We met Tom on a warm, grey October morning, in the parking lot of an organic supermarket in his home town of Point Pleasant Boro, New Jersey. He was waiting in his painstakingly restored chianti red 1971 VW camper when we rolled up in my battered Honda Civic. Although Tom's van is a work in progress, the attention to detail is top-notch, facilitated perhaps by a fairly easy going pace of life as one of the East coast’s few professional free surfers...
Like most of today’s free surfers, Tom cut his teeth in the fiercely competitive surf contests up and down New Jersey. Both his parents surfed while he was growing up and he first picked up a board aged seven. His father turned 59 the week before our interview and apparently “still rips”, so Tom continues to have something to aspire to.
“Having that positive influence on surfing was a big help. My mom surfs also. Both of them competed - my dad did ASP East which was the longboard circuit. My mom did NSSA and they were both East Coast Champions. They loved it so why wouldn't I? I'd be down the beach with them, going to contests and so on.”
“I surfed recreationally probably until I was sixteen. I don't know if it was just because I wanted to prove that I could be at that level competing with other people - I'm not sure what gave me that drive. But I started a little late doing the competing. I am glad, because I might have burned out. I did get burned out in the end, but I'm still surfing. I started competing in amateur events when I was sixteen. Then I did the NSSA, graduated high school in 2006 and then I became professional where I started doing the ASP junior pros and the WQS in the performance shortboard groups. I started doing the contests and you have to ride shortboards. I was surfing twin fins, but to compete you had to change to thrusters. I felt my creativity was stunted. I want to ride the boards I want to ride when I want to surf them!”
“There are guys in the competitions who are creative and gnarly, but there are also guys who are kind of robotic. They know that a cutback is the safest route on this wave, even though I want to try an air, or try the biggest turn I can and fall. You see guys trying to surf a lower percentage than a hundred percent all the time.”
Ed: Everyone seems to have the same problems with events - the competitions have to be structured and you’re trying to fit your surfing into this box...
Tom: Totally - I kind of went off of what my dad told me when I was younger. He said if you're ever not having fun, then you need to stop. I was [competing] in Virginia beach and North Carolina, even California, when the waves weren't good. It's big business, it still rolls on. But, how can you decide who is better in fifteen minutes? You really can't.
Ed: What's the worst thing you've experienced in competitions?
Tom: The thing is, I think it's very humbling. On the QS, there are guys like Dane Reynolds. I had to surf against Owen Wright in one heat. He dropped two nines in five minutes, so then everyone's competing for second place. We were all in the same region - there are guys that stand out, but in the competition it comes down to whoever gets that wave or not.
Ed: Have you ever had to really fight for a wave and snake someone then feel shitty about it after?
Tom: I'm usually on the business end of that kind of thing. I'm the one that gets snaked! I've had two guys box me in, where two guys were sitting on top of me, friends, sitting on both sides of me in Newport, teaming up. I'm not going to name names, but they took first and second, and I got third because they didn't let me get a wave. It's like is this surfing or is this something else? Surfing and competition are two separate things. I guess that kind of part of it, the mental aspect where people are trying to intimidate you, trying to get inside your head.
It's a form of art really, it's open to interpretation. It's not like a goal or a basket. When I watch competition surfing and I don't like someone's style I feel like: "That wave was a six" and they get a nine. You know, it's subjective!