I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Sam Hammer--one of the most accomplished pro surfers ever to come out of New Jersey. While Dean Randazzo broke the line open for pro surfers in the state, Sam took the ball and ran with it like no one else. His career spans 12 years now and there's no sign of anything slowing down anytime soon. He's traveled to more places than any of us will see in a lifetime, has won a slew of local contests and will always hold the unbridled respect of everyone in the water. But he didn't get to this level through hot surfing alone.
Photo by Mike Reynolds
Our conversation revealed that Sam's career has been built on extremely hard work, ingenious business decisions and a strong ability to network. He's a sharp, engaging guy who saw what he wanted--in an area not so conducive to a pro career--and figured out how to get it. Of course, a penchant for big waves (Puerto Escondido-Mexico & Pipeline-Hawaii) and a hardiness born from our wicked NJ winters didn't hurt either!
Below you'll find Sam's thoughts on his chosen career path, deep love of New Jersey, travel and his views on equipment. Enjoy!
Q: What beach did you grow up on?
Sam: Born and raised in Lavallette, NJ and grew up surfing Jersey Ave and Trenton Ave mainly. And then when I turned around 13 or 14, I kinda moved on to [Casino] Pier and started surfing there alot. I surfed up my street on Jersey Ave more than anywhere though. It just had some really good sandbars.
Q: Did you have a crew that you grew up with down there?
Sam: Yeah, my one buddy-this kid Jimmy Pasche. We were just inseparable and we'd surf every day when there wasn't school and there were waves...
Q: And occasionally when there was school?
Sam: No, I never skipped (laughs). I surfed in high school during lunch break and my science teacher would let me come in late sometimes and that was cool...But I couldn't really skip. My parents would kill me. (laughs hard)
Q: First Board?
Sam: My first board was a 5'6" Blue Hawaii twin fin. Martin Potter ['89 ASP World Champ] was my hero and he was Blue Hawaii back in the day.
Sam: No, but they're fast. You learn how to go fast. And then from there, I went on to a 5'6" Live Bait, which was an Ocean Hut board.
Q: Did Tony Giordano shape those?
Sam: No, he had someone else shaping them.
Q: Was the Live Bait a twinnie as well?
Sam: No, it was a tri-fin, with rounded pin and glassed-on fins.
Q: How did you end up progressing so much. How did you get so good?
Sam: When I was younger, I watched a ton of surf videos. I watched surf videos all night and all day. I just watched stuff and that's what made me really want to surf better-just watching those guys. I think it was '95 or '96 when "The Kill" video came out and I remember watching Jason Collins do that huge backside air reverse and I was like 'Whoa, people can do stuff like that'?!
Photo by Ryan Struck
I remember after that movie especially...Jimmy and I rewound it a few times and went out and tried to do [Collins' move] (laughs). Couldn't do it of course, but it was cool. That's how you learn though if there's not a ton of people surfing [around you like there would be in places like California or Australia].
With that being said, though, Lavallette always had good surfers. A guy named Johnny Anderson, Larry Pollin, Jeb Kelly, Paul Kelly...they all surfed really well. So, you know, you surf with those guys a lot and you pick stuff up...But I do think the hot bed of surfing in NJ right now is down in Ocean City.
Q: Yeah, you have Matt Keenan, Rob Kelly, Andrew Gesler, Dean Randazzo...
Sam: Jamie Moran, Ian Bloch, Zach Humphries surfs down there a lot. They have a pretty good group down there right now.
Q: So, you did the ESA & NSSA contests?
Sam: I did my first contest when I was 11. It was the HoDaddy Classic and we had to surf against the boys that were 15. I made it to the final and then got smoked. The guys that won were just way better. Then the next year I started doing the NSSA's. I didn't do the Regionals until I was in the Boys Division. I did it in my 2nd year and I ended up going up [to the championships]. I believe I was 13 at the time and ended up going up there and winning. I then went to Easterns and made a few rounds, but nothing great. But then started competing from there. When I was around 16/17, I started to take it more seriously and went out to California to teach at a surf camp. My pay was a place to stay and some food and it was cool, it was awesome ya' know. The guy who ran it didn't care what I did as long as I helped out a little while. He just let me stay and do whatever.
