9: Pancho Sullivan: My Surfing Life

Born on the Island of Kauai and raised on the North Shore of Oahu, Pancho Sullivan has become recognized as one of the best power surfers in surfing. Pancho has seen success as a free surfer, earning a spot on the Rip curl SEARCH team for many years. He qualified for the world tour (at almost 32 years old), ultimately retiring 7th in the world. Pancho Sullivan has coached professional surfers, he has been a brand ambassador for Rip Curl, and he’s now putting his focus and experience into creating the best extreme sports watch in the industry with his brand AULTA.

“If you’re driven to be the best version of your self… that’s going to carry over. You are going to not only be able to utilize that in surfing but also in business and other aspects of life and most importantly, your relationships.”
-Pancho Sullivan⠀

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I hope to see you surfing!
Joe Walsh

Audio transcription:

Joe Walsh:
Hey there this is Joe Walsh from Tamarindo, Costa Rica and you’re listening to the Get Out and SURF podcast. In this week’s episode, we’re on the North Shore of Hawaii chilling out with surfing legend Pancho Sullivan.
Pancho is considered one of the best power surfers in the world. His story is unreal and he’s done it all. It was a real treat getting to hang with Pancho. I loved what he had to say and I think you will too. So sit back, relax and let’s get started.
Hey, this is Joe Walsh coming to you from Pupukea on the North Shore of Hawaii. I’m sitting here with special guest Pancho Sullivan.
Pancho, welcome to the show.
Pancho Sullivan::
Thank you so much for having me.
Joe Walsh:
Yeah man, we’re stoked. Also of course, can’t forget Niki Hurren. Niki, welcome back.
Niki Hurren:
Yeah, I’m still here, still hanging on.
Joe Walsh:
I got to describe what I’m looking at real quick. I’m sitting here with Pancho. Thank you, very gracious, great hospitality welcoming us into your home, if you want to call it a home. I think it’s more of a palatial estate though. I’m looking around, this thing absolutely incredible on this beautiful deck with all kinds of birds and nature sounds, and fruit trees and everything. It’s just amazing man. Do you ever go anywhere or do you just stay here the whole time? I don’t even know if I’d ever leave.
Pancho Sullivan::
We joke that we get stuck up here. I think when you live in Pupukea, it’s so peaceful up here that a lot of times you’ll miss out on surf sessions just by getting lost in the yard, doing yard work and things of that nature. But yeah, it’s definitely a blessing to be able to live up here in this valley with these peaceful surroundings.
Joe Walsh:
This is what I heard, the word on the street, coconut wireless is that you were born in a tree house. Maybe we’ll start right there, because I feel like I’m in a tree house now. What’s the deal?
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, I was born at the end of the road in Haena on Kauai in 1973 in a place that has become known as Taylor Camp. It was Elizabeth Taylor’s brother Robert Taylor, he owned 11 acres out at the end of the road. My mom and her best friend happened to stumble upon Taylor Camp, which was known as … It was just a group of free-spirited people that were looking to get away from the establishment so to speak and live a very carefree lifestyle of living off the land and getting away from being indoctrinated by what they felt at the time was part of …
The big, I guess global, political event happening was Vietnam and so a lot of people felt like the government wasn’t being very truthful, the status quo of nine to five, all that started to be questioned, and I think a lot of those like-minded people gathered and just thought, “Hey, we just want to live free and be ourselves, and not be inundated with society’s conformity,” or what everybody I guess at the time perceived as just a normal life. They want wanted to live amongst the trees and live off the land. It was sort of a social experiment and-
Joe Walsh:
Sounds pretty cool.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, it was. Initially I think it was a great concept and unfortunately I think as time went on, different people showed up at the camp with different intentions and brought more drugs and corrupted. Fortunately we left before that happened, and I think a lot of people that … You know, I was pretty young when we left, so I don’t really have a lot of memories of living there but some of the people that that did live there and had that experience said it was the best time of their life.
Joe Walsh:
It sounds like a pretty insane setup.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, it was really cool. They had a garden, they had like a co-op free store. It basically was like a village. Everybody shared responsibilities, and basically were just living very carefree. Like I said, for a lot of the people that lived there in the beginning, they all reflect and say it was the greatest experience they’ve ever had.
Niki Hurren:
When did you actually move to the North Shore?
Pancho Sullivan::
We left Taylor Camp in 1975. For a short time we lived just in a house at the end of the road out in Haena on Kauai, and then we moved to the North Shore, actually originally moved to Punaluu on the east side of the island back in 1978. My mom worked up at Turtle Bay and eventually we moved up to Turtle Bay in about 1981. Initially going back to living at Taylor Camp, that was my first, I think experience as far as like being on surfboards. There was a lot of surfers in the camp and-
Joe Walsh:
It was on the beach then?
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, we lived on the beach in a tree house. There was a stream that ran through the camp where everybody got their water, bathed, for cooking, whatever. But, there was also a couple surf breaks out front and there was quite a few surfers that lived there, so there was always surfboards laying around. I do have memories of crawling around on surfboards in the stream right there, and then also paddling through the surf on the nose of my mom’s boyfriend’s board. I think that was where the seed was planted so to speak.
Then when we moved here to Oahu, some friends of mine that lived in the neighborhood, they had a surfboard and their dad would take us out into the little river mouth out in front of our house. We would tread water, myself and my best friend and his little brother, and he would make us tread water to get us to be more comfortable in the ocean. We would take turns on the one surfboard that they had and that was it. I mean, I was completely hooked at that point and I don’t think I stopped bugging my mom for about two years to get my own surfboard.
Joe Walsh:
What age was that?
Pancho Sullivan::
I think I was about six. Yeah, somewhere around there.
Joe Walsh:
All right, so six, seven years old just relentlessly pestering mom to get you a board, which was probably a pretty good move on your part because you seem to be pretty naturally talented. I hear that besides surf, you actually were really good at school and all kinds of sports.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, I think I was just a really hyperactive kid. I love sports, I love pushing myself and trying to just … I don’t necessarily like to compete with other people, I just like to no matter what it is, I like to push myself and I guess, just be the best that I can be. I love being a student of whatever it is. If it was baseball season, I would be fanatical about that. I’d be outside throwing the ball up in the air to myself or whether it was soccer, I really would just dive into whatever it was that I was doing and sort of be a little bit obsessive about it.
