In this episode Oli Russell-Cowan chats to Joe Turpel, the voice of professional surfing. He travels to places you would never imagine to go, building friendships with some of the best surfers in the world on the dream tour. He loves the adrenaline rush of going live, especially when it’s pumping.
In their conversation Joe dives deep on his upbringing, his favorite spots on tour and the World Surf League in 2020.
The main takeaway of the chat was that the WSL has been working insanely on ideas and the new WCT format for next year. In a couple of weeks, we know more about this year’s game plan. We are ready. Stay tuned!
‘I’m gonna call the pipe masters one day.’
Joe Turpel: Oli. So good to see you. Thanks so much for having me on Rad Season.
Joe: I am on the North Shore of Oahu. Right by that wave called Rocky Point and just been hanging out. It’s a nice little part of the world. Pretty simple, pretty laid back. So not a whole lot has changed.
Joe: I was born in California, in a place called San Dimas. I couldn’t tell you how to get there. We didn’t stay there very long. My family moved to Oahu when I was about six years old and then stayed here until I was about 13. Then we moved to California once again, and then stayed there until about five years ago.
So I sort of had this back and forth from California and Hawaii and finished all my high school and college in California. I started living in San Clemente, Santa Barbara moving up and down the California coast. And then now I’m back here in Hawaii. So we’ll see where we end up next.
Joe: It was in Hawaii. When I was about six or seven, my dad would take my sister and me down to Waikiki. He would get us into waves. Waikiki is so special for so many reasons. Being the birthplace of surfing, you see the Duke statue, all the Beach Boys and my Dad had learned to surf when he lived in Hawaii when he was a kid. So he was passing it down to my sister and me.
It was funny when you’re a kid, you have all these things you want to do, you want to play with your friends outside, My dad would be like, come on you guys, let’s get down to the beach. You’re like 6, 7, 8. And he’s just like that.
Joe: Then I’d say, All right, guys, I gotta go make some money. And he would give us all these quarters at the end of the session, and we’d use all of our quarters and go buy ourselves a cheeseburger. It was like really satisfying thinking, I caught these waves and now I bought myself lunch.
Joe: He was. Yeah, he’s one of those guys that did like a ton of things. So he was attracted to the ocean. He was a lifeguard for many years. But there was a period of time when I was really young. When I was about until five years ago, he was working at Universal Studios. So even before I was born, he had about a 13, 14-year career at Universal and he was a stuntman for the A-Team Live action show.
He did a bunch of stuff. He even did 10 episodes on The Young and the Restless, a Weber barbecue commercial. So he was kind of in that Hollywood business for quite some time.
He did almost everything you could maybe in that category as well from even a little bit of broadcast work in television working at some networks too. Writing spots and voice-overs for radio stations. I think his favorite though is definitely the A-Team live-action show at Universal Studios hosting the show and then he would jump off this huge tower shooting an M-16 at the bad guys you know that was always fun to look back on.
Joe: Massive. The cool part about it was I think that he always liked to. I was attracted to it on my own and really focused on a surfing broadcast, even a sports commentary style. My dad wasn’t the biggest sports fan in the world. Even with his surfing life, he didn’t know who was who, he just rode waves. So maybe he was the pure Soul Surfer you could imagine.
But once I got into it, and I began getting in my first couple of broadcasts, he sent me an email. I was in Brazil, and he said, I think I can help you with this, you know. He just started every time I’d have a day on the job. I would leave. I think I did all right. I’d get an email and I was like, oh, maybe I didn’t, you know.
It was really helpful to have that kind of feedback from someone I obviously trust and someone that was really ready to celebrate any success I had. So it was amazing to have that, I got so used to it. I’d get off the day and I’d be like, Where’s the email? Like, what did I do wrong? I wanted to get better so badly that every note that he gave me was really precious.
