The Stab Interview: Lewis Samuels - Stab Mag

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The Stab Interview: Lewis Samuels

Revisiting words from the scribe once dubbed, ‘The Most Hated Man In Surfing.’

// Nov 18, 2023
Words by Pedro Ramos
Reading Time: 18 minutes

Editors Note: In light of our recent Red Bull No Contest jaunt through San Francisco, we’ve decided to re-highlight a Northern Californian character we adore.

Lewis Samuels has been called an asshole.

The frequency with which he encountered the term, mostly in written form, increased drastically around 2007 — the year Power Rankings went live on Brendan Buckley’s dad’s favorite surf forecasting website.

Tasked with writing post-event critiques of each surfer in the Top-44, Samuels found himself wielding unexpected influence. Though not an entirely novel concept, it was the first time such content went online before a contest’s scaffolding could be broken down into transportable pieces.

The separation and cooling-off period previously afforded by the time it took for magazines to reach newsstands vanished, and an embryonic comment section became another place to add fuel to fire. Contrary to what had been happening for decades in mainstream sports, pro surfers were now forced to deal with unfiltered public opinion.

Photo by Gio Agnoli

Whereas extraordinary surfers had been commonly celebrated by fans and media, it was the banality of the others that incited intrigue. For those who provided little entertainment value, interest had to be expelled elsewhere. Samuels’ acid wit and disarming honesty distilled the incursion of the struggling journeymen into episodic columns, serving the audience with a newfound interest for their otherwise trivial competitive careers.

Saying what needed to be said and withholding what wasn’t necessary, his writing presented itself as an antidote to the frictionless lauding of professional surfers, subsidized by brands whose stakes walked hand in hand with the reputation of the former. 

Samuels left behind him a wake of torn egos, all gasping for air. Early on, he noticed a clear division between who took his criticism as spiteful and who used it as further motivation to shed some of their flaws.

Due to mounting pressure from advertisers, Samuels’ work underwent extensive editing by his publishers, leading him to call it quits and create PostSurf, an independent platform (essentially a blog) to make his uncensored opinions publicly available. Ironically, the same industry folk that opposed his Surfline contributions became his most avid and engaged followers.

In the infancy of its ZoSea era, the ASP hired Samuels to write Power Rankings on the company’s website for the 2014 season. No more than a couple of days had elapsed before they were pulled down. Despite having received harsh criticism in the past, CJ Hobgood became a supporter and friend of Samuels, trojan-horsing his writing back to the ASP’s website via his Instagram page (surfer’s accounts were embedded in the website’s feed).

As we know from HSGP, Jordy won’t hesitate to tell you what he thinks, Photo by Gio Agnoli

Confronted with the quandary of sacrificing surfing hours for writing about surfing, Samuels redirected his creative energy to his ongoing work in the tech industry, which his not so dissimilar to what he has done in surfing: “I’m trying to verbalize what people outside of the organizations or the industry think —my job comes down to sharing perspectives on how tech is changing culture and culture is impacting technology.”

Following a two-decade stint in San Francisco, Samuels now lives with his wife and children in a lush, tranquil part of Northern California, not far from Bolinas, where he learned to surf as a kid.

If the contrarian and inquisitive nature of his writing has in many ways disappeared from established media, readers who’ve become adept of the taste of pro surfer’s blood make sure his ethos endures in the most ruthless of comment sections. 

Stab spoke to Lewis about his beginnings as a writer, the friends and enemies he’s made along the way, the current state of surf media, and Kelly Slater’s involuntary premonitions of his own inability to retire.

For those of you wondering, yes, Lewis’ surfs skills are as sharp as his writing.

How did you end up writing about surfing?

Growing up, surfing was pretty much everything to me. I loved the magazines and read Surfer religiously. I always wanted to be part of that conversation, even if at the time there was no easy way in. They felt more like a lecture — a lecture that came in the form of a monthly magazine. 

It wasn’t like now, where anyone can get their perspective out there through social media. We didn’t have the ability or the technology to have our voices be part of the conversation. 

It started almost as a Miki Dora type scam: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to get paid to go on surf trips?’ I’m a decent surfer, but I was not going to be professional. Photographers had to sit for hours taking pictures of other people surfing, so that was the last thing I wanted to do. But, I never saw writing about surfing as a way to make money, or even a career path. 

I got a degree in Cognitive Science from UC San Diego and came out of it into a job at a dotcom doing user research. This was right when tech started to change the world, but then the bubble burst, and there wasn’t any money to be made there for a while.

That’s when I started writing about surfing. The first stuff I did was for Surfline: it was online, there was a lower barrier to entry, and they needed more content. I was just submitting travel articles for free, which they started publishing.

Lewis doesn’t always look like the archetypal ‘Surf Journalist’. Photo by Gio Agnoli

Early on, when I was living in the city, there was a little scene of people who wrote about surfing, including Matt Warshaw, who had just completed The Encyclopedia of Surfing. I knew him from the water and we were both chasing the same waves: he wanted barrels, I wanted barrels, so we’d end up surfing together. One day I told him I was interested in writing about surfing. He asked me, ‘Is there anything else you can do to make money in this world? Is there any other degree or skill that you have?’ I told him I had other things going on and that I used to work for a tech company. He looked so relieved and went, ‘That’s great, because this is not a career. Nobody makes money writing about surfing!’

To this day, he’s right. I don’t know that anyone else in the surf industry (excluding glassers) has managed to stay uncompensated for their efforts at the level of surf writers. I don’t think any surf writer has gotten rich off writing about surfing. At least it’s less hazardous to your health than glassing. 

I really took his advice seriously, and somehow, it magically allowed me to write in a way that connected with my audience. It was never going to be my career. It was a way to go on trips, meet people, and engage in conversation.

I was able to do and say lots of things that would’ve put my livelihood at jeopardy if that was my only job. The people I worked with had really different perspectives, because it was their job. They had rent, mortgages, or kids to support. 

I never liked the influence of money on writing. As soon as someone would write in order to make the money or keep the job, the finished product was bastardized and you’d end up with something that wasn’t as good as it could’ve been.

Photo by Gio Agnoli

Could you talk us through the origin of Power Rankings?

The ASP had started live-webcasting the WCT, and all of a sudden everybody around the world could log on and see the drama, the struggle, and the tragedy of all those early-round heats that would never get any coverage. Up until then, you’d just see a magazine article about the winner, or a television edit showing the semis and the final. 

I grew up reading Derek Hynd’s Top 30 review in Surfer Magazine — a fairly scathing analysis of surfer’s performances at the end of each year — which I always looked forward to. He tried to elevate the sport of surfing into something with narrative, characters, blood, and emotion. He took it beyond, telling both the story of those who won and those who struggled. I wanted to do something similar, so I pitched the idea to Surfline.

They thought they should get an ex-pro (Sunny Garcia’s name was suggested) to do it but I told them, ‘These guys aren’t gonna have anything interesting to say, they’re not writers and they’re too invested in this, you need somebody who isn’t an insider, somebody who can just say what’s going on from an outsider’s perspective.’ 

They allowed me to trial it and, fairly quickly, it turned into something that not only readers enjoyed, but the surfers themselves were reading, and I think that was part of why it resonated. 

This was before social media, when surfers weren’t really exposed to the commentary of the average surf fan. It became a novel — and not always comfortable — experience for them. Hearing what people were thinking and saying had a different impact then. The experience of being a professional surfer now includes hearing commentary (from fans to trolls) about who they are and what they’re doing. 

A man who has endured a significant degree of keyboard criticism. Photo by Pat Nolan/World Surf League

How did surfers respond to your commentary?

There was generally a clear split between the people who used it as fuel and the people who took it as an absolute negative.

Some people felt unjustly picked on, and that I was just saying bad things about them for no reason, but at the same time, I was always willing to praise somebody who came through — even the people I was probably harshest about. If they made the semifinals or something, I would celebrate and give them credit for what they had done right. 

Some of it may have been cultural. Australians would find it funnier, maybe because it’s part of their surfing culture to talk shit and criticize each other. Some Americans also got it, but I think it didn’t come across the same way for Brazilian or European surfers, who seemed to take criticism much harder.

Did anyone actually try to punch you?

