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In the Pursuit of the Surfing Dream

(Long Read. +15 mins.)

In anticipation of the launch of our latest collaboration with Vans, we sat down with Vans team rider Seb Smart, shaper and Vans rider James Parry, and surf nomad Paige Maddison.

As a company, our pursuit of a more sustainable product is unending. It’s a challenge that we relish, and we’re constantly searching for better materials and technologies. It’s similar to the determination and grit shown by many who choose to chase the surfing dream – like Seb, James and Paige. We wanted to know about a little more about that journey and how they have managed to make surfing a central part of their lives; their passion, their work and livelihoods.

Vans + Finisterre Destruct
Vans + Finisterre Destruct

A new style from Vans, bringing their timeless aesthetic to a truly adventure-ready shoe. Using the most sustainable materials available we'

Vans + Finisterre UltraRange Hi DL
Vans + Finisterre UltraRange Hi DL

The ultimate shoe for surf travel, based on an original hiking boot but with a modern twist. Ultra-light and water resistant, these shoes ar

Vans + Finisterre Slip-Er
Vans + Finisterre Slip-Er

The Slip-Er is the ideal pre and post surf shoe; easy to slip on with damp feet in a cold car park but with a sturdy sole to roam freely out

Seb Smart, James Parry and Paige Maddison are well known to us. Seb and James are both Vans surf team riders who grew up in Sennen, a few miles down the coast from our Workshop at the very tip of Cornwall, whilst Paige is a seasoned surf traveller, hailing from Queensland Australia, who you may recognise from our autumn campaign.

We were intrigued to hear how James and Seb went from surfing with friends as a teenagers to where they are now; sponsored, competing, with surfing as their livelihoods.

James didn’t actually grow up in Cornwall, only moving to the county when he was 13. “We used to come here every year on holiday. Every holiday kind of got longer and longer until they were like, six week holidays.” Surfing was just something that the family did, he laughs, thinking about how his dad used to bodyboard and paddle out back, a little oblivious to the conditions and the danger.

“When we finally did move down, we bought a snapped swell board and my dad cut it open and stuck a metal bar in the middle of it to stop it from flexing…and then yeah, I just kind of started surfing that,” James reminisces. He never had any lessons, and was even scared of the water as a child. He didn’t even get out back until he was 16 or 17.

Vans + Finisterre editorial - James Parry in his workshop standing in front of some of his own boards

Speaking about his influences, I ask about Sam Bleakley. A Finisterre ambassador, Sam is also from Sennen and had a big influence on a lot of the younger surfers in the area.

“If you asked my father, he’d tell you. I used to walk into the café saying, ‘I want to be like Sam!’ He was doing the World Tour and European Championships and winning all the British and English comps. In the summer, every weekend, you’d know that he was going to a contest and he’d come back with his trophies.”

But Sam wasn’t the only influential local surfer to inspire James. Watching another Sennen legend, John Buchorski, helped. Watching is how James learns, he remarks, and he had no fear of asking questions; pestering relentlessly to get as many tips as possible.

“It was kind of funny really, because John worked for my parents. So he was in the café, and I would come in… I’d have been surfing all day and I’d come in and ask him so many questions. He was just like, 'Ahhh, leave me alone. You’re so annoying!' But I kept asking."

So what about Seb? He’s been down here his whole life, so how was it growing up in that community from the beginning?

“Ahh, just amazing...”

There’s a long pause. Is that it?? “It’s unfortunate for you because it’s quite a boring answer,” he laughs, “but that’s how it was!”

Vans + Finisterre editorial - Seb and James laughing in the shaping workshop.

Seb’s sense of humour is immediately apparent. Seb is definitively 'Off the Wall', where James seems more laid back. He feels like that one mate who will come up with a crazy idea and convince everyone else that it’s a perfectly sensible thing to do.

The café gets a name-drop again as Seb explains how he met James and his brother skating outside it. They were a few years older than Seb, but they formed a lasting friendship. “Eventually,” he remembers, “because they were a bit older and I wasn’t allowed to surf on my own – either my brothers would take me, or James would take me and we became really good mates.”

So what about inspirations? Was Sam Bleakley as big an influence on him as James? Or were there other figures in the community who Seb drew inspiration from?

“It was a few people for me. My two brothers, Sam and Lew Smart; Sam was a good shortboarder, real stylish like, surfed a bit like Occy (Mark Occhilupo - 1999 ASP World Title Winner). And Lew was a bodyboarder and all his mates were too. They were pretty hardcore actually because they were always looking for heavier waves. Sam I looked up to just because I loved his surfing, I loved watching him out back while I was way on the inside. Sometimes I saw him doing turns bigger than I ever imagined possible... And then there was a guy down the road called Shaun Rothwell who owned Wavecrest surf shop. Shaun was on his own trip. He wouldn’t go around talking to the kids and getting everyone stoked, he was just a real good surfer. I’d always see him in these big wave spots, that aren’t really rideable, on his own out there at sea and I was just like, ‘Wow… That is so cool!’”

