I originally met Jamie as he grew up in Southern California with a close friend of mine, who thought he might be a great guest for the show. And he was, both contemplative and fun to talk to.
Jamie told me how he discovered his lifelong passion for surfing at an early age in Malibu, and before long he was traveling the world on the pro surf tour. After years of surfing on the tour, he then began writing about the tour, which lead to the next stage of being a surf journalist and his work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Surfer's Journal.
And in our discussion, Jamie talked about the amazing times of what it was like to be a pro surfer and the demands that it made, how surfing the ocean helped him through a tragic time in his life, and an incredible insight he had one night while chasing waves in the Maldives.
Scuba Diving, Free Diving, Ocean Environmentalism, Surfing, and Marine Science.
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Jason Elias: (00:09)
Hi and welcome to the Big Deep podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean, people for whom that connection is so strong it defines some aspect of their life. Over the course of the series, we'll talk to all sorts of people. And in each episode, we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. Today, I speak with a pro surfer and surf journalist who through his time in the ocean has seen more of the world and himself than he ever imagined possible. Hello, this is your host, Jason Elias. Welcome to the Big Deep podcast.
Jason Elias: (00:52)
In today's episode, I speak with former pro surfer, surf journalist, and Fulbright scholar, Jamie Brisick. I originally met Jamie as he grew up in Southern California with a friend of mine who thought Jamie might be a great guest for the show. And he was both contemplative and fun to talk to.
Jason Elias: (01:09)
So when we spoke, Jamie told me how he discovered his lifelong passion for surfing at an early age in Malibu and how before long he was traveling the world on the Pro Surf Tour. Then after years of surfing on the tour, he began writing about it, which led to the next stage of his life, being a surf journalist. And his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Surfer's Journal.
Jason Elias: (01:29)
In our discussion, Jamie talked of what it was like to be a pro surfer as a young kid and also the demands that it made on his life, how surfing the ocean had helped him through a tragic time in his life, and an incredible insight he had one night while chasing waves in the Maldives.
Jamie Brisick: (01:43)
My name is Jamie Brisick. I grew up in Los Angeles. I started skateboarding before I started surfing, but at that time, which was early to mid-70s, the skate style was a very surf style. It was like skateboarding was essentially a surf surrogate. It was what you did when you couldn't get to the beach for whatever reason or the waves were no good. So I found my way into surfing probably around 11, 12 and went on to become a professional surfer. And it's been probably the biggest thing in my entire life.
Jason Elias: (02:12)
So you originally started as a skateboarder in the 70s in Santa Monica, California. And I know there was a stronger connection between skating and surfing at the time than there is now. How did you go from riding empty pools in LA to finding a deeper connection to being in the water?
Jamie Brisick: (02:34)
The skateboard style that I did, you were riding down the sidewalk and if there was an overgrown hedge, you would duck low like you were in the tube as if you were surfing. And I didn't even really know what the tube was because I'd yet to get on a surfboard. But then I started watching a lot of surf movies and then my parents were kind enough to get my brothers and I subscriptions to skateboarder magazines and there would be pictures of surfers in there. So it was all kind of looming.
Jamie Brisick: (03:00)
It was actually a trip to Waikiki. It was a package deal. My parents didn't have a ton of money. And we stayed right at Waikiki Beach. And my two older brothers and I rented boards and we paddled out. And as soon as I got into the water, we just got the feeling.
Jamie Brisick: (03:23)
Even from the very beginning, it was so incredibly fun to do it, but there was almost this afterglow that would happen. And I remember it vividly being back at the hotel and being sunburnt and having this tired feeling that you get from seawater. And I think anyone, whether a diver, body surfer, surfer, you get this briny, worked-over feeling. And then just having almost the levity of having been on the wave, sort of weightlessness feeling, that whooshing along. And then the next day going, I'm going to chase that feeling again. And that was how the whole thing got under my skin.
