How Santa Cruz Big Wave Surfer Richard Schmidt Balances Son’s Pro Surfing Ambitions with Life
Spoiler alert: big-wave surf legend Richard Schmidt’s oldest son, Richie, 19, is an excellent surfer. (So is his youngest, Makai, 17.) And while raising kids is a formidable undertaking, raising kids who surf seriously is complicated, even—maybe especially—for a surfer like Schmidt.
Like his two boys, Schmidt grew up surfing in Santa Cruz. In 1978, he’d just enrolled at nearby Cabrillo College when a friend convinced him to check out an “insane break” in Mexico. Stoked by Puerto Escondido, he soon headed to Oahu’s North Shore with Vince Collier. One Hawaiian winter turned into 15 seasons surfing contests there, where Schmidt earned the unofficial title, “California’s best big-wave rider.”
After taking third in the 1990 Eddie with his epic ride—free-falling into a miraculous landing and perfect score—Schmidt returned to California to surf that same swell at Maverick’s.
Richie Jr. had also started classes at Cabrillo before deciding to take a gap year to surf. Richie had made a name for himself on the high school competition circuit and was starting to enter pro contests. But rather than returning to competition, he told his father that he didn’t want to “travel halfway around the world to surf crappy waves in a contest. I want to surf the best waves in the world.”
So in April 2017, Richie and childhood friend Jonah Reimers headed to Indonesia. A month in, Schmidt joined them. They surfed 10-15 foot waves in Uluwatu; G-Land served up what Schmidt called “the longest barrel of my life”; and, he says, Lance’s Right was pretty much perfect. “We talked to Taj Burrow, and he said it was the best he’s seen it in 20 trips there.”
The trip sharpened Richie’s focus. “Before I went, I was unsure about what I wanted to do. This trip made me realize that I have it really good in Santa Cruz, working in the surf school and having a lifestyle that allows me to work in the water while surfing.” And, he adds, “the barrels at Lance’s Right made me more hungry for even bigger barrels. I told [my dad] I want to go out to Maverick’s this year.”
Schmidt views the prospect of his kid surfing Maverick’s with parental concern but also the analytic eye of an experienced big-wave surfer. “He’s been capable for a long time, but Maverick’s is so intense. I told him to focus on places where there are big waves but not that intense crowd. Get a little more experience. But I know he has the ability. Position is huge and he’s always had an uncanny knack for reading the horizon, watching the waves and knowing where to be.”
Richie credits his father.
It’s been easy with his coaching: positioning, lineups, where to sit, where the wave’s going to break. And he’s always told me if you’re gonna go on a big wave, you gotta be sure you’re gonna make it.
Schmidt has encouraged Richie to keep competing. “Do a couple contests, throw your hat in the ring. You don’t want to look back and wonder if you could’ve made the cut.” He acknowledges that a successful surfing career is a small percentage endeavor. “There used to be more opportunities. Right now the elite athletes are getting a lot of money, but there’s not a lot of middle ground.” He’d also support Richie if he continues to “just work on his surfing, gets to be a better surfer. Other opportunities could arise.” As for college, Schmidt says travel may lead Richie to discover new interests, to realize, “I want to go to school to accomplish this.”
Side-by-side photos of them reveal remarkable stylistic similarities. “It’s surfing together,” Schmidt says. “And genetics.” But, he says, “Growing up, coaching him through contests, we’ve looked at a lot of footage over the years to study surfing mechanics. We looked at all the best surfers and evaluated our own surfing through footage.”
The most striking similarity is their love of surfing and commitment to making a life of it. Schmidt is known for his surf instruction, with his renowned school offering lessons and weeklong camps in Santa Cruz and Costa Rica. With a great teaching staff, and managed by Schmidt’s wife, Marisa, the school thrives. But it’s Schmidt’s unflappable calm, positivity, and sheer love of surfing that drive his success. “I love surfing passionately still,” he says. “I guess some people lose that, somehow, but I don’t see how. To me, it’s as wondrous as when I was younger. I’m very lucky.”
Richie recognizes that in addition to being a surfer he’ll have to “have stuff going.” He works as a lifeguard, teaches at the surf school, and will soon start an EMT course. But, he says, “The trip made me realize that I wanted to be a surfer for the rest of my life, to surf every day, all day.”
“Who wouldn’t, yeah,” Schmidt says. “You just gotta find a balance. Like anything.”