Joe Walsh:
That’s killer, self-driven. Okay, when you finally got yourself a board, where was your first wave?
Pancho Sullivan::
The first waves that I caught on my own were actually in Punaluu on the east side. There’s a little river mouth that was right across the street from where we lived. Really soft wave and so it was very perfect for the age where I was at. My mom didn’t have to worry about me going and surfing by myself. The wave, there’s not much consequence to it so I really couldn’t get myself into any kind of trouble. It was a perfect place to learn and just paddle around. I think the biggest challenge at that time was just not having anybody to surf with me. I was fanatical, I wanted to surf. It was just something I-
Joe Walsh:
There was no getting on YouTube to see whatever all the pro surfers were doing at the time.
Pancho Sullivan::
No, no and at that point, I really hadn’t been out to Sunset Beach very much. There was just something about it that I was just fascinated by it and from the minute I stood up on a surfboard, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to ride waves. It was totally euphoric. I just remember even at a really young age, being out in the ocean and just being able to have that sense of freedom of being in nature and just trying to blend with the rhythm the ocean. You know, it’s a dance to ride a wave, it’s sort of like … It’s hard to put into words sometimes, but I think there are so many elements to it that are euphoric, and energizing, and cleansing. You hear all those things and it’s so true. There are so many aspects to being a surfer and to being in the ocean that really makes your spirit come alive.
Niki Hurren:
It’s almost like a connection. My kids are young and my main thing was if they want to surf they can surf, but I want them to be connected to the ocean and whatever they want to do with it and obviously you being at a very young age, being in the water, learning how to tread water and learn how to deal with the different environment that the ocean can bring, it’s different. Different tides every single day, so it definitely seems that when you connect with a wave that’s been traveling all those miles, that piece of energy, for me that’s how I feel it is. It definitely seems the same way with you.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, I think we all as surfers, we all share that common thread, or I guess appreciation of the spiritual aspect of surfing. I know it can sound cosmic to people, but it’s true. I mean-
Niki Hurren:
No, I think we all feel it. It’s one of the hardest things to explain.
Joe Walsh:
For sure. It’s pretty hard to put it into words like you said. You were surfing on the east side, which is … From what I understand, you get a lot of trade winds on shores. We were in Kailua in the bay there, and the waves seemed like they were really great for little kids. Is it a similar setup where you were first-
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah. It was a lot of onshore swell which produces nonstop waves and being a hyperactive kid, it was kind of perfect. There was no waiting, it was just nonstop, nonstop. And, there was no surfers. It was rare like I said. There was only a couple kids that lived in that area that actually surfed. When we finally did move up to Turtle Bay and I started playing soccer and baseball in the Sunset Beach community and I started meeting other kids that surfed, that was it. I mean, it was like I had found my tribe so to speak in that sense of just being around so many other kids that loved being in the water.
And I had no real preference. I loved being on a surfboard, but I was just as happy body surfing, boogie boarding. I just wanted to be in the water all the time, and so you made all those different connections with different kids that liked riding different boards, whether it was skim boarding or … And at that point, so many of my friends were into different things. I had friends that were just learning how to windsurf. Windsurfing was becoming the thing to do at backyards. I had friends that were incredible skim borders, so I would jump in and out of these little groups of different board riders. As long as I was in the ocean and keeping my gills wet, that was what I was … I guess that was my addiction.
Joe Walsh:
Do you think that maybe spending time body surfing, trying windsurfing or skim boarding, do you think those other ocean activities helped make you more well-rounded and helped you with your surfing?
Pancho Sullivan::
It definitely could have been. What I recall is whenever I would come back to riding a surfboard, I would feel like this sort of reconnection or this like epiphany of, “Wow! This is …” I loved doing all that other stuff and I love mixing it up-
Joe Walsh:
But you knew surfing was it.
Pancho Sullivan::
But I knew surfing was my first love. Every time I would get back on a board, I would be more, I want to say almost like appreciative to be doing it and to be out there. I loved the aspect of being in the ocean and having to, I guess physically challenge yourself, like whether it’s punching through a set of waves or riding a wave and trying to harness all that speed.
Joe Walsh:
How did you go from being a kid that knew he loved surfing to being in contests?
Pancho Sullivan::
I started competing pretty young age, I would say about 12. I started entering some of the amateur events. Started out here on the North Shore in the Menehune event in Haleiwa. There was an event, it’s now the Haleiwa International Open. That was like the … Those were the big contests for this area for kids. There was a little tiny surf shop called Sunset Beach Surf Shop that was owned by Karen Gallagher. She was just incredible for all the kids on the North Shore.
She sponsored so many of myself and so many of my friends and would help us out, give us wax, try to help pay for entry fees. She really was the person that I have to thank as far as encouraging me to compete and to … I guess she saw that I had a talent for surfing and the fact that she was able, or was supporting me was really the sole reason why I actually started doing competition in the first place, because we really couldn’t afford entry fees and things like that. She sponsored me and helped me with that, and I loved competing.
I loved that challenge of pushing myself, but again, I kind of had this epiphany or awareness at about 15 that it was just such a big investment of time to be at a contest all day waiting to surf such a short heat and I was like way too like I said, hyperactive to want to sit around all day and wait to surf, I just wanted to surf. I wanted to surf for hours, and hours, and hours, and-
Niki Hurren:
You’ll be sitting there waiting for a heat and you know that there’s a place going off and you want to go …
Pancho Sullivan::
I knew all my friends were surfing good waves and I’m here I am like, I’m at not the greatest spot on the island trying to wait to surf for 15 minutes. I lived in that those two worlds of enjoying competition, but not really feeling that it was the best use of my time I guess, so to speak. I kind of shied away from competition at about 15 and just wanted to surf more. Wanted to spend more time riding different waves, being able to hop from Pipeline, to Backyards, to Sunset.
When you’re in high school it’s like if you eat up your whole weekend, it’s chewed up being at a competition, you don’t really feel like you got to surf that much. That was where my mindset was at, is I just wanted to surf as much as I possibly can, and so I stopped competing at about 15 until I was about almost 18.
