interview with Lewis Samuels

Ever wonder about the guy getting deeply pitted right in your face at OB? Ever wonder about the guy torquing stylish cutbacks in lackluster beachbreak garbage-surf? Or maybe about the tan guy taking people down at the local pool hall? Chances are that all of these mystery-men might be one and the same. When I began questioning local surfers about who would be a good "underground ripper" to interview for the site, Lewis' name came up again and again. Considered by many a "barrel master," Lewis has been known to camp out in the green room for extended time warps and spiritual spelunking. He blends athleticism, intellegence, massive cajones and modesty into a soft-spoken mastery of the art. Definitely a member of the "cerebral surfers" ilk, Lewis will astound you with his knowledge of arcane surf history and then leave you slack-jawwed in the lineup as he spins and drops into a pitching bomb. Whether it's his calculated, full-proof, "three-lady theory" for schnagging your dream girl or his practiced, stylish guitar flat-picking, Lewis knows what's up.

The following is an interview with Lewis that will appear in the upcoming BASEII, aka Niceness the mag.

Niceness: How did you get started surfing?
Lewis: I grew up in Bolinas. My best friend lived right on the beach at Stinson. Around 7 I became a full beach rat. Out in the water all day, no wetsuit, just freezing. If it was sunny we'd run in and lean against the seawall of this one house, and try to suck a little heat off the concrete. I didn't have a surfboard but sometimes I could borrow one from someone and I'd go stand up in the whitewater. Stinson is maybe the worst wave on earth. A total closeout. We'd get our asses kicked out there all the time; we got used to it.

Lances Left

Around 7th grade, I got a wetsuit and my older friend gave me his old single-fin. I started surfing alone in Bolinas. All my friends had quit by 10 or 11 to smoke pot and hang out with girls and stuff. It's a bit of a strange town, that way. So I was pretty much the only local kid surfing. It wasn't too crowded at that point. I surfed a lot with the older guys - hardcore surfers in their 30's and 40's and 50's. Guys who were tree workers and carpenters and dope growers. They kinda ignored me until I learned how to surf, and then they started giving me rides to the beach and taking me to heavier spots. It was pretty funny, looking back on it, but hanging out with those older heavy guys seemed normal to me, at the time. Cause we all loved surfing, and that was what it came down to. I'd drive up the coast with them in beat old trucks and they'd be complaining about their lives and shit - "My fucking wife is always on me about surfing too much, the fog is gonna mold my crop, restraining order this, mortgage payment that…" And I'd be like "Yeah, fucking mortgages suck dude. Yeah, that sucks your wife is so lame and all…" Just trying to keep up. I wouldn't say we got good waves, cause it's so goddamned fickle and brutal and punishing, once you leave town. But we surfed a lot of big days alone and got worked a lot. And all of that really effected my surfing - riding single fins, learning by watching these smooth older surfers who rode handmade boards in big waves and charged like madmen. I transitioned to riding really small standard boards, but I think my style and approach are pretty different than a lot of surfers my age. Later I went to college at UCSD and concentrated more on performance surfing in smaller waves, competed on their team, drove down to Black's everyday… And I've spent a lot of time surfing around the world since then, especially Indo. But my surfing is still a manifestation of my upbringing, and I think I still draw different lines and I like different conditions. I enjoy surfing sketchy, heavy waves with just a friend or two.



Niceness:Any highlights from your recent Indo trip?
Lewis:Yeah, lots of good little moments, it was a short trip but really fun. We went to G-land for a couple weeks. I guess this was my 8th season, but I didn't get to spend 3 months or something like I used to. I think I kinda look at Indo the way some surfers used to look at the North Shore. Like, if you take your surfing seriously and you want to get barreled, you have to make that pilgrimage each season and keep learning and improving. It's a better fit for me than Hawaii, cause Indo is good for the whole six months that the waves suck here. And there's a lot of lefts, and I really, really like lefts. Hawaii obviously has sick pits too, but it tends to be lumpier, thicker, bigger, shorter waves than Indo. And if you don't mind the cold, you can find plenty of lumpy, heaving, big waves around here.

