If you’re a surfer from San Diego, you know who Eric “Bird” Huffman is. He does the 94.9 surf reports, he updates Surfline, and for a long time, he owned South Coast Surf Shops.
When the worst of the fires happened in San Diego 10 years ago, Bird offered to give free boards to kids who lost theirs in the fires. That’s when I first heard the name Bird Huffman, and I always thought he had to be a really nice guy to do something like that. I was right. When I went down to interview him this weekend, he was gracious, insightful, and willing to help me in any way he could (including, fixing my dead tape recorder).
Can you talk about how The Shed came about?
The Shed came about as a result of a partnership break-up. After a 20-year partnership in another retail store, it came time for me to part ways. I combined everything I collected in my life of 40+ years of working in surf shops, and put it together in one environment to make, what I feel, is a true surf shop. And I try to keep that kind of stoke and that kind of spirit around for the people. In a nut shell, that’s basically what The Shed is about: it’s for the people.
Can you tell us about your family?
I’ve got a huge family. I’ve got eight brothers and sisters. Some of them still live in San Diego, one lives in Hawaii, one lives in Australia for about 40 years now, one lives back in Washington, D.C. area. I’ve got a lovely wife, Amy, and I’ve got four of my own kids, all born and raised in San Diego. Our parents came from Minnesota when they were obviously, much younger. They came to San Diego and enjoyed the weather and never went back. So here’s where I ended up.
What is your definition of happiness?
Happiness, for me, in simple terms, is a good open communication with God. In a nut shell, that’s it. If you’re comfortable with your creator, whatever you want to call him, her, it, whatever, higher power, for me it’s God. If you can be comfortable with him and know he has your back and that everything happens for a reason, that’s pure happiness in a spiritual sense.
In an emotional sense, or a human sense, having my wife, having a woman who shares my life and who has raised kids with me for 30 years. That’s another source of happiness, being able to share that with somebody is pretty amazing.
And then just being able to pretty much live a healthy, productive life doing something that I want. I’m not making a lot of money doing it, but it was never about the money for me. That’s pretty happy. Coming to work and being able to have a good time stoking people out. That’s pretty happy.
When did you learn to surf? Who taught you?
I started riding waves back as long as I can remember. My mom was from Minnesota, and was a stay at a home Mom, which was very common at that time, especially with that many children. She really enjoyed the ocean, so we’d go whenever at all possible. La Jolla Cove, you know, we’d body surf and play around there. And then we started to ride little foam surf boards, I was probably like 3 or 4. When I actually started to seriously ride waves, I was probably about 8, maybe 9, and I knee-boarded. There was nobody really to teach me so, I basically emulated my older brother, Mark, and the oldest, and Rex. I tagged along with them a little bit to get the foundation down, and then it was kinda like riding a surfboard, once you get out there and do it a few times…
Do you ever do that anymore… knee-board?
Very rarely, I’ll only do it in the situation that I find myself not being able to make a wave on my feet. It’s kinda nice to have that chance or that ability to fall back, because I knee-boarded for quite a few years before I started stand up surfing, and still it’s fresh in my mind. Deep down inside of me I started being a knee boarder, so I’d drop in on a wave and not even try to get to my feet, I’d just stay on my knees, it’s not that hard for me to do.
What’s something you know about happiness now that you did not know at 25 years old?
Oh boy, the older you get the more you learn. Probably again, letting god into my life more. Giving up all the things that you as a human think you can do when you realize that it’s all going to be done no matter what you want. It’s going to be done the way it’s supposed to be done.
As you get older, you learn to give up the dread and the normal fears that come along with living a life. That’s a pretty solid one: the happiness of letting yourself be happy. Don’t be afraid to be happy. It might sound weird, but there are a lot of people that are hesitant to let themselves be stoked, be happy, because they’re afraid it’s going to turn bad or the bubble is going to burst, or whatever. Live each day happy. Live every moment of the day as happy, giving as you can. You’ve got down days, but keep the stoke going and keep the happiness flowing.
What are some of your most memorable personal experiences surfing?
Ah, man, there have been so many over the years. Probably, from the family standpoint, one of by far the best moments was when I was in Fiji and I was surfing one of the breaks out there. The waves got really, really large and they got too large than I was comfortable with, so we moved into a shallower break. And our son had been in the boat, my oldest son at that time was probably 10 maybe 9 or 10 years old, and he had been in the boat just kind of watching. And I was thinking to myself how nice it would be to be able to share waves with him, when he got to the age where he would be able to come out and catch a couple waves with me. And I turned around and he had taken my extra board on his own initiative and jumped over the side of the boat. His surfing experience at the time was pretty limited for waves like that. But you know, there he was, and all my friends were cheering him on. It was pretty much just a tear-jerking moment for me. That’s probably one of my heaviest emotional moments surfing from that kind of standpoint.