Joe Walsh:
How old were you when you got invited to join The Search? What was The Search?
Pancho Sullivan::
Well, I’m sure it means different things to different people but as a company, Rip Curl I think their values were … What that meant for the company was just go out and live life, and enjoy, and surf, and explore. We live in a beautiful world and as surfers, we’re blessed to be able to not only surf our home break, but even spots that around the corner. To seek out, and find, and explore new places. I think one of the most incredible things in life is to experience different cultures, languages and foods and things like that.
I think a lot of it was just encouraging people to find happiness. You know, go out, travel, experience life. As surfers, find and challenge yourself to ride new waves and for me that’s, it was sort of the perfect blend. I kind of randomly entered the event at the Hard Rock Cafe’s World Cup and Sunset Beach and that’s what sort of kick started me into professional surfing. I pulled up to the beach, I had just sold a surfboard, kind of needed that money for my rent but they were calling beach entries and my friend encouraged me. He said, “Man, you should enter.”
A lot of guys were pulling out of the event because the waves were a little small, so I just rolled the dice. I had my board with me, I had the cash on hand, I beach entered and I ended up making it through about seven rounds into the main event and made, I think I made $1,800. I was just blown away that my $150 entry fee turned into $1,800 dollars.
Joe Walsh:
At what age?
Pancho Sullivan::
This was at 18. The light bulb went off and I was like, “Wow! This …” It’s incredible that you can actually make money from doing something that is fun, you love doing. It wasn’t something that I announced or anything, but deep down inside I thought I’d love to just push myself and see what level I can take my surfing to and in the process, if I can travel and experience new things, and earn money to support that. It’s worth a try. Obviously without any real preparation or anything, I made it as far as I did in the event and so it was a good motivator to just push myself.
From that point forward, I started really buckling down. I was working at night, working construction and just really started focusing on when I would go out, to just push myself, paddle harder, try to push my turns harder and things like that. That led to a few more results, competitive results, one of which was I won the Pipeline Trials. Circling back around, that’s when I got a knock on the door and an offer to join The Search. For me it was a dream come true in the sense that again, competition was something that I enjoyed doing, but it wasn’t for me.
I enjoyed getting away from crowds and surfing with friends. I love when you have that opportunity to share waves and there’s that really good energy and vibe in the ocean. To me there’s … The waves don’t have to be perfect, but when you have that element it makes for a perfect situation or a perfect moment. To me, The Search represented an opportunity to travel to places I never dreamed I would ever go and surf waves that maybe had never been surfed before. That was the aim of what they were trying to promote at the time.
Joe Walsh:
For the listeners of the show that don’t understand the gravity of the situation, this is like a dream come true for any surfer to get a knock at the door and say, “Hey, we’re traveling the world.” I mean, what? By boat, by plane, going to all of these not just world class spots but like you said, places and maybe some spots people hadn’t even surfed before. That must’ve been totally unreal. I remember seeing the early surf movies and I just … That was part of what inspired me.
There was all these surfing mags, because there was no internet back then. All of those full page ads with these epic waves. I mean, right barrels, left point breaks, just never anybody on the wave either and it just had that that old school Rip Curl logo that I think they made just for The Search campaign. It totally triggered it in me, I think probably every other surfer too.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, definitely. I think back and some of the trips that I was so fortunate to go on. I’ve slept on the Pan-American Highway, I’ve driven all night chasing swells. I mean, it was really a cool experience and time to be able to spend with … Sonny Miller was the filmmaker for Rip Curl for a long time and just a really good friend. He’s passed away, but he inspired generations of surfers through his vision and through the lens. Rip Curl provided the budget, but Sonny Miller was really the one that was the glue that made it all happen. We never really had much of a plan. We knew generally where we were going to go and nothing was … There wasn’t these fancy yachts catered or anything like that. We were just kind of-
Niki Hurren:
So, he was one that had the vision and the drive to push everyone and he … Did he pick the surfers he wanted or was it-
Pancho Sullivan::
No, I mean, it was definitely maybe a collaborative they between Brian and Claw, the owners of Rip Curl. Even to this day, Claw’s at a lot of the events. He’s just still as passionate about surfing as he’s ever been but yeah, there was I think a collaborative effort. Derek Hynd was involved when I first came on board. I think he really played a big role in bringing together people from different parts of the world. Whether it’s Frankie Oberholzer, or Nathan Hedge, or different surfers from all over that shared that passion or that desire to get away from competition, and to travel, and see the world and experience riding waves in different parts of the world.
There was a lot of basically just camaraderie amongst a lot of the guys, that we traveled together and traveled well together I should say. As anybody who’s traveled knows how important that is when you’re all crammed into a tight little van or whatever it was that we were, the means of transportation of how we were getting around.
Niki Hurren:
You’ve got to have a lot of patience even with some of your best friends. You’ve still got to get around and figure out one of you doesn’t want to go to this spot, another one says , no, it’s better over here.
Joe Walsh:
That’s pretty been pretty much from the story this week here in Hawaii with Niki and I.
Niki Hurren:
Well, we’ve just been here … At least we agree on the food. We’ve been we’ve been eating the spam-
Joe Walsh:
Musubi.
Niki Hurren:
They’re insane.
Pancho Sullivan::
Hawaiian power bar.
Niki Hurren:
I never even knew they existed. It’s been crazy and it’s been good.
Joe Walsh:
Okay, who was your crew? Who were the guys that you traveled with the most on The Search, or the ones that you connected with the most?
Pancho Sullivan::
Well, Nathan Hedge and I really became super tight. He was a few years younger than me, kind of like a little brother but just loved his energy, his infectious positive energy. I was very fortunate to do a bunch of trips with, listen to him playing music and seeing the world through … You know, you get to see how other people view the world and how they interact with people and be influenced by that and influenced by the people you meet. I think for me, I feel like and I always say that my education really began when I started traveling and meeting new people.
I did okay in school, but it wasn’t … I always felt a little trapped. I never dreamed it would happen, I never knew that I was going to travel to as many places as I did, but really I feel like it just opened my eyes to the rest of the world. Just learning different languages, and more so just how to interact with other people was just … To see the levels of poverty in the midst of trying to go surfing and the profound effect that would have on you and, I guess just a deeper appreciation of being able to go surfing.