Q: Where was the camp?
Sam: San Clemente. So, I made some friends there and actually Greg and Rusty Long's father was the head lifeguard of Orange County and their house was in the state park where I stayed, so I became very good friends with them. [Note: Greg and Rusty Long are brothers and pro surfers who thrive on big waves. While both have had great success, Greg has established himself as one of the top 5 big wave riders in the world right now]. They'd always have people over in town for the NSSA's at Lower Trestles and I just surfed with those guys all the time. Those two years were two huge years that really influenced me...
Competing at 18, it was the last year on the NSSA's and I ended up making the semis, but just got beat on a last second wave by Aaron Cormican with no time left and from there I told my parents that I wanted to compete and surf [as a pro] and see how it goes for 2 years and they were all for it. They felt like 'You don't want to be looking back and saying that you should've tried something.'
Q: That's huge support.
Sam: Oh yeah, my parents have been amazing.
From then on, I met up with a photographer named John Keppler and that's how the whole ['free surfer']-photo thing started...
Q: You've had a lot of success competing and you definitely have that fire, though...
Sam: I've had some good results competing, but I just kind of lost interest in it. It's a lot of money to compete. At the same time [that Sam met John Keppler] I saw what the Malloy brothers started doing with the photo stuff and there weren't many people on the East Coast doing it--especially from the Northeast--so I just went that way.
Q: What's your niche with your sponsor Billabong? Was there ever pressure to compete?
Sam: My niche is that I just worked hard. They didn't have to tell me to go do something. I was doing my job and putting photos on their desk. If they didn't pay for me to go somewhere when I was younger, I would take it out of my salary and say, 'okay, I'm still going to go.' But my niche is as a photo guy. When I was younger,
Photo by Ryan Struck
they wanted you to compete obviously. As a grom, you have to compete. There's no other way to do it. You have to compete. I don't want to say it's easier, but I think a lot of time, especially nowadays, you make a lot more money if you don't compete.
Sam: Because those guys that compete...if you're not in the top tier, you're just paying to travel.
I just saw that you could make a lot more money from just the photo stuff. And I still saw a lot of the world.
Q: Is there still a fire to do the WQS stuff?
Sam: No, No. I mean, there was. Every once in a while, I kinda want to do it. But if you're not going to do the WQS full time, then it's not worth it...You could go get a photo in Surfer Magazine and make just as much money as if you made it to the Quarters or Semis of a 3-Star or 4-Star contest and probably even more than that. You know, you can just make more money doing that and I saw it and took that route.
Q: How did the Billabong sponsorship come about?
Sam: I started surfing for Billabong when I was around 18 and, except for one year, have been with them ever since.
Q: Was your role for them as the NJ/Northeast guy?
Sam: Yeah. It was as the Northeast guy. They are always looking for regional guys.
But you know, I got a lot of stuff run [in the magazines and online]. I've also been fortunate to have the right contacts and be friends with a lot of people and that helps a lot. I've been able to find a few photographers and then you find those that you work with well and keep in touch with them.
Q: What does it mean to work with the photographers well?
Sam: Just get shots. Be willing to do stuff that someone else isn't. Be willing to pull into stupid waves...Nowadays, people will pull into anything. But years ago, there wasn't a ton of people pulling into closeouts just to get the photo. It was more about making the wave. But I was willing to do that (laughs). You know whatever it costs to get the photo, that's what you're willing to do.
I was fortunate to work with a few guys that became big in the industry and that really helped pave the way. Working with those guys and staying loyal to the people you work with. I don't know how far it goes nowadays, but it seems like loyalty went a long way back then. You know, just be loyal to people and you get stuff in return.
Q: So networking was a big part of what you did?
Sam: No matter what you do, you have to network, and nowadays, it's just so much easier to network and get yourself out there with Facebook and the internet. [In the earlier years], we didn't have that. We had phones. I mean, the internet...God...I wish we had that [early on]. YouTube and Facebook...those are just marketing dreams.
Q: Are your ears all screwed up?
Sam: Not yet. It's only a matter of time...I do have pterygium.
Q: What's that?
Sam: (Points to his one eye that looks permanently bloodshot in the corner). It's from the glare.
Q: Wow. I never even heard of that. Where have you traveled?
Sam: I spent a lot of time in Puerto (Escondido). I love it down there. It's like an oversize Bayhead, NJ, but 5 times the size. It's actually easier, because it's not as steep. Believe it or not...My favorite wave in the world is Pipe/Backdoor and it's basically Pipe/Backdoor over beach....I've been to quite a few places with surfing...
Q: You don't have to tell any secrets.
Sam: No, no secrets (laughs). You know, I've been to Australia, Senegal, Morocco, Chile, Uruguay, Tuamotu Islands, Fijian Islands, all of Central America, Venezuela, a lot of the Caribbean, Iceland, Norway, Ireland...
Q: How do you plan for your trips?
Sam: Now, it's more last minute. Usually a photographer will see that there's going to be swell and say, 'C'mon, let's go'.
Q: What's your favorite place to go to?
Sam: Barbados. I absolutely love Soup Bowls. It's the best wave. So much fun. There's always waves. The town is as cool as can be. And when the wave is on, it's a world class wave. You can push it as hard as you want and it'll push back 10x harder.
Q: It looks meaty...
Sam: It is. It's very meaty. It's great. A great wave...It's brutal. It just stands up on the reef and throws out. If you get it good, it's pretty impressive to see.
Q: Scariest trip?
Sam: The time I went to surf Teahupoo was scary. Just more fear of the wave, ya' know? We didn't get it huge, just 6ft. with some 8ft. sets coming through. That was intimidating when you get out there, but the wave was perfect. Absolutely perfect. The drop is tough, but all you have to do is set your line and if you're not too deep, you're gonna make it. So, I guess the fear [made it] the scariest trip...It's a violent fall. It feels like you're arms are going to get ripped off, but it's worth it.
Q: Place you want to go that you haven't been yet?
Sam: France. Those beachbreaks look incredible. There are waves I'd like to see better. I mean, I've gotten Indo as good as it gets. Hawaii as good as it gets. Morocco as good as it gets. You can't really ask for much better.
Q: What do you do when you're not surfing?
Sam: Depends on what time of year it is. I play a lot of golf. I work for my parents a little bit. My parents are very cool and lenient about me leaving. If I need to go somewhere, they understand that it's my living. And with a mortgage, they can't really argue. They are very very good about stuff like that.
Also workout with a personal trainer a lot to stay in shape.
Q: So what are you riding?
Sam: My basic shortboard is 5'10"x 18 1/2" x 2 1/16". I normally ride a squashtail. Few different boards for hollow waves and a few for smaller waves.
Q: What about the Biscuits, Dane Reynolds' Dumpster Diver etc. Are you experimenting with those at all?
Sam: Yeah. We [Sam & his shaper, Dan Taylor] did a board based on what we knew or thought was the Dumpster Diver last year. The thing works amazing. It's a 5'8" and the thing is always under your feet. Even when you don't want it to be, it still seems to be there. It's just that good of a board. I've only used two of them so far.
It's just kind of working with them. Right now, I can't get the speed out of them. But if it's a pockety/bowly wave, it's just the best board I've ever had...I definitely play around with fishes. And then I have a board I've been riding for, I guess, 6 years. It's based off the JC Retro Rocket. I saw Dorian riding one at Pipe and he was using like a 6'0" in 6'-8' ft Backdoor and...making it look easy. It's pretty much the Wizard Sleeve that Slater's using now...same concept. It's made for hollow waves and hollow waves only. You know, it's just so much better than a normal board. It's smaller, paddles better, you're not going to get the nose caught on the bottom....you won't catch edges, cause there's no edge.
Dan Taylor just really started pushing his model, it's called the Pocket Rocket. For better surfers, there's no other way to go for hollow waves. It's so much easier. You'll make waves that you could never make.
Q: Are they negatively buoyant when you paddle?