Anyway, this last trip was really fun cause I had some friends along, Marty Brendall and Drew Kleinberg from Bolinas and my friend Shayne Ferber from San Diego. They're all good surfers who hadn't surfed G-land before, so it was fun to show it to them and share the experience. We got overhead or bigger waves everyday, offshore everyday. I guess the highlight for me would have been a day at Moneytrees, double-o and bigger, and I rode a really thin little 7'3" and got some good stand-up barrels. Another highlight was when this Aussie guy woke us all up in the middle of the night. They turn the generator off, and it's just pitch black. Really still and quiet, just jungle sounds. All of a sudden we got woken up by this true-blue Aussie yobbo who was just screaming like a little girl. I think he was eating some cookies before bed or something, and he left some crumbs on his chest. He woke up in the middle of the night with this huge rat chewing on his chest hair. Like a Chihuahua-sized rat. He was screaming "Fucking-A mate! It's crawling all over me! It's on me mate, it's right on me! Fuck! Fuck! It's not worth it mate, it's just not worth it!" It was pretty hilarious. After that, every time something went wrong on the trip, like lunch was late or we missed a wave, we'd turn to each other and do our best Aussie accent and scream "It's not worth it mate, it's not bloody worth it!"


Niceness: Can you discuss some of your barrel knowledge?
Lewis: Riding the barrel keeps me interested in surfing. It's this really, really simple thing that is also incredibly complicated and difficult. I think a lot of it comes down to wave knowledge. That's one of the things that's so cool about it, you know? Good tube riding doesn't favor youth and athletic ability as much as other aspects of our sport do. I love the fact that you can go to Indo or Tahiti or Hawaii, and you see these older mysto guys on shitty old boards who are getting sick pits, just ruling over the sponsored kids. Same with big waves.

There's so many nuances to good tuberiding. So many ways to set up barrels and make them. The more you know about waves, the better you'll do.

Niceness: Tips for finding barrels?
Lewis: Go to Lindamar. That's where you'll find them.
Once you find a barrel, commit to pulling in. Once you pull in, keep the nose of your board pointed towards the exit. Don't give up and don't close your eyes or jump off. I remember Martin Potter saying that once. It's really true - it's amazing how many people just give up in makeable barrels and close their eyes.

Niceness: Could you describe the long Desert Point barrel?
Lewis: Yeah, sure. But I should point out that you're only asking that question cause we talked about it another time. It's not like I got some legendary barrel at Desert's that everyone talks about. That spot is crowded and fickle and dangerous but you can get some of the longest barrels there. It's a strange wave, cause it starts out kinda mellow, and then just gets hollower and faster and bigger as you go. They call the last section the Grower, cause it keeps growing. It's not a perfect wave, either. It throws big mean unpredictable sections that look totally unmakeable. But if you pull into them, sometimes you can make them.