Niki Hurren:
Oh yeah, it opens your eyes.
Pancho Sullivan::
Definitely.
Niki Hurren:
When I first started traveling my friends, I grew up on the east coast of England. I say this every podcast is to remind everyone. Waves aren’t that good and so we had to travel. We were lucky enough that we were a core group of friends. My first surf trip was like Morocco and then we went to Indonesia, Portugal. I thought we were just going to get some waves but in the end you do, you get to realize these other cultures. Especially things like The Search, things like Endless Summer and things like that, it just pushes you to go out and just experience more.
Joe Walsh:
It’s almost like you don’t necessarily remember all the waves, but you remember the experiences out of the water more right?
Niki Hurren:
Oh, yeah.
Pancho Sullivan::
Definitely, absolutely.
Joe Walsh:
Where were the spots that you enjoyed the most or had the most profound impact? Where did you get to go? What are some of the destinations you went to in The Search?
Pancho Sullivan::
Wow, we traveled a lot. I would say over half the year I was on the road. I feel like I had great experiences everywhere, but some of the maybe most visually spectacular moments as far as surf and just the beauty of the people, Tahiti has always been a place that has really had a profound impact on me. Just the clarity of the water, the beauty of the islands and the people themselves. I always feel when I visit Tahiti, I come away happier. I come away appreciating life, and my relationships, more. I feel like the environment and Tahiti people, there is a lot of Aloha and respect for other people.
Joe Walsh:
Some of the waves I don’t think were necessarily announced in the videos where you guys surfed. Were there some spots that maybe you never said where they were that maybe you can say now?
Pancho Sullivan::
You know, we definitely always … It was sort of like an unspoken thing amongst everyone that was traveling that we don’t need to expose anywhere. Like, let’s just enjoy this moment and where we’re at and hopefully through that, other people will be moved to find their own Shangri-La.
Joe Walsh:
So, that was the whole strategy then? Well, it worked. You got everybody-
Niki Hurren:
Let them find it, let them go through their own experience instead of like, oh yeah, this is here and you can go surf here and get good waves. Let them try and go down that road and get skunked and go down that road and score.
Pancho Sullivan::
I feel like a little bit of that magic has been lost a little bit. You can still find it and create it, but the world that we live in today, we’re so dependent upon forecasts and-
Joe Walsh:
Google Maps.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, all these different … You know, whether it’s Yelp or it’s some sort of preset expectation where … You know, we were traveling and we had no idea whether or not … We’d try to find out if there was going to be swell, but it was just we were going there from for this time period, we’re going to hang out and travel and we’re going to … If it looks like it’s going to be good 500 miles away and we can figure out a way to get there, then that’s what we’re going to do. It was like planes, trains, automobiles like I said. I just remember that experience of driving through from Lima to the northern part of Peru and being caught in the middle of the worst El Nino probably than ever where miles of roads were just gone, washed out completely.
Joe Walsh:
It only like rains once every five years there.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, it was crazy. We were with some local Peruvian guys that were … It was amazing to see the look on their face because we were driving to areas where there’s never a blade of grass and the mountain, the hills are all covered in greenery. They were just blown away looking up at the hills. That was an experience where it took us, normally would’ve been about a day and a half drive. It took us three days because we had to find alternate routes because roads were just completely gone.
Joe Walsh:
I’ve done that drive a couple times and it’s total desert. That must’ve been wild, like the one time it does rain and it was an El Nino season. It must’ve been chaotic.
Pancho Sullivan::
It was crazy to see, I guess a little bit of the devastation. People were stuck on the sides of the road trying to travel from one part of the country to the other. We were just fortunate we had four wheel drives and we were with local guys that they had been traveling to that area and surfing their whole life, so they … I mean, it was amazing. They always found a way to get us around whatever obstacle was in our way and we actually got … Even though it took us three days, we got to the northern part of Peru and we scored incredible waves.
The water was pretty brown, but it was some of the longest to this day, some of the longest waves I’ve ever ridden in my life were on that trip. It was those types of experiences that you carry with you for the rest of your life to your point. As surfers, we ride a lot of waves and you tend to sort of forget. You live that brief few seconds and it sends this bolt of lightning through your body and then you want another one, and then you want another one. We sort of all live in that reality, but those experiences of trying to get from point A to point B and the people that you meet in between like people on the side of the road that you have this interaction with, it-
Joe Walsh:
That’s more valuable than the surf in my opinion.
Pancho Sullivan::
Definitely, absolutely.
Joe Walsh:
Yeah, I think that’s definitely the platform of this podcast. We love to surf, love to travel, but it’s not always about scoring waves. The waves may be subpar, but the trip could still be a home run just because of the people you met or the non-surfing experiences you had. Especially somewhere in there before, you know very little about as opposed to … You were saying earlier like looking at the Yelp review or the TripAdvisor reviews and you’re kind of like, “Okay, we’re going to go eat at this restaurant. We’re going to order these pancakes because that’s what everyone says to eat and then we’re going to go check out the turtles right here because that’s where we stop and take pictures of the turtles.”
The experiences you have on these adventures, these surf trips are so meaningful. They’re more important than the waves. Of course, getting great waves, that would just even be the best of both worlds. I’m not saying-
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, that’s the icing on the cake.
Joe Walsh:
That’s the icing on the cake. All right, well another really cool thing that the listeners need to learn more about, they want to hear about this, you were on the World Tour, the best of the best. I want to hear about that. You have this free surfing experience with Rip Curl’s, The Search which sounds absolutely amazing, but then after that you went on the World Tour.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah. Like I said, I traveled for like 15 years straight on Rip Curl’s Search program. I kind of reached a point where, and within the company they started to focus a little bit more on competition. They were sponsoring several of the World Tour events and it was sort of like a … Shortly after having my daughter, I was getting to a point or an age where I realized that the experience of being a paid professional surfer, a free surfer was coming to a close and I was okay with that.
But, one thing I thought that because I had competed mainly selectively at select events around the world, but mostly enjoyed competing here at home on the North Shore in the Triple Crown. I had some good results here and I thought, well, I’ve never really applied myself and now that I have a child, I want to be able to look back and share this experience with her that, hey when you have opportunities in life, you have to seize them and really do the best you can, then you’ll never have any regrets no matter what. You know that you had this opportunity, you did everything you could to manifest or turn that into a lifestyle.
