The Sam Hammer Interview

Photo: Emily Winiker

One of the most recognizable names in Northeast surfing, as well as all the of East Coast, Sam Hammer charges a lot of opportunities most don’t have the discipline or balls to handle—whether its running and managing three separate surf school locations in a single season, paddling into a double overhead keg in a water temp that’s single digits away from the freezing point, or just being able to weed the yard while simultaneously holding a telephone with me on the other end asking a shit ton of questions about his past, present and future.

The dude appears to put in work on #every #single #front—a leading ambassador of his home state of New Jersey and a true embodiment of the genuineness, raw energy and hard-working character his region breeds. It’s an unmixed blessing to be able to get the soon-to-be father on the line during his hectic summer schedule, and I’m beyond hyped to catch him amid his afternoon yard work duties and swing an hour of conversation. Enjoy.

MK: Yo! So you came out here for Memorial Day weekend. Was that just for the party or did you have other plans too?

SH: We came out for the Whalebone party, and Laura Rubin (WB’s Editor-at-Large) had invited us out for the weekend. We decided to get out of New Jersey because…we’re gonna be there all summer (laughs). Montauk is beautiful and a rad place, so why not? There’s such a good camaraderie between New York and New Jersey. We surf together a bunch. I’ve known Nick-boy, Jesse and Charlie for a really long time. Everyone gets along, and it’s a fun crowd—the guys are just real.


Photo: Emily Winiker

MK: Yeah, it seems like that’s a defining thing up here—most of the people will be real with you. Can you recall some of your favorite surf memories in Montauk?

SH: This winter. It was the first time I got out there, just to surf, in quite a while. The past few winters, I’ve done my own thing in the New England area, but I got to surf Turtles for the first time this winter, which was pretty fun, and with only three of us out. We got through surfing the stretch all winter, too. Really, I hadn’t surfed out there a ton before then—I was always coming and going, doing promo tours. But I’ve definitely been stuck at the Memory for a week in my life (laughs). Yeah, winter is great.

MK: Without going into too much detail, can you run us through one of the best waves you’ve caught out here?

SH: There were a few days this year. It was 6-8ft, draining lefts. You know, if it’s good in NJ, we get good rights, but not super heavy, hollow lefts. So it was nice to be able to go left and get that same but different sensation. I’m so used to rights.

MK: Growing up surfing, you most likely had the opportunity to travel out west and surf on a larger stage, for a larger audience, but you chose to stay rooted on the East Coast. Why was that?

SH: Growing up back then, it was a lot different. The Internet wasn’t what it is now…where you could be anywhere and still get recognition. My thought process was that you have to go to Hawaii and spend as much time in the surf scene eye as you can. So the day I graduated high school, I went to Cali and stayed there all summer, came home for fall, and then when winter came, went to Hawaii.

Photo: Emily Winiker

Photo: Emily Winiker

For 8 years, I went to Hawaii for about 4 or 5 months every year. I tried to move to California a few different times, but I didn’t fit there. It’s a great place and wonderful to visit, but just not for me, and I knew that early. Luckily, I was surfing and kinda came around when everything changed and people started to recognize the East Coast.

MK: How large of a role is seasonality in making your entire year’s plans? Do you enter summer with a number in mind? One that’s based off where you want to travel or what you’d like to accomplish once the season’s passed?

SH: Ah, I’m not a planner. You know, it’s just, “work and bust your ass all summer.” Obviously, you have a number in your head, like, “This is what I have to make to cover myself all year.” You do have to think about that. I’m still with Billabong, who has played such an important role in my life, and the three Hammer Surf School locations have turned into a full-blown job from May to September. Also, my wife is really smart with the business. I have ideas but I don’t follow through, so she makes sure I follow through.

Photo: Emily Winiker

Photo: Emily Winiker

But work this time of year is super important. If there’s one person who says tourism is not important, they’re idiots. It’s the lifeline of where we live. My parents owned a seasonal business, a bar/restaurant in the town we grew up in. They instilled in me that, these two months, you put your head down and do what you have to do. I used to bartend every summer, then I started with my surf schools when I was 28—which was the smartest thing I’ve ever done.

MK: Being a surfer and making a living on the coast has a short lifespan. I think in every town, surfers do a lot of things to make it work, to continue living that lifestyle. Any advice for someone looking to stay in the game after their grom years give out?

SH: Surfing is a youth-driven sport. There’s always some kid that’s going to be better than you are. Shane Dorian is the king at reinventing himself, and an amazing surfer. He was a video guy, then a contest guy, then big waves…it’s pretty rad to see stuff like that. The Malloys, too. If you reinvent yourself and make yourself more of an asset to the companies, you can stay in it for a long time.

Now, a lot of it is Instagram, which is kinda weird. It seems to be more about about self promotion. “How many followers do you have?” That’s in contracts now, that’s how valuable you are to a company. I understand it but it’s crazy for me to think about it. I totally respect what people do and the choices they make to make money. With the surf schools, it feels like I’m really representing Billabong, as well as my other sponsors (FireWire, VonZipper, Trace) first hand, you know? Interacting with kids on a personal level. To these companies, that seems to speak volumes. It’s more on the lines of representing the companies I ride for on a personal level.

Photo: Emily Winiker

Photo: Emily Winiker

MK: What’s one factor of surfing the East Coast that you can’t get surfing anywhere else?