Vans + Finisterre editorial - Seb Smart and James Parry chatting in the break room

Seb’s approach has always been a little more ‘rock and roll’ – see the Vans film Full Cornish for a dose of context there – so I wonder if surfing was always something he had his sights on, or whether it was something that just kind of happened for him?

“Nah…” he replies confidently. “I always thought, ‘by hook or crook, I’m going to be a pro surfer. Or at least a travelling surfer.’ I never enjoyed school or anything, I just wasn’t into it and I loved surfing. I just knew, this is always going to be number one for me. Occasionally I have breaks, sometimes I’ll have a long time where I won’t surf. I need to recharge the batteries. But it’s always, always going to be the top thing in my life, and I’m always going to be doing it, 'til I die… or until I can’t do it anymore!”

See? Rock and roll.

Paige grew up in a rural area of Queensland, about half an hour inland from the sunshine coast. Her surfing journey was a little different to that of the boys, and not just because their stories start on opposite sides of the globe. She didn’t really fall in love with surfing until she left home after high school, moving to the world-famous longboarding hotspot of Noosa, and falling in love with surfing and the lifestyle that goes with it.

Vans + Finisterre editorial - Paige Maddison sat outside the workshop

“I bought my first longboard and yeah, just started longboarding all the time,” she recalls. “All I wanted to do was surf. I was working hospitality during the day from 6am to 3pm, so I could go and surf every single afternoon. And I worked on Hasting Street at Noosa, so I got the best car-park every day and I could just surf every afternoon. That was my routine for… well, a few years.”

The way she speaks about the experience has a touch of longing about it. The simple routine of work, surf, eat, sleep, repeat. After a few years of this idyllic life, things began to change. She had been studying fashion design, but at the same time acting on a kids TV show.

From being unsure of what she was going to do, a whole new world opened up in front of her. Paige left Australia at the age of 21 and travelled all over working as an ambassador and model. When not working, she spent her newfound freedom travelling further, more widely, seeking fresh waves, different people and new experiences. It’s not all it’s cut out to be though, she points out; moving around every three months, carrying two boards absolutely everywhere… “It’s very lonely. It really can be very lonely, but luckily I like my own company.” She laughs slightly self-consciously and James flashes her an adoring smile.

Vans + Finisterre editorial - Paige Maddison pulling a tight turn on her longboard shaped by James Parry

It’s probably worth noting at this point that, as we sit at the table chatting about their lives, James and Paige are probably thinking about the coming Saturday… when they will be getting married to each other.

And where else would they have met than their spiritual home, Noosa?

“I actually went to Noosa the year I left school,” James chimes in, making short work of his avocado toast. “We went to Noosa during the festival and I was surrounded by all these top guys. I was blown away. I did the amateurs that year, I think I’d been longboarding for about 6 months at this point, and I made it to the finals. I was super shocked, but then I came home and did the English junior nationals, and I won that… So I just kept pushing, doing all the contests.”

It seems as though James and Paige had actually first met nine years ago through mutual friends, but weren’t 100% sure where or how… In fact, over the seven or eight years that James went out there, they only really met once. But once seemed to be enough.

Vans + Finisterre Destruct
Vans + Finisterre Destruct

A new style from Vans, bringing their timeless aesthetic to a truly adventure-ready shoe. Using the most sustainable materials available we'

Vans + Finisterre UltraRange Hi DL
Vans + Finisterre UltraRange Hi DL

The ultimate shoe for surf travel, based on an original hiking boot but with a modern twist. Ultra-light and water resistant, these shoes ar

Vans + Finisterre Slip-Er
Vans + Finisterre Slip-Er

The Slip-Er is the ideal pre and post surf shoe; easy to slip on with damp feet in a cold car park but with a sturdy sole to roam freely out

So what was it that sealed the deal for them? What’s their secret?

“Living together for eight months in a van,” quips Paige. “You either seal the deal with that, or you don’t!”

It’s a great reminder of how surfing communities transcend nationalities and geography. It is an example of how doing something you truly love can help you find the people you really want to be with; those who share your views and your attitude.

Turning back to the boys, I want to hear a little more about their journey from groms to sponsored riders, travelling to competitions and everything that life brings.

For Seb, sponsorship came early. “My older brother Lew made a little ‘sponsor me’ video and… It didn’t work. He sent it off and I think they replied – I was really young at the time, like seven or eight maybe – saying, ‘oh yeah, cool, but not at the moment.’ I don’t even know if they got back to him actually, I didn’t really know he was doing this! But yeah, he was trying to get me a sponsorship, and then at a contest when I was about 11 or 12, this guy came up to me and said, ‘are you still looking for a sponsor?’”