For me surfing, I always loved to surf. I just enjoyed surfing as much as I possibly could, so to have that opportunity to then earn a living to where I could support my family and hopefully share the experience of traveling and surfing with my wife and my daughter, that was something that I thought, “Hey, here I am. I’ve had some results in Hawaii, let’s see what I can do if I commit myself to this 100%. I’m going to go out and I’m going to do the World Qualifying Series and if I don’t make it, that’s okay. At least I know that I gave it 110% before I embark on the next chapter or next phase of my life,” and so that’s what I did.
I believe I did like 22 world qualifying events that year. I actually took it as an opportunity to just like I said, travel and experience that with my wife and my daughter. That was I believe in 2005, so we got … It was an incredible year of … We went to England, and France, and Portugal. I competed in the Maldives and just went all over.
Niki Hurren:
What age were you at, at that time?
Pancho Sullivan::
I was 31 years old.
Niki Hurren:
31, so you’re not old by any means.
Pancho Sullivan::
No, older.
Niki Hurren:
Older, but obviously, what… I’d be interested in what was the average age of the guys on the tour with you.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, there definitely was a much younger age bracket, and that was fine for me. I didn’t really focus on that so much. I was really just enjoying like, I would compete and then we would, my wife and I would look at what other really cool experiences that we could have within a close proximity to each event. We’d throw our daughter in the backpack and Yeah, just see as much as we could see.
Niki Hurren:
Your experiences that you had, with age comes experience and it doesn’t really matter if someone is a lot younger than you. They might have a little bit more energy, but experience counts for everything. Did you find that your experiences and your longevity within surfing, did that actually help?
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, I think it did. I was at a point in life where I had achieve my dream, which was just to travel, and surf, and go to Indonesia. I always wanted to go there and I always want to go to Tahiti, so I didn’t really feel a sense of pressure I think that I had to perform. I wouldn’t advise anybody to do this, but I pretty much slapped the entire thing on a credit card. I don’t know what I was thinking at that point, but I was sort of like, “Hey, this is an opportunity of a lifetime to get to travel the world with my wife and my daughter. We’re never going to regret this.”
I went out there with that mindset, but I also felt confident that when the waves got good, that I could compete at a level as high as anybody. I felt like if I could get just a few results outside of Hawaii based on the consistency of the results that I was getting here at home, that I would give myself an outside shot at qualifying for the tour and at that time, competition sort of evolved. When I was younger and first joined The Search, most of the events were based around the biggest sort of weekend beach party in a certain place or area, and then the tour evolved to where They started going to these incredible locations and good waves. That sort of made me step back and go, “Wow!” To be able to compete at-
Joe Walsh:
Jeffreys.
Pancho Sullivan::
Jeffreys Bay with one other person in the water, that’s incredible.
Joe Walsh:
I think I would’ve been absolutely out of control. How could you pass that up?
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, it’s a gamble worth taking and I feel like … You know, every time for a lot of people we’re all put in those situations where you kind of have to bet on yourself if you have a dream and you believe in something. I think that’s where the stones came to put everything on a credit card.
Joe Walsh:
You did the WQS, the Qualifying Series?
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah.
Joe Walsh:
You qualified?
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah. I started the year with a win at Pipe in what’s now the Volcom Pipe Pro. Then I traveled around and competed and got enough results outside of Hawaii. I think I was somewhere in the top 50 coming back into Hawaii and then I won, excuse me, I won the Haleiwa Hawaiian Pro, which was a prime event. That shot me up the ratings quite a bit and then I ended up I think getting a quarterfinal finish at Sunset. I finished the Qualifying Series I think in like six or seventh place and that was enough points to get me on the World Tour.
Joe Walsh:
Okay, so then you did it all over again basically, but other spots.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah. I was fortunate enough to then be able to be on the World Championship Tour and travel to Fiji for the event there, Tahiti, Jeffreys Bay. There was Trestles in California.
Joe Walsh:
Cute wiener dog by the way.
Pancho Sullivan::
Come on, go on, go on, go, go, go.
Joe Walsh:
Is it a wiener dog?
Pancho Sullivan::
Yup. They’re mini dachshunds.
Joe Walsh:
Super cute. You’ve got a farm here. I noticed you got roosters. That’s something that Hawaii and Costa Rica has in common. It feels like a back at home.
Pancho Sullivan::
The rooster explosion.
Joe Walsh:
Wow, okay. So, what was it like being on the World Tour? I mean, you’re basically surfing with the best of the best, going to these world class spots. Did it feel even more serious than being on the Qualifying Series?
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah. Again I sort of … The realization of, “Okay, well here I am.” I have this opportunity to surf against the world’s best and in some of the best waves. I definitely want to give it my all and see, I guess how far I can push my own ability. I feel like for the most part you’re competing against yourself, whether it’s … You’re against the clock. It’s all about making the right pics as far as the quality of the waves that you ride, things like that. I don’t know, I sort of again, I felt like this is a great opportunity to travel the world experience these things with my wife and my daughter.
But at the same time, I’m not here just to roll over and get last. I want to compete at a high level and surf at a high level, so I really worked on getting my equipment right, really started focusing on my body and trying to be in the right place mentally, physically, all of that and seize the opportunity that I had.
