Hannah Bevan chats to Canada-based, Hawaii-raised surfer TJ Atwood about big plans for a new high performance longboard tour that’s kicking off at Noosa Fest this year.
Hey TJ! Can you start by telling us a little about you, by way of an introduction?
Sure. I was born in Canada but I grew up in Maui in Hawaii and lived and surfed there pretty much my whole life. I was on the Hawaiian surf team for my high school, shortboarding mostly, but then I transitioned to high performance longboarding which I’ve loved ever since. Most longboarders in Hawaii ride high performance, actually.
Because of the waves?
Yes, the bigger surf. If you try to ride a single fin in double overhead-plus, it’s not as fun! Whereas a performance longboard is like shortboarding but with more paddle power.
So what can you tell us about the high performance longboard tour? How did it come about and what’s your connection to it?
I was on the ASP tour for a long time and then they switched to WSL and they changed a bunch of rules, which made it harder for performance longboarding. Myself and a lot of other guys I know all kinda dropped off. We asked them for years to do a single fin only contest and have a separate thruster plus performance side, because it’s so hard to judge…someone might do an epic noseride on a single fin and then someone might do huge turns, vertical manoeuvres, little airs and stuff on a thruster or a quad. How can you say who’s better? For me it’s similar to having someone on a twin fin, for example, on a shortboard tour. Like, how would the judges judge that?
Then WSL sent us all the upgraded rules for this year and they’ve finally done it and gone to single fin only. If you don’t ride a single fin with very specific dimensions, you can’t surf. So now it’s a classic contest and they’ve opened the opportunity for us to have a high performance one.
Amazing. How far along are the plans for it?
Still in the early stages. We’ve got to look for investors and so on but for now I’ve just used my own capital to support the first event, which is going to be at Noosa Fest. I’ve always loved Noosa Fest and Josh Allen, who’s running it now, so I was really keen to do that.
The prize money for longboarding has always been nothing, so if you’re on the longboard tour you pretty much always have to fund yourself. My shortboard friends are like ‘man, we’re making loads and you’re over there doing part time jobs here, there and everywhere you so you can go on tour’. I’d like this new tour to be a Championship Tour, exactly like WSL has, so that you’re paid to be there, there are big sponsors and you can actually be a professional athlete. So yeah, I’ve put up 10 grand of prize money for Noosa Fest.
So it’s starting in Noosa but you’re hoping to tour in the future?
Yes. We have had a few one-off events in Makaha and we might just do the finals there every year, kind of like WSL has their finals.
I’m talking to West Aus with Josh Allen and we’re hoping that we might get an event there, maybe at Margaret River and maybe Snapper Rocks.
Wave pools and gardens are becoming a big part of the global surf scene, so I’d love for them to be incorporated into the tour too. We’re also in talks about doing training camps at the pools which could be promoted by the tour. You can really progress surfing so much more in a pool. The wave is consistent and the coach is standing right beside you, and can even talk into your ear using bluetooth. These camps could also open up opportunities for the surfers who are on tour to make some extra money coaching, in between events.
There are more and more pools getting built around the world, which is providing opportunities for countries that don’t have any surf to host the Olympics as well.
Is the Olympics a part of your vision?
Yes, I think high performance would be a perfect fit for it, especially because this coming Olympics is at Teahupo’o. I love surfing there…with my longboard!
My friend Andre Derizans is the one who’s mainly been running everything for this high performance tour over the past year and he’s been working with ALAS, the South American tour. He’s from there so he knows them all well. ALAS controls part of what gets set up with the Olympics with ISA because they have the same CEO…it’d be amazing if our tour was supported by them to give us a boost to put high performance longboarding in it.
All sounds exciting. Maybe one day you’ll come to Europe too?!
Yeah, I’d love to see if we can get over there.
You say it’s in early stages, but do you have an idea of when people will be able to find out more about the tour and what’s going to happen?