I got this one really memorable wave there, last season. It was right on dark and I had gone back out to get a good one. So I was just waiting and waiting for the right one. My friends were all sitting on the beach drinking beers; these Aussie guys I was travelling with who were really good surfers. So finally this sick one comes and I'm in the right spot and I go. I pulled in almost immediately, and got a nice long pit, dragging my arm to slow down, just standing right in the eye of it through the easy section. Then it hit the first heavy section of reef, and I had to pull in without ever making it completely out of the first tube. So I didn't get that little burst of speed; I was too far back. It pitched this huge section and it looked like a closeout tube. I couldn't see the exit anymore; I was way behind the bend in the barrel, nothing to see but water and lip. I could see foam ahead of me, and that's a bad sign. But I kept with it and went high and it was big enough in there to pump a little bit and get speed. After a few seconds I could see an exit up ahead. I remember thinking, "I might make this one… how cool would that be?" But right as I got to the exit, before I could make it out, another huge section heaved. Same deal - no chance to pump into it, no exit in sight, foam up ahead. I was way behind the bend. But as the wave went down the reef it started getting bigger and hollower, and I suddenly had enough room to pump and get some speed. And I could see that exit up ahead again. I could see a little bit of the hills and sky. I remember realizing I needed to breathe, cause I had been holding my breath so long, and I took this long sucking breath. I began thinking, "Damn, if I make this it will easily be my longest pit of my trip." But right as I get to the exit, same fucking story. This evil, evil section shuts down on me and I'm hopelessly deep in the tube. Thinking, "Fucker! I could of made it, so close…" But I had written myself off twice already, and made the sections, so I just held on. It got tighter and tighter in there, and my fins started to drift down onto the foamball. When that happens, you're usually done. Your fins cavitate in the foam and you spin out and get clipped. So my fins started to spin out. I lost all drive, just stopped. And like in slow-motion, right as that happened, the wave just spit the full fire hose spit. It stung my face and I couldn't see anything in the mist. But I guess it spit so hard that it pushed me up off the foamball, right as the wave opened up wide again. My vision cleared and I was way up high, almost in the lip, but my fins bit in and I pumped low and then high again and got this huge burst of speed and suddenly I was in the sweet spot again, just flying, exit up ahead. Not thinking anything at this point, just reacting. The tube getting bigger and wider, I was standing straight up in it. Two more times, right as I was about to exit the tube and kick out and seal the deal, another section heaved. Not as sketchy as those other times, but sketchy. I just stayed with it and stayed with it and finally it let me out clean. I kicked out and just kind of sat there for a minute, tripping. So far down the reef that I couldn't see the top of the point or any other surfers. I went in and walked up the beach as darkness fell. I got back to my friends and they didn't say a word to me. I didn't say anything either. What was there to say? We drove off and about an hour later, my friend Gonz turned to me and muttered real quiet, almost sadly, "Fuck mate. That might've been the best barrel I've ever seen."

This guy Camel, who is a really fucking good tube rider, got one that night that went all the way through, even farther than mine. He swore adamantly that he was in there for over 60 seconds before coming out. That sounds totally absurd, but I timed a wave on video that my friend rode the next day, not getting shacked, just connecting the point, and it was 64 seconds or something. It's pretty much unthinkable, you know? Honestly, 3 seconds is a really long tube, even for good surfers. 7 second tubes are crazy. 10 seconds, insane. 20 seconds, very few spots in the world can you even conceive of that. I don't know how long mine was. But I believe Camel about his 60 second tube, and that's absolutely inconceivable. You might need years of therapy after that.

Desert Point

Niceness: Fan of pro surfing?
Lewis: The level of surfing now is just amazing. I love to see people surf well. But just like any sport, there is a ton of hype and commercial compromise, and there is absolutely no correlation between surfing good and being a good person.

Niceness: Favorite local surfers?
Lewis: There's a bunch of guys who excel in different conditions. Jake Costello is really smooth and still pretty radical. Jesse Simon was good but he moved back to LA. Mark Alfaro is solid. Alex Martins is good in everything. Todd Barringer is a legend. I grew up surfing with Odd Todd and he's a specimen. Drew Kleinberg from Bolinas shapes his own boards, lives a lifestyle dedicated to surfing, and charges when it gets big. Pee Wee has been doing it right in big waves at the beach forever. Those are just a few guys that come to mind; there are lots of underground guys who surf well.

Niceness: What do you think of the SF surf scene?
Lewis: Well I'd love to tell you that I'm inspired by the local scene, or that we have this great community of local surfers, but we're not really there yet. In general, I'm fascinated by the subcultures and communities and social groups that evolve around shared activities. I studied cognitive anthropology at one point, and I still do some cognitive ethnography research as part of my current fucked office job. So I can take a step back and watch the different personas interact, these different character-types we have in the water… how they co-exist can be pretty interesting. But sometimes I see how people interact in the water and the parking lot and it pretty much breaks my heart. Cause we're so fucking lucky to be doing this activity, and at the end of years of doing it, the friends you make are one of the only thing you get to take away. It's an ephemeral act. The waves disappear, your best rides fade in memory, even your skills degrade with time if you surf into old age. The only thing that actually can build and really flourish is that sense of belonging, that feeling that you belong in the ocean and you belong to a community, that you have these life-long friends that you've gone through everything with.