Jason Elias: (03:56)
So you started surfing in Southern California and then caught the bug in Waikiki. But you eventually found your way to the World Pro Surf Tour. Can you speak to that journey, how it happened and what it meant for your life?
Jamie Brisick: (04:11)
Yeah. Well, it's interesting that period in history, surfing it had a much more sort of countercultural tone to it than it does today. My parents were almost afraid that we were getting involved in surfing because we'd go down to the beach and there'd be these vans and the door would open and there'd be some wafting smoke coming out. And then this long-haired, scraggly guy would step out and he'd pull his board from the back of his van. But what's interesting is I started surfing at Malibu and they had a contest there. It was in 1979, Sunkist Pro, and it was a professional event with surfers from around the world. And essentially, all the folks who I'd been admiring in the surf magazines were suddenly on the very beach that felt like our beach. And then I learned that there was an amateur circuit that went around California and there were these contests every weekend. And then I was going up and down the coast chasing the contests.
Jamie Brisick: (04:59)
I won a lot of contests. I became the West Coast Champion of the U.S. three years in a row. My sponsor was Quicksilver, among other sponsors. I worked really hard, and then suddenly it was okay, this is on, we're going to buy you a ticket to Hawaii, then we'll get you to Australia. And then I went to all the great surf breaks, jumping on a plane, chasing an event in Rio, then down in Sao Paulo, then we'd fly over to Japan for an event, then South Africa, then the Euro leg. I mean, it was incredibly fun. What was interesting is it did bring a level of discipline. It was as if before we were free dancing and then suddenly it was we have a coach telling us where our feet are supposed to be at that time. So competition put the stakes up to what had been so fun and playful. It got me around the world, but at a price I guess.
Jamie Brisick: (05:46)
So I had a five-year career, and then I started writing about surfing and I traveled around the world doing that. And as soon as I sort of put down my sword and picked up my pen, I was able to get to know people and go to long dinners and not be so much like I got to get up at 6:30 and do my training because I'm trying to win. Having written about surfing for many, many years and been in it for as long as I have, I feel so fortunate to have found something I'm so passionate about because I know a lot of people have gone through their entire lives and never found it. But my great years surfing around the world, which I wouldn't give up for nothing, were at the expense of a four-year college and having that foundational thing of a great education.
Jason Elias: (06:22)
Well, that was very well said. And I think a lot of people that listen to this show and that are connected to the ocean can understand that feeling of needing to be there. When you went pro, I am sure there was an intellectual sense of having to study the wave so that you could step in and compete at the highest levels. But could you speak a little bit more about that intuitive, intimate connection you had to getting on the water?
Jamie Brisick: (06:50)
When I think back on it now, that's sort of where the most beautiful part of it resides. Surfing is very much like a dance, every wave you take off on is a new kind of dance floor or a new song or a new beat that you need to move with. So it's always changing. And that is both the biggest challenge but also the most fun because it's all improvisational. You never know what the wave's going to do, so you jump up and you're adjusting accordingly. And as you get better, you're doing turns and you're moving your board through the wave and you're trying to flow with the wave in a certain way. You have a relationship with a break. It's not an active thing on your part, oh, I'm going to try to remember what I did when I was surfing. You're doing that as you might be walking up the beach talking to your friend, but you're looking over their shoulder and seeing it.
Jamie Brisick: (07:54)
I grew up in Los Angeles. My main spot was Malibu. And the relationship I had with that spot was so deep. The tide changes every day from low to high. And I knew exactly what that felt like. The tenor of the wave was zappier and faster at low tide, and then at high tide, it was a little fuller and moved a little slower. And then there's the direction of the swell. A winter swell might come from the north or the northwest, and it has a certain feel as opposed to the south swells that come up the coast in the summertime with warmer water, and they have a different feel in the way in which they wrap themselves around a point at Malibu.