People threatened to punch me many times, sometimes in person, sometimes over comments, emails, or in interviews where they would talk about how they would like to see me in person and teach me a lesson. When I’d finally meet them, they wouldn’t really know what to do. They wouldn’t actually punch me. It’s very different dealing with people face to face.

Ricky Bassnett was a great South African surfer, who was having a perfect season, and by perfect season I mean he was losing in the first round of every single event, and I picked up on it early on. Three or four events in, I was claiming he could put together the perfect season. No one had ever lost every single heat of the year in ASP history. This was an unprecedented feat, and I was celebrating it from the very beginning as something to marvel at, and I think it got in his head. He once came up to me at a bar in Mundaka, and I could tell he was really drunk and loose and about to do something crazy.

The Ricky Bassnet incident. Photo by Steve Sherman.

There’s a Steve Sherman photo sequence of it, where he holds a beer up to my face and makes me drink half of it before pouring the rest over my head. That was the end of it but you could tell he was on the edge of doing something pretty crazy.  

Taj Burrow’s trainer, Johnny Gannon had it out for me. CJ Hobgood was totally a fan and when he won Mundaka, he invited me to come celebrate with everyone. When I showed up, Taj’s trainer told me, ‘You gotta get out of here or I’m gonna knock your teeth down your throat!’, and he was serious about it. This is a gym guy, muscle man, and I’m not exactly an imposing physical specimen. What followed was this comedic display of CJ telling me to stay, while he kept telling me to go, and as I was trying to leave, my car was blocked in by Tommy Whitaker’s, so I had to head back inside for a third time and again he goes, ‘I told you not to be here!’

Cont.

Were there particularly surprising reactions?

Very early on, Kelly Slater engaged with what I was saying in a way that surprised me. I was watching a contest online and all of a sudden he sent me an email just before he was about to go surf his heat. It totally baffled me as I was somebody who had never met him before and was still much closer to a fan than an insider. And it was just indicative of who he was. Now he does this on social media all the time, he’ll interact with anybody. 

He used the criticism to fuel his performances, at a time where he appeared only half-engaged, and all of a sudden I got him engaged again. He started to really push and went on to win a couple more titles.

Photo by Gio Agnoli

Speaking of Kelly, you once wrote, “What’s the point of being on tour if you’re old and monogamous?

That sounds like something a young, unmarried man would write!

I was making a joke about how the tour used to be a traveling party. I remember being at the event Andy won in Chile, and hanging out with him, Bruce, Cory, and Wardo, and joking about Lindsay Lohan in rehab and suggesting that a surfer needed to go to rehab as a publicity stunt. Andy said, ‘God, that’ll be the whole tour!’ That contest was actually where the wheels came off for him. On our way back, we somehow ended up at LAX together when he was picked up and taken to his first stint in rehab and attempted intervention by Billabong.

Things shifted, and a few people started bringing their kids to all the events. Parko was one of the first to do it, and it’s rad looking back. It’s great that they got to do it and share it with their family. I think having the people you’re gonna miss with you, makes it more doable.

Being at those events versus watching them as a fan, made me realize just how rough that lifestyle was in some ways. To their credit, the people on tour understood they couldn’t really complain about it, because they were living the dream of every other surfer in the world — it definitely still came at a cost.

You wrote a controversial profile on Bruce titled “Not Dying Young”. Were you close with Andy?

We actually had a pretty good relationship. When he took time off tour, I interviewed him a few times for Surfline, and he confided some of his experiences in me. He struggled with things people wrote about him as his performances started to drop off. At that stage he was actually more disturbed by the comment sections than the articles themselves. 

It was really getting to him, particularly the stuff people were saying that wasn’t true. He felt very exposed as a public figure and had to deal with some of the crazy that came to him. 

I don’t know all the details of how and why impacted him, but I don’t think I had any comprehension of what Andy was struggling with or going through as a person. I was just totally clueless. There was this weird combination of being in the middle of it all and also being so unaware of what was going on in the minds of these people I was writing about. 

I was still interacting with them as what they had been presented to me in the pages of a magazine. 

Photo by AP

Were you still doing the Power Rankings when you started PostSurf?

Yes, I had done Power Rankings for a couple of years, and I decided that I just wanted to say stuff that I couldn’t say elsewhere. 