Joe: Yes, so I moved there, right in eighth grade. The year before high school and went to school in Orange County. The closest beach there is probably Salt Creek Beach Park down there in Southern California. I finished and then went to college in LA for a couple of years. Then I went to college in Santa Barbara. Once we left Hawaii when I was about 13. You know, I didn’t come back for a very long time just till four or five years ago.
Joe: That must have been 2006, at the end of that year, I’d finished my degree at UC Santa Barbara. We had a college surf team that would compete up and down the California coast. And there was always a live beach announcer there. And he was always so funny. He was really cool. I kept thinking, I wanted to do that. And so I was up in school and in between our contests, we were competing with our friends and I would free surf in front of the house. I was just doing these mock commentary days with our friends. I was joking with them all the time. I was like:
But I really didn’t believe that. I was just saying it.
I was like, yeah, I’m gonna call the pipe masters one day, and I would just get little recordings, I was calling their waves just like those early webcasts of hearing Martin Potter and John Shimooka in the early days.
I went to NSA and I was like, hey, do you guys need someone to do this? And they said, well, we’re not really sure what’s going to come out of your mouth yet. We just met you. So why don’t you get back in the fall and we’ll see what goes on.
I was like, Oh, right. That’s awesome. Months went by and I got an email from then. They’re like, are you still ready to do this?
I did the first event and it was in Huntington. I remember the waves were great. I remember the first time I was going to the beach, and the waves are really good. And I wasn’t surfing. I was talking about it, you know. I remember that experience was really trippy for me. I was like, wait, I’m not surfing. I’m gonna watch it all day. But I was so jazzed to be a part of it, and actually get to try something that I really wanted to do for a long time.
Once I did that event, they said, Okay, you’ve got the whole season, you can plan on being here all the weekends of Southwest Open Season. That was really where it all kicked off.
Joe: Yeah. So the first CT was in Brazil. I started the NSA Open Season, it was 06/07 and they had the national championships in June of that year. I got a message from Billabong, and they’re like, would you want to go to Brazil? It was a standalone women’s event up in Bahia, and that was gonna be my first official webcast. This women’s event was around Rosie, Steph Gilmore’s rookie season on tour. And I remember going, Okay, this is a big step from going from the beach announcing to actually being in a TV broadcast.
I’ll never forget how nervous I was getting on the plane. I was just like, here we go. Like this is what I’ve always wanted to do, but I still couldn’t believe I was getting on the plane to go do it. So that was an event I’ll never forget.
Joe: That first event. I think for me when I grew up I wasn’t getting on planes all the time. I had a trip I planned with my friends to Costa Rica and go to Mexico across the border from California. But going to Brazil and not really knowing where to go in a pre iPhone era was new. Okay, here’s my itinerary. Let’s go to this beach and figure out where it is.
I remember just landing in Brazil, which was probably one of the craziest landings in an airplane I’ve ever had to this day, that first trip. We took this small airplane from Sao Paulo and it felt like the plane fell out of the sky. It just dropped onto the landing strip, your bag was not above us about 20 rows ahead. My buddy had just got this big international phone. It flew out of his hands and he never found it again. We crawled off that plane and got this pickup truck ride for like over an hour to where the beach is. I remember getting there, but I didn’t know where I was supposed to go, so I stayed up all night worried that I was gonna miss this.
I didn’t have the right charger for my phone and I ended up waking up at like six. Well, surf contests start early. I was walking down this dirt road and I finally found the scaffolding and back then things were pretty laid back. I think they have their first call scheduled at like 10:30 in the morning. So I was just standing by waiting at the scaffolding trying to ask people questions like, Where is everybody?
Eventually, the event started, I was running on fumes. I hadn’t slept just got in. But I think my adrenaline was helping me just stay alert.
My dad always referenced that day because he was listening and he was like, great job and I was like, Really? I feel delirious. He was just telling me how cool that was to bring something out of you. On the inside, maybe you’re fighting to stay awake.
Joe: It’s such an interesting question. I think when you do it for a while, there are some events that pop out where you get great waves in Portugal and you’re like, Oh, I think Portugal is my favorite that year and then going to Fiji.
