I'll be the first to say this is a pretty damn good gig. Surf trips, while nobody can ever say they get their fill, are something you can get paid for. That alone is a dream and a blessing. But what I’ve learned to enjoy more than the endless pursuit of great waves, or perhaps the very reason I enjoy chasing them far and wide in the first place, are the people you’re on the ride with.
One Sunday afternoon in February, still enjoying the full body tan from a Central American jaunt and still high on life from a week on the North Shore before that, I opened my email. “Can you come to New Zealand for two weeks?” was the gist of the message, to which I fired back an immediate “duh.” No bother asking for the details. Who I was going with or why wasn’t important. It turned out the trip would be for a contest known as The Ultimate Waterman, a series of events over a little under two weeks, eight athletes from all over the world and of varying expertise, all spanning both of New Zealand’s unique islands. I was told we’d have the chance to see more of the country in those two weeks than many people who live here and I’d be experiencing it all alongside a pretty diverse lineup of watermen: Kala Alexander, Manoa Drollet, Mark Visser, Caio Vaz, Zane Schweitzer, Connor Baxter, Danny Ching and Daniel Kereopa.
My assignment was fascinating. For each event I’d spend part of the day or even just a heart to heart conversation after dinner with one of these men, learning how and why they’d earned the opportunity to be named the world’s best all around waterman. Helicopter rides on South Island, afternoon surf sessions and countless shared meals later, our conversations and time together were less about their talents or what they’d accomplished and more about who they are as men, what they want for the world, for themselves, for their families and how a life devoted to the ocean somehow built a foundation for it all. You can imagine there were some pretty eye opening ice breakers thrown in there. Ultimately they all confirmed my original point about traveling: the company you keep trumps the destination. I learned a lot from each of these extraordinary people (and honestly, the crew making it all happen behind the scenes) and came home to a new relationship with that ocean we all love so much. It would be pretty hard not to spend time with a group of people who have dedicated themselves to it and come home seeing it all through the same lens. And I’d say this list could easily span into double digits, but here are just a handful of lessons taken from two weeks in one of the most beautiful places in the world, alongside eight of its most accomplished watermen.
What you find when you leave home isn’t as important as what you bring with you.
“Traveling” is kind of a funky phenomenon these days. The entire globe is more accessible and somehow bigger at the same time for a plethora of reasons, so for some the opportunity to see and find something new feels like an avenue for self discovery. It’s an escape rather than a reality. And many look for that something outside of themselves in a far off land.
For those whose livelihood is, or at one time was built around globetrotting it’s easy to see how quickly these people look to give wherever they go. Most of the athletes on this trip talked about making a conscious effort to seek out a non-profit at every destination, typically creating some kind of event around a beach day. Here, it was how the entire event kicked off, with the Mauli Ola Foundation holding one of its surf days. All of the children participating battle cystic fibrosis and some of them enjoyed their first ever surf thanks to a handful of professional athletes dedicating their day to pushing kids into waves, high-fiving and giving a little love. Some leave surfboards behind at the end of every trip, some even organize their own impromptu surf lessons with locals, some make it a family business, but the one consistent practice with each of these gents was a devotion to giving something of themselves over all else.
You just have to do it.
Mark Visser has a pretty amusing story of his first time surfing Jaws. Well, either amusing or devastatingly scary, depending on how you choose to look at it. But the guy puts into words something I think all of The Ultimate Waterman athletes live each day:
“Life is meant to be lived. You’re not here to just be wrapped in bubble wrap. You’re going to fall over. You’ve got to get back up.”
There is some level of crazy in each of these men. Something most people watch them do and think “hell no.” Zane Schweitzer is all around wild and crazy, so when you see him in the ocean you’re not surprised he has the same demeanor and energy on land. Manoa Drollet is the antithesis of that, soft spoken but just as warm and inviting. Meanwhile, he’s become synonymous with one of the most dangerous waves on the planet. And the common denominator between these men and all the athletes in between is that they simply go for it. Sure, there is a calculated and thought out approach to everything they do in the ocean, including riding big waves, but at some point they’re all just looking for an opportunity to push the needle a little further and stretch their limits a tad more. We all think we have a set threshold, and there are few more obvious places to crash into them head on than in the ocean, but at some point you just have to send it. You might be surprised.
This is fun, dammit!
This one should be more obvious than it is. We all love the ocean and we find ways to enjoy it. Surfing, paddling, sailing, diving, fishing; the list is endless.
“Brah, my day’s not over until I’ve done at least three different things in the ocean,” is how Zane Schweitzer put it at one point. Just like everybody else in The Ultimate Waterman he’s not a one trick pony getting his waves in like it’s a daily chore and surfing the same board head high or not. Heck, Danny Ching is a world class athlete who chooses not to surf because we (surfers) take the fun out of it. And he has a point. Why bother if you’re not having fun? And to top it all off, why only enjoy it in one way, shape or form?