ASP Judge James Zavorskas speaks with Brendan McCray
Photos from around the world by James Zavorskas (below)
James Zavorskas grew up surfing the beaches of Cape Cod with his older brother Jon in the early 80's. His parents, Joyce and Bob, are two of the nicest people you could ever meet. Their house was the closest to the beach, so it was where we all ate, slept and watched surf videos between sessions. James quickly became one of the best and most stylish surfers in the Northeast. After high school he traveled west to California for college and the pointbreaks of Ventura. Then in 94, James went to the North Shore of Oahu to visit a friend and basically never left. He continues to live there today. Through twists, turns, skill and good luck, James became an ASP judge. Courtesy of the ASP James has traveled around the globe several times over, has seen and surfed the world's premier breaks and watched the world's best surfers, all while getting paid for it. Today he likes spending as much time as possible at his home on the North Shore with his wife Danielle and son Cylas. James took some time out from his schedule to answer some questions about the life of an ASP judge.
How did you become an ASP judge?
Back in '99 or so friend of mine Jerry was involved with the NSSA over here and asked for some help one weekend. I guess I did a good job cause I was invited back. I became more involved in local events over the years and was mentored by the legendary judge Jack Shipley (original founder of Lightning Bolt) He got me in with the ASP. I worked locally at the Triple Crown and other local professional events for a few years. Then, Hawaii being the center of the universe for the Triple Crown, I got to meet a few international guys and work with them. Then I was invited to travel internationally a couple times for events and kept up the good work. Pretty much became a Hawaii international judge in '05, traveling and representing Hawaii on the panel in ASP international events. They try to have judges from each region at most of the big events.
How has the judging criteria changed since you started?
When I first came into the pro level, the whole thing with multiple turns and three to the beach was on it's way out. As it is, judging is always going to be a subjective thing no matter how it's broken down, but now with the way the criteria are structured, it embraces all the different approaches a surfer can take on a wave. From laying down the most powerful rail gouge, to the above the lip aerial stuff. Whatever it is, if it's done in a critical part of the wave or above it, it scores well. It took a little bit to learn the names of the moves and different grabs for the aerial stuff. Certain ones are harder than others and the no hands alley oops are pretty sick in my opinion.
Are there any heats that standout or any one wave that is particularly memorable?
The recent final at the Volcom Pipe Pro was a stand out. The Kelly and Andy finals at Pipe over the years were pretty awesome to see live. A couple of the waves from the Eddie's. The year that Bruce won the Eddie and the one wave he got where he ended up pulling in on the shore break was sick. Overall it's certain events that had amazing waves that stand out for me. Jbay in '09 was epic. They had a big first swell of the season just before the waiting period and it had pushed all this sand over the entire point at Jbay. There's nothing like waves over a sandbar point. Guys were connecting from all the way from the top at Boneyards into the point consistently. The normally unmakable section called Impossibles was the almost the best section with the most sand and the best barrels. Fiji in '06, just 'cause it's Fiji. The waves and the people are just amazing. I got to go twice that year. Once for the women's event and again for the men's. The search event in Bali scored some great waves. That first day at Padang was incredible. I think I surfed everyday on that trip. France and Europe has some stand out moments for me too.
What event are you most proud to have been involved in?
Being part of the last three Eddie Aikau events. The history of the contest, the prestige, honor, and integrity of it all. It doesn't happen very often and when it does it seems like the whole island shows up to the bay. It's a pretty special thing and an honor to be a part of it.
How many countries have you been to? Do you have any crazy travel stories?
China, Japan, Australia, Bali, New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, Shri Lanka, Peru, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, Portugal, Canary Islands, Spain, France, and England. Eighteen, I guess. The stopovers in random airports don't count, but I think that's all of them. As far as travel stories, nothing out of the ordinary. My biggest fumble was missing a flight because I read the date wrong on my itinerary. Missed the flight and ended up having to buy a new ticket for $800 to make it to the event.
Describe how a trip to Europe goes...
My first couple of years traveling I would go on some stretches of being on the road for 3 months. The late summer European qs/wt leg was always a long one. England one week, then France, Portugal and Spain. Over 6 weeks of judging. Guys would get pretty crazy after that one. The tides have a big range in Europe and most places only break on certain tides, especially in France. We would always be on hold waiting for the tides at most events. Plus it gets dark at around 9pm in the summer. Some days we would have 14 hr days... that leg is a burner. Overall it just depends on the schedule you get at the beginning of the year and how committed you can become to the traveling. I'm married now with my son as well, so I'm trying not to be on the road that much any more.
What do you do when it's flat?
I try and become a tourist... Just get out and do something. It's hard 'cause most of the time your traveling with a group of guys and not always wanting to do the same things. Usually we have one car between a few crew and we all try to plan some sort of excursion though. Europe is easy cause there's so much history to go and check out. I've seen a few 16th century castles in my day... or the museums. The Guggenheim in Bilbao is awesome. Fiji you pretty much go fishing or go to Desporados when it's flat. Tahiti can be tough when it's flat. Everything is super expensive and unless you have a boat your pretty stuck to the land... My camera saves me wherever i go. If nothing's happening I'll just go walk around and find something interesting to shoot.
You have to watch guys surf sick waves all day and you can't. Is being an ASP judge like being in a golden cage?
