Frank J Solomon is quite literally living his dream.
When The Red Bulletin meets the globetrotting professional big-wave surfer on Llandudno beach near Cape Town, he has just returned from the movie premiere circuit, which took him to Los Angeles, London and San Sebastián.
Solomon speaks of landing in San Francisco, home of one of the most infamous monster breaks, Mavericks. “I got there and I didn’t know anything,” he says. “I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I didn’t know anything about the place, I didn’t really have any money, didn’t know where I was going to stay, nothing.”
He soon figured it out, however, taking on a bunch of odd jobs to earn some cash, finding places to bunk, and riding loads of beast-sized waves. “Today, I can take you anywhere in San Francisco,” he says. “I know the place like the back of my hand, which is quite amazing when I think about how clueless I was when I first arrived.”
Solomon stares out at the waves breaking on Llandudno beach near Cape Town. He’s spotted a young surfer skilfully navigating the waves. “Check that kid out – he’s damn good!” Then suddenly Solomon stops talking and sets off towards the rocks to the right of the bay. Soon, he’s hopping back towards the beach, from rock to rock, with a board under his arm. “That guy lost his board,” he says, pointing out a guy battling against the tide. “I don’t want his board to get smashed.”
It’s not all glamour, the big-wave surfing lark. For one thing, surfers of the really giant waves spend virtually all their time in winter; Solomon says he hasn’t seen summer in Cape Town in years. However, the doom and gloom is a tough sell; the man has an enviable tan, and today is a spectacular day in the Cape, even if it is technically still winter. “I wish people could see where we’re sitting right now,” he says, gazing out over the ocean. He’s right, it’s pretty idyllic. “I live right there, in a little cottage,” he says, gesturing. “I wake up and get straight into the water.”
A few days later, word gets round that some serious waves are expected at Dungeons, Cape Town’s notorious big-wave surf spot. Solomon, of course, is one of the first guys in the water. Dungeons has played an important part in his ascension from surfer to movie star. It was here, years ago, that he was put up as a stand-by for an event and gained the self-belief that he could make it as a surfing pro.
“Professional surfing today is very different from what it was even a few years ago,” says Solomon. These days, everyone builds their profile via Instagram accounts, and surfing professionally no longer means you have to be on a pro tour. Solomon appreciates how this has helped his situation, and believes that being visible and creating good content is even more important than how well you surf. He still surfs some of the big-wave events, but competitions aren’t his focus. “If I can keep sponsors happy and stay relevant and do things that mean that people keep believing in me, then I’m doing my job,” he says.
The wisdom here is that today’s surfers can be brands by going to exotic locations, surfing the best waves and using social media, the web and other avenues to promote themselves. “It’s amazing, really. You can live a dream.”
Solomon’s success is testament to the tenacity of this seemingly laid-back man; by his own admission, he’s not the greatest at his sport. “I’m a really good surfer,” he says. “I’m not a great surfer, but I’m a good surfer. It’s a lifetime of learning, this sport.” Instead, Solomon relentlessly seeks out every opportunity and does all he can to maximise the power of social media. People all over the world have been incredibly responsive to his story – from his adoring fans to lucrative sponsors.
THE RED BULLETIN: How did you come to live this dream lifestyle?
FRANK SOLOMON: I honestly don’t know; I’ve just been really fortunate. Wherever I go, doors open for me. People appreciate others who are trying to live their dreams; they’re inspired by those who are trying to do it for themselves. I’m super grateful. I get to be here and surf waves – it’s insane.
But you take it seriously?
Yes, I take it unbelievably seriously. I train every day: I’m up before the sun rises, and if I’m not in the water I’m training with weights or doing yoga. I feel really lucky, because I never, ever thought I’d be in this position. It didn’t happen overnight, either; it took six years of travelling, doing odd jobs and riding waves before the whole thing came together. Then you’ve got to get the content that will keep a brand happy. And you’ve got to maintain your presence, which is entirely down to you; if you don’t do it, you’ll end up being forgotten about within a month.
a movie about me”
It seems pretty mad. Did you always know you would live this life?
