Sam Hammer, one of the most respected East Coast Professional Surfers, talks about reinventing the pursuit of surfing with his childhood friend and creative director, John Jankowski. Sam Hammer chats about life, responsibility, and entrepreneurship via his passion and the way he views life from his humbling experience.
Sam Hammer is a professional surfer, owner of Hammer Surf School, and a proud East Coast native.
The beloved Jersey shore. As beautiful as it is, we all know the famous summertime stigmas of fist-pumping muscled-up party animals, Soprano types, and of course the carbon copies of MTV’s Jersey Shore characters roaming the boardwalk. But it isn’t necessarily famous for word-class surf. For Surf Mei Mei, New Jersey was not particularly known for great waves until we experienced the winter of 2013-2014.
During these cold winter months, New Jersey had some of the best swells covered in all major surfing magazines and digital outlets, thanks to a group of New Jersey surfers who sought to capture some of the best photos of the year. These images humbly changed how the surfing world viewed New Jersey surfing.
Surf Mei Mei was fortunate to surf this epic winter in Jersey and meet Sam Hammer, a well-known professional surfer who had a huge stake in pioneering this epic winter season as we saw it. You can see Sam’s pictures in almost every surf-related publication, from Surfline, Surfer Magazine to the Inertia. His name pops up in many conversations among east coast surfers (especially after this winter!). Now in his mid-30’s Sam continues to push the limits with his surfing, as well as reinventing his entrepreneurial drive to stay at the top of the industry.
SMM: Sam, tell us a little about you.
Sam Hammer: I am Sam Hammer, 35, from Lavallette, New Jersey. I’ve surfed all over the globe, but I always find myself drawn back here to the Northeast. I have been surfing for Billabong for 18 years and I’ve been fortunate enough to live my dream and work in this industry that I love very much. I also surf for DVS, Dakine and Dan Taylor Surfboards and I’ve just signed a deal with Von Zipper, out of Orange CA. Most recently, I’m the owner of Hammer Surf School, sponsored by Billabong.
SMM: Wow, those are some great sponsors! And 18 years with Billabong! Your sponsorship with them started at 17! How did Billabong start sponsoring you as a professional surfer? How did it all begin?
Sam Hammer: Competing put me on the map at an early age. As a young kid, different sponsors picked me up. My first local shop sponsor was Grogg’s Surf Palace in Seaside Park. Then the clothing and larger surfing sponsors followed once I got a name for myself. I became known on the east coast, then the west coast and eventually I gained international exposure.
When I was 18, I knew college wasn’t for me. Fortunately, I have great parents who understood that I needed to pursue my dream of becoming a pro surfer and they supported me. They gave me 2 years to see how surfing would go and if it didn’t go well, I would go to college. Therefore, right out of high school, I went to Hawaii for 4 months to get my career going and gain some serious exposure. A lot of my photos were published in different magazines, and that’s how it all took off for me.
Competing professionally is an exhilarating experience, but I didn’t enjoy it. Fortunately, this was right around the time where surfers started making money from photos that would be placed in publications to promote their sponsors. Getting publicity for my sponsors through surfing photography seemed to have better lifestyle than competitive surfing and I quickly gravitated to that. It was just more my style and I enjoyed it. I focused more on a career in photo publication and it’s worked out very well for me. I still compete but not to an extreme level. Choosing this direction in professional surfing allowed me to maintain a balance for what I enjoy in surfing.
I’ve always been career-oriented in this sport and I learned that if you work hard and get yourself noticed for your sponsors, you can [could] make everyone very happy, including yourself. It’s a gratifying experience to make your passion your business. And it’s even more gratifying when your sponsors recognize your hard work and see your passion to do your very best.
SMM: You seem to know what you want and always figure out a way to make yourself happy by living your passion and making it your career. Now let’s take it back to the very beginning. How did you get into surfing?
