No matter how likely or unlikely it is for the dream to come true, getting paid to surf is a common desire among the stoked. Local pro Isaac Wood says that the job involves more than catching waves and buying your mom a house.
Now 32, Wood has been surfing San Diego waters since age 4, when his dad first took him out at Torrey Pines State Beach. At 13, he entered his first contest; he received his first sponsorship at 16. By 20, he was traveling to global surf contests, his expenses paid by sponsors.
I meet Wood for the first time at Bird’s Surf Shed on West Morena Boulevard, where he helps out around the shop. Six-foot-two and casual in flip-flops, shorts, and a T-shirt, he wears his sun-bleached hair long. He looks like a professional surfer.
“I did decent in contests,” he says of his early days, “but it wasn’t consistent. It would be one contest I’d win, and then I wouldn’t win another one for six months.”
After six years of travel, the pileup of bills and the exhausting lifestyle began to wear Wood out.
To make matters worse, in 2005, Clark Foam, the company with a virtual monopoly on foam surfboard blanks, shut down without warning and left a big hole in the board business.
“When there are no boards coming in, and your sponsors are going, ‘We can’t pay you. We’ll just give you an IOU,’ I’m, like, ‘I can’t do that for my rent. You can’t just give [a landlord] an IOU.’”
Around that time, Wood decided he needed something to fall back on. He went to school to get his AA degree and became a Ford-certified mechanic. For several years, he worked in dealerships, making $35-plus per hour, and only surfed on weekends and after work.
“It was a neat job, and I can always go back to it, but I was miserable. I had bosses that all surfed, and they would come back and be, like, ‘Oh, you missed it. It was so good!’”
In 2010, after a series of contest winnings gave Wood’s confidence a boost, he left the dealership and went back to surfing full time.
“It was, like, ‘Whoa, three in a row!’ I haven’t won three in a row, even when I was surfing every day. All my surfing went to a whole new level after that point. I’ve just been doing well in contests ever since.”
These days, Wood lives off sponsorships and winnings, but not only is he making less money than he did as a mechanic, he also has had to trade a simple go-to-work-and-get-paid-for-your-time formula for something more complex.
“Every time I get a contest result, when I make it to the finals, [my sponsors] will pay me a percentage of my winnings or they’ll match it. Anytime I’m in a magazine, they’ll give me photo incentive, depending on the size of the photo. When you have seven or eight different sponsors, they all kick down a bit for each photo. That kind of stuff sustains it.”
For example, if Wood places in a contest, a sponsor such as Dickies might double the $2000 cash prize. They might give him the same amount in products; he can either keep them or turn around and sell them.
“Sometimes, a winning will be two grand, but it cost you five grand to get there. So you’re blowing money just to be on the world tour.”
Occasionally, a sponsor will pick up the tab for travel to the contest, because they want the exposure the surfer’s presence will give them, even if he doesn’t win.
“If you do win, and you have five or six sponsors that will match your winnings, well, now you’ve made a pretty decent little chunk to last you until the next contest.”
Then there are the photos, sometimes arranged between the surfer and the photographer.
“A lot of photographers depend on the surfers to say, ‘Hey, the surf’s good. Come down and meet me here on this day.’ Essentially, what you do is you go take as many photos as possible. Then your photographer will [pull out] the best 10 or 15, send them to the magazines, and whatever the magazine doesn’t want, it goes to the sponsors and they look through. If something [runs], you get incentive [from your sponsors] off of every photo, whatever the size. That can go $1500 to $3000.”
Sometimes, the sponsors are the ones requesting the photos. They’ll send the photographer and the surfer out with a list of shots they want — air shots, nose-ride shots, and so on. They’ll then use those photos for advertisements, brochures, or fliers. Again, they pay Wood for use of his image.
There are other sponsors who pay a salary instead of offering a per-image contract.
“They’ll say, ‘It’ll be cheaper for us to pay you a salary than to pay you every time a magazine comes out. But you gotta be at these photo shoots and these contests.’ It’s a game. It’s bits and pieces, and you’re constantly shuffling these things. I make a third of the money I was making [as a mechanic], but at the same time, it allows me to do the things I want and do my own schedule.”
His schedule these days is to get up and take his wife to work (at Surf Diva surf school in La Jolla). He’ll then surf Windansea for a couple of hours before heading in to Bird’s Surf Shed. Because Eric “Bird” Huffman is one of Wood’s sponsors, they have an understanding that when the surf is good, Wood will go back into the water at any given point in the day.
“One day it’ll be one o’clock, the next day it’ll be four.”
After a pause, he says, “It’s work. It’s just how you work it.”
Take your meetings at or near the beach
Bob Marley wasn’t thinking about surfing when he sang “Who Feels It Knows It,” but according to Scott Bass, founder of the Boardroom International Surfboard Show, the sentiment still applies.