Looking back on it, I think I was a pretty tough writer to edit. I was trying to provoke, to say things that would get a response from people, whereas a lot of people don’t write that way. They’re just trying to report on something and have an even, neutral perspective across the board. I always had a perspective. You could tell that I felt something as a writer and as a person. My editors would sometimes say, ‘No, we can’t do this!’, because they had to maintain certain relationships with sponsors and surfers. That bothered me, I wanted to be able to lean into my own decision making and free speech. So I put together a blog: anyone could do it, it didn’t cost much money, and it was pre-social media.

Nowadays this would’ve been just a bunch of rants and captions on Instagram, and no one would care. 

But at that time, coming out with your own platform, that wasn’t Surfline, or a magazine, was a disruptive thing to do. With PostSurf.com I could say whatever the hell I wanted, and I did. It got to a point where I was critical enough about the surf industry that Surfline were no longer comfortable with me writing the Power Rankings for them. They felt I was somebody who was not operating in the best interests of the surf industry nor Surfline, which was 100% accurate. I was not there to make the surf industry more money, and at the end of the day, that’s what the magazines were always about. They were largely paid for by advertising dollars and they were arguably there just to promote the industry and the sport. You needed that coverage to do all those things, to sell the clothes, to make Tom Curren a hero, and to have people ostensibly sponsor an ASP event. It was all part of an ecosystem working together towards a common goal.

People were going to make a career and money off of surfing, but for me that was never it. I was just offended by the whole idea of the surf industry and its crass commercialism. Even that undercurrent cut through my love of professional surfing as a sport.

An argument for not spending hours each week writing about other people’s surfing. Photo by John Barton

How long did you work on PostSurf?

For nine months. It’s amazing to me that people are still interested or care about this curiosity of surf history. But I guess it resonated in terms of the shift happening in the culture then. It was a shitload of work and I was doing it all for free. Vice approached me about building something with advertising dollars and having an ad network on there, but again, it felt like the wrong reason to be doing it — to be critical of surfers and the industry in order to make money. 

It wasn’t the type of life I wanted to lead, and I think you could look out there now and see people doing just that — posting for clicks — but I wanted to be completely separate from that and be able to just say what I thought. I would write a post every day, and then I’d go surfing, but I got to a point where writing about surfing was cutting into my ability to actually go surfing.

I decided to walk away from doing PostSurf, and over the subsequent years I did a fair bit of writing for magazines but with a mindset of, ‘What opportunity does this project afford me? What can I get to do?’

A familiar Northern California vista. Photo by Gio Agnoli

One of the things that I actually liked doing the most after Power Rankings and PostSurf was an idea I pitched to Surfer [you can read ep. 1 here]. I was about to go on my honeymoon but it didn’t really make sense to bring boards as I wasn’t going to lug a coffin around.

I thought, ‘How the fuck am I going to go travel around the world to surf locations without surfboards?‘ so I thought I’d just borrow boards wherever I go. I’d show up at a beach, ask a surfer for their surfboard, and write about it. My wife took the photos.

I wouldn’t say I was doing it for a magazine article — just that it was my honeymoon and I didn’t have a surfboard. It was amazing how many people just said yes. Pretty much everyone said yes. It was the polar opposite of the commercialism behind professional surfing, and an attempt to show how the breadth of the surfing experience was so much bigger than what the magazines were saying it was. It was pretty wild and it totally worked. I ended up having the whole honeymoon paid for. In some ways, that was one of my best writing “scams”.

Is it becoming harder to be critical of professional surfing — especially behind established platforms — nowadays?

I don’t know if anyone’s doing it. There’s people on BeachGrit that are super critical of professional surfing, but frankly, I don’t know if I’d consider them an established platform. 

Going back to social media, there are just so many meaningless opinions out there. In the past, there used to be a clearer balance on how professional surfing was covered by the media. 

Surfline, one of the main online resources at the time, had a much bigger voice in respect to what was happening with the ASP prior to the WSL, as the former wasn’t doing nearly as much to tell its own story. 

