Dave Kalama, Laird Hamilton and the Origin of SUP As We Know It

“If you want to know how we got here, you need to see where we came from”. Check out this awesome promotional video with SUP legend Dave Kalama, founder of Imagine Surf, where we can retrace the history of the venerable SUP rider in the discipline.

Born and raised in Newport Beach, California, Kalama first took to the water and learned to surf down by the locally famous dive bar, Blackie’s By the Sea, near 22nd Street. At high school age, he moved up to Mammoth Mountain, near the border with Nevada, where he began to take up ski racing. Believing that he took up the discipline too late to become a serious athlete in the field, he ultimately considers himself lucky that his career in ski racing never took off, as it meant that he would later leave for Maui, and the rest, as they say, is very much history! He recalls how, on one occasion, his parents called him from Kauai, Hawaii, asking him if he’d like to join them there, offering to buy him a ticket. The next day he was on a plane and Hawaii-bound. The plane was destined to stop in Maui, before heading on to Kauai, where he was headed. Peering out the window, he could see all kinds of watersports activity, but above all, windsurfing, which he was just getting into at the time. Next to the baggage area outside, Kalama noticed a flagpole, with the flag billowing frenetically in the strong wind. At that moment he knew, this is where he belonged.

On his return home, he was a man on a mission. He finished school and sold everything he owned. And then, on 2 July 1985, Kalama landed on Maui and, to use his own words, “headed down a new path”. Pursuing his passion for windsurfing, he gained sponsorship and was ultimately in position to make a living from windsurfing. Smiling, he says that he’s managed to “avoid a real job” ever since. He fondly recalls all the connections he made in the windsurfing world. Bonding with his peers, Kalama found himself with a band of like-minded types. People who loved to be in the ocean, to experiment and get away from the madding crowds. Together, they began to try out tow-surfing. He describes it as a “strike of lightning” that hit them all. Nobody had anticipated how much fun they would have with it, but more than this, the opportunities it would create for them. Though it started rather innocently as a means to have fun, it became gradually more serious over time, which was dictated by the surf. At some point, the realisation came that they were no longer simply playing, but rather, they were pioneering a new form of big wave-riding.

Being forerunners, there was no one to look up to and to learn from to, so to speak. They had to learn the hard way, through trial and error, and ultimately create it all themselves. The key was having an open mind. Not being afraid to fail and always maintaining that will to discover and experiment. Through this spirit of creativity came the innovation of foil-boarding, to be followed by stand up paddling, which the group would refine. Things really began to happen around 1995, when Kalama and Laird Hamilton, as they habitually surfed away on their 12ft longboards over waves about knee-high. He remembers coming back from canoe practice one day and returning to his truck. For whatever reason, he grabbed two canoe paddles, throwing one to Hamilton, and they were on their way. “The peanut butter had met the jelly”, as he puts it.

They’d previously heard tell of guys doing something similar in Waikiki way back in the era of The Duke. Never did they claim they’d “invented” it, in a manner of speaking. For them, at this point, it was no more than another way to enjoy the ocean… but when they started to actually develop the first downwind boards, that’s when things became really serious for Kalama. “I went all in,” he recalls. He remembers when they made their first 16ft prototypes and how expensive they were at the time. He would while away the hours with little 1ft models, trying to figure out what form was the best to adopt for the real thing. Concave? V-bottom? Round? Flat? Testing them out, he admits, “I probably looked like the oldest 8 year old on the beach”.

But it was not in vain. Safe in the knowledge of what was the best shape to go for, they could more assuredly move ahead with their first set of prototypes, which were much faster than anything they had ridden up to that point. Not only was this the beginning of downwind stand up paddle, but this was the birth of SUP as a legitimate sport in and of itself. The spirit of SUP, since those days, says Kalama, has always been relatively competitive, but above all inclusive. Among competitors and all participants alike. For this, Kalama (alongside Hamilton) is unafraid to claim some degree of responsibility for instating this open-minded and inclusive mentality in the world of SUP, which continues to this day.

As time goes on, he feels it is no less than his duty to share everything he has learned with the wider SUP community, hence the camps he organises, the tips he publicly gives, the coaching he takes part in and, above all, how he tries to inspire this passion for SUP in others. In the early days, one of the most enjoyable elements was the creative process behind devising the equipment that would contribute to the betterment of the sport. Partnering with companies that share this passion for improvement, for augmenting technical prowess and for creating better equipment stems from this. After all, at the end of the day, stand up is ultimately about getting better and “sharing the stoke”.

About the Author

Mathieu Astier

Mathieu is the hyper-active founder of TotalSUP and a multilingual online marketing veteran with more than 20 years of experience working for top international internet companies. His love-at-first-sight for Stand Up Paddling in 2013 led him to build one of the leading online media dedicated to SUP in English and French and to turn his family lifestyle towards the ocean.

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