The Man at the Helm of Surfing’s Greatest Magazines

We spoke with Brendon Thomas, the past Editor-in-Chief of SURFER Magazine and current Director of Operations at The Surfer’s Journal, about his new job, how surf coverage has changed and what he has to look forward to.

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Brendon Thomas was 22 when he first got published. He had written a short semi-fictional piece about crossing the border between Mozambique and South Africa in search of surf that showed up in the South African surfing magazine Zigzag. Chris Mauro, then the editor of SURFER Magazine, was close by in J-Bay, a legendary surf spot in South Africa (and where Mick Fanning recently encountered a shark), and read Thomas’s piece. He immediately called Thomas up and asked him to write for SURFER.

The next year, Thomas was in Indonesia, watching local fishermen use dynamite to bomb a reef at G-Land, the world-famous surf spot on the southeastern edge of Java island; huge chunks of coral reef, along with dead fish, were washing up on shore. This became his first published piece in SURFER. From there, Thomas just kept writing. Within two years he was published in Sports Illustrated and then in 2005, tired of freelancing, he showed up unannounced at SURFER‘s doorstep and asked for a job. They needed a staff writer, and he came on, taking every assignment that came his way. Two years later he was hired as Managing Editor. Three years after that, in 2010, he was named Editor-in-Chief.

Then this April, after five years at the helm of SURFER, he jumped ship, heading to The Surfer’s Journal, a thick, reader-supported magazine known for beautiful surf photography and design. We caught up with Thomas while he was settling in at TSJ in order to chat with him about his new job, how surf coverage has changed and what he has to look forward to.

Q. What inspires you?
A. The sources vary, and they range from big things like the expanse of the cosmos and how small our understanding of it and place in it is, to little things like seeing the wonder on my son’s face when the trash truck lifts and dunks the trash every Wednesday. There’s a lot to be inspired by, if you allow yourself to be. I guess that’s a pretty trite answer, so I’ll just say that I’m deeply motivated by learning new things and the knowledge that there’s a growing number of successful people who have married their lives and businesses to a genuine concern for the future of our planet.

The experience had me seriously questioning my decision to leave South Africa. But I guess those moments are fleeting and they should be enjoyed for what they are: a confluence of weather and luck.

Q. What do you read regularly that has nothing to do with surfing?
A. I consume a lot of media. Admittedly, the majority of it is done on a glowing screen that my social media feed points me to. Waitbutwhy.com is a great independent blog that I read and support every month. Tim Urban, the author, has an amazing ability to cut to the core of a very diverse set of topics in a very entertaining way. Reading one of his posts is like getting a steroid shot to the brain, but you’re laughing the whole time.

Being that I now work primarily in the print media space, I also plough through stacks of publications, everything from high-end quarterlies to mainstream monthlies. Lately, podcasts have been a major source of entertainment and information. It’s off-topic, but the resurgence of “radio” is just awesome.

Q. This year you transitioned from Editor-in-Chief of SURFER Magazine to Director of Operations at The Surfer’s Journal. What was your reasoning for the switch?
A. There were push and pull factors. The main pull factor being that The Surfer’s Journal is an incredible family-owned-and-operated publication that is free from commercial influence. I identify with and believe in the ethos of the publication, and its passionate and loyal subscriber base make it an incredibly stable business in a time of great uncertainty in publishing, which is an enviable position for a publication to be in, whether it be in or out of the surf bubble. I was also excited at the prospect of shifting my focus from editorial to the business side of publishing.

On the other hand, it was a really difficult decision to leave such an important post at a revered publication like SURFER. I had a fantastic editorial team there and I was incredibly proud of the editorial we produced, but ultimately I couldn’t stomach the institutionalized and risk-averse thinking that was so entrenched in the business. As an organization there was a lot of lip service paid to adapting and changing the business but for the most part, that’s all it was. In my opinion we didn’t do nearly enough to keep pace with the changing media and social landscape and it eroded the brand a little. Sadly, no amount of blue-in-the-face proselytizing had any affect or changed the course in any meaningful way. So I left.

Q. Steve and Debbee Pezman, who together founded The Surfer’s Journal, have stated that they anticipate you’ll take over at the mag. What changes do you foresee making and how will your approach at TSJ differ from at SURFER?
A. As I said, TSJ is in an enviable position, so I don’t anticipate many major changes. The editorial is top-shelf and the book itself is gorgeous. I do think that we can do a way better job representing ourselves online. Getting our digital offerings and online customer service in line with the quality of the printed artifact is my first order of business.

