An Interview with South African Big Wave Surfer Frank Solomon

Frank Solomon.JPG

The right of passage to surf in a contest at Maverick's involves years of making appearances at the famed big wave location, proving to your peers that not only can you handle one of the most dangerous waves in the world, but that you have an innate passionate for it. For some big wave surfers, it can take years before any sort of recognition is made, and even then there's a very good chance that the alternate list will evade the prospective surfer. As the popularity of big wave surfing, especially at Maverick's, continues to grow, so to does the challenge of earning a place amongst the competitors at Maverick's.

This resiliency, being patient, continuing to charge, and biding time waiting for the big moment, applies especially to South African big wave surfers. Grant "Twiggy" Baker was an alternate and to this day may have never made a name for himself as one of the world's greatest big wave surfers had he not won a special fan voting contest awarding the alternate with the most votes a spot amongst the 24 competitors.  Chris Bertish, the defending champion at Maverick's, was the first South African ever selected as an alternate, but it took Bertish years before finally being invited as a competitor.  Both South Africans took full advantage of their opportunities, as two of the previous three winners at Maverick's were won by the aforementioned South African big wave chargers.

South African big wave surfer Frank Solomon hopes to add his name to the list of South African surfers who  compete at Maverick's.  Solomon began surfing Maverick's in 2007, and continues to make annual appearances, paying his dues with the hope that one day his name will be listed along with the legends who are invited to compete each year at the famed big wave contest.

Biding his time, the 27 year-old is finding plenty of other ways to fill his thirst for adrenaline.  This past year, Solomon went on a sailing expedition that found him not only sailing completely across the Indian Ocean, but finding a perfect isolated point break in the process.  Solomon's sailing adventures also involved a harrowing encounter with Somali pirates, and nearly being eaten by sharks.

Solomon joined me at San Francisco Surf Company, where he sat down for an extensive interview covering everything from his amazing sailing adventures, how he progressed into becoming one of the top big wave surfers in the world, and the effort he's putting in to one day be a competitor at Maverick's.

Cyrus: You were saying you're not on the alternate list for The Jay at Maverick's this year, but you’re kind of following the path that a lot of surfers do. You're paying your dues and if there’s one thing that your peers and the competitors who surf Maverick's respect more than anything else is people coming out there year after year. Appearances are the name of the game. You came here all the way from South Africa; you’ve been staying here for months and pretty much every swell that hits Maverick's, you're surfing. Do you feel like next year is when you’re finally going to pay your dues and be on the alternate list?

Solomon: I really hope so. If you look at someone like Chris Bertish that has been coming here for ten years and putting in his time, he got into the contest. I’m going to keep coming back until I get in and hopefully next year I’ll be on the alternate list, if not the year after but I'm not going to stop until someone says no. My goal obviously is to be in the competition, but you have to prove yourself and no one just gets straight in. It doesn’t matter who you are, you have to put in your time out there and that’s what I am doing.

Cyrus: You hail from South Africa. The last few years South Africa has had a major resurgence in terms of getting back into the world scene. On the big wave side Grant "Twiggy" Baker won Maverick's, Bertish won Maverick's, and they're both invited to The Eddie now. Then on the ASP World Tour you have Jordy Smith, who is a favorite to win the World Title if Kelly Slater doesn’t return full-time, and he represents your home country. How has South Africa made this resurgence into becoming one of the main players in the world?

Solomon: You know, South African people in general are really competitive. We’ve got some of the best big waves in the world, and we’re going to take it. We are going to go to the world and see what we can do. Jordy's one of the best surfers in the world, and he’s incredible. He's from Durban. I don’t know what it is but I guess yeah, South Africans and Australians are super competitive. They want to be the best. They know they can do well. So that’s why they are doing well.

Cyrus: Speaking of South Africa, you revealed something before the interview started that I had no idea about. That the big wave contest at Dungeons, South Africa, which Red Bull sponsored for years, was scrapped. A lot of surfers got on the big wave map because of that contest. Greg Long comes immediately to mind. When was this announced, and how does this affect surfers like yourself who hail from South Africa?