Joe Walsh:
What’s really interesting is how, and I like this a lot. I can tell how self-motivated you are and how you push yourself, and that’s how you’ve gotten into these situations. But, you talk about being more focused on yourself and your own abilities versus the other surfers you were surfing against. I would be probably freaking out if I had to surf against Slater, or Mick Fanning, or pretty much anyone that’s on the tour. You kind of had a different strategy. You went out there and you were focusing on yourself and pushing yourself.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah. I guess the way I looked at it is if you’re going to compete at that level and you have the opportunity to compete against somebody like a Kelly, or a Mick, or a Parko, you’re really going to have to surf at the highest level that you’re capable of in order to beat them because they’re incredibly talented surfer. I feel like whether it’s, I don’t know, whatever platform it is, whether you’re an artist, or a musician, you’re influenced by your peers and for me watching those guys surf at the level that they did, it was inspiring. I draw a lot of inspiration from the lines that they draw and their approach to competition, things like that. Sort of managing the time, but I always realized …
In my late 20s, I realized you can only control what you’re capable of doing and if you’re overly focused on what the scores are, what someone else is doing in your heat, you’re sort of giving away a lot of your energy that you can channel and use to elevate your own performance or elevate your own ability. That was something that worked for me, being able to narrow my focus on what I can control. You know, be prepared, make sure my boards are good, my leashes are strong. Things like that to where I felt like if I ticked all those boxes and when the horn sounded and I had that opportunity, for me it wasn’t … I didn’t really take away like, “I’m better than somebody because I won the heat.”
It was like, “Okay, here’s my opportunity. I’ve got this open canvas, the waves are good.” I would try to draw inspiration even when the waves weren’t good to sort of, you know, this is a moment in time or in my life that I’m going to be able to push myself and see how far or how high I can take my own abilities. And if I can do that and the results are positive, then great. If not, it’s a learning experience each event. When you lose, they say in surfing, you’re going to lose a lot more than you win. You take little experiences and what I’ve realized is how much of that you can apply towards other areas of your life.
We’re all here learning no matter what it is that we’re doing professionally or in our personal lives. We’re all learning and trying to take those experiences and get better, or be better versions of ourselves.
Niki Hurren:
We genuinely learn a lot more from our failures than we do from our successes as well. You’ve got to keep on plugging away, and keep going, and keep going. It’s like you catch that one wave and maybe be fall, there’s another wave coming so you can then concentrate on the next one.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, there’s a lot of definitely metaphors that surfing I think carries over into life.
Joe Walsh:
Absolutely. Listening to you talk about your strategies in surfing, it sounds very wise. It sounds like something a coach would say and from what I understand, you’ve transitioned into some very elite coaching.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, I’ve done a little bit of coaching. Definitely been blessed to also receive some great coaching and advice during the course of my career. I think just being a sponge and wanting to learn and be a student of surfing, of the craft, of the technique side, I feel like there are so many elements of what surfing is. Some people call it a sport, some people call it an art, and I think every individual has a different physical body structure, makeup, whatever, however you want to phrase it to where the goal is not to surf like everybody else, it’s not going to happen. Physically our muscle structures are all different, we all have different style.
But, what I am a firm believer in is technique. I learned a lot through working with different coaches about the technique that we develop, the muscle memory that we develop from the time we first learned how to surf and how that affects us as we progress. And, some of the dominant muscles that we have and how that plays a role in that technique. We have these really strong dominant muscles that we develop. The more we surf, the more our body can sometimes shut down and just use those muscles when other muscles won’t fire because the brain tells the body, “Hey, you don’t need to turn on, you’ve got really strong quads. Just use those,” so you end up not using your core.
Little things like that I started to learn over time like, “Hey, how do I maximize how much fun I can have in the water and how much I can push myself physically in my ability to surf?” I want to do that turn faster, harder. I want to complete that turn more regularly. Things of that nature you start to when you get to that level of competitively, you start to look at those things and analyze it. Through the experience that I had in my own professional career and some of the failures if you will, or things that that worked well for me and things that didn’t work well for me, I felt so blessed to be able to live this path or this journey that I enjoy sharing that with other people.
Joe Walsh:
When someone like Carissa Moore, elite professional surfer calls you up and says, “Pancho, I need your help,” you focus on technique?
Pancho Sullivan::
You know, with Carissa her technique is so incredible and she … I feel like at her level, it’s more about just giving her a second set of eyes to see things, sort of reinforcing what she already knows. Her technique like I said, she works a lot on that herself. She’s on her own path with understanding her body. She does a lot of power yoga, core power yoga. She’s very much a student of her craft, so with her it’s more about just reinforcing what she already sees, how she’s … Encouraging her to trust her instincts when I t comes to specific locations where …
A lot of times when you’re in the heat of that moment of competing, it helps to have somebody that can sort of reinforce, “Hey, it looks like the second wave of the set is shifting over. Here’s what I’m seeing as a lineup.” It just helps you even bring that focus in tighter to where she’s able to really just focus on elevating her performance. I just really admire her as a person. I think she’s just got such an incredible spirit. She definitely lives and breathes the Aloha spirit. Really is such a joy to be around and to be out in the ocean with her, and just watch her morph from this sweetheart of a person who’s just so giving with her time and got such a kind and loving spirit to just you see the focus that comes over her and how … What an incredible athlete she is, how she’s able to immediately click that switch and go into this mindset of being able to you know push herself and her surfing to such a high level is incredible to watch.
Joe Walsh:
Pancho, you’re really known for being one of the best power surfers. I don’t know how many surfaces videos I’ve seen of you with your layback snap front side, because we’re both regular foot. Talk about technique. This would be a great time since we’re talking about coaching, how do you do that?
Niki Hurren:
How do you throw as much spray as you possibly can?
Joe Walsh:
Yeah, there’s no other way to put it.
Pancho Sullivan::
Well, for me I think growing up here on the North Shore and being able to you know watch such incredible surfers over the years going way back to you know being a really young kid, but watching guys like Barry Kanaiaupuni and Johnny Boy Gomes in his era, and Ronnie Burns, and Marvin Foster, and Martin Potter, and Mark Occhilupo and all these guys come to the North Shore. You regularly got to see them out at Rocky Point or Sunset or Backyards. There was incredibly talented surfers just scattered across the North Shore. You’d be riding your bike down the road and see Tom Carroll just destroy a wave at Kamiez.
For me, I feel like I drew a lot of inspiration off of power surfers that growing up, that were the guys that I got to watch on a regular basis and being able to ride bigger boards here on the North Shore. I know a lot of the guys these days, they ride a lot smaller surfboards than we did. I just enjoyed the challenge of pushing a bigger board and longer rail. For me, I felt like I want to harness every ounce of speed that I possibly can and so I began to study the line that I needed to draw to maximize the speed and to be able to harness and generate more torque in my turns for me.
