boys are right behind you, and always will be behind you, so let’s be together as one. Happy Birthday, Dad. Love, Lyon.” Those words speak volumes about the father and the son…and the stepson.
Rhonda and Lyon seem to have a wonderful, witty relationship. She foils his dark side nicely with warm but direct repartee. Lyon plays a Jaws video for us, proudly shows us his incredible wipeout, where he was saved from utter doom by the fast-thinking team of David Kalama and Mike Waltze, who dragged him right out of the pit.
“Laird was the first guy to tow-in,” he says, “and I was the fourth.” I talk with him some about growing up out here as a kid, and he admits it was hard. And having Laird as a brother hasn’t always made it easy. “Laird’s an animal,” he says. “Dad’s a classic.” All the same, that steady pressure from Laird had much the same influence on Lyon as Gordon had on Bill.
After a while, Bill and I are on the subject of Laird again. “Somebody once wrote that big-wave riders are born and not made,” Bill thinks for a moment. “I don’t know who said it, but it’s really true. It takes a certain kind of psyche to really enjoy that.”
Over the recent years, Bill’s spent some time around Laird and guys like Derrick Doerner. He’s seen them ride the outer reefs, he’s built boards for those giant waves, and he’s even done a little smaller-scale towing-in himself. So he knows what he’s talking about when he says, “They don’t do it for any other reason than they really do love it. I’ve seen Laird and Derrick go out alone when it’s HUMUNGO, and they don’t care. They’re going to these phantom places that you can’t even see; there’s nobody to watch you. They’re doing it for their own love of it; they push the envelope, and they push the adrenaline button. They like the high they’re gettin’ from doin’ that. It’s an extreme place to be, and they have tempered themselves to face these big, destructive forces, to ride on top of ’em and be comfortable with ’em, and it’s really become their own personal sport. They enjoy it. And I know that, in the early Waimea days, there were a lot of guys goin’ out there because there was peer pressure or there were cameras on the beach or it was part of the ego game that they played on the Earth. But these guys, they have that spirit, that gladiator spirit.”
Both Bill and Rhonda are enjoying Gabrielle. Bill says she must be very tolerant because Laird’s dynamics are multifaceted. I ask him what he means by that.
“He’s a powerhouse,” Bill says. “He’s got a lot of sparks comin’ off of him all the time. And it’s kind of an energy that you have to have a certain toleration for because it’s different. With somebody that’s mellow, it’s kind of a given that it’s gonna be an easy situation. But when you’re with somebody that’s constantly on edge and driving all the time, you can get different notes there.”
“So, he’s like Gordon in a way?” I suggest.
“Yeah, I could draw up some parallels between the two. They both have kind of a warrior psyche.”
“It’s weird,” I comment. “I mean, Gordon wasn’t quite your brother, he was your half-brother, and Laird isn’t quite your son, he’s your stepson.”
“I find the whole symmetry of the entire connection, the parallels, are absolutely mind-boggling,” Bill admits. “Just the fact that I had a father who was a stepfather who had a son, Gordon, who was my half-brother who was really a lot like Laird, who is my stepson and half-brother to my son. It’s all so fascinating to me.” He pauses, considers, then continues.
“My father did a lousy job with my brother; he was an abusive stepfather. To me it was so unfair, it really was. So when I became Laird’s father, if anything, I became the opposite of my father by making Laird’s life more…I was disciplined with Laird, and I was stern with Laird, but I was never cruel to Laird, and I was never jealous. I did everything out of love with Laird, in the sense of love being strong and love being soft—kind of the double-edged sense—whereas my father was always hard on my older brother, and my older brother was always in trouble, just always in trouble. He was just one of those kids that was always in fights, always being chased by the police, always in and out of jail. He never had too much love for my dad, and it kinda pissed me off and made me mad that he was hard on Gordon. I think that was one of the reasons I was so willing to take on Laird at a young age—because of that injustice that I saw in some unknown depth of me.”
In the Shop
We’re back in his shop, and I’m looking over the racks of finished boards; I’m especially attracted to his “Missing Link” model, a “fun shape that echoes the best elements of those turn-of-the-70s boards.
“Y’know,” he says, “my little shop has survived two hurricanes. Business actually increased for me about a month after Iniki—there was a lot of insurance money floating around; a lot of construction workers, surfers with big paychecks, plus a whole lot of people surfing away their tensions. Post-disaster syndrome. It was a good time, in a way; a lot of human barriers fell.”
After hearing the Bear story, I ask him if he’s carefully secured his patent on the fabric-rail process. He laughs and says, “Oh yeah. I learned a lot through that about copyright and trademark law, so when I got my patent on these, I had all that legal source material and background, and I was able to get that patent within a couple years. It’s real important to cover your ass from the very beginning.”
