When John Florence wanted to get off the beaten path in search of obscure waves for his movie, View From A Blue Moon, he turned to longtime friend and South African charger Frank Solomon for guidance. That's because Solomon has a knack for finding waves along the fringes, and he's gone to great lengths to be in the right place at the right time. But living your life at the whims of swells isn't always easy, as Solomon can attest. He's been stranded and penniless in foreign countries, slept in a van for months on end, and worked whatever odd job he could to stay in the water. But it was all worth it, according to Solomon, knowing that perfect waves were always around the corner.
TP: How did you get into surfing big waves?
FS: My dad had the first surf shop in Cape Town and he actually started a bunch of lifesaving clubs in South Africa, so I kind of followed in his footsteps and got into surfing and lifesaving. I wasn't a prodigy or anything, but I was really comfortable in the water. And when the waves got bigger, there were less people out, so the big days became my favorite days. Dungeons is in Hout Bay, so that's pretty much my home break. When I was a kid, I woke up one day and went outside and saw that a bunch of traveling big-wave guys had rented the house next to mine. I hadn't surfed Dungeons yet, but I saw their Jet Skis and their guns and all I could think about was how bad I wanted to get out there with them.
TP: So they threw you on the ski and took you out?
FS: [Laughs] They told me to get lost! They said it was too dangerous for me. In a way, they had a point, but at the same time, I was thinking, "These pros show up at my home beach and won't even take me out for a surf?" I really wanted to go, so I called my dad and he just said, "If you want it that bad, then just paddle out." That's kind of difficult at Dungeons. You have to walk up and over the Sentinel, which is a mountain overlooking Hout Bay, and then jump off Seal Rock and paddle through a patch of deep water they call "Shark Alley." So I did all that, got into the lineup, and was like, "Hey, what's up, guys?" They were like, "How the f–k did you get out here? Don't ever do that again, just ask us for a ride next time." I was like, "I did ask you." [Laughs] Looking back, it was a pretty eye-opening experience. The waves were huge and I was way under-gunned and way out of my depth.
TP: It's gotta be a nice change being on the other side now, showing younger guys the ropes at Dungeons.
FS: Yeah, we actually got it really good out there last year when John [Florence] and Albee [Layer] came into town. John is one of the few guys in the world who can surf a World Tour event one day and then paddle out and get set waves at a place like Dungeons the next. Most 'CT guys wouldn't want anything to do with that wave. Albee was a natural out there, too. It was actually his first time surfing Dungeons, so we couldn't go easy on him and take him out on the boat. I took him up over the Sentinel and had him paddle past the seal colony. It's pretty much a rite of passage, but I think you get some karma from doing it the hard way. He ended up getting really barreled that day.
TP: So after your first session at Dungeons, were you hooked on chasing big waves?
FS: Yeah, as I got older, I just figured I'd work and do whatever I could to try to chase swells. I never expected anything to come from it; I just wanted to surf a lot. It's really hard for South Africans to travel because of the exchange rate. Our money has the same value as the peso. When I showed up in California a few years back with 100 rand hoping to stay a couple months and surf Mavericks, it didn't exactly go very far. Grant Washburn had told me to come to California, but when I landed at the airport in San Francisco, he wasn't there. I had no idea where to go or what to do, so I walked up to a taxi driver and asked if he'd take me to Mavericks. The guy said it would cost hundreds of dollars, which obviously wasn't going to happen, so I ended up just sitting at the airport for about six hours. Eventually I bummed some money from a stranger for a train ticket into the city. Once I got there, the only place I could find was this super-sketchy halfway home in the Tenderloin, which is not a place I'd recommend staying. There were four bunks in my room and three really weird dudes trying to wake me up at 3 a.m. to drink wine with them. I just remember thinking to myself, "What the f–k am I doing here?"
TP: Did Washburn eventually call you back?
FS: The next morning, he phoned and he was like, "Sorry, the waves were pumping. I couldn't come get you, but I'll come grab you now!" [Laughs] He was tripping when he saw the place I was staying in. After that, we met up with Jeff Harrison, who is such a legend. He put me up rent-free for three months and showed me around, and I got a job as a busboy at a pizza place to pay for everything else. That was right when the recession hit, and no one was hiring. I went around begging, saying I'd chop vegetables, sweep floors, scrub toilets, whatever. I actually got a job the first day I went looking, and I didn't even have a visa. They must have been able to tell how bad I wanted it.
TP: You probably learn things pretty quickly when you're in those situations.
FS: Very quickly. You have to always try to see the best in the situation and do something positive. If you're negative about being broke in a foreign place and can't make the most of it, then you might as well just give up and go home. You can't expect things to be easy all the time. I just did what I had to do so I could keep surfing and not starve.
TP: What's the weirdest job you've worked to stay in the water?
FS: Probably the Christmas-tree lot. Marty Magnusen, who is a local legend at Kelly's Cove in San Francisco, sells Christmas trees every year and I told him that Josh Redman and I were keen to work. South Africa doesn't have a Christmas culture like America, so the whole concept was kind of bizarre. They got these trees in from Oregon in a 40-foot shipping container and we unloaded about a thousand trees, spent the next day trimming them, and then the day after that we started selling them on the lot. Josh was baking brownies to sell at the lot as well, so we'd be selling trees and brownies all day. We'd tell people we were big-wave surfers from South Africa and people were baffled. They'd just give us the craziest tips and we cleaned up. We even had a full sales pitch: "Look at this tree, it's a beautiful noble fir from Oregon! Look at the leaves! Smell the leaves! Have a brownie!" [Laughs] We sold so many trees, and that was a big deal for us. We made enough to live there and surf Mavericks whenever it was big, and we even saved enough to go to Hawaii after Christmas.
TP: Sounds like it was all worthwhile.
FS: Totally. The funny thing is that I was writing a blog about my travels, but I never said that I was working multiple jobs to just scrape by. I just talked about how awesome the waves were and how cool the people were, and without even thinking about it, I was kind of selling this dream that I wasn't really living. Don't get me wrong, I had a great time, but it wasn't all epic waves and no worries. It was always a hustle.
TP: But now you've got sponsors and are getting paid to surf. That must have been a crazy transition.
FS: It's an unbelievably lucky situation to be in and I'm so grateful. I'm still chasing the same waves and doing the same things I'd be doing otherwise, but this just makes it way easier. I never thought of getting paid to surf; surfing is what you do for fun. If you like golf, you have to pay to get the equipment and play the courses. That's how it works, and it's the same with surfing. The idea of getting paid to have fun is just ridiculous to me, yet here I am.
TP: What advice would you give to younger surfers trying to do the same thing?
FS: A younger surfer actually emailed me right after I signed with Hurley International and was like, "I want to get sponsored. What do I need to do?" I told him he could start a Facebook page, an Instagram, and start
posting all the time. If it works, that's awesome, but you should never expect to make money surfing. You have to work really hard at it and you also have to be extremely lucky. If dreams were easily attainable, then everybody would be astronauts and rock stars. We'd be living on a very different planet.
TP: There wouldn't be anyone holding down the Christmas-tree lots.
FS: That's true. I'd never discourage anyone from chasing their dreams, but I wouldn't set the highest expectations, either. If you don't expect to make a career out of surfing, then you'll be stoked with whatever surfing experience you get. When it comes down to it, riding waves is enough of a reward in itself.