If I had told someone [in the early days] that I wanted to be a pro surfer, they would have laughed at me. But here I am. I will tell you one thing, though: living your dreams is not easy. It has taken me 10 years of complete dedication and commitment to get on this path. And I was already telling people that I was a pro surfer, even when I wasn’t. I was just so committed to it. It was like, “This is what I’m going to do.”
What advice would you give to others planning to set off on their own dream-fulfilment mission?
You’ve got to want it more than anything else. I’m very competitive, so when people told me it couldn’t be done, or that it was going to be difficult for a South African, it pissed me off and I said, “Well, now I’m definitely going to do it.”
Ryan Sandes is one of my best friends, and he’d just started running at the time, so I thought thatI could do it, too.
So you made it happen all by yourself?
I honestly don’t know what I was doing when I went on that first trip; I got to San Francisco and I didn’t know the place at all. I was going to try it out for a year, and if the worst came to the worst I would just get a job. So I just kept going and kept going, and here I am. You’ve got to have belief in yourself – you can’t be half a pro surfer. It’s total commitment and it requires complete belief, so you’ve got to go for it with absolutely everything you’ve got.
How did the idea for Let’s Be Frank come about?
I never in my wildest dreams thought anyone would want to make a movie about me, so the whole thing was pretty strange. I went to a premiere that [surf filmmaker] Peter Hamblin had put on for his film The Wright Side Of Wrong, and afterwards we started chatting and I told him my story. After we’d had probably too many beers, he said that we should make a movie and call it Let’s Be Frank. I was like, “Whatever,” and carried on partying. But a couple of days later he called me, saying, “Remember me? I really want to do this. I think that it would be pretty cool.” Ja, that’s how it all started. Pretty crazy.
What did you tell him when he asked you for your story?
Well, I would post photos of my travels and stuff, so I guess that from the outside it looked like I was always travelling to these super-exotic locations. It’s true that I was travelling – I was like going to California and surfing Mavericks – butin between I was working four or five jobs and sleeping on people’s floors. I wasn’t posting about that, though, so from Peter’s perspective I was this guy living the dream, travelling the world and surfing these amazing spots. I think for him, as a filmmaker, the contrast between his perception and the truth was appealing and, being super-creative, he saw how we could turn that into a movie.
So he made a fictional movie based on that contrast?
Yeah. I mean, I have had a very interesting life, and there have been a lot of stories – many of them true. Peter managed to take real stories, change them and escalate them into these fictional ones. Before we started, he sent emails to all of my friends, asking for the best stories about me. From that, he changed what really happened into this wild, creative vision that is still rooted in the truth.
Like the bare-knuckle fight scene in Ireland?
In the movie, I run out of money, which is based in the truth. I’ve often run out of money and had to do what I had to do to earn some cash – but I’ve never had to take part in an underground bare-knuckle fight to get some. That scene was heavily influenced by the movie Snatch. We shot in Ireland, the UK, South Africa, Mexico, Hawaii, California – all places where I’ve travelled and surfed. We also shot the movie while I was actually travelling and surfing, Peter would come and meet up with me while I was in these locations and we’d do some movie work.
What about Ben Harper doing the soundtrack? How did that happen?
That was just as crazy. Ben Harper was at the Red Bull offices in California and one of the people working there had some of Peter’s footage on their computer screen. Ben was looking to get involved in something new at the time, and apparently, after seeing a few rough edits of the movie, he said, “That! I want to get involved in that.” The rest is history, hahaha.
So, where does your journey go from here?
That’s something I ask myself a lot. People always say you should live your dreams and set goals – but what happens when you reach those goals? What’s happened to me is way beyond any dream I’ve ever had – I mean, I never imagined that Ben Harper would write a song about me. So I’m not sure. I try not to think about it. Who knows what’s going to happen? Even if nothing does, this journey has been amazing. Someone made a movie about me – that’s insane!