Jamie Brisick: (08:48)
It was as if it had inhabited me in some way where there's absolutely nothing I can possibly think about other than this. And having been into it for so long and having a long relationship with it, and at times it's been a love-hate relationship with it, but I feel grateful to have, I don't even want to say I found, this thing found me and I got no choice in the matter. I've just got to follow this thing.
Jason Elias: (09:23)
Wow. Well, that was beautifully said. I'm curious if there was any changes to that relationship once you were on the Pro Surf Tour.
Jamie Brisick: (09:32)
When I became a pro and I went out on the world tour, what was really cool is you had to sort of instantly familiarize yourself with these breaks. And many of them were the breaks read about all your life in the surf magazine. So there was Jeffreys Bay in South Africa. There was Pipeline in Sunset Beach on the North Shore. There was Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast of Australia. Kind of this endless summer lifestyle that we got onto.
Jamie Brisick: (09:55)
It was very like a heady thing when you're 18 or 19 and you're getting your surfboard shape, something in the rocker or something in the rail, something in the design of the surfboard to go ride this wave on the other side of the world that you've heard about and watched in films all your life. And then to go and try to build intimacy with that place and the density of the water, the salient content of the water, the prevailing winds that happen in that place. That I became attuned to on this subconscious level. Just looking at it and without even conscious thought, it was pure feeling, walk up the beach, look out to the sea, read that in a second, and then go out. And all my nervous system and fast-twitch muscles already sensing that's how you need to move across the wave.
Jamie Brisick: (10:41)
At the time, I was just doing it as we did. But when I look back on it now, I think, God, what an almost feral way to live. It's like this raised by wolves archetype. It's sort of like a sea mammal version of that where you figure out these waves to move through the water as gracefully as possible.
Jason Elias: (11:00)
Very interesting. So having been a competitive surfer for so many years and then spending many years since then writing about it, have you come to any insights about the meaning or importance of surfing, whether for the world or for yourself?
Jamie Brisick: (11:21)
I'm kind of conditioned to say there is nothing important about surfing. It's playful. It's fun. We're like frolicking seals. The swell comes from way off, the wave breaks, we ride it for a few seconds. Mickey Dora, a great surfer, once famously referred to it as these waves are these fleeting mirages and we chase them. And that's the thing we surfers do. We're all about getting these short few seconds of glory across a wave that will instantly disappear and go back into the ocean never to be seen again. But the more honest reply would be it is one of the greatest things in every possible way. And it seems to me that being in the ocean, the whole experience of it I can't believe the levels of well-being that I get from it.
Jamie Brisick: (12:31)
Some years back, my wife passed away suddenly. And I was thrown levels of grief, sadness, depression that I'd never, ever imagined I would know. Nothing gave me joy. And the one thing I did, the one in some strange instinctive way, somehow I had it in me to get myself into the water most days. Going in surfing every day gave me that lightness. Just catching a few waves and riding across them, gave me a moment of reprieve from this heavy burden of sadness. Paddling out into the water and leaving all your terrestrial concerns behind, getting to just leave that onshore, and going out and getting the wash of the ocean, it's been the greatest thing I've ever experienced.
Jason Elias: (14:07)
Well, thank you for being so openhearted about that. And I am sorry to hear about your wife.
Jamie Brisick: (14:12)
Jason Elias: (14:13)
And I think what you're talking about echoes something most everyone on this show has talked about, which is getting in the water has in some way profoundly changed their life for the better. And I know that's even true for me. So with that, is there one story, one moment of being on the water you could point to as having some deeper meaning for you?
Jamie Brisick: (14:43)
I have thought about this a lot, and this is unquestionably the one for me. It was about three years ago, I was on what we surfer's call a boat trip, which is essentially accessing waves by boat. So you pull up on a break and you jump off the boat and you paddle in to surf it, which is very different to looking at a spot from the land and arriving via the beach. So we were on a boat trip through the Maldives. There was about six of us. The captain was an Australian guy who'd explored the Maldives at length and he knew all the spots. And we were leaving it to him to take us to the best surf.