I wish people realized that a bit more. You can give away a wave to someone in one session, and yeah, you'll never get that particular 3 foot mushburger back. You gave it away forever. But you probably never would've remembered it 10 minutes later, anyway. And if you give a few waves away every session, and treat others with respect, it comes back to you. It sounds lame, but I guess I'd like to see a little more empathy all around. Just think about other surfer's experience, when you share space with them, you know? I'd like to see dickhead locals cutting beginners some slack, and I'd also like to see those beginners respecting more experienced surfers by not surfing the same peaks. Find somewhere away from everyone else. That would make a huge difference.

That said, I think the SF scene could still develop into something great. Cause we have a lot of smart, interesting people in this city, and some of them surf. Artists, old school locals, intellectuals, musicians, writers. There's a lot of people worth meeting out there these days, and most of us are still in our own little worlds, hiding behind scowls, angry at each other for loving the same thing. That sucks. I understand where it all comes from. I've been a kook, I've been a transplant, I've been a local and an experienced surfer. All of those groups have valid concerns. I miss those days when I used to have to beg people to paddle out with me. But you can't hate the future; it's not a healthy way to live. And the future is crowds. I think the dynamic can change though, if we all do our part and try to respect each other.


Niceness: Places you'd like to check out (surf spot or other)?
Lewis: I'd go surfing anywhere. Just wish I had more time. I have a lot of random little places that I want to go to, places that I suspect have good waves. I'd like to do one trip a year to locations where there aren't any other surfers. And then at least one other trip a year back to the well, Indo or Tahiti or something.

Niceness: Lefts at Mavs?
Lewis: Yeah, they're fucking sketchy. I'm not a full-time Mavs guy or anything, but I try to surf it a few times a year and I like the lefts. They're short but juicy. I went left on the first wave I ever caught out there, and I got pitched. Since then I've been doing better. I got some good ones last year on the day Wormhoudt won the XXL paddle- in. It's a dangerous place, very simple. I really caution people to stay away from it, unless you've paid your dues and are really confident. I would never go out there if it wasn't fun for me. That's the only reason to surf Mavs.

Niceness: Where do you want to see your surfing progress?
Lewis: I'd like to see my technical surfing progress. I'm still interested in doing airs and improving my backside tuberiding. And I'm always trying to surf smoother and more stylish. I concentrate on trying to draw different lines and unique transitions; how I set up turns, how I set up tubes.

But mostly I'd like to progress in my ability to integrate surfing into my life in a more healthy, enjoyable way. I want to paddle out and not stress about crowds and performance and all that. I want to have good interactions with other surfers in the water. We're all so lucky just to be out there, and I want to be able to approach it like a little kid, where I just enjoy playing in the ocean.

That's the downside of dedicating so much of your life to performance surfing. You become a little obsessed with catching waves and doing turns and surfing up to your potential. You get competitive. All that concentration does improve your surfing, but you lose a lot, too. You kinda become that guy who gets really upset when he loses at Monopoly or something. It's supposed to be fun, right? I'm getting better at giving away waves and being patient. I'm stoked on that. Now I need to get better at missing days. I still get upset when I miss good days. I was in Boston this week for a work, and I missed those small offshore days. And it upset me! But it shouldn't, you know? There's so much more to life than surfing. I always want to surf the good days, but I also want to hang out with friends and family and travel and do other stuff. And I don't want to be bummed cause I'm missing some marginal session. You can miss sessions. Life goes on. Like I didn't surf as much one season, cause I was writing a novel. And I'm glad I did that; I'm glad I gave up some sessions and finished what I set out to do. But lately I've been stagnating, just working and surfing all the time, super obsessed with surfing again, like a grom. I want to tone it down, put some time into writing new stuff, work with my agent on selling the first book. And learn how to speak Bahasa Indonesian better, hang out with my girlfriend, maybe work on a film project with my brother.

So yeah, that's how I want my surfing to progress. I want to miss more days. If you see me in the water, tell me to beat it.


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