We were calmly driving through a building site when we realised that our sat nav might have been a little wrong. A slightly annoyed construction worker shouted something at us in Portuguese while I smiled politely and subtly rolled up the window. The main topic of conversation in the rental car and a question that resonated throughout our time in Portugal was: ‘Is it possible to have a sustainable career in surfing through talent alone?’ The next sixteen days spent travelling around Ericeira, Portugal with Aaron Reid gave my answer to this question.
Aaron Reid is one of Ireland’s most talented surfers. Similar to many surfers I know, from a young age Aaron was sponsored by a collection of surfing related companies. Being sponsored is the goal when you are a young surfer. Getting the recognition that you are looking for and literally having the tee shirt to prove it. Promising young surfers are given clothes, shoes, wetsuits and in some cases the occasional surfboard. Everything a young surfer needs to get well on their way to their professional surfing career. All that the companies ask in return for this product is that you promote them. To a 16-year-old who just wants to surf as much as possible, this is the dream. The idea that they have now just taken a position of junior marketing assistant for this company for a wage of a tee shirt a month has yet to cross their mind.
This dream quickly starts to slip when these young talents realise that a box of clothes won’t cover your rent and the occasional wetsuit won’t put petrol in a car.
This dream quickly starts to slip when these young talents realise that a box of clothes won’t cover your rent and the occasional wetsuit won’t put petrol in a car. The happy faces that once greeted them with tee shirts and stickers are now replaced with emails regarding the lack of budget for such necessities. A company is left with the choice of either paying one surfer a small wage or finding the next batch of junior marketing assistants who are more often than not better promoters. From this, a lot of sponsorships dissipate. It’s business.
Aaron used to have some of the biggest brands in surfing backing him. On our first day in Ericeira, I saw Aaron spend 80 Euros on fins and a tail pad for a new board. He paid for the board himself before leaving. He proceeded to snap this board exactly three days later. This didn’t exactly faze him; it was actually an amusing story at dinner that night with the Eyres.
The Eyres are one of the most welcoming and inspiring families that I am fortunate enough to call my friends. They have devoted their lives to their passion. Luis and Keshia are both on the contest scene with their youngest sibling joining them while their parents run a surf camp just south of Ericeira. It was interesting to see the contrast in routes between Aaron and Luis. Aaron, like most of Ireland’s gifted surfers, is currently trying to make a sustainable life from surfing through the marketing route – searching for constant coverage of themselves for both magazines and online media. Similar, Luis is constantly on my computer screen but he also devotes his time to the competitive circuit.
From my time with the Eyres, I have become aware of the expense involved with such competitions – the travelling, the accommodation, the equipment, the training and most importantly, the time commitments from everyone involved. We spent the next three days with Luis and Kesha before they left for a competition in England.
Aaron, like most of Ireland’s gifted surfers, is currently trying to make a sustainable life from surfing through the marketing route.
The next couple of days were spent with Gony. I consider myself extremely lucky with the people that I got to meet and spend time with in Portugal and Gony is right at the top of this list. Gony is one of the most talented surfers that I have ever had the pleasure of shooting. He is also someone who has made a career out of his passion – an inspiring accomplishment. Like Luis, Gony is massively into the competition scene but also gets large amounts of coverage with both print and online media. Our last evening with Gony was spent at a very nice restaurant where we had the pleasure of meeting his better half. He said goodbye to us as he travelled to a competition the next day.
Conor Maguire joined us for the second week in Ericeira. Like Aaron, Conor is in search of how to make surfing a sustainable career, and with the well deserved coverage Conor received from his surfing this last winter, he is well on his way to doing just that. Interestingly Aaron and Conor grew up surfing together, this can be clearly seen in their presence in the water – their innate sense of competition is almost a sibling rivalry.
While Conor was in Portugal we stayed in different accommodation. Our first week had been spent in the eco friendly Anna Margarida Villas with the second week being spent at the scenic Helios – both arranged by surfholidays.com. We stayed in a beautiful cabin run by the mothering Clara. It was a pleasure to get to spend time and surf with her son Zé. Travelling the coastline with Zé it was nice to see how passionate he is about his hometown. Unlike so many Irish surfers who throw thoughts of a college education out the window it was great to have a conversation with Zé regarding his interest in studying psychotherapy and how he can revolve it around his addiction to the ocean. We drove around Ericeira as he told me about a paper that he had written discussing the benefits of surfing for people who have social deficiencies.
Driving around Ericeira you are greeted by surf culture everywhere you look. When you have towns and villages just like Ericeira all over Europe who siphon off a living from surfing related tourism it shows that there are plenty of avenues of sustainability to explore. We ended our Portuguese trip documenting the time that Aaron, Conor and Zé had spent together. We hadn’t travelled to Ericeira at an optimum time for finding waves but we all still managed to leave with a strong feeling of contentment. Is that not all anyone is ever looking for?
So can your surfing talent be a career choice? My own advice would be for someone who wants to spend as much time in the water as physically possible is to find a path in life that works for you rather then being at the mercy of a brand for survival. From spending so much time with Aaron and Conor, along with the different people we met along the way, and seeing the different avenues that they are exploring, their drive, motivation and tenacity, I strongly believe that it is possible to make a career from your talent in this sport. With that statement, I also believe that there needs to be a shift in circumstances from both surfers and surf companies. Rather then giving a box of tee shirts to an inspiring young surfer for being able to do a few turns on a wave, give them a box of wetsuits when they apply for college. Give them a new board when they pass their Christmas exams and a petrol allowance at the end of term. In four years time when you are staring at a surfer with the potential and talent to inspire others along with a marketing degree under their belt – give them a wage.