Interview by Glenn Sakamoto / Photography by Christor Lukasiewicz
Shawn Zappo is a New Jersey based surfer/writer. Like many of us, he sees the connection that surfing has to the divine. He is currently working on his first book entitled "Surfing Sadhana: The Mystical Dimension Of The Wave-Riding Experience.” We spoke with him to learn more.
Tell us a bit about your childhood. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town called Brick, located in New Jersey, just a couple of miles west of the coastline. When my parents first moved there in 1977 many of the roads in our neighborhood were still unpaved, there were numerous wooded areas, and overall a lot of untouched nature for the local kids to go on adventures.
I spent most of my younger years outside playing and in the warmer months we would be at the beach. I loved playing in the ocean and earned myself the nickname "Water Rat" as a little kid. I was also involved in the martial arts at a young age, as my father was an instructor at a local Dojo.
Around 1983 I had discovered hip-hop culture and breakdancing, from there it was skateboarding, and soon after followed surfing. I was 11 years old when I began to surf with intention and not just fooling around in the whitewater. Life was good. I consider myself blessed to have lived my childhood in a somewhat simpler time.
Who were some of the people you admired or looked up to?
Initially, it was family members; my father, and my cousin Brian. My cousin Brian is the person who showed me the movie Beat Street when I was a kid, turning me on to hip hop. A few years later he took me to the old Lake Riviera pool to skate and at this time I discovered punk rock. He also surfed, so I was lucky to be accepted quickly into the fold of older more experienced and skilled surfers.
In reference to surfing, we had a lot of solid local surfers, and ultimately these are the people that influenced me the most. The two surfers that really impressed me at a young age were Dave Anderson and Roger Jefferey. These were local guys who were just on another level than many of the other surfers in the water.
What is your own personal journey to surfing?
I’ve always been attracted to things that I felt were creative and interesting. So surfing was just a natural progression for me.
I started surfing in the summer of 1986 and three months later I was entering the local amateur contests. This seemed the way to go if you wanted to improve at surfing and make a name for yourself. I really enjoyed the contest scene when I was young, I had a lot of good times. It was a nice way to connect with other surfers you wouldn’t normally have a chance to meet and it pushed you to progress.
Even at a young age, I was serious about becoming what I considered a "good" surfer. I always did well in contests from day one, but I never thought that I could do much with surfing being from New Jersey. It was a different time, so the opportunities that exist today for the younger generation weren't necessarily available to my friends and I.
Over the last 35 years or so on this surfing journey, I’ve realized it’s always changing. What I’m looking for now in a session is something totally different from when I was a teen, or in my twenties, or in my thirties. As I change, my surfing changes, and this keeps the entire pursuit fresh. I imagine we all stick with it for the pure joy and love of the simple act of riding waves. I also think as we age, surfing can take on a more profound meaning in our life.
“I remember the first time I rode the actual face of a wave, that was a magical moment. Something clicked, a deep connection, where you learn to move with this natural energy. You're no longer struggling, wrestling with the conditions; you've now become in unison. That moment, I have never forgotten. Even thinking about it now, brings a joy up inside me in which words would be poor tools used for description.”
Was there a peak moment when you knew you were hooked?
I remember the first time I rode the actual face of a wave, that was a magical moment. Something clicked, a deep connection, where you learn to move with this natural energy. You're no longer struggling, wrestling with the conditions; you've now become in unison. That moment, I have never forgotten. Even thinking about it now, brings a joy up inside me in which words would be poor tools used for description.
You have an interest in spirituality. Can you tell us how this relates to your wave riding?
I was raised Catholic and as a young boy I attended Catholic school. So the standard Western concept of "spirituality" was all I knew. It was later, through my involvement in the New York Hardcore scene, that I was introduced to Eastern spiritual philosophy and practice. I was about fifteen years old at the time and I feel this is when my own personal journey of spirit began.
I had moved into the Hare Krsna temple in Brooklyn during the summer of 1992. I bounced in and out of the temple between 1992 and 1995, finally just coming to the conclusion that the rigidity of monk life was not for me. In these years, I was surfing very little, putting it aside as a sort of hedonistic pursuit. This journey of spirit has seen a lot of twists and turns and it's ongoing. It's life.
Tell us more...
There came a point after all my seeking, where I felt utterly exhausted and bewildered. A lot of what I was using as a foundation for my maneuvering through the world was no longer serving me. I went through a personal philosophical and spiritual deconstruction.
Long story short, I came to the personal realization that surfing had always been my path. I could define it for myself and create my own meaning in riding waves. It's through surfing that I find a close connection with nature, a way to silence my mind, and delve deeper into what it means to be a human being.
Not to sound pretentious, but surfing is in a sense, is my religion. It’s my primary way of connecting with the natural world, the Universe, God, my higher self, or whatever term works. For myself, spirituality is a sense of connection to yourself, others, the world in which we live, and the force behind it all. It’s a sense of reverence and gratitude for the gift of life.