So there’s a lot of events that you could pick because they offer so many different things. Some people are like, no, what is your favorite, but I have reached for different reasons because Australia is so comfortable, it’s so easy for me to travel there. It reminds me a lot of California. Everything’s on the coast. I love the lifestyle and the culture and then I go to Jeffrey’s Bay and it’s really far away from Hawaii.
The right-hand point break is a wave that I love so dearly, going that fast on a wave.
Being a bit more affordable when you’re going around eating food and going on safari. When you go to a venue like that you feel like you’ve taken a true journey across the world.
Fiji’s got that surfing paradise, and then Europe’s got this really old school culture. So it’s hard to define one, but I think every year there’s one or two that stand out as your favorite trip that year, depending on how many great waves you’ve got, maybe the adventures you had outside of the booth.
But my favorite event on tour to call as far as the job that always goes to the pipe masters, it’s just the end of the season. it’s unbelievable just to watch first of all.
So that one’s always easy for me to pick as the best one to call. Pipe masters hands down! But I think as far as the travel and the experience they all offer so many different things that when you put them all together, it truly is living the dream.
Joe: You reminded me of those early days I remember like the first pipe masters I called and the nerves I had, the butterflies. Going up the tower, or booth used to be on the top shelf like the third storey and the view is so incredible and I remember I was going to call my first title of the pipe masters and it just felt so surreal.
Walking up the scaffolding looking out the window and seeing pipe and back door firing. I was just beside myself. It was like an out of body experience walking up the stairs going I’m actually calling the pipe masters and this is what I talked about with my friends back in college that I didn’t really realize, it was gonna happen, especially that quickly.
Joe: Great question. So when everything started changing, I was in Australia, I was in Manly. We hung out before at the Sydney Surf Pro. We finished that finals day. Leo Fioravanti and Carrisa Moore won.
Then the message was going out that day that you know, that Snapper would be canceled, then the next event was going to go on the Qs, the challenger series in New Zealand and that was going to be canceled or postponed.
So when we got that information, it was sort of like, Okay, what do we do now? It was like, is this gonna be like a week thing? Or is this gonna be, you know a month, it was just so hard to tell time. So we stayed in Australia with some friends for about a week and then decided that we probably should get back to Hawaii because they were, you know, stopping some of the flights. So we got back home, kind of just stayed in our little bubble for about a month without seeing anybody, not even the neighbors and then slowly started emerging back on the beach and kept our little bubble close to our neighborhood. So just beach back and forth all day long.
Which was incredible. April was one of the best April’s I’ve seen and I’m saying that I saw that surf because I ended up tearing the labor in my shoulder. Terrible timing to do that, but I had to watch that from the sidelines and then thank goodness May had some surf and I got myself back in the water and I was rehabbing my shoulder. I kept myself busy with getting my shoulder back in action and then eventually surfing being in the water. Going on hikes to these local mountains right here. Every day it was pretty simple making food hanging with the family, like every single day on repeat morning with your family.
Joe: Yeah, so they were with me this year and we’re planning on going to Snapper together and doing the drive up from Manly. We always love driving from Sydney to the Gold Coast. Stopping surfing along, seeing friends and then getting the year kicked off.
We were all ready to do that all over again which was kind of tough walking away from but it was just such an unprecedented time. We were definitely ready to stay put here easily. We got everything we need, so we ended up getting back and settling down into the whole rhythm of wondering what was going to happen in the world like everybody else.
Joe: The WSL has been working insanely on ideas. Obviously just the whole safety thing is first and I think the big issue, obviously being a global sport.
The travel part is hard. You can’t run events or if it’s unsafe, that’s the first thing. So we’ve been getting some incredible updates every month, kind of seeing the status of the year.
Now it’s leading up to a decision in about two weeks, early July. Another call on what will happen for the rest of the year. Those meetings are really interesting because they have to think about points they have to think about the value of that world title in the back half of the year.