Hamo’s selling boards all over the place these days, to kids on the island and in California, to guys in France, Canada, Japan (he’s been there about a dozen times, shaping and promoting Bear Surfboards, and then his own brand), on the East Coast and the West. He can shape anything and does.
“I can go old school all the way up to new school. With the old school, it’s more of a curve throughout the bottom, and more of a convex curve rather than concave curve, versus 90s stuff’s more concave than convex, and the rockers are a lot less. There was straighter nose rocker and maybe more tail rocker in the older shapes.”
He lifts a Missing Link carefully off another and looks it over. “What I’m after is a board that not only surfs off the tail well, but it surfs forward and trims and noserides. When we started, our boards didn’t necessarily have this high performance surfing off the tail that you do nowadays, but the boards rode incredibly well forward—trimming and noseriding—but because of all this shortboard influence, we know how to make the whole thing work out overall, so you get a good, snappy, real fast, responsive shortboard kind of feel on the back, but when you move forward, you don’t lose anything, you get into that older stage of trimming and noseriding. So those are where my boards are right now—a lot of concave in the nose, a lot of vee in the tail—subtle, real subtle stuff goin’ on through the middle of the board. The board would appear to an untrained eye as being real flat, but if you took a flat instrument to it, you’ll see a lot of continuing curve because water flows over curved surfaces much more efficiently than flatter surfaces; that’s just the nature of it—that’s the basic law of hydrodynamics.
“I remember Diffenderfer showed me a board with a little pocket of concave, right in front, in 1968, and I know that Dick Brewer had that goin’ on in some of his guns. And now all those theories that we’ve had around since before Simmons, probably from ancient Hawaii, it’s just the combination of the same stuff and how you relate to it as a creating person—how you relate that straight thing to that curved thing and how you’ve married it—that’s what makes shapers distinctive and their work what it is.”
He takes a broom and sweeps up a few mounds of foam dust under his shaping stands. “One thing I learned from Brewer: The ground transfers into your hands. If your feet aren’t solid, it shows in the shaped blank.”
Hamilton’s own quiver includes a 7-foot thruster and goes all the way up to a 13-foot paddleboard, “and I ride them all. Laird’s got me interested in these 12-foot longboards; he rides ’em like 9-foot boards cuz he’s got legs like tree trunks. They’re a lot of fun; they have that old glide like you felt when you were a kid. You get on that 12-foot board, and you take off on that wave, and it’s kind of like you’re driving an out-of-control bus. It has a great feeling to it.”
In the Jet Boat
The deep-throated sounds of the jet boat’s twin engines rumble up from the river. There’s a good hour to go before sunset, an hour-and-a-half till it’s dark. It’s going to be a beautiful sunset—surprise, surprise. Bill is standing in Laird’s 16-foot-long, camouflaged Yamaha Exciter, the one he uses to tow-in at King’s and the island’s other outer-reef spots. The five seats are inflated rubber, and there are hand-holds in a few strategic places, but none for the passenger in the middle-rear, which is where I sit, next to the driver’s seat. It’s my last night on the island, and Bill’s taking us for a spin. “Hey, son, can I borrow the keys to the car?” he jokes.
Laird keeps the boat and his camo’d jet skis a hundred yards upstream, in a small cul-de-sac below the land he recently purchased. He’s been clearing away the hau and mango for a house. In the meantime, when he’s on island, he and Gabrielle have been renting the place next door to Bill and Rhonda.
As we tool slowly down the green river, it feels like we’re somewhere in Southeast Asia, and our voices are low. Bill talks some more about Laird, and when he does it’s almost always with a touch of marvel, as if he can’t believe how it’s all turned out. But at the same time, there’s an incredulity over how everything fits together so perfectly, almost like a series of miracles.
He tells me how Laird got him into snowboarding three winters ago when he was co-hosting The Extremists with Gabrielle, and how the last time he’d been in the snow was in 1959 at Mammoth with Joyce and Dick Pettit, and he had to sleep in the car and nearly froze, and then the next morning he slipped out early, put on his skis and hit the bunny slope, but he didn’t know how to stop and crashed into the lodge. It went a little better with Laird, and now he’s so into it he screwed up a shoulder, broke two ribs, and mauled his left hip last spring.
I ask him if he’s gonna get into tow-in surfing, and he says it’s a strenuous sport. “I did it down off Napali with Laird one time, and I’ve done it out here from Hanalei. Nothin’ that big yet.”
I ask him where he thinks surfing is headed, and he considers. Then: “History repeats itself. This is a given. The cycles always kind of glance off each other as they come around full-circle. It’s like the longboard thing, which we thought was a lost art. It came back in and rejuvenated the surfboard industry, brought back a lot of our roots and our history, brought it to the forefront, which has been really neat, cuz I don’t ever want to see people forget that.