What is Surf & Abide?
Surf and Abide is a surf media website that is curated for a what I would call a more thoughtful audience. The site was initially created by my friend Christian Misvaer, who is based in San Francisco. I was brought on in 2012 to create and curate content, while also acting as a creative director and overall manager of our small team of contributors.
With the birth of Christian's daughter and other life demands, he began to step away. I was left with a choice to keep going or throw in the towel because my contract was not going to be renewed. I enjoyed the work and felt it was important, so I decided to keep going. I feel it was a wise choice and I'm proud of the vibe that the site projects into the surfing world. It also has enabled me to connect with surfers and creatives all over the planet.
What “Golden Rule” do you live by?
Spend time with the people you love, doing the things you love. The impact you have on others is your legacy. Continue to grow, while maintaining the spirit of youth. The fresh mind of a child. The magic. We find it in our passions. Keep surfing. Also, be kind and patient with yourself. Perfection is a myth.
Who/what inspires you?
I find inspiration both inside and outside. It comes from within myself and it comes from others. It's a current, flow, and a connection. Music, surfing, literature, nature, the ocean, my son, my friends; these all inspire me.
As far as surfers, in the realm of film, I would say my top three are Andrew Kidman, Nathan Oldfield, and Thomas Campbell. Their work in film had a profound impact of where I wanted to go with surfing and life in general. There's a lot of places to pull inspiration from. Your work with Liquid Salt. Cyrus Sutton and all his various works. The writing of Jaimal Yogis. There's so many people out there doing good works.
Tom Blake! He had a monumental impact on modern surfing on numerous levels. But it's his philosophical writing work that has touched me the most. He embodied what I feel is the true soul of the surfing experience and lifestyle. Anyone who is carving out their own unique path in surfing, that’s inspiring.
Where is your favorite place(s) to surf?
There's amazing surf on all corners of the globe, but I truly love surfing at home in New Jersey. When we get a solid south swell and you find a nice sandbar with a few friends, that's it right there!
What boards are you currently riding? What’s your favorite?
I've been working with shaper, Matt Parker, for the last 7 years or so. In that time, I've experimented with a variety of shapes. At 44 years old, I find a lot of enjoyment in mastering new equipment. Finding new ways to ride waves, new lines. That's where I derive fresh excitement with my surfing. It’s funny, because we may lose much of the trickery in our surfing as we grow older, but it’s now in the refinement of my surfing that I find new life.
As far as boards, lately I've been riding an asymmetrical 6'9" twin pin from Matt Parker. I would call this board my current favorite, it’s what I’ve been riding in the majority of conditions. I also ride my 6'2" three-fin asymmetrical when I'm feeling like I want to surf a bit more performance oriented. That board blends the feel of a twin, quad, and thruster. That get-up-and-go initial burst of speed a twinnie will give you, the hold in the tube you’ll get from a quad, and a very similar pivot point to a thruster.
My mini-simmons called the "Symphony" is also another favorite. I've really been digging on this 7' Re-bowls that was designed by Ryan Lovelace for the Trimcraft brand. Board is super fun.
I like boards that compliment my style of surfing and the wave. I don't like forced or overly aggressive surfing at this point. I enjoy the more subtle elements, being smooth, precise, and in aesthetic unison with the wave. That's beautiful surfing to me.
If you had to choose a last meal, what would it be?
I would want to be with my family and friends. I love Indian food, Mexican food, but the first thing that came to mind was watermelon.
“We can make plans, but life has a way of its own. We have some control, but we’re not in control. So, like surfing, life is knowing when it’s appropriate to push and when it makes sense to relinquish our sense of control, going with the flow.”
What’s next for Shawn Zappo?
To be perfectly honest, I don't know! We can make plans, but life has a way of its own. We have some control, but we’re not in control. So, like surfing, life is knowing when it’s appropriate to push and when it makes sense to relinquish our sense of control, going with the flow.
On a personal level, I hope I'm blessed to live a long life, to see my son grow into a man. This is a huge purpose to my existence, to guide my boy, and be available for him as he moves through his own life.
Otherwise, I'm currently working on the layout for my first book entitled "Surfing Sadhana: The Mystical Dimension Of The Wave-Riding Experience.” All the written work is done, all the photos were taken by my friend Christor Lukasiewicz. It will be a coffee table style book that will have a 50/50 balance between written and photo content. It's a way for me to give something back to the culture of surfing.
I have more short films in mind, we’re always shooting and filming. I’m working up towards a larger full-length feature. Any further talk about that would be a bit premature. I’m always writing, sometimes for an audience, sometimes for my own personal pleasure. I really just would like to stay creative with my surfing and within the culture.
Anything is possible, so I’ll just keep going, and see where the trip takes me.