Solomon: It actually got scrapped last year. Red Bull did it for 10 years and they kind of decided that's it. It’s terrible. Say for someone like me, having a contest at your home break that you are going to be in. If you win that contest, the rest of the world sees that and it’s a platform for the young South African guys to do well. That’s how Chris (Bertish), Twiggy and others made their names for themselves. Through Dungeons. Even Greg Long. And it has made it difficult for guys like me. Now we have to go somewhere new where people don’t really know us and start from scratch. It sucks, but you know I really want to (surf big waves) so whatever, I’m going to keep doing it.

Cyrus: That’s the spirit you have to have. Did you start your surfing career off trying to compete through the WQS to get on the World Tour, or did you know right from the beginning that big waves was what you wanted to do?

Solomon: I didn’t start with the WQS. When I was a kid I surfed the Billabong Junior Series in South Africa, and I surfed all those contests and was never really that good. I just hated losing to those guys. I’m super competitive and one day I was like, 'You know, I don’t want to surf one-foot slop anymore.' I always liked surfing bigger waves, and there was the Dungeons contest. Here are these guys coming every year from all over the world to surf this contest and surf this wave and I literally lived in front of Dungeons.

Cyrus: So that’s where you’re from. What’s the actual town that’s right near there?

Solomon: It’s called Hout Bay. The Red Bull half section was next to my house so every year these guys would come and a cool bunch of guys would take me out there. Well, they didn’t want to take me out in the beginning so I just paddled out on my own.

Cyrus: So what was the first time you surfed somewhere other than Dungeons? When did you finally leave to start exploring other big wave spots?

Solomon: Cape Town, South Africa is really one of the most amazing big wave spots. There are three big wave spots right there. There’s Crayfish Reef, Factory and Sunset. It's all within a ten minute drive from my house so you know as a big wave surfer, which some of the results have shown for the South African guys, it's pretty much heaven. You’ve got three world-class big waves that are consistent and have hardly anyone year round and it’s just a great place to come from.

Cyrus: What was the first big wave you surfed outside of South Africa?

Solomon: Maverick's. Three years ago. My first time I came over. It was one of the worst seasons ever.

Cyrus: Yes it was. They didn’t have a contest that year.

Solomon: And I don’t know if people know it, but South Africa’s currency is real bad, so it's quite expensive for us to come here.

Cyrus: Is your currency still the Krugerrand?

Solomon: Krugerrands, yeah. It's seven to the dollar, so everything is seven times more expensive. And that year, coming for three months, just sitting and waiting and no waves was tough. To say the least. It was tough, but I love coming out here.

Cyrus: One of the things I’ve been following about you recently was this crazy three-month sailing adventure you went on. It was just you and one other person on a boat, is that right?

Solomon: Yeah. Well, it was me, my friend James Taylor, the big wave surfer, and his girlfriend. He phoned me up like two weeks before the trip and was like, 'Frank, you want to come sail across the Indian Ocean?' And I was like, 'Well, why not?' I had never sailed before and never spent time really on a boat. And it seemed really cool. It was incredible. We left Durban on the first of September, a spring day. Sailed across the Mozambique Channel to a little island that nobody knows about.

Cyrus: Any story where you’re on a sailboat in the middle of any ocean just is crazy. Did you guys have a radio just in case anything went wrong?

Solomon: We had a satellite phone that didn’t really work properly.

Cyrus: That’s not good.

Solomon: You would think in this day and age it would be like having cell phone reception, internet or something. If our boat sunk we would be done.

Cyrus: Is it true that during your three-month adventure sailing through the Indian Ocean, pirates tried to attack you?

Solomon: Yeah.

Cyrus: You mean like Somali Pirates?

Solomon: Yeah, off of Somalia. we were leaving the Maldives sailing towards Thailand. We were sailing in one direction. Obviously in a sailboat you can only go so fast because of the wind. And this tiny little boat in the middle of the ocean totally changed his direction and started coming like full speed at us and my captain James was like, 'Frank, grab a spear gun, grab a flare gun. Let's hide Kristy somewhere safe.' It was so scary. They came really close. We had to kind of stand there with our spear gun. I had like two flare guns and looked buff and we hoped they wouldn’t come and attack us because they would have sank our boat and killed us.

Cyrus: And these are the same pirates that you hear about taking oil tankers and hostages, right?

Solomon: Pretty much one of the scariest things I’ve ever been through.

Cyrus: So what happened? How did you eventually get them to go away?

Solomon: Me and James were standing there with all the stuff. He had a big spear gun and I had the flare guns and maybe they thought that we weren’t going to run away and would fight and they didn’t want to fight. I don’t know. One of them was gonna get shot with a spear gun either way.