Vans + Finisterre editorial - Assorted shaping tools in James workshop and a framed picture of Josh Daniels founder of Smooth Movers competition

At 20 years old, Vans came in for him – his first proper sponsorship deal. He was already travelling for competitions off his own back, working as a lifeguard every summer and saving as many pennies as he could. Then in the winter, just going. Going away to wherever he could afford to go. Saving everything for surfing and travel.

“Everything down here’s seasonal, so you can do that kind of stuff; work the summers and then have some time in the winter to do your own thing… if you work hard enough, and save enough.” He adds cheekily.

James’ story was a little different, having moved down to Cornwall and picking up surfing later than Seb. “As a grom I was just emailing everyone. Just for myself, I was on the computer every day sending out messages I guess seeing all the older guys in Sennen; all sponsored, all travelling, I was pretty intrigued by their lifestyle. And it was something I was really, really passionate about so I decided I was just absolutely going to go for it.”

After returning from Noosa to win the English and British titles, what followed was a host of competitions, all around Europe. From riding traditional logs to more performance based longboards, even competing against his boyhood hero Sam Bleakley. “I think it actually made me a bit more relaxed, because I surfed with him all the time. I don’t know, it almost didn’t really feel like a competition with him in the heat. I didn’t really know what I was doing either! I was just in it and enjoying surfing with all these top guys.”

Vans + Finisterre editorial -  James Parry hangs five on a little knee-high peeler at Sennen

I ask if that lifestyle would have been possible for him if he wasn’t competing and wasn’t sponsored? Would he still have gone and done the surf-traveller thing as a lifestyle?

“At that time, sponsorship was paying for me to do that, and magazines want to see contests. So it wasn’t so much about lifestyle, it was more about the competitive side. It had gone through that lifestyle phase, and it was all about the competitiveness.” He looks over at Paige, “Fortunately now, it’s actually swung back to the lifestyle side of things.”

For Seb, the competitive arena didn’t capture his interest in the same way. “I wasn’t too into the contest thing, because the waves were always bad. So, you know, I stopped,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I think every surfer wants to, or needs to travel, because if you’re not doing that then you’re massively missing out. And everyone knows it. The waves here are good, you know we have the Atlantic, it’s not bad, but at some point you need some proper waves.”

What brought about the end of competing, I ask?

“I dunno… I just wasn’t into it,” he laughs at the question. “It wasn’t really for anything either. There wasn’t anything crazy to win, you know? I won all the titles, the English and the British ones. I was always interested in doing the comps abroad in Europe, but they were too expensive, so I never did that. I’d rather just go somewhere else on a trip. Go for a long time, somewhere cheap and just get some good waves.”

Vans + Finisterre editorial -  Seb Smart gets suited up while Paige Maddisons legs dnagle from the wall, wearing the new vans + Finisterre ultrarange hi dl lightweight walking boots

Seb’s desire to surf is stronger than his desire to compete, that much is clear. His passion for wave-riding translates into everything he does, from helping out at his brother’s surf-school, to long trips away to hunt brilliant waves and hone his craft.

So looking ahead, what does the future hold for these three surfers? With James and Paige tying the knot (and with a little one on the way) they will be moving back to Australia, so what does the next phase of their life look like?

“Simple.” They say it in unison; the word spoken together, with an aligned sense of understanding, as if it’s something they have been searching for their whole lives.

“Obviously when the baby’s born, we’d like to pass on what we’ve learned through travelling,” James tells me. Paige picks up his thread, “Travelling and having lived in vans for many years, you learn that you actually don’t need much in life. I’m just happy with a roof over my head, surfing every day and food on the table. We don’t need much more. I guess it depends on what kind of life you want to live and I just want a simple one.”

Vans + Finisterre editorial - James Parry with his longboard and his new vans destruct shoes

And what about Seb? It’s a question posed to a lot of British surfers; do you think you’d ever move away to somewhere that has better, more consistent waves?

“Yeah, no. I’m happy here. I don’t know what the future holds… I don’t really plan too far ahead, I try and play it all by sense. Anything can happen at any time, you know? I’m happy here, and when I can, then I’ll go away.”

Throughout this interview, it’s interesting how everything they keep saying comes back to the pure, simple desire to surf. It has nothing to do with money, fame or ego. It’s simply down to their uncontainable love of surfing, the sea, and the freedom that lifestyle brings.

From school age, to competing, to travelling, to finding each other through mutual friends, and falling in love on an eight month road trip crammed in the back of a van; every aspect of Seb, James and Paige’s lives revolves around the desire to ride waves, from work to play to social circles...

It all comes back to the pursuit of the surfing dream.

Vans + Finisterre editorial - Seb Smart, James Parry and Paige Maddison looking out over Sennen cove from the cliff-top

Written by Zak Rayment