Sam Hammer: I’ve always been captivated by the ocean from as early as I can remember. I’ve been so lucky to grow up at the beach and let it make me who I am today. People don’t realize what we have in NJ, especially in Lavallette. We have the best beaches in the world with soft sand and beautiful sunsets. I was always drawn to all these natural elements and the power of the ocean. As kids, we would body board all day and try all sorts of tricks and maneuvers. My friends and I were like fish. My mom had to drag me out of the water to go home after endless hours at the beach. I was always there… all the time… constantly in the water. It was my place to be.
When I started surfing, it was all I want to do and it quickly became everything to me. I focused on developing myself for a career in surfing. I knew exactly what I wanted and I just needed to work hard on getting it. Everyday I’d wake up and think to myself “What is it I need to be doing to ready myself?” I guess that goes back to the drive I had and the clear vision of what I wanted in life at an early age. There’s one thing though…when I was a kid I wished that it didn’t get as cold as it does here in the winter. That’s always been kind of tough on us but the wetsuit technology has gotten much more advanced over the years. The younger generations of surfers never experienced the harsh winters in the old rigid suits from 20 years ago.
SMM: You’ve shared some tremendous insights on how you’ve become the grounded and disciplined surfer you are today. Who are the role models that influenced your journey?
Sam Hammer: I looked up to local surfers like Johnny Anderson and Justin Cita, Matt Keenan and Frank Walsh. There were also a few good guys up in Manasquan that I looked up to as a kid. Chris Heffner with Billabong was one of the first to inspire me and make me believe I can do it. He saw me surf in a heat at an early age and was blown away that I came out of Lavallette NJ, of all places. He pulled for me and got me to where I needed to be at that time. It’s hard to make your name for yourself in Surfing, especially if you’re from the North East.
People generally don’t think about great surfing when they think of the East Coast. You just have to work your name and put yourself out there day in and day out. My drive was to be the best surfer out of New Jersey. It’s been tough with lots of hard work and I’d look up to people who had similar experiences and share the same work ethic. I grew from like-minded people with this vision.
SMM: Can you touch upon how you transitioned from the world of pro surfing to starting up Hammer Surf School? What inspired you to take on this new business venture?
Sam Hammer: The surf school came about from watching many surfers who didn’t know what to do with their lives once the competing was done. There are so many better surfers before me but they never did anything afterwards. I didn’t want to become that. I needed something going for me once I stopped surfing competitively. I needed a plan to fall back on in order to keep myself in the industry that I love.
When I was 29, I was getting older and I didn’t know how much longer my professional surfing career would last. I had to put something in motion. Therefore, I started www.HammerSurfCamp.com in Lavallette, NJ and then the next year, I started the Spring Lake, NJ location. It’s been growing and it’s really awesome to see it develop for all those who are involved. The school has also made me more valuable to my sponsors because I am promoting them more than I ever was. Through this experience, I’ve learned that I love to teach people about surfing. It’s a lot of fun to see them engaged and progressing.
It’s a beautiful feeling to see that one person out of 20 who gets hooked and the surf bug bites them. That little light bulb goes on in their mind and you know they’ll love surfing for life. I love being apart of developing that innate drive in people. That’s a very rewarding feeling amongst all the monotony of running a business. We’re also glad to see the diversity of boys and girls enrolling in the school. Sometimes the parents with daughters can be hesitant to enroll them because they think it’ll be mostly boys, but we actually get more girls at times. Having a good mix of students really adds to the learning dynamic. I also have the best staff in the entire east coast with well-known professional surfers who teach basic to advanced skills. They have so much experience to share. We have talented school teachers who understand children and really make the school thrive with our engaging lessons and curriculum. These employees are the HEART and soul… I couldn’t do it without them.
SMM: It is great to hear that you enjoy teaching and managing your surf school. One of the things Surf Mei Mei likes to hear is how entrepreneurs bring the business aspect into surfing and other adventure sports to make it a business they’re passionate about. You’ve definitely accomplished that! In that passion, how do you establish a work/life balance with surfing as your business?
