With social media’s infinite broadcast of the banal, the tragic, the triumphant, and everything in between, it’s nearly impossible for a moment of even the slightest significance to go unnoticed, unclaimed, and unpublished – especially in the world of modern professional surfing where self-promotion has become synonymous with the occupation.
Very much a modern young adult with an active social media presence (albeit a reluctant one), 23-year-old Benji Brand has been able to quietly slip under the radar while establishing himself as one of the premier heavy wave riders on the planet and a true throwback to the now antiquated notion of “letting your surfing do your talking.” And Brand’s surfing has spoken loud and clear garnering some major attention and awards over the last few years including 2015 GoPro of the World, 2017 WSL Hawai‘i Regional Champion, 2018 Surfline Wave of the Winter Outstanding Performance, and the 2019 Rip Curl Padang Padang Cup Champion, to name a few. While Brand would prefer to allow his surfing to speak for itself, he was more than gracious to share a few words with Freesurf Mag.
You had a pretty unusual upbringing. Will you describe what it was like growing up?
I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and I grew up between O‘ahu and South Africa. My dad got a property here in Hawai‘i when I was six years old. Since then, we’ve spent a lot of time in Hawai‘i and I spent most of my childhood surfing here. I went to Sunset Beach Elementary when I was young and then I went back to South Africa and finished high school. From about 17 years old and onward I’ve been back here in Hawai‘i.
I think I had an awesome upbringing! I was exposed to different places around the world throughout my childhood. That may be why I’m so comfortable both here [in Hawai‘i], in South Africa, and all over the globe. I grew up with a lot of friends in Hawai‘i and in South Africa. It feels like I have two homes, but I’d say my heart is probably more and more in Hawai‘i. This is home nowadays.
When did competition come into the picture for you?
Growing up I did all the HASAs and NSSAs here on O‘ahu from when I was seven or eight years old and those were some of the best times of my life. Out of it grew a lot of friendships and I developed a real love for surfing. I loved competing while I was growing up, but it’s kind of taken a different path now. My love for surfing has gone beyond competing. Now, it’s nice just to enjoy good waves without crowds.
But growing up in the NSSAs, there was an incredibly high level of surfing and I was competing with guys like Seth and Josh Moniz, and Imai DeVault. In the Open Men’s division we had guys like Dusty Payne, Clay Marzo, and Tonino Benson, so we had some gnarly guys to look up to. And the generation just above that was John John Florence, Zeke Lau, and Keanu Asing. They all definitely pushed our level.
In the last few years, it seems like the generation you grew up with (Seth and Josh Moniz, Imai, etc.) have really come into your own, in your own ways.
Among the group of friends I grew up with, we’ve kind of all gone in different directions and I think all those directions are amazing. If getting to the CT and competing and winning is what fires you up, then that’s awesome. Or, if have a pure love for surfing and you want to get really good waves and just enjoy the ocean for what it is and kind of enjoy it for yourself, that’s awesome, too. It’s really cool to see my friends going down their own different avenues.
How have you gone about finding your own path?
After graduating from the junior ranks a few years ago, I had a few good results in the Vans Triple Crown, the HIC event at Sunset, and the Pipe Masters, and from there I decided to give the QS a bit of a go. I did the QS for a full year just to see if it fired me up, and if I did well I’d have my chance to qualify for the CT. On the QS, I found that we travelled to really, really bad waves. I kind of expected that to an extent, but it was just chipping away at my love for surfing, and it also ate away a lot of my money. In retrospect, all of the money I’ve made or the successes that I’ve had have come from freesurfing avenues or just surfing good waves in Hawai‘i. I kind of just survived off the winnings from the GoPro of the World Contest I won a few years back, some of the [Surfline] Wave of the Winter awards, and by making some heats here in the Vans Triple Crown. That’s kind of what has sustained me through life. It seems like that’s what has been working for me. I’d like to focus on surfing good waves and hopefully keep that going for as long as I can.
