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Born to Surf

Pancho Sullivan

June 13, 2016

Pancho surfing with his son

I was born in 1973, in a tree-house in a hippie commune called Taylor Camp on the north shore of Kaua‘i. So from my first breath I could smell the salt in the air and feel the power of the surf.

When Taylor Camp got bulldozed by the county, my mom and I moved to the North Shore of O‘ahu, which is known as the Mecca of the surfing world. Since I was raised by a single parent who worked fulltime, the ocean became my babysitter. I spent hours, days surfing, playing in the shore-break, and watching surfers from all over testing their abilities in the best waves in the world. Really, I was born into this lifestyle.

My connection with the ocean and my love of riding waves was also my savior. The North Shore had lots of drugs, and me without a dad in the picture, and a mom who struggled with drug abuse, I went into the water to escape and find comfort and guidance. A lack of parental structure gave me an opportunity to pour myself into surfing. The reward I felt was deeply personal. Here was the one place I could go if there was chaos, somewhere to escape and be filled with joy. My dedication to the sport eventually took me around the world as a professional surfer. I went to places I never dreamed I’d go, and my travels provided me with an education in life. I learned about different cultures, foods, friendships, and business, but mostly I learned a deeper appreciation for being able to do what I loved doing since I was a little kid: surfing!

All of my travel experiences helped shape the person I am today, and they instilled in me a belief that if you follow your passions, then you are already the most successful person in the world. That approach to life is what I hope to pass on to my children.

Surfing teaches you to appreciate simple pleasures. It can be soothing and serene, but it also tests your ability to survive the most extreme conditions. You can go—all in the same session—from feeling like a lion to something more like a wet cat scratching for the shore.

Pancho surfing

Now that I’m a father of three kids, surfing has taken on a different meaning to me, and it’s something I hope to be able to teach to my babies, and to everyone. There are lessons to learn from the ocean about nature and about how to navigate life. The ocean represents beauty in its most dynamic form. It’s also the source of every living thing on this planet, therefore our most precious element. It will expand your vision and your soul, and add to your character by teaching you what you’re made of.

This is what I can see my children learning now, what we can take with us wherever we choose to go. I know it all sounds a bit cosmic, but it’s something that is hard to fathom unless you get into the water and let it carry you. Maybe it’s the blue colors, or maybe the motion of the waves, or maybe it’s just the salt. On whatever level we relate to the ocean, I think we all sense that we are born surfers.

walking on beach with boards Pancho surfing with his son Pancho's son surfing Pancho with family on beach Pancho's son surfing Pancho with family on beach Pancho and son

Banner image: Sean Davey.
Other photography: Epes Sargent (1), Sean Davey (2–5, 7–8), Steven Lippman (6).