By Cash Lambert
For Sean Murphy, what started as an innate passion for surf travel blossomed into a 20+ year career at WaterWays Surf Adventures, and to date, the 52-year-old has logged over 100 surf trips in the name of the company he created.
Let’s rewind: By 20-years-old, the Pacific Palisades, CA native had already traveled extensively through Mexico’s beachbreaks, Hawaii’s top echelon waves and the idyllic reef breaks in Tahiti. With an education in accounting and finance, Sean found himself sequestered in a Public Accounting firm with an unquenchable desire to chart the unknown. “That environment wasn’t for me,” he said.
What was for him was surf travel, and he decided to turn his passion into a profit. In 1994, during the era when “no one had internet and everyone used typewriters and fax machines,” Sean founded WaterWays Surf Adventures, a travel company that specializes in unique surf travel and surf trips around the globe, with premier surf destinations including Tavarua Island in Fiji and Chicama Surf Resort in Peru.
“The notion of a strategic strike was quite rare,” Sean said, explaining the industry in the mid 1990s. “People were much more accepting of choosing a destination, getting the seasonal information from us, and booking a trip well in advance and taking what they got. Surf Fax was the first real forecast available, with a fax you could sign up for 3 days a week. It was fabulous.”
Fast forwarding to today’s explosion of digital media, an increase in access to cameras and secret spots becoming inundated after social media shout outs, Sean and WaterWays had to adapt to the changing climate.
“We can now reach so many more people, but so much of all the info is available via so many sources,” he said. “Our mission statement from day one is still on every wall in our office: We take the gamble and guess work out of your surf travel holiday while at the same time providing the best service and value for your travel dollar. We live by this statement, and it has been the key to our long term success.”
Throughout his career, Sean has not only scored at empty waves in the most isolated locations; he’s also pioneered many trips that customers are now embarking on. Like any explorer, Sean has heaps of expedition tales.
“Very early in the days of WaterWays, I believe July/August of 1994, I received a call from a guy named Gary Burns,” said Sean. “He had seen one of our ¼ page black and white advertisements in Surfer Magazine promoting Mentawai charters. He said he had a small sailboat and wanted to do charters in an area called West Timor, known as Rote. I had never heard of the area, and the call seemed odd. He explained that he had plans to visit his sister in San Francisco, and if I was interested I could fly up to meet him there and he would show me nautical charts with all the breaks laid out, along with a book he put together with photos of each spot. It seemed really strange, but I flew up to meet him and he showed me what felt like a secret treasure map. I made plans to visit him on his boat the following May and had the most amazing surf experience. It was everything he said and more. That lead to a 15+ year business relationship, operating two separate boat charters together and eventually building Nemberala Beach Resort together. Gary and I still surf together whenever possible.”
He continued: “On one of my early trips to the Outer Atoll Maldives, before any regular charters were working down there, Tony Hinde Hussein told me about a place called the Andaman Islands. Nobody knew anything about the area, but Tony had some intel from “reliable sources” that there was great surf there. Unfortunately, the Andaman Islands were closed to all tourism to protect some indigenous people, and had been closed for over 50 years. When I got word that they were opening their borders under strict visa requirements, I chartered a boat to sail there from Thailand and met a small group who flew in via India. It took over 2 days for us to fly there and 3 days for the boat to sail there. We had no idea where we were going. I got the nautical charts for the Mentawais and marked all the spots. I then got the nautical charts for the Andaman Islands, which are way north of Indonesia, above the Nicobar Islands. I compared the two charts and set out a 14-night game plane to search for surf. We scored some epic surf, and more over just some epic travel experiences. We were definitely some of the first surfers to get in there, before the Surfer Magazine trip that broke it open as a potential destination.”
So with today’s vast digital presence, are there any spots left to discover? “There are,” Sean said. “But at this point, I’m not telling any more. That may be a bit hypocritical. We have always tried to be sensitive to what we sell and how we sell it. We used to limit the number of people we would book to any one location, but now the cat is out of the bag and it’s difficult to slow the wheels of progress.”
When he hasn’t been on a surf trip, Sean has been continuing to methodically build the WaterWays brand. “I have been sitting at much of the same desk with much of the same computer monitor for 20+ years and still enjoy coming to work every day,” he said. “I am the luckiest guy in the world.”