That just felt really incredible, the sensation of putting a board on a rail and the amount of energy pushing back at you and what you’re putting into it. That drove me to want to push harder and like I said, watching those guys. It’s not that I wanted to surf like they did, I just appreciated it and I felt like it-
Joe Walsh:
Your inspiration.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, I felt like it definitely rubbed off on the … I guess I would watch them do this incredible turn and go, “Wow! That must feel amazing. I want feel that. I want to harness that.”
Joe Walsh:
What I hear you saying is that you don’t need to really size down to a super tiny board in order to turn it that hard or that fast.
Pancho Sullivan::
No, I definitely think a longer rail line produces a longer turn. That’s one thing I noticed, more so in a lot of the younger guys these days. Coming off the bottom on a bigger wave, a lot of times they have to two and three stage a lot of their turns. There’s just not enough rail line to draw one continuous line and for me, there’s something about that, like extending the length of the turn that for me, there’s fluid motion there that really-
Joe Walsh:
Interesting.
Niki Hurren:
No, that makes sense you know. Instead of it being one, two check turns and then going into your bottom turn, you’re just doing one line fluid up and then you’re not slowing down, you’re maximizing the speed.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, that’s what drove me. It was like, “How do I harness all that speed and have a board that’s going to allow me to harness the speed and hold the rail line?” I think being on bigger boards and riding bigger boards really established a stronger base I think in my surfing, and I didn’t mind riding a seven-six in three foot waves just to challenge myself to push harder. I felt like there was times where even to this day like if I go out on a little three foot day and ride a seven-six if I put together one good fluid turn it feels, to me it feels as good as a short board, a turn that you would do on a short board, but that’s just me personally.
For every surfer it’s … That’s what’s so great about surfing, is whether you’re on a twin fin, it doesn’t really matter what level you’re at. The feeling that you get is personal and that’s what I think drives all of us and keeps us coming back for more and more, is that sensation. You get one good wave and you put the board on rail or you get barreled, whatever it may be and it just fills your cup. You get just so energized from it that it keeps you coming back.
Joe Walsh:
I’ll admit I’m a little bit of a nerd. I’ve watched your front side layback snap in slow motion maybe about, maybe too many times. I still don’t have the technique down, but I feel like a watch you with your insight arm really put it back behind you at the top of that turn. Is that part of the trick?
Pancho Sullivan::
You know, I think I just, I kept … As I kind of practiced that maneuver, I loved the sensation, I loved the look of some of the guys that I tried to emulate with it. I think just learning to apply pressure to the rail and adding different variations of it, over time it’s sort of like … It’s just like whether you’re skating or whatever it may be, you practice something until you start to get it right and from there you can, “Oh wow, I’m finding that I’m losing speed. If I drop that back arm, maybe there’s a different variation to it. Maybe I can push the tail a little bit more in slide it around.” You just start to kind of play with a little bit more, but it’s definitely something I …
I look at some of … I used to look at video and go, “Wow, okay. That turn’s really changed over the years.” It’s evolved and part of that’s been the equipment’s really changed a lot too, but I think from a technique standpoint, I always did really try to figure out how I could do something better, and I guess do it with more power, faster. The goal was really to stay with the pace of the wave. Over the years, I think I started to move away from the layback and not doing it as much as I used to when it first became the turn that I loved to do and really realized, “Oh well.” There’s definitely a place for that turn but in a good lined up wave, you want to keep that momentum moving down the line going forward.
Joe Walsh:
I’m pretty sure if I could rip as hard as you rip and pull that turn off the way you do it, I probably would just do that over and over again. I don’t know if it ever gets old. It’s definitely worthy of the cover of any surf publication Pancho.
Pancho Sullivan::
Thank you.
Joe Walsh:
Definitely, definitely man. I mean, it’s incredible. I want to come back real quick to being on the World Tour. My understanding is that you finished seventh. That seventh in the whole world. Do you ever pinch yourself? I mean, does that like, I don’t know, you’re such top tier with your surfing to be able to retire from the tour with a standing like that, and especially even going onto the other World Tour at age, you were 31?
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, I was 31 turning 32, yeah.
Joe Walsh:
And that’s at a time when there’s probably a few of the surfers on the tour that are retiring and probably really … I mean, you sound super confident. I think I’m confident, but I would be really intimidated in a situation like that. Then to go through that and to retire with numbers like that, that’s an amazing accomplishment.
Pancho Sullivan::
Thank you.
Joe Walsh:
Yeah, I just feel like maybe you’re a little humble. You’re not even going to bring it up, but I want to make sure everyone knows. That’s a huge accomplishment right there Pancho.
Pancho Sullivan::
Thank you. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to to make it. I know a lot of really talented surfers that … I watched guys that I knew grind it out and try to qualify year, after year, after year and what a grind that can be. It’s emotionally draining. It’s definitely a great opportunity and a lot of people are working their butts off to earn a living, so to be able to travel and compete and surf, you can look at that and go, “You’re lucky anyway.” But, it is a bit of an emotional roller coaster for a lot of guys.
There’s a lot of pressure guys put on themselves, their sponsors, things of that nature. But for me like I said, I felt very humbled and grateful that I had qualified and I wanted to make the most of it, push myself. At the same time, for me I realized hey, competing is great but, I don’t know. I guess looking back, my most memorable moments in the ocean and the experiences I had were traveling with friends. I knew that I never wanted to compete for a long period of time and I’m very grateful and thankful that I waited till when I did because I wouldn’t have experienced all those other things that I did traveling around the world and surfing uncrowded, isolated places.
Joe Walsh:
I can’t even imagine. Places you can’t even mention.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, to be able to tick that box and to have some decent success and to compete against some of the best surfers in the world, it was a really neat experience to have. But like I said, to this day for me, I cherish and value those experiences of just sharing waves with friends.
Joe Walsh:
Okay, so fast forward. Here we are 2019 sitting in your lovely home, which I don’t know again, why you would ever go anywhere. I feel like if I were to die and go to heaven, it would probably look like these. What are you up to these days?
Pancho Sullivan::
Well, I started a watch company with two other friends of mine.