The WSL, on the other hand, has been designed to control its entire narrative, something you don’t really see in other professional sports. Usually, whoever owns broadcast rights hires the commentary team, and they’ll have opinions, which won’t always be in line with those of the league, nor will they always be supportive of the athletes. There’s at least a sense of balance of powers in professional sports’ commentary, which gives it legitimacy, whereas the WSL hires people to support, and essentially, market itself. 

Photo by WSL

If you come from a country that has similar checks and balances in government — not just an autocratic regime — you appreciate the idea that there’s somebody who has a…perhaps not equal…but large voice, who’s allowed to have a totally separate opinion than the one of whoever is in charge. Right now, the WSL has consolidated power over how the sport is disseminated. They control the broadcast and the commentary, and even though there’s all sorts of complaints bubbling up on the comments, there’s less interest in breaking through that.

Part of what gives legitimacy to the results, is the existence of an independent voice. One that’s well respected and fair, otherwise, you only get the toxic marketing productivity of the current WSL.

I guess I should give a couple writers on BeachGrit at least some credit for addressing this over the last few years. I appreciate JP Currie’s writing, and Steven Shearer was great! Hats off to him.

Sean Doherty also did it well over the years, and obviously, Derek Hynd inspired me to do what I did. They gave the sport compelling stories and characters that you care about. Maybe I’m just getting older, but I don’t know that I have that same interest in the characters in professional surfing right now. They’ve been managed, coached, professionalized, and sanitized to the point that there’s not a lot of life or spice anymore. It makes it harder for me to care as a fan.

The good part? No matter how jaded you get on competitive surfing, the ocean will never be any less engaging. Photo by Benji Erin

One could argue that, nowadays, a great number of professional surfers appear as coming out of the same production line. 

Yeah, I talked about that over the years with surfers like Kolohe as an example, but then I got to know Kolohe, and now I have more appreciation for him as a person. 

There’s a couple accounts on Instagram that will put up these super edits of 80s, 90s, and early naughties surfing. There’s technical issues with the surfing that some of those guys were doing, and it’s not all as good as the surfing we’re seeing now, but they’re so much more individualistic in their approaches and styles. Their personality shows through so much more. It’s really incredible that we’re yet to see somebody with as unique and amazing an approach as Occy, for example.

Everyone looks like a version of whoever came before them, and in some ways, the guys who created the style (like Curren) don’t always look as good as they did at the time because everyone surfs like them now. It’s all been homogenized. 

Yes, there’s differences, Filipe and Italo have their own styles, and some of that stuff makes it interesting, the same goes for Ewing. There’s a handful of guys on tour who are pretty much interesting to watch every time they stand up, but then there’s these guys where it’s pretty hard to point out what makes their surfing unique or special. They’re a bit robotic and that’s probably getting coached into them.

It’s hard for me to disentangle whether some of this is just due to being older and therefore less engaged. Maybe some kids feel the same way about watching Kanoa Igarashi surf as I did watching Occy as a kid — they’re just noticing every nuance. Kanoa’s surfing is nearly perfect, technically. You can’t point out anything he’s doing wrong, but it doesn’t have the same emotional impact, at least for me.

Photo by WSL/Tony Heff

What’s your take on Kelly still being around? Would you like to light another fire under his ass?

Back when he was winning title eight or something, we would talk about how to retire gracefully, and at the time he told me, ‘I definitely don’t want to be on tour when I’m 50 years old and struggling to make heats!’  

I thought he surfed great in El Salvador, but looking at it through the eyes of a critic, a fan, and somebody who is trying to protect his legacy, how do you go out on top in order to cement that legacy? 

He’s already the greatest competitive surfer of all time, and to his credit, I don’t think that’s his focus anymore. He’s not living his life based on what other people think of him. He’s doing it for himself. He still likes going to the contests, even if he loses in the second round. He has mostly lost over the course of the last five years or so, and that must be tough for somebody who usually won everything, but I think there was a pay-off to a certain degree with that win at Pipe. 

Staying on tour was the thing that got him to that accomplishment, which was clearly still very meaningful to him. He’s always been willing to put in the work, which includes losing and having to change his perspective in order to find that high of winning Pipe again at 49.

At the end of the day, I would light a fire under him to finally retire and go do other stuff in life, but I don’t think he owes anyone anything: performances or surfing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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