Sam: No, they paddle incredible. If you get them a little bigger, you'll get into waves a lot easier. I just like to ride mine small just because I try to take off as under the lip as I can. With those boards, it just enables you to do so much...It almost looks like an '80's blunt nose, retro style board with a rounded pin.
Q: How about quads?
Sam: Yeah, I've ridden quite a few. I really like 'em. It's something, different. They're fast, loose. They're not my everyday board, but definitely to break it up, they're fun.
Q: So you have been messing around with a lot of boards?
Sam: Oh yeah. I try not to use the same board two days in a row. I try to stay fresh on different stuff, to keep different things under my feet. Because I think if you ride the same thing too much, you get stale. I've always had that belief...I'd recommend it just to learn different lines. Like I use a lot of single-fins. I always have single-fins in my quiver at all times. They're fun. You have to use the rail--it's part of surfing. I don't think a lot of kids do that any more. Everything's above the lip. But you have to use the rail.
Q: What's next for you?
Sam: Still going as hard as I can. I want to show people what we have. I think the East Coast and the Northeast has so much more to show the surfing community where people out West would step back and say, 'I can't believe that's the East Coast.' There's definitely waves that we'll be seeing in the future that are out there that no one really looked for.
Q: In NJ?
Sam: Some in NJ, all of New England, New York. I mean, you've seen a lot of them, but there's so still much more out there. So much more. But no one really looks. I love to surf new waves. You can only surf the Pier so many times...it just gets repetitious and that's no fun. I like to find new waves and surf something different...
Q: What do you want to be said about NJ that hasn't been said?
Sam: I just want that "Jersey Shore" show to go away. It's just terrible...(laughs hard).
I think with the group of surfers we have now that people realize that we can surf. Over the past 5 years, we've had the best group of surfers to ever come out of the state at the same time. And you know, there's a lot of people making a push to be professional surfers from NJ right now--there's like 10 people--that's a lot for one little state. We have great waves and people realize it. A lot of people are somewhat envious of the waves that we have. When it's good, it's good. When it's bad, it's bad. But there's bad waves everywhere. You know, I've been to Hawaii for two months and had it crap the whole time and it happens here. I just think that cold water surfing has been a little more accepted and people are starting to realize that in the middle of winter, when we're getting our worst storms and no one wants to get out of the house that that's when we're getting our best waves...We have great waves. We really do.
Q: Who pushes you the most?
Sam: Mike Gleason definitely has pushed me over the past couple of years. He's one of my best friends, but he's definitely pushed me. It's a good healthy competitive nature that we have between us. You need that. You need a rival growing up....You also have to have things you want personally. I still have a lot of drive to be the best surfer I can be and I'm still trying to do new things and surf different ways. You have to keep yourself fresh and on your toes.
Q: I saw you described in one of the surf articles as the current godfather of NJ surfers...
Sam: No...I don't think so. I'll never take that throne and that's fine. You know when I was younger, I always wanted to be the best surfer ever to come out of NJ, but I'll take 2nd best to Dean [Randazzo]. No one could ever replace Dean and what he's done for us. I would do anything for the guy. He's just done so much for me personally and has been such an inspiration on how not to give up in any aspect of your life. You know, it's just been inspiring to watch him go through what he's gone through his whole life. He'll always be the underdog and always come out on top.
Q: What has surfing meant for you?
Sam: I love to surf and it pays my bills...that's all I can ask. I've been doing it professionally for 12 years and that's a better run than 99% of the surf world ever gets and I can't ask for much more...It has given me tremendous experiences that very few people say they can experience. There's nothing I would trade to give up what I've learned about myself, my friends and my family.
Sam: Billabong, Electric, Future Fins, Dan Taylor Surfboards, SkullCandy, Brave New World, Creatures of Leisure,
Q: Anything else you want to add:
Sam: Just, we live in a great state and we have some of the nicest beaches in the world. We really do. I wish some people would realize that more. I think a lot of people take it for granted. . We really do. And our water--it's so beautiful. I kind of wish schools and stuff would take notice of what we have right here more...more awareness of our ocean is a good thing.