Joe Walsh:
Aulta,
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, Aulta with Marty Pomphrey and Abe Allouche. This is our, I think going on fifth year in business. It just sort of happened organically. We were out in the water sharing waves. All of us also work with Island Daze, which is a private label apparel company that Abe owns. He and Marty were really good friends and that’s how I actually got introduced to Marty. They came out here to Hawaii and we were all sharing waves. We were just talking about how fortunate we are to be able to have surfing as balance with your work and your family life and just how hectic life can be, to be able to be out in the water with your buddies, and watching the sun go down and laughing and sharing waves.
We really were like, “This is what surfing is all about,” for us anyway. We thought, “Let’s create something that really highlights how healthy and how incredible this being a surfer is and how it can really inspire you in your professional life and in other ways with other things that you do.” We saw that a lot of the surf companies were so focused on winning, where for us it was like that’s definitely great and we’re not discounting that, but we feel like there’s a lot of people that are doing amazing things in their life whether it’s through their profession or through ways that they give back and those stories aren’t being told.
We wanted to highlight people that are just surf Nazis or surf maniacs, but they are really good at what they do professionally and that allows them to be able to surf as much as they do, or they use the experiences that they have in the water to help them within their professional life. That’s how Aulta was born, was just simply sharing that life experience of being in the ocean and being grateful that we have this in our lives and, how can we share other people’s stories that will hopefully inspire others who maybe aren’t surfers or aren’t surfing as much as they used, to get back to, or making time for what they love and to be re-inspired by what they love to do.
Joe Walsh:
I was on the website, aultasurf.com. A-U-L-T-A S-U-R-F dot com. The watches look sick. Actually, it got me wondering why we don’t have them at the surf camp. It seems like maybe we should put up a new display there. I think we got some room for them. The one that you’re out though on your site, the metal one, that looks like that would be if you were like spearfishing, surfing wearing a suit. You got all bases covered on those.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, that was kind of like from a design standpoint, we really felt like for a lot of surf watches, they were geared a little bit more towards a younger demographic and not the highest quality components in the watches. What we wanted to do was to be able to create a classic, clean timepiece that was rugged, could basically stand up to a really active lifestyle, whether you’re diving, fishing, surfing, just being in the water in general. But then, also being able to carry over and so you could basically go from work to water. One of the abilities, or one of the things that we realized didn’t really exist as we were massaging and developing this business plan was that no other watch company was doing a direct to customer sales model.
Joe Walsh:
Yeah, I noticed that. It seems super affordable. Sometimes these watches they’re just like okay, but I’m never going to buy that. This is like wow, if you’re listening, go to aultasurf.com and pick out your favorite one.
Pancho Sullivan::
For us it was like a lot of watches are priced very high. That’s what we wanted, to create value and create a quality watch that like I said, was going to be, you could live in the ocean and go right into a board meeting and be fine. What we realized is by eliminating the retail markup, we could offer it to the customer directly and without the high price tag. We use all surgical grade stainless steel, silicone gaskets, Japanese Miyota movements. Really good, high quality components and we’re able to offer what would be possibly double the price because it would be attached to a retail markup, we’re offering it to the end customer at the wholesale cost. That was a big part of, how do we bridge that gap and make sure that the customer is getting a great product at the best possible price? That was just to go through a direct to customer model.
Joe Walsh:
Well Pancho, thank you again for taking the time to sit with us and talk some surf. We’re thinking maybe after the show, we’re going to put a couple hammocks up in your yard down there because I think we could probably survive for weeks, or months, or pretty much indefinitely. You got food growing everywhere.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah, there’s a bit, not avacado season, but there are some oranges and some bananas and papayas down there.
Joe Walsh:
I heard a rooster.
Pancho Sullivan::
Yeah.
Joe Walsh:
I know there are some eggs.
Pancho Sullivan::
Some eggs for sure.
Joe Walsh:
Before we end the show, do you have any advice that you can give to anyone who’s an aspiring competitive surfer? I mean, I can tell how self driven you are and I’m assuming that’s got to be part of it. But for anybody who is looking to live a life of surf, whether it’s competitively or as a free surfer, is there any parting words of wisdom that you can give us here on the show?
Pancho Sullivan::
I guess my advice would be to become a student of your craft. I don’t think, for me anyway, competing isn’t about the results. If you’re overly focused on the results, you’re never going to be happy. I think it’s really doing things that elevate you, or allows you to find or peel back new layers of your own ability. Whether it’s finding yoga beneficial to your surfing or whether it’s really learning about equipment, that’s a big key thing that a lot of surfers, it’s important to know what you’re riding and so that you can give proper feedback to shapers and you can keep evolving.
Surfboards, or specific designs can become stagnant and you need to constantly reinvent yourself. I think that’s probably the main thing, is just constantly finding ways to stoke the fire. No matter what it is, if you’re driven to be the best version of yourself, that’s going to carry over. You’re going to be able to not only utilize that in surfing, but also in business and in other aspects of life, more importantly your relationships. That’s what I’ve learned, or taken from competing and this journey as a surfer is, we’re so lucky.
A lot of people don’t find their passions in life or things that are so healthy and so positive and allow us to meet and interact with so many different characters. What a profound impact that has on our lives, so I think just having that appreciation and that desire to constantly be a better version of yourself is going to lead to great things no matter what. Maybe it’s not always going to be a competitive result. You may think that that’s the end result that you’re looking for but when you stop and you’re in the middle of what you’re doing, you realize that it’s actually about the experience. It’s about where I’m at right now and all of these things that I’m so fortunate to be able to be experiencing. As long as you know you’re inspired by the path that you’re on, you’re going to keep pushing forward and you’re going to keep trying to be better.
Joe Walsh:
Awesome. Pancho, thanks so much for being on the show.
Pancho Sullivan::
My pleasure.
Joe Walsh:
Thank you for listening to the Get Out and SURF podcast, brought to you by Witch’s Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo, Costa Rica. A full service surf resort located right on the beach with warm, fun waves right out in front. For more information, go to witchsrocksurfcamp.com. A very big thank you to Pancho Sullivan, an amazing waterman, storyteller and ambassador of surfing. Take a moment and give us a review on iTunes. This will help other people find the podcast. Also, make sure to subscribe as we are releasing new episodes on Sundays. I’m Joe Walsh coming to you from Tamarindo, Costa Rica. Thanks again for tuning in. We’ll see you next Sunday.

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