You have really established yourself in heavy waves, and at such a young age. When did this infatuation with gnarly surf take hold? Was it there from the beginning or were you getting pulled out there by older surfers?
It was a natural progression – growing up and being a product of my environment. Just by being here, and if you have that type of personality that enjoys the thrill of a really good or big wave, then it’s just in you and it comes together naturally. No one has told me to do it or anything like that, it’s just what I love to do. I find myself psyched on those kinds of waves and I find joy out of it.
It must be cool now that you’ve been really going at it for a few years to where you have proven yourself in the lineup. Now you’re not some unknown grom scratching around the lineup; people are recognizing, ‘Oh, it’s Benji paddling. He’s more than capable of making this’. I’m sure you’ve earned a certain level of respect, not that you get any wave you want, but guys are going to give you the benefit of the doubt if you’re in the spot.
No, I’m definitely not getting any wave I want. [laughs] It’s weird for me because I’m someone who hates crowds and surfing with other people. Starting to paddle out at Pipe more was hard for me because I actually hit my head on the reef really bad when I was 17 and I didn’t surf Pipe for a year after that. Then, obviously, you constantly see how good Pipe is and I just really wanted to give it a go and get a couple of waves. So, I started paddling out super early in the morning. I hate crowds and that was my way to deal with the intimidation factor, that combination of really gnarly waves and a lot of gnarly surfers. I would paddle out there in the dark, hopefully catch a couple of waves and then go in by about eight o’clock because I knew my day was done. I don’t think I ever really got a wave in the evening at Pipe just because it’s way too crowded. I get too rattled. I just go for those morning sessions, try to find my windows.
Seems like your program is paying off pretty well. We probably shouldn’t be giving away all your secrets.
Wait, actually don’t put this stuff in. [laughs]
It seems like you’re in a bit of a conundrum because you have all the ability and experience to be at the forefront of freesurfing, but it seems these days that goes hand in hand with broadcasting yourself, which doesn’t really appeal to you. But then, paradoxically, you’ve gotten some of the craziest GoPro clips and won a string of awards for your freesurfing caught on camera. How do you square that circle? [laughs]
Well, the GoPro stuff started because I was going to Namibia a lot and I was super psyched on that wave; using the GoPro was just about capturing the waves because you couldn’t really get land clips of it. So, I just wanted to see my waves and the GoPro was just starting to come out then and become a trend. It was great using the GoPro and reliving my waves, because those waves were just too long to capture from land. So, that wasn’t really about filming myself, per se, so much as I just wanted to see my waves over. I don’t really like to film myself or talk to the camera or be a blog guy.
It kind of sucks nowadays because it doesn’t seem like you can just be the real deal and make it on that alone – you have to be shamelessly self-promoting, too. It’s a hard place to be in for sure. I think you just have to learn that skill in a way that you don’t sell yourself out completely and you can still keep it real. But you have to be somewhat promoting yourself these days; no one’s really going to do it for you.
What’s next for you? Are there some big adventures on your list that you haven’t done yet?
There are a few different places that I’d love to go to that haven’t really been seen before, but I can’t tell you where they are. [laughs] Aside from that, I’m trying to get some clips together for this new movie coming out, Snapt 4. This is my first movie project I’ve ever been a part of. Hopefully, I can get some good stuff from Fiji or a good Tahiti swell or something like that, I’d like to try and get some clips from places like that for the movie. I guess the “best section” in the movie wins $40,000. I’m pretty sure it will almost be impossible to win because you’ve got guys like Marzo and some other gnarly guys in this movie. But, since this is the first movie I’ve been a part of, I’m going to try my best to get some good clips in there!
It seems that you have a knack for winning these non-traditional awards, so you never know, right?
Yeah, you never know. But, that one looks pretty out of reach. [laughs] These guys are next level, doing back flips and stuff, and Clay doing his laybacks in the barrel for, like, a minute long. I’m not quite there… I just don’t want to make a bad part! [laughs]