Risk, Reward, Repeat

Interview by Mikey Ciaramella
All photos by Brian Nevins

Leaving firing waves to chase something new.

Certain enigmas keep us awake at night, only to rouse us before the sun. One mystery infused Sam Hammer with such vigor that he packed his boards and his 6/5/4 and fled his beloved Jersey Shore during the premier swell of 1999. He was 19. Sure, he’d left before. Hawaii. Barbados. Puerto Rico. Fiji. But this was different. Sam wasn’t departing for an exotic locale. He was forgoing a guaranteed score at home for something colder, creepier and much less certain to the north — way, way north. So, why sacrifice an assured reward to pursue an indeterminable outcome hours away? Because big risk always equals big reward, right? Nope. Sam got skunked. While the Garden State hucked and heaved, Sam shivered idly and cursed the turbulent brine before his eyes. Surely he’d never make the same mistake.But he did, and he’ll continue to do so. Now 36, Sam has spent nearly half his life chasing waves in the elusive Northeast. On his initial treks with Jersey OGs Frankie Walsh and Mike Gleason, Sam often came up empty-handed. But those initial visits yielded crucial knowledge and spawned priceless northern allies, like photographer Brian Nevins. Nevins graciously chauffeured Sam around his craggy coastline, teaching him the lay of the land (and sea). For nearly two decades the duo has continued their search, often joined by privileged associates. The recipe for traveler selection includes surf skill and sociability, but tight-lipped compliance is paramount. Sam’s list of tag-alongs is exclusive and has historically consisted of proven journeymen. But recently he’s opted for more youthful companions, such as Balaram Stack and Tommy Ihnken, in an attempt to perpetuate the legacy of northeast exploration. This time around, 17 years after that maiden voyage, the foursome found the last piece of the puzzle. Mystery solved.

Balaram Stack: It’s so beautiful up there, like so f–king beautiful. It’s unreal — camping in the forest and building fires on the beach. I’d been to that particular spot with Sam once before, but we got skunked. This was the first time I surfed it. I know how good it can get up there, so I’m always keeping an eye on the swell, and if I see something I’ll hit Sam up, like “Whaddya think about this one? And can I come?” [laughs]. Sam and Nevins are really particular with who they bring up there, and I think it’s awesome they keep it as quiet as they have. We’ve never surfed with anybody. When I saw this swell I was in Mexico, but when Sam told me it was on I hopped on the first flight back to New York. When I landed I drove seven hours by myself and through the night to meet up with those guys in the middle of a blizzard. A full whiteout. It was nuts. I was driving 70 trying to get there as fast possible. I showed up at daybreak and the conditions turned on — I think it was about as good as it gets. I knew the whole trip was a huge gamble, but after surfing that wave that good, all the failed attempts dissipate from your mind.

Tommy Ihnken: When Sam and I hopped in the car, he didn’t give me any information; he just said we’re going north. We drove all night, and as soon as we rolled up, we could tell it was going to be good. Everything just came together. We surfed the entire day and never got out of our wetsuits. And it was so cold; we would have gotten frostbite for sure without the fire we built on the beach. When I was younger, I was always like, “I’m not gonna explore anything and miss good waves at home.” But the older I’ve gotten, I’ve just realized that there’s always gonna be another swell at home. And what we found on that last trip — I didn’t know a wave like that existed on the East Coast. It’s amazing that Sam and Nevins shared that knowledge with Bal and me and brought us in on the rotation. And they’ve inspired us. In the last few years, several of us have been going up that way by ourselves — not to surf their waves, but to explore and find our own spots to show Sam and Nevins. We don’t want to just reap the benefits of their work and not give anything back.

Brian Nevins: I have no idea how many times Sam and I have hunted waves up there. Fifteen years’ worth of attempts, at least. When I was a young photographer I spent a lot of time trying to make a name for myself by going out and finding waves people had never seen before. It was a lot harder back then — the forecasting wasn’t as good, I used film cameras — but Sam and I put in the time on the road. So, yeah, we’ve been scouring the whole Northeast for a long time, not just this spot. And honestly, we’ve barely covered a fraction of it, because that area is so vast. But we’ve gotten better and better at getting that particular place dialed, and we finally scored it. The waves ended up being a lot better than all of us thought it would be. And, man, these kids [Balaram and Tommy] are lucky to be getting in now, because all those years of failure have paid off and we’re starting to get lucky a lot more often nowadays. They’re in at a good time. But I’m stoked to see that they’re doing their own work, too. Just last week the two of ‘em were way up in Nova Scotia, chasing something up there.

Sam Hammer: Being fortunate enough to travel the world when I was younger, I came to surf different places and waves, particularly reefs. In New Jersey it’s all beachbreak, and I’ve never liked surfing the same wave over and over, so to search for something new is just in my nature. It’s not fun missing good waves at home, but the payoff can be massive. As a result, I’ve probably gone north about 50 times just in the past 10 years. I’ve missed many great days in my backyard during that period. It’s just over the past two or three years that we’ve started to figure out the way things work up there. We’ve put in a lot of time on the ground, but our newfound success is also attributable to modern forecasting. The maps and models are so good nowadays that it takes much of the guesswork out of it. While I’m still really passionate about hunting waves, I’m a little bit older now, and I want to be pushed. Younger guys help to keep the psych level high, and this trip was a great example of that. Whether it’s Bal or Tommy, they want the best wave of the day, but so do I, so it’s always fun. I try to teach them a fair amount, but I don’t tell them everything [laughs]. I’ll let them figure some of it out on their own, the hard way. Just like I did.