23 October, 2017 23 October, 2017

Tammy-Lee Smith Charges Harder Than You

There ain’t nothing like a women who charges. When you’re surfing down the beach and the set of the day approaches, 6-8 foot strong, and you think to yourself, “She ain’t gonna go on this!” – What kind of a man are you?! Hold your position my friend. The 60’s are over and this isn’t an episode of Madmen. You’re on the outside and that’s where you’ll stay, because Tammy-Lee Smith isn’t holding back for no reason, and she certainly charges harder than you! If she was a lawyer, she’d wear a power suit all day long, convicting criminals and setting the innocent free. 

Tammy-Lee is currently in Cape Town, tackling a monstrous swell obliterating the Cape of Storms. She flew out of Durban in a hastened rush, gun under arm, schedule free courtesy of her understanding employer. As the big wave spots of Cape Town yawn to life for a late season swell, and in light of the Striped Horse Challenge – our  celebration of South Africa’s hardest chargers – we thought we’d hit Tammy-Lee Smith up to find out what got her to charging big waves, and why she settled into a 9-5 after chasing points on the QS for so long.

Cover Image: WSL / Kelly Cestari

Zag: Hello Tammy, thanks for chatting to us! Tell us a bit about your surfing background?

Tammy: I started surfing relatively late.  I started at 14 and gunned for the competitive junior ranks straight away. As soon as I graduated high school, I went on tour full time.  Literally the day after writing my last matric final exam, I flew to Tahiti. 

A flogging so brutal, it’ll make a dead man rise to life from the adrenaline. Image: WSL / Kelly Cestari


Zag: So you’re pretty much a competitive surfer for most of your career, what was your best result on the QS? And what made you exchange extensive stamps on your passport for the suburban 9-5?

Tammy: I made some finals in lower-rated QS events around America and at the QS they used to have at Pipeline.  I made any excuse to fly to Hawaii each year. I got a 5th at the Mr Price Pro when it was a 6-Star.  I had two good years on the QS where I thought I had a chance at qualifying, but fell just shy.

I did the tour full time for six years.  That’s a long time! So, you know, I was looking for something more.  I didn’t mean for it to end so abruptly.  I stopped to study Environmental Management and then life just happened. Unfortunately my dad passed away and I kind of lost my fire to compete or surf after that.  I loved the pre-contest hype up with him and the debrief on what I did well and what I did wrong.  I was a bit bitter with surfing for a little while because it hurt so much.  But now I am back, and loving it. 

I work as an Environmental Manager for a big Electronic Recycling company, it’s in the field that I studied and I love what I do.  I have an understanding boss that lets me shoot off for swells and surfs as long as I am on top of my work.  I kind of scored.  So at least its not your average 9 to 5. 

Where it all began for Tammy. Image: Sasha Specker


Zag: Why big waves? I mean why not just kick-it in 4-6ft bangers? What made you take the big wave leap?

Tammy: I dig it all. I love a good finless Muizenburg session or a good session at Supers, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t answer why big waves. I’ve always loved it.  Why not?!  If there is a wave, I want to try ride it.  

I’d promised myself I’d to take the leap since I was a teenager.  When I was about 19, Ian Armstrong paddled me out to Sunset and I got one wave.  I’ve been hooked since then, but I never ended up chasing another swell as my focus was on the QS. Jan last year though, I moved home from working abroad on boats.  I called up Twiggy and asked him to design me a board.  I got a 9’6 in June last year and just waited for a swell.  After the re-introductory swell I rode with my friends Holle and Caitlin, I was hooked.  Now I make sure I never miss a swell in Cape Town.  It feels so good to have my passion for surfing back.


Tammy, charging Sunset. Image: Mike Wrankmore


Zag: A while back you got the call up to take part in the BWT Jaws event in Maui. For those who don’t know, the waves were monstrous. What motivated you to even paddle out?!

Tammy: Ja, that was a wild couple of days.  I was an alternate and on the lower end of the alternate list too, so it didn’t look I’d even get into the event.  I got all my ducks in a row and applied for my visa. Just before the waiting period started,  a lot of people started pulling out and then with less than 48 hours to go,  I got the call.  Bear in mind it takes you 38 hours give or take to fly to Hawaii.  I had to convince my boss why I needed this so badly and what an opportunity it was.  He let me go for a month trip to Hawaii. I started my normal work day and by 1:00pm I was en-route to Jaws! It was crazy!  What motivated me to paddle out?  Have you seen that wave? Biggest barrels you’ve ever seen! Did you see Paige Alms barrel?  I want one of those one day!!!


Zag: What’s been your heaviest experience in big waves?

Tammy: I have had two good over-the-falls trips at Sunset, but I haven’t had something that’s completely scared the wits out of me yet.  (touch wood).  I will let you know if that changes after this next swell.


Zag: You recently hunted big waves round the country with Hawaiian big wave surfer, Paige Alms and Bianca Valenti, tell us a bit about your trip? Did you guys get waves?

Tammy: We had one windy session out at Sunset.  That was pretty fun, but other than that, just really fun waves along our coastline.  We spent quite a bit of time in Jbay and scored waves.  They actually changed their tickets for that massive swell that hit Jbay. 

Paige Alms and Bianca Valenti and Tammy about to hit a secret spot in the Cape. Image: Sasha Specker


Zag: Thanks for your time Tammy! You heading to Cape Town for the swell that’s about to hit?

Tammy: No, no!  Thank you Cyle!!!  Yup, off to Cape Town tomorrow evening.  I hope the wind stays off and the swell materializes. 

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