It’s been nearly 40 years since BJ Smith founded his legendary Seasons Surfboards store in Newmarket relocating to New Plymouth a decade later, so it was an emotional farewell when the Kiwi surf icon recently locked the doors for the last time. However, BJ has by no means stepped off his surfboard for good, and now runs a secluded oceanfront accommodation on the Taranaki coast where guests have the option to also build their own boards. The move was, he recounts summoning the spirit of Blackadder, part of a cunning plan.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” BJ tells me. “Our surfboards are a blend of form and function. Making surfboards is like creating a sculpture, it’s beautiful, but then it is also has to be well designed and work well.”
It’s also an opportunity for novice surfers to learn their craft from scratch.
“I’ve had tradesmen who can really get involved with the tools, but also high school kids who absolutely loved it,” says BJ. “You can do as much—or as little—as you like. Even if I do most of the physical work, I’ll still be talking them through the construction and the various methods and materials and explain about the importance of shape. Then they get to decorate it! It gives people are really unique, authentic experience.”
BJ says that surfing is now attracting a far broader range of people, many of whom are lured by the lifestyle. I ask what first attracted him to the sport.
“Getting away and the adventure,” comes the reply without skipping a beat. “And I guess in those days there was an element of rebelling against society. It’s so exhilarating, you know, the feeling of solitude, those beautiful days, it encompasses everything. It’s good for the body, it’s good for the mind, it’s good for the health. And it’s just really enjoyable.”
It’s a lifestyle that led BJ to far-flung corners of the world via Australia and Bali. “In my younger years, I got to know all of the great spots in Africa, rode the Sunset Beach pipeline in Hawaii,” he recalls, “but you know, what I discovered was there’s no place like home. You can’t keep traveling, it’s exhausting. So, I just found a place to settle down, lead a sustainable life and sort of live surfing every day.”
Among the main reasons for making the decision to shut the store for good was BJ’s throat cancer diagnosis in 2017 (he’s since had the all clear), and Jesse’s, his eldest son, worsening epilepsy (following treatment in Paris, he’s also hopefully on the mend). BJ admits that his energy levels are only just back up to what they were before chemotherapy, and there is still some progress to be made. A born-again Christian since 1977, the surfer says his faith has helped through such dark times. He’s philosophical when I suggest that the diagnosis must have altered his outlook on life.
“I understand my place in the universe. I just thought that I’m ready for this, I’ve prepared myself. I live with a Christian understanding of life and death and sickness. It did make me grateful for the way that I had lived, that I have pursued a lifestyle rather than, say, a career.”
BJ’s years of surfing likely even aided his recovery.
“The doctors said that they were able to hit me hard with the chemotherapy because I was fit. They basically give you as much treatment as your body can take, so the better shape you’re in, the more likely a positive outcome.
“Another thing that’s kind of interesting, is that 20 December was my wife’s and mine 38th wedding anniversary, and that was the day I was told I had cancer. The following year on 20 December, I received a call from the bank to tell me I’d won a car! Whatever people are going through, whether it’s good or bad, it’s important to keep your composure, to remember that things can change, so hang in there.”
BJ sounds supremely content, and I tell him so. He is, he says, happy with his “little slice of paradise, running the bed and breakfast, and making and repairing surfboards and just living a really simple life”.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces