On Tour with Jamie Brisick

Most of our dear readers hail from the Northern Hemisphere, where it is now high summer. Why, then, is this interview, conducted in the dead of winter, coming to light more than six months after it was recorded? Because we like to take our sweet time, that’s why. 

If we’re honest, part of the reason is that we’ve been working feverishly on our actual book and trying to game our WSL fantasy picks to vanquish our friends.

All that aside, whenever we’ve had the opportunity, we’ve tried to meet up with any of the surf-world luminaries that drop by New York to ask them probing questions about their pasts and future plans. Last winter we managed to corner writer, filmmaker and ex-pro surfer Jamie Brisick in a cutesy cupcake cafe in the East Village and grill him in detail about his days on tour. 

Jamie Brisick - Julien Roubinet MF2 (1).jpg

Although Brisick now lives in LA, there was a time when he turned his back on SoCal to sample life in the Big Apple. And like any sane West Coaster who can, he keeps a pied-à-terre in New York as refuge for when water-pocalypse finally renders the City of Angels uninhabitable.

Brisick grew up in the San Fernando valley in California in the late 70s. His home wasn’t close to the ocean, but at the time skateboarding was heavily influenced by surfing. “I would skate under a hedge like I was in the tube before I even knew what that was,” Brisick mused over coffee. He first surfed at Waikiki on a family trip, on a rented soft top board. With a background in skating, he took to surfing quickly and started getting involved in competitions, quickly racking up a sponsorship from Quiksilver. “The age division I was in it didn’t take a lot of work to get a first place trophy because we were all just kids trying to figure it out.” 

As soon as he realized there was a pro tour for surfing, Brisick devoted his obsessive high school years to a single goal. “All I wanted to do is get out of where I lived and get on the world tour.”

Young Jamie Brisick, via Outerknown

Young Jamie Brisick, via Outerknown

Brisick’s father was an academic whose house guests were university professors and heads of high school departments. His own social existence, meanwhile, came to center on the beach. “At that time, surfers really were dropouts. It was a radical lifestyle - counter cultural but not necessarily intellectual. My home was full of books but I was hanging out with these guys on the beach who didn’t work and smoked pot.”

With a string of contest wins in hand, and a sponsorship or two to his name, Brisick graduated High School in ‘84, turned pro in ‘85 and joined the world tour for 5 seasons from ‘86-91.

The germ of surfing’s world tour began in 1976 when the International Professional Surfers (ISP) organization created a ranking system for the world’s best surfers. In 1983, the new Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) created a system of joint ownership between the surfers on tour and the event organizers. By the mid-nineties, the ASP had devised the Dream Tour concept: ‘The world’s best surfers on the world’s best waves.’ In doing so, they reduced the number of events and moved the contest battlegrounds from urban centers that would guarantee a crowd to remote, powerful waves that would guarantee a spectacle, laying the foundations for today’s World Surf League (WSL) tour. 

"Mark Richards, who was four-time World Champion in the late 70s, was famously on a diet of steak and coca-cola."

Brisick’s time on tour bridged the period of rag-taggle, loose affiliation, and the time when pro surfing pulled its socks up and got serious. “It was a fantastic time in pro surfing,” Brisick said as we huddled around a small table in the corner, trying to ignore the icy blasts that washed over us every time someone opened the door. 

“Not a lot of money, but it was incredible fun, on the cusp of turning athletic, professional and businesslike.” The younger surfers bubbled with excitement at the chance to travel. Brisick summed it up as a group of “guys in their 20s thinking: ‘this is the greatest scam we could ever pull off...’” Meanwhile, senior tour members had started to draw inspiration from the disciplined rigour in other sports: thinking and training like real athletes. “They had always been naturally athletic,” Brisick said of his fellow pros, “but Mark Richards, who was four-time World Champion in the late 70s, was famously on a diet of steak and coca-cola.”

On today’s WSL tour, a surfer can earn enough money from a few years in the top 20 to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. The ASP offered nothing like this level of security, even to top tier surfers. “I was ranked 45th in the world but you were upwardly mobile. You wanted to think, ‘tomorrow I might beat Tom Curren and Martin Potter, then when I go back to Quiksilver to renegotiate my contract maybe I can get $5,000 a month instead of $1,000 a month.’”

Even with several sponsorships, Brisick was making barely enough money to make it around the world for a ten-month tour that included more than twenty stops in the US, Japan, France, Spain, Brazil, Portugal and 2 legs in Australia. Amazingly, Brisick didn’t find the financial pressure too uncomfortable. “For an athlete it's almost dangerous to have the mentality of worrying about tomorrow. The more you have at stake, the more likely you are to make it.”

"He went down to the beach at two in the afternoon, took off all his clothes and surfed the whole thing naked. He was so drunk he could barely paddle..."

Now a full time writer, Brisick learned much of his hustle, not to mention his calm in the face of a dwindling bank balance from his years on tour. “It was hand to mouth and there was this underground way of knowing how to get by,” Brisick said. “If you were in Hawaii you'd go surf Rocky Point because there were a lot of cameras and you might get a photo in a magazine. I had a photo incentive from Oakley worth about $500. In France you could sell your second hand boards for a lot of money. Next to the contest on the beach there was a kind of garage sale of pro surfers selling stuff. You'd sell your sunglasses to pay your hotel bill. I never put a cent away, but it made you resourceful!”

During the ASP years, the tour was financed by a patchwork of local sponsors rather than the short list of global brands that support today’s WSL. “Back then, anyone could sponsor a contest,” Brisick said. “Some restaurant in Durban came up with an event so we’d have one there. Oxbow wanted an event at Mimizan Plage in France, so we'd have one there. For us, the more events the better because it offered more opportunity to make some money.”

As may be imagined, there are stories... Many are frankly unimaginable in the context of the modern WSL’s media fanfare. “I remember once in Japan there was a contest on an island off Tokyo, with maybe a hundred people watching,” Brisick said. “If you didn't make it through you were just drinking beer until the end. The organizers decided to run an ‘expression session’ heat. They offered prizes like $500 for the best off-the-top, cutback or tube. Twenty guys would go out and go crazy, really try to lift the performance bar. They ran this right before the final so everyone was on the beach. Rob Bain, an Australian with a sort of irreverent club-contest mentality, had been drinking beer and sake all day. He went down to the beach at two in the afternoon, took off all his clothes and surfed the whole thing naked. He was so drunk he could barely paddle but he caught a wave and stood stiff upright, rode it into the shorebreak, got rolled in the sand and paddled out to do it again. You would never see that today. It would be so counter to the machine of pro surfing. And that wasn't the exception. In the surfer DNA there was a rebellious, protesting spirit about the whole sanctioned, organized structure. I don't know if that DNA is still in the 2017 world tour." We asked if there was any fun left in the tour at all. “I don't know, but it does seem more serious..." Brisick said. 

Jamie Brisick - Julien Roubinet MF1 (1).jpg

Nonetheless, Brisick is a fan of the modern tour format. It’s hard not to be, though sometimes the hype and glamour reaches a fever pitch that is a little too much like the NFL for our delicate European palates. Ah who cares, it’s only surfing. And now that Kelly’s broken his foot, my WSL fantasy strategy is starting to look a lot more threatening...

Follow Jamie’s writing on his website.

Get the latest via Instagram

Check out our new tees!

Words by Ed Thompson

Photographs by Julien Roubinet