SH: I think the one thing I love about here, or anywhere on the East Coast, is that you can surf by yourself. People complain about crowds, but really we’re fortunate we don’t have the crowds like California and Hawaii. I know Ditch gets crowded, but you can always go find a sandbar in the middle of town. It’s the same here, and up and down the entire coast—just spend a little time digging you’ll find something. Also, I like the cold. I love the cold. That’s my favorite part (laughs). I like 5 mils.

MK: For those readers that not might be aware, you helped start the Cold War contest. This was its first year, right? How did it go?

SH: This year was the first year, and it was good—there was a ton of people. The press we got from it was crazy! We got so much from Surfline and ESM. For a local community contest, it was crazy. It shows that there are people interested. We didn’t really get the swell we wanted, though. We were hoping for something a little heavier and bigger but for a first year it was good event. It was raining, sleeting and snowing, and then all of a sudden it was sunny and 70 degrees out. It went through every season in 8 hours.

Leading up to it, it seemed like every swell was south, south, south. Then the waiting period started and it went east for a month, and with that spot you really need a south. Knock on wood, next year will be better. The invite list will be a little more broad, and if we get some of the guys we’ve sent invited out to, it should be pretty insane—hopefully, one to watch.

Photo: Emily Winiker

Photo: Emily Winiker

MK: Laura mentioned you were really active in Sandy relief. I think most of us down in Florida were just wondering if you guys were scoring up there. But then there was a Surfline feature that came out and a lot of it was guys talking about how the area was seriously being hit and affected. How did Sandy change you and your relationship with your hometown?

SH: Hurricane Sandy, in my lifetime, was the first time we were ever really hit by a hurricane, a catastrophic event. We had never thought about it for a second. What…NJ gets hit by a hurricane once in a trillion years? I always looked at it as, “We’re gonna get some good swell.” So that swell, we went down to Hatteras and got some good waves, then came home and were bracing for it. When it hit us, it was pretty surreal. I don’t think any weather forecaster nailed that storm. For it to take a direct left…it’s unheard of. That seemed like a once in a lifetime event, and hopefully I’m right.

My hometown was in the impact zone, where I grew up surfing. Casino Pier is gone, and will probably never come back. That was an iconic wave. There were a few days this year [when it was working] but you just don’t go left anymore because that wave’s no longer there. The ocean just took a lot of shit from a lot of people I know. You’re almost mad to see something you love so much, that’s always given stuff to you, to come and take a lot from you. It was like a serious relationship breakup.

That seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime event, and hopefully I’m right.

I had a lot of free time around then, so I just did whatever I could possibly do. Jon Rose and DJ Struntz got in touch with me right away, and Rose and Waves For Water were amazing. I can’t be indebted to them enough. I helped out where I could, but you never feel like you can help enough. The area is still different. Now, the scary part is what’s going to happen in the future with the beaches and the new laws they’re trying to implement. Everyone has different thoughts on the Corps and what they’re going to do with replenishment. I don’t want to get too into it but…you just don’t know what’s going to happen with more sand being pumped onto the beach. Will more waves be lost?

MK: It seems like more and more people are amped to surf cold water. Is there a rising trend toward cold water surf? Is that fair to say?

SH: Honestly, I think people are embracing it more because the wetsuits are better. We get our best waves in the winter, and for those couple months it’s good—NY and NJ pump. You get that one good day and it’s as good as anywhere. Maybe not as tall or big, but shape-wise. I mean who doesn’t want stand-up barrels at a beachbreak all day?

Photo: Emily Winiker

Photo: Emily Winiker

MK: Was there a defining experience that led to you being called @HammeredSam?

SH: (Laughs) Well my last name is Hammer, so people have always mad jokes. And you know, if I was out with friends, they’d always be like, “Ah, you’re hammered!” I just kinda ran with it since then.

Photo: Emily Winiker

Photo: Emily Winiker

MK: What’s next? Do you have trips currently lined up?

SH: My wife is expecting a baby so we’re just kinda chillin’. I don’t want to go anywhere right after summer—September is a really good month for us, wave-wise. There’s always some sort of tropical system floating around. Once the winter comes, I’ll probably try to get out of here for a week or two, but no plans for now.

MK: Last one…man can’t live by cold water alone. What’s your favorite warm-water break?

SH: I love Barbados and surfing Soup Bowls. It’s just a great wave. Also, I haven’t been there in some time, but Puerto Escondido. It’s like a larger NJ.

MK: Did you get a chance to watch some of the contest?

SH: Not live but I watched all the highlights. I saw Skudin’s heat. And Twiggy’s wave. That thing was fuckin’ insane!

MK: Any shoutouts you’d like to mention? People that kept you out of trouble? Good friends that called you into waves you weren’t going to paddle into?

SH: There are people that I thank for pushing me for my entire career—like Mike Gleason and Frank Walsh. Ever since we competed against each other as kids, and ever since then we’ve been best friends. Now, Mike Gleason pushes me harder than anyone. Mike has definitely called me into some waves. We are very competitive (in a friendly nature) and the same is true for Andrew Gessler. We have a healthy competitiveness. We have shared some crazy sessions together and been in some remote sessions all by ourselves. When I see him going for it, it makes me want to go for it even more. The younger Jersey and East Coast guys like Clay Pollioni, Pat Schmidt, Balaram Stack, and Thomas Ihnken really keep me on my toes.

All photos by Emily Winiker (@emilywinikerphotography). Shoutout to Laura and Sam’s wife Nicole for helping this come together, and thanks Sam for making the time.