I’ve had some heavy situations like where I almost drowned at Pipeline. About 73′ or 74′ I was over there, and came really close to drowning there. So those are kind of the up’s and the down’s in terms of the emotional spectrum. But those two things are probably a good example of the high’s and the low’s.
Did someone have to pull you out of the water that time?
No, I tried, I tried to wave in to get people to try to help me, but it was during a contest and everybody was occupied watching the other heats and so forth so I just treaded water for at least 45 minutes to an hour. I got lucky somebody lost their board and I caught their board and rode their board in to get back to the beach, because I couldn’t break the current. And yeah, that was a life-changing experience for me. Definitely. It ended any thoughts I ever had about big-wave surfing.
Yeah, it wasn’t even that big by nowadays standards, but Pipeline is still Pipeline. 2-3 times over your head is still pretty big.
So how big was it that day?
Ehh, you’d probably call it like 6 foot, 8 foot Pipeline-style, where you measure that by the back of the wave. So double-triple over head. It was big.
What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Selling surfboards. I love selling surfboards. There’s not much better for me.
What was it like growing up here in San Diego, and how has the surf scene changed?
Growing up in San Diego was awesome. You know, despite all the craziness and overgrowth that’s happened in the 56 years I’ve been around, it’s been really fun. I’ve been able to isolate myself in the surf culture and for the most part, the surf culture has stayed somewhat the same, in terms of San Diego being a great location and a decent quality of wave combinations can be found here as well. So it always keeps you interested and it always keeps it fresh, but at the same time there’s a lot of tradition, surf tradition, in San Diego. That’s still alive and strong. Generations of different surfers are all growing up here and having kids. It’s pretty special, it’s got an aloha-feel of it’s own. It’s a tight, tight community for the most part. And for the most part, it’s controlled. It’s a small enough city that there’s somewhat of a control over the surf breaks and the environment than there is in some other areas where it’s pure pandemonium.
What’s your favorite board?
My favorite board right now is a 5’6 board called a Death Star. It’s shaped by a young Australian shaper. A very, very innovative Australian shaper by the name of Daniel Thompson. And it’s again, 5’6, 19 inches wide, 2 1/2 inches thick. It’s very, very unconventional. It’s got a squared-off, diamond-offed nose and tail. Very unconventional, but I’ve ridden thousands of boards, but I’ve never ridden anything quite like this in terms of it’s versatility and it’s ability to let me do things that I’ve never been able to do on a board. So that’s my go-to. Other than that, I’ve got too many other boards I could pinpoint.
Yeah, evidently. (I laugh, both looking around)
Yeah, it’s dizzy-ing.
What does “stoke” mean to you?
Stoke… it’s funny cuz it’s an old term that was used when I was a kid. It’s a surf slang term that went out of fashion for a long time and somehow it sort of came back in somewhere along the lines. But, to me, stoke maybe another word for energy, and maybe positive energy. You can’t use stoke in a negative way. It’s positive. It’s putting out good vibes. Putting out good energies and sharing in a lot of ways. Stoke and sharing, sharing and stoke it’s kind of the same. So it’s just another way of saying sharing, maybe, or happiness, I don’t know. Stoke is stoke.
How important do you think happiness at work is to a person’s overall happiness?
I think it’s much, much more important than most people think, especially in the world we live in now. The economy is so bad and the government is so corrupt, and there’s so much negativism out there, that I think more and more people are realizing that to be happy you best make yourself happy and try to put yourself in an environment where you can be happy. If you’re in a job you don’t want to be in, try your best to make it a happier environment and I think more people are figuring that it’s better to have a nice, healthy, happy environment to work in than it is to do something that you don’t like that just drains you. That’s the way I look at it.
Is there a happiness mantra you live by? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
No happiness mantra, just tidbits, prayers here and there. Probably more just the way I was raised, I go back to my Mom who was very religious, and she has set such a good example for me on staying grounded to what is really real in the world. And simple common decencies things, the Ten Commandments, live and let live, try not to be too judgmental. Ease up, take it easy.
What is your advice to 20-somethings trying to find their way?
Number one again, I don’t want to sound like a bible thumper or what not, but think about God, about a higher power. And take some of the pressure off yourself. Realize that we’re only here for a short while, and there’s a reason why we’re all here. Go with the flow sometimes. If it gets too hard to do, it’s probably because you’re not meant to do it. That doesn’t mean roll over and shy away from a challenge. But if you feel like you’re forcing something, sometimes it’s best to take a step back and reassess where you are and make some serious decisions as to if where you’re going is really where you want to go. Breathe deep, take life slow, and stay happy and stoked.