After Noosa Fest, I think. It’s already had a massive response from what we’ve put out there about that one, so there’s an obvious want for it. So…very soon!
Aside from helping to set it up and putting in the capital for the prize money, what role are you taking in all of this?
Who’s doing what is something that we still need to figure out.
Do you have a day-to-day job on the side of all this stuff?
Yeah, I own a surf shop in Vancouver Island and I’m expanding to Waikiki in Hawaii, actually, so I can be back there. I’m working with Akila Aipa and we’re going to start making a lot more tour performance longboards in a factory we have there. I’m also working with Peter White, from Classic Malibu in Noosa Heads. He used to run the contest for years with the club there and he passed it onto Josh Allen, who I’m working with now too.
It all goes hand in hand then. Are there any other ways that your experience as a surfer has had an influence on what you want to do with this new tour?
Well, travelling was definitely a big part of it. Once I got onto the team in Hawaii we’d go to California, Tahiti and what not. I also got into sailing the Hawaiian canoes and I did that around the world. I always took boards with me when I sailed, so it meant I got to surf various islands that no-ones been to, which really gave me the travel bug.
After I graduated university I went to Japan. I went there for two weeks and I ended up staying for eight years, living in Chiba and surfing in pretty much every spot there is in the country. I love it there because when the waves get really big there’s less people, the opposite to where I grew up! I was on the circuit there for a long time and also travelled to and competed in Indonesia, Australia and Taiwan.
When I first went to Japan there were maybe only one or two other high performance longboarders there. But after they saw what I could do on that board, and I was coaching more people who started getting really good, it got more and more popular. I was riding for Dick Brewer in Japan and when I was there their longboard sales went up 150%. People realised that it was so much easier to paddle, you could catch everything and you could buy one board to ride everyday, whether it’s big or small. So all of that boosted the high performance longboarding scene massively.
What will be the criteria for surfers to enter this new tour then?
That’s one thing that Andre and I have different views on right now [laughs]. He wants to have it as seeding and I think that, as it’s a new tour, everyone should start at zero and you have to qualify. So for the first year it would just be qualifying and then you can seed it from there. It seems to be like that’s the most fair way to me, instead of people using their past background.
Will you have male and female categories, and different age groups?
Male and female, for sure, mainly because of size requirements. If you’re, say, 5 foot tall and you’re riding a 9 foot longboard, it’s huge. Actually, since we’re on that topic, there’s something that WSL did this year that I really like – they changed the rules so that your longboard has to be at least three feet over your head.
Ah, that’s great. So if you’re 5 foot 3 like me, or you’re a much taller person, you’re not at a disadvantage or an advantage?
Yeah, so someone who’s 5 foot can compete on an 8 foot board.
Will you have the same rule for your high performance tour?
Well, we need to get everyone together for a chat to go through these things and what the rules will look like. We don’t want to restrict it too much but we do need guidelines, so people don’t just ride a gun with a little pintail on it.
Will there still be judging on noseriding and more classic longboarding, or will it all be about top turns and big high performance maneuvres?
We will always have noseriding in it. To me that’s the difference between shortboarding longboarding. I love noseriding my longboard when it’s massive and bowling.
Yeah, it’s so epic seeing someone noseriding on a huge wave with a massive lip!
It’s just so fun. Aside from barrels, it’s the thing I love the most. I did it at Uluwatu a few years ago actually, when there was the huge swell. I was dropping in on really big waves and noseriding for like a minute and a half. The performance longboard stalls itself and helps you stay right where you need to be. It’s amazing!
Wow. Finally then, what are you personally most excited about for this new high performance tour?
I think the biggest thing for me is finally having the opportunity to highlight high performance longboarding. It’s always been sort of kicked to the side, with all the shortboarders getting angry when you paddle out into the line up when it’s pumping at Pipe or something. But now it’s a chance to highlight what a high performance board can do and how fun it is, and give it the respect and attention it deserves. Longboarding is the original surfing and I want to keep that going.