Q. You were at the helm of a surf magazine considered “the Bible of the sport”, with a history reaching back to 1960. As editor, how did you approach adding your own flavor to the magazine while respecting tradition?
A. Respecting the tradition was important but frankly, quite easy. There are so many interesting and talented people who are obsessed with riding waves and there are people pushing the sport in a variety of ways, so there was never a shortage of subject matter. But my main goal at SURFER was to introduce important, real-world topics and present them through the prism of surfing — to entertain and inform. There was a little push-back initially from the publishers and some advertisers, but when they saw the product and saw the readers responding so positively to the editorial, I think most of them got on board. Enlightening our readers and educating them to the challenges facing our oceans and society at large, as well as bringing up concerns outside the realm of surf narcissism, was really important to me.

Q. How has the sport transformed since you started covering it?
A. I think the most important change has been in its diversification. The act of riding waves has splintered into sub-disciplines and genres and it’s awesome to see the way that those genres have been embraced by surfers from all walks of life. Terry Fitzgerald was quoted in a SURFER article saying, “there are people that ride surfboards and there are people who ride waves.” I love that delineation and that now there is less import placed on performance surfing at the highest end, and that there’s a premium placed on “regular surfing”. I surf because I love riding waves and I assume there are a lot of other surfers who are similarly motivated. Readers can relate to it. It’s inspiring.

Q. As for surfing specifically, what type of board do you ride and how would you describe your surfing?
A. I ride run-of-the-mill thruster shortboards primarily, but having moved from South Africa (where the waves are a lot better, more often) I’ve diversified my quiver a little to include stubby quad-fins and smaller boards with a lot of hidden volume that go really fast. As for my surfing, I would describe it as “good enough”, although it’s hard for me to accurately gauge my ability, because I’ve spent a lot of time surfing with professional surfers and by comparison I really suck…

Q. What’s the best surfing memory you have?
A. It has to be my last session at J-Bay before I immigrated to the United States to take up my position at SURFER. The surf was a couple feet overhead, the sun was out and the wind was completely calm. I caught a series of waves where everything just clicked, everything felt right — my surfing, my board, everything. I rode three waves in a row through the “Impossibles” section of Supertubes. They were the longest, best waves of my life. The experience had me seriously questioning my decision to leave South Africa. But I guess those moments are fleeting and they should be enjoyed for what they are: a confluence of weather and luck. I don’t regret my decision to leave. Not every day, at least.

If the health and well-being of the oceans isn’t on the forefront of every surfer’s mind, then it fucking should be.

Q. What’s the most overused trope in surf writing? What’s the greatest challenge to covering the sport?
A. The most overused trope in surf writing is that surfing in itself is a spiritual thing. Surfing is fun as hell, but it’s just an activity that a pretty small group of fortunate humans do for kicks. Surfing does enjoy a special relationship with nature and I find that surfing can be a deeply meditative, relaxing, and on its best days, an utterly enthralling activity. But a lot of times the lineup is a battleground of egos all competing for a very limited resource. The greatest challenge in covering surfing is being honest about it, and ourselves, without alienating the readership.

Q. For those who haven’t picked up a board but are thinking about it, what first drew you to the sport, and why’d you make a career out of it?
A. There is simply no feeling like standing up on your first wave. I did it in earnest when I was about eight years old, and I remember the feeling like it happened this morning. I turned it into a career because I wanted to be as close to the source of that feeling as I could.

Q. Looking forward, what’s the next chapter in the history of surfing? What do you anticipate covering that you haven’t before?
A. Sadly, I think that climate change, pollution and rising sea levels are such a real and indisputable concern that I think surfing’s next chapter is going to be about protecting the oceans not only for surfing’s sake, but for the sake of the planet. There are so many surfers fighting for the ocean, wildlife conservation, and sustainable practices in and out of the water. They are the heroes and heroines of surfing’s next chapter. Surfers are the canaries in the coal mine, and because of that we should care about climate change more than anyone. If the health and well-being of the oceans isn’t on the forefront of every surfer’s mind, then it fucking should be.

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