“I think that every generation should be aware and know of that great lineage that we travel in. I mean, we’re surfers, y’know? I’m proud to be a surfer. I’ve been a student of the game for so long, and, in a real pure sense, I love to surf. And I love everything that surfing has done for my life, in the sense of where I live—I mean, look at this place where I live, this is a beautiful environment, and I’m here because I love to surf. I’m one of the rare people in the world that gets to do something that they love for work. When I’m in the water and I see it put a smile on somebody’s face, that’s a gift, it really is.”
This reminds me of the other side of the coin. “What gives you grief in your life?” I ask.
“Lots of loved ones; lots of animals. We lost our 15-year-old yellow lab, Visa, that we’ve had since she was a puppy, and it’s probably one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced. It was like losing a child, because when Rhonda and I married we elected not to have children.”
“And what gives you the big joys?”
“Everything gives me a big joy,” Bill laughs. “Everything! Life! Being alive! What a gist, yeah? Daily. Daily breath. That’s what gives me joy—daily breath.”
The jet boat clears the rivermouth and Bill taxis it slowly out along the reef at Hanalei until he’s well out beyond the pier and clear of the boats anchored nearer shore. Then he throws back the throttle and blasts across the bay like a maniac, heading toward Lumahai at the opposite end of the big bay. There, he strafes along the beach, expertly whips the thing into a 180, then vaults back across the bay, leaping the boat from swell to swell until we reach a nondescript patch of water about a mile off the point at Princeville.
He eases off the throttle and trolls around. “This is where we were riding the boat last Memorial Day,” he says. “That was something! It’s about 60 feet here; the waves had 100-foot faces. Whew!”
Today, it’s only a foot or two, and he heads in toward Hanalei proper…just as one of the engines goes completely dead, and the other begins to sputter. Soon we are making only intermittent progress—less than a mile an hour—and I start to measure the swim I seem about to make. I can’t help but notice the sun is setting.
“Good thing it’s not as big as it was last time I was out here,” he says, flashing that big Hamilton grin. “If it was, we’d be dead.”
Ah, so many stories, but so little space and time. As usual, I’m late, and Mr. Pezman and crew have a deadline, and there’s so much I haven’t included. I didn’t tell about Bill’s trip to South Africa in the early 70s, his last encounter with Miki Dora, or skydiving on the occasion of his 50th birthday (inspired by his childhood mentor, Joyce Van Every, who did it), despite his great fear of heights. I also forgot to mention that his all-time favorite surfer is Barry Kanaiaupuni, and that he does’t make Laird’s tow-in boards—Dick Brewer does—but he’d like to, and he does make ’em for Derrick Doerner. He also shapes the odd surf ski for a guy who lost a leg to cancer, but he won’t do it for anyone else because they’re so damn hard. And that once he had Joey Cabell, Rusty Miller, Mike Doyle, and Miki Dora for dinner, and that Miki picked Bill as his favorite surfer in an old surfing magazine.
And these few comments, too, seemed worthy of inclusion, and this is as good a place as any:
“Bill Hamilton is a rare man today. He is a man of honor and principle, dedicated to honesty in his personal and business relationships, and devoted to the idea that there is nobility in these virtues. I feel exceptionally fortunate to be able to call him a good friend. He’s also a funny man. When traveling the world with him in search of filmable waves, he was continually finding the humor in a tough and depressing situation. When working on Big Wednesday, he kept spirits high and everyone grounded in the real world, rather than in Hollywood’s egomaniacal version of it.”
—Greg MacGillivray (Laguna Beach, California)
“Regarding Bill Hamilton, I really never knew him well, but I always liked his style. It was stiff but graceful, sort of like Kemp Aaberg, but totally unique, which was what I liked about him.”
—Nat Young (Angourie, Australia)
“I lived in La Habra, and in the summer I used to go to Dana Point as a kid. I hung out in the caves between Doheny and the point. I’d survive on three pieces of licorice a day. I remember Peter Van Dyke was the lifeguard on the pier. He was nice; he helped us out. But one of the biggest events in my life of surfing happened one evening there. There was no one out, which happened often enough just before dark when the tide was high. Once in a while Phil would come down, but this evening I was standing at the bottom of the cliff and the waves were only about chest-high, and I watched this guy surfing, and I’d never seen anything else like it. His style was so much better than Dora or Lance or any of them—he was so smooth and non-pretentious. It must have been about ’63, and it was amazing. I was washing my feet in a toilet like we always did, and my friend told me that was Billy Hamilton.”
—Gary Lynch (Cambria, California)
“I recognized long ago that we’re all spirit—we just have to not let our bodies get in the way of it.”
—Bill Hamilton (Hanalei, Hawaii)
[Feature image: Inside Sunset, 1974. Photograph by Bernie Baker]
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