Jamie Brisick: (15:23)
We were actually shooting a surf film. And we fell into this great groove, going from one break to the next. And our captain at the end of the day, he'd say, "Hey, I'm looking at the swell and I think it might be better, so we're going to go southwest here and we're going to go to this little island and I know the spot." So we ended up at a break that was on a tiny uninhabited island. You could walk around the thing very quickly. And on the end of it was this reef break and a wave that broke absolutely perfectly. It was almost as if it were made by a machine. The kind of shape that most surfers are looking for, just imagine zipping up your jacket. The way the zipper goes up, that's the wave sort of peeling. And this wave did that perfectly. And it was very, very hollow. And we'd surfed it all day. We realized what a great spot it was and had an absolute blast.
Jamie Brisick: (16:24)
We surfed till dark. And it was kind of beautiful with the light on it and glassy, glassy, oily glass water. We started making some food, and we were trying to decide whether we would stay there and surf it in the morning or move on to the next break. And our captain said, "You know what? Let's just stay here. This is good." So we stayed exactly where we were, which was anchored very close to the actual break. So we had dinner and then we all kind of drank our beers and had our usual surf chat. And then we went to our various bunks. But I'd learned early on in the trip being in the Maldives on this boat it was best to sleep on the roof deck and look at the stars.
Jamie Brisick: (17:14)
So I was sleeping under the stars looking up at the southern sky. I would inevitably get that very same afterglow from the surf where it was all kind of moving through me. And I realized that the waves that we'd been surfing that day, that kind of zippering thing was this perfect sound. And it was almost the sound of tearing paper. And then you'd hear the one behind it. There was this incredible sense of distance. So you would hear the wave first break further away. And then it was breaking into the channel, which is where we were anchored. So it would get closer and closer. So it would get louder. Then a bigger set of waves would come. And so it was almost like the audio levels had turned way up and you'd hear it much, much louder.
Jamie Brisick: (18:17)
And then shortly after, the boat would rock in exact accordance. And it was as if the very waves that we would've been riding, we were riding via the rocking. And I thought to myself, my life has been riding waves, hugging the shoreline, so to speak. Being in that quiet place of a meditative headspace, I was able to feel the rhythms of the ocean. And I thought I've surfed my entire life. Somehow I felt I'm probably surfing more right now laying in this bed on a boat in the Indian Ocean. This is almost bringing me closer to the source. And that was kind of a profound experience.
Jason Elias: (19:19)
Finally, we end every interview and every episode with a single, open-ended question we ask everyone we talk to. What does the ocean mean to you?
Jamie Brisick: (19:29)
In my life experience, and sadly in some instances from adversity or going through something that's been really, really difficult, going in the water has been this sense of I feel more comfortable at home out here than anywhere. Being in the hands of this larger thing, right? That you get on your board and you paddle out. And then if you, when you wait for a wave, you straddle your board and the thing moves you around. You're not staying in one position. You're not anchored to the bottom. You're kind of sloshing with the water. Having done it for so long, that feels like a familiar that I can go back to. And all the ways in which my life has changed in my 53 years here, things don't feel as heavy or consequential when I'm surfing. Everything feels like it's going to be okay.
Jason Elias: (20:16)
Thanks for listening to the Big Deep podcast. Next time on Big Deep.
Speaker 3: (20:23)
This animal settled into my lap for 10 or 15 seconds. Eventually, it swims away. But I was left with this incredibly profound feeling of connection.
Jason Elias: (20:42)
We really appreciate you being on this journey into the Big Deep as we explore an ocean of stories. If you like what we're doing, please make sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, please like and comment because those subscribes, likes, and comments really make a difference. For more interviews, deeper discussions with our guests, photos, and updates on anything you've heard, there's a lot more content at our website, bigdeep.com. Plus, if you know someone who you think we should talk to, let us know at our Big Deep website, as we are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our world's oceans. Thanks again for joining us.