Sam Hammer: I was able to last as long as I did as a professional surfer because I constantly reinvent myself. You work hard and you have to have breaks in life to rest and reset. When you learn something early and do it everyday, it becomes repetition. With professional surfing, I always looked at it as a business and enjoyed it for exactly that. When I am home surfing, I have a good time and enjoy it freely. When I go on photo trips for my sponsors, I surf and perform professionally. It’s just how I’ve always been.
I understand why people want to party when they travel to insane surf destinations, however, when someone is paying you money, it is a job. I’m lucky to have realized that at a young age and it’s been my work ethic throughout my professional career. With the surf school, the organizational work is all year round. After everything is planned, it’s a busy, fast-paced 3 months of work where you put the plans into action. And those 3-months have the smallest swells of the year. They’re actually the best months to teach young students. When fall swells and hurricane season comes around, I get to surf again! It works out pretty well.
SMM: What’s the future for Hammer Surf School?
Sam Hammer: We’re excited to say that we’ve started to take advanced students this year. There are students who have progressed from beginner, intermediate and now need coaching as advanced students. We don’t push contest surfing. We’re about having a good time and enjoying the ocean through surfing. Anyone from any walk of life can come join us. We just ask that you have a love and respect for the ocean and we’ll take care of the rest.
SMM: You are part of the North East crew who made lots of publicity for yourselves in major surfing magazines and social media in recent years. You are well respected by the locals because you are one of the best advocates for New Jersey. How would you explain surfing in New Jersey to people who don’t know of the world-class swells we see here?
Sam Hammer: With Internet, there are not too many hidden secrets anymore. We brought notice to these waves. Have we crowded the lineups? Maybe. Have we exposed great waves? Definitely. We have great waves and that has always been. Anyone with an appreciation for great waves can see beauty in New Jersey surfing. We get pumping surf here and people tend to complain about the crowds. It is just part of the culture up here in the North East. You can get up at 5 in the morning to surf by yourself in most cases. I don’t mind to see more people surf; you just have to roll with where the sport is going.
Smm: You’re well known and quite an inspiration to surfers everywhere. You’ve managed to live what you love in surfing. Can you give younger surfers/adventurers any advice from your own experience that we haven’t covered?
Sam Hammer: Have a vision of what you want and pursue it relentlessly. You will hear people judge your beliefs while you work towards your goals in life. They might not believe in you or even act against your motives. Understand what drives them and how they fit into your vision of success. You can learn a tremendous amount from both the good and the bad during your journey. Be an observer and utilize the information to get what you want and never take you eye off the prize. Motivation and fuel for your success comes in many forms.
For anyone who wants to make it in this industry, put yourself out there and get yourself noticed. You’ll need thick skin at times and don’t be afraid to fail. Most importantly, be levelheaded. Success can come easily but failure can be just as instant. My father always told me that it doesn’t matter how good you are because there’s always someone better than you out there. With that in mind, always give your dreams your hardest efforts and convictions. The one who is better than you is certainly doing just that. That’s the attitude that makes people the best at what they are. Be your best at everything you do and when it’s time, reinvent yourself when change is inevitable.
SMM: Lastly, what’s Sam Hammer’s goal in life?
Sam Hammer: “I want to find the best wave on the East coast!” [which he believes hasn’t been found yet.] ____________________________________________________________________________
John Jankowski is a Surf Mei Mei Editor who’s known Sam since his early 20s from working as a lifeguard in Lavallette. John has seen Sam grow from a local grom to the business-minded professional surfer that he is today.
Who is John Jankowski: I’m a guy who talks a lot. Where is your favorite surfing spot? Anywhere I can talk a lot in the lineup. Your dream surfing spot? Anywhere people don’t mind me talking so much. Motto in life? Do talk a lot. Listening is overrated. Oh! And loiter. It adds to the environmental ambiance.
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