Very much. When it's good, it's pretty entertaining just watching these guys rip. There are moments where you wish you were out there getting a couple but, we're there because of the job, and the job always comes first. As judges we get our moments though. Before and after the horns blow, we get out there for a few. Even on the lay days we try to find some waves. Jbay can be flat and a 3 hr drive away is an awesome jetty setup that's overhead and so fun. One year in France there was giant storm surf. We drove to Mundaka and got a couple. Not epic barrels but fun to see it and get a couple chunky walls. I had some great sessions out at Cloudbreak and Wilkes that year at the women's event. Seemed like it was 4-6 the whole time we were there. I got to surf Coxos in Portugal one time in between two events. The best is when the event finishes early or you have a few days off between events.
Have you judged many women's events, and what do you think of the level they are surfing at these days?
I've been judging the women's tour just as long as the men's. Many of the WT events have both. The level of the women is amazing now. Not that they weren't ripping before, but the surfing is much more progressive They're busting out airs and all sorts of new turns.
What are some not so glamorous aspects of pro surfing or being a pro surfer that average surfers might not know about?
Always being on the road. The whole living out of a bag thing. Traveling seems romantic from the outside, but after a couple times round the world going to the same places it gets to be routine. It's harder than it looks. Try traveling 30 hrs straight, then paddling out and trying to perform your best. Many of these guys aren't the one percenters... There are only a few with the top dollar contracts, making real money. Guys struggle making ends meet. With travel expenses and everything else, guys barely make any money. They spend their prize money from one event just to get to the other. The road can be a pretty lonely place if you're not traveling with a few friends or have some kind of support crew like a coach or something . Overall it's pretty competitive and cutthroat out there. Making heats is all it's about for some.
Would you want a pro surfing career for your son?
Of course I want him to be a surfer. As a pro? If it's what he wanted I would support it, but ask me now I'd say no. The joke with my wife and I is that he becomes a pro golfer or pro baseball player.... my Dad was almost into pro baseball back in his day so I could see it happening.
Is there a favorite event among the judges?
You'd have to ask some of them, but I'm guessing Hawaii. For me it's easily Hawaii and the Triple crown. Nothing like Pipeline to end the year. I get to ride my bike to work and come home kiss my wife and kid goodnight and sleep in my own bed... that's my favorite...
Has the influence of bigger money from event sponsors changed things?
Not for us as judges. We're basically a subcontractor position with the ASP. We get hired to work a particular event. We get paid a per event salary. Some events are worth more than others and where you sit on the panel also determines how much you make. If you sit as an international, meaning you traveled from another country, you make a little more (work more too, more heats on.) As judges we don't really make that much money. If you were fully committed and could be on the road most of the year, you could probably make $35k a year or more. Just depends on how much you want to travel.
Seems to me all the money being thrown around is just brands trying to showcase themselves and get some marketing exposure.
Do you get any swag?
Not as much as we used to... tough times all around I guess.... typically we get a backpack, a few t-shirts, and a hat. That's the standard issue. Sometimes we get little extras here and there like a jacket or sweatshirt, watches, sunnys. I have kept a tshirt or some sort of keepsake from some of the events that were special for me . But I tend to give away most of my stuff. Sunglasses are the best to get though. The eyes can get pretty fried out after being on the beach all day. The one thing I'm guilty of keeping are all the contest ID's and passes. I think I've got every one for every event I've ever been too.
How has growing up a NE surfer influenced you as a surfer?
If I had to pick one thing, I'd say it was growing up with the core crew of guys we had on the Cape. We were such a tight knit crew and one with a long history of surfing together. The Cape had a bit of a reputation back then for being kind of localized and many of the older guys kept us in line as groms. I know for me, that taught me the lessons of respect and humility that still influence me today.
Can you talk about any memorable NE surf sessions over the years ?
Honestly some of my best surfing memories are from growing up on the Cape. It may not be the most consistent place, but when it's good, it's as good as anywhere in the world. That goes for the whole NE too. The variety from points, reefs, and beachies. I think 'cause it's so rare when it's on. It gets burned into your brain and you just don't forget. That last session we had together was pretty memorable. A lot of the hurricane runs to the points of Rhode Island stand out. A few from high school days, skipping school and chasing it all day with the boys. One day I was out in the middle of February, just pumping and all by myself. No one around, not even on the beach, absolutely freezing cold. Just sticks out for me. The one that just stands above the rest was in late summer 2001 maybe cause it was just a week or so after 9/11. An unnamed beach on the Cape - somehow we had a growing, super south, ground swell that started around noon and lasted through till low tide, for about 4 hrs of some of the best I've ever seen the Cape. Overhead barrels just funneling down the beach. I think I got as much tube time that one day as in the whole year before.
Where do you see pro surfing in 10 years?
Most don't know this but ASP is hired as a subcontractor to run the events. The big Five surf companies basically pay for all the tour. The ASP board of directors is mostly made up of the fat cats in the surf industry and they essentially control the ASP from the inside out. I think it would be a good thing to have the ASP become it's own entity somewhat. It would allow for more non surf brand companies to sponsor events and fund the overall organization. As we're seeing now, with Billabong financially struggling, the Jbay event is being downgraded due to the lack of money. If outside money were to be able to come in and carry the overall tour load we could still keep Jbay as a WT event. Overall though, in 10 years I still think there will be some sort of tour. There might even be a couple tours. Surfing is too huge around the world not to have something going.
James Zavorskas on Cape Cod in 2006
Cape Cod 2006
Los Angeles - any time
New Zealand 2010
Sri Lanka 2010
James Zavorskas at 2010 Sri Lanka ASP event.