Cyrus: Did they have guns? Did you see them holding machine guns or anything?

Solomon: I’m not sure. I mean I suppose they were, but I don’t know.

Cyrus: So they turned around.

Solomon: They came really close and kind of looked at us and then turned around and went away.

Cyrus: That’s heavy. One of the bright sides of your adventure is that you were able to discover and explore islands, which people don’t really hear about. Like those atolls you came across.

Solomon: We came across this wave in the Maldives. There were perfect six to eight foot waves as we arrived there. It was a perfect riding point. And we were just there like parked in a lot. I didn’t even know places like that existed. You'd think everywhere is crowded.

Cyrus: What’s crazy is that there’s still places like that in California.

Solomon: I know! It was just awesome being out there. We’d come so far not being able to surf, and then here’s this perfect world-class break.

Cyrus: What was the longest stretch you went on your sailing trip where you didn’t see land?

Solomon: About twenty days.

Cyrus: Does that get to you mentally?

Solomon: I guess yes. It’s really tough. Especially, I don’t know, you’re always on your own. We do watches 24 hours a day so you don’t really see the other guys too much. You just sleep when you’re not on watch. You have a lot of time to think about life, what you’re doing. There’s no internet, there’s no facebook.

Cyrus: What do you bring with you? Just books?

Solomon: Books, some movies.

Cyrus: And write.

Solomon: Yeah, my diary. I was writing. World War III could have happened, but you would have no idea. We could have come home and the whole world could be in chaos.

Cyrus: Like Mad Max.

Solomon: Yeah. I think everyone should do it. Everyone’s so roped into facebook, email, internet, and you're soft. You don’t really have any choice.

Cyrus: It’s disgusting. It’s getting vile in a lot of ways. Hearing about your sailing adventure is incredible. Is this something you would do again? Was it a really valuable experience?

Solomon: Yeah. It was tough. You know, I don’t know if I would do it again in such a heartbeat like I did then. I probably would have to think about who I am going with, then plan the roots. Now that I’ve done the Indian Ocean, I guess I’d love to sail across the Atlantic and Pacific. If I can do those two and say I sailed all the oceans, that would be a pretty sick thing to do.

Cyrus: When you said a second ago that everybody had to keep watch, what were you keeping watch for?

Solomon: Basically big tankers and stuff. If they come during the night and run into you...

Cyrus: You’re done.

Solomon: Your completely done. No one will ever know, the tanker will never know. They won't feel it. Those things are hundreds of feet long. The main thing at nights, 24 hours a day, there’s someone on watch making sure that there’s not a big boat or log or something that we can go into. That’s pretty much the most dangerous part of the trip.

Cyrus: You talked about finding this completely isolated point break in the Maldives. Were there any other amazing discoveries you guys made from a surfing perspective?

Solomon: Pretty much just the Maldives. There are big surf chargers that go there, but we were able to find this little atoll in the middle of nowhere.

Cyrus: How long did you stay there for?

Solomon: Two weeks.

Cyrus: Just that one spot?

Solomon: Yeah.

Cyrus: You had it all to yourself?

Solomon: All to ourselves.

Cyrus: Where did the journey end? When it was over, where did you guys finally park?

Solomon: The whole trip took us 68 days, 9,000 kilometers. We ended in Phuket, Thailand. It was amazing just getting there. We cracked a bottle of Champagne as we sailed in. It was really awesome. We spent a couple weeks traveling around those islands, and then flew straight here.

Cyrus: What do you guys eat when you’re on a trip like that? Do you fish, or do you have food prepared?

Solomon: We caught amazing tuna, and my friend’s girlfriend made us sushi every time. It was amazing. And then we basically just stocked up on rice and pasta and that kind of stuff. And in Madagascar we had some really amazing fresh fruit. You’ve got some small little market in Madagascar that you can get a bunch of the local food, and bring it onto the boat and see what you can make.

Cyrus: How was Madagascar?

Solomon: Madagascar is still very much Africa. People ask me what I mean by that, but I guess you have go to Africa. People are poor, really poor, a lot of people drinking. Alcohol is a big problem obviously. The island is beautiful and it’s amazing. It’s cheap. It’s definitely a good place to go check out. Its wild. We saw lemurs and stuff just jumping around. Saw 100 year-old tortoises. Amazing diving. It was beautiful.

Cyrus: You sent me this video where you decided to go diving where these sharks are.

Solomon: What happened was, before we got to Madagascar we had been shooting some fish. Spear fishing. We’d seen a bunch of sharks by the boat, and I thought it would be a way to respect the sharks. I thought it would be cool to jump in.

Cyrus: What type of sharks were these?

Solomon: Oceanic Whites. They are apparently really dangerous, which I found out later.

Cyrus: Oceanic Whites. So, they're probably part of the Great White family, right?

Solomon: I don’t know.

Cyrus: They look similar. They don’t look friendly.

Solomon: I jumped in and played with the sharks, and I started to film them. The first shark was really cool, let me swim up to it and was super peaceful and stuff. I was psyched. There were like five sharks in the water. I was trying to keep a look out on all of them, and then this one shark, I don’t know what happened. He was kind of over me, maybe had a bad day, but he swung around and tried to bite me like four or five times and I was about to use my hand and was like, 'No, that’s probably not a good idea.'

Cyrus: Probably not.

Solomon: So, I was able to use my knee a couple of times and then I was able to kick him away right at the end and then after about five tries of him trying to bite me he swam away.

Cyrus: You’re here in Northern California right now, and you're going to take off soon. So what’s next? Are you heading to South Africa, or another big wave spot?

Solomon: I’m here for another month or so, and I think I’m going to stick it out here until the end of the season. And then hopefully there’s a big wave contest in Chili in April, and I want to try and make it there for that. And then a couple of other things. And then back here again to surf Maverick's, you know, to try and get in this contest.

Cyrus: Do you have a message for your fellow Maverick's peers in terms of you becoming an alternate for next season, or will you let your surfing decided for itself?

Solomon: That’s a political thing. I don’t want to say anything about that. Hopefully one day the guys will be like, 'You know, he deserves to be in.' Whether it takes me five years, or ten years, when they decided I need to be in, I don’t care I want to do it.

Cyrus: If you keep showing up, you will. That’s a lesson I’ve seemed to grasp over the years of watching what’s going on there. There’s this documentary coming out called the Maverick’s Twelve, and it features a lot of the surfers who are always just alternates and never get invited. Are you a part of that movie?

Solomon: No, I wasn’t a part of that.

Cyrus: That’s probably a good thing. I’m hearing that a lot of the people who compete at Maverick's look at that movie as just a bunch of people whining about not getting in. It might backfire on them. It’s probably a good thing you didn’t do it.

Solomon: There’s two ways of going about it. One is, you can go and suck up to all the right people. I just want to get in because I deserve to be in. I don’t want to be nice to the right people.

Cyrus: You just want to surf.

Solomon: I just want to surf and I want to be in for the right reason.

Cyrus: What was your worst big wave wipeout?

Solomon: Probably last year. Dungeons. I had a really bad wipeout. We were towing. I went straight into a big set and it just destroyed me. It absolutely murdered me. And I actually had a flotation vest on so those normally help, but even with that vest on I had to hold on. When I came up the guys were throwing other guys off the skis because they were super worried about me. And when I came up I guess my eyes were just like goldfish. I looked guppy. So that was really bad. That one is actually still with me. I’m still trying to get over that one. Big wave surfing is pretty much a mental thing.

Cyrus: It is.

Solomon: It’s hard to get over one like that.

Cyrus: It just takes huge balls. Who are your sponsors? Who is paying your bills?

Solomon: I’m sponsored by Reef Wetsuits in South Africa. Vida e Caffe, it’s a chain kind of like Starbucks.

Cyrus: And that’s in South Africa.

Solomon: Yeah. And then Gold Surfboards and South Clothing.

Cyrus: You have a blog detailing all your adventures. A journal of sorts. Where can people find this information?

Solomon: My website is www.franksolomon.co.za. I’ve got all my stories on there, some photos and my email address if you want to get involved in my site. I am always looking for people to help me out and advertise. (Laughing)

Cyrus: Best of luck in your future adventures and I hope to see you on that alternate list for Maverick's and maybe one day get invited to the contest itself. Thanks for being in Northern California!

Solomon: Totally dude. Thanks so much. Love San Francisco. Great city. Love California. All the people are amazing and yeah hopefully be in it soon.

Danielle Schraner contributed to this story.