I did notice how Snapper was canceled, but then everything after that just says postponed. So I think it gave the tour some room to maybe be able to shift things around, if they could, to get something going. So I know there are some sports that are getting back underway like the NBA made an announcement they’re starting. They also have the benefit of close stadiums and also being in the same country.
In our global sport, there’s just a little extra effort that has to be involved to do the events, but also to ensure safety. The big issue is travel and being able to get into these countries. If that opens up, I could see something happening. If not, they might just have some really cool regional events to look forward to. But I feel like this next announcement in July we’ll have a pretty good idea on what’s going to be happening this year.
Joe: With all those questions, and the cool part is that our CEO is really transparent. He’s not afraid to say, you know, we don’t know yet. And that was such a fair statement because the world is in this shifting pattern. We still have to wait and see and obviously safety first of athletes, fans and everybody and they’ll go from there.
It’ll be cool that this next call to see if we just jump right back into it and begin this excitement of the title race or if they delay it more I’m not really sure. The one announcement that I loved a few months back, I don’t know if you saw that Oli, was the new format for next year, which seems really cool with the CT starting as early as January 2021.
A separate season, the CT having its own spotlight, and then the qualifying series is having its own spotlight. They won’t overlap anymore. You’ll have a championship tour world title race battle finish and then a separate year with the challenger series heavyweight events to qualify. We will have this whole driving force of people watching it and knowing the storylines of those QS warriors that are looking to get a spot on tour.
Joe: Good question. I haven’t received those details, but I’m sure we’ll hear about that soon. Because think about it, man, January is going to come up before we know it. I bet with those changes it’s going to come up with little format tweaks here and there. I think the WSL is taking advantage of this time to have this downtime where there’s always events running, where they could focus on this whole Brand New World Tour revamp that’s gonna happen pretty soon.
Good question. Yeah. I’m not quite sure about that, either.
Joe: Yeah, exactly. I’m gonna be checking those posts as well.
Joe: Gosh, there’s so many options. For me personally on a surf trip, I have never done a Mentawaii’s boat trip ever. So that feels like just it’s like looming in the back of my mind like I can’t believe I haven’t done that. So that one is high on the list.
I’ve always been attracted to the waves in Chile, like in South America long lefts. I’m a regular footer but they just seem like a really dreamy location, really different. A little colder water but I’ve always wanted to go there.
Those two really stand out to me as places I have to go. The boat trip that’s got to happen soon. I can’t wait to do that. And then somewhere in South America like a Chile vibe sounds really fun right now.
Joe: Totally. Every event has a little different feel on how many times you actually get to surf. There are some events where the main part of the swell is all we have to finish the event. So sometimes you’ll be taking home a board bag you didn’t get to open.
That happened to me in Tahiti two years ago, the whole team got in at night. The only swell was the first three days of the waiting period. And we were finishing the event in a dying swell. The next day, there was nothing left and it was time to fly home. So I literally didn’t even unzip my bag to set up the boards I brought that year.
That was a bit rare. That doesn’t happen every year, thank goodness, but there are some events like years in Tahiti where there are a lot of lay days. There are other reef passes around and you have access to a jet ski or boat. You’re surfing every day and those events are really awesome because you know you are waiting for waves but you actually get to dive into it and surf a bit and enjoy that whole experience. So those are always the best.
Usually, if it’s game day I’m not really surfing before because we’re up in the dark in our meetings. Yeah, it’s on a day that we’re on once they call it off that’s when it opens it up to shoot swells filling in we’re out there and there’s a lot of spots that guys are warming up and the women are warming up to compete. I’m always trying to find the spotlight just around all that warm-up energy to just go free surf without that huge competition vibe around it.
So like J Bay even the long point break. Everyone’s at Supers warming up but it’s a long point break so you can go below or above and surf with the commentary crew. So that’s nice.
Joe: It’s interesting just even having a chance to look at your life in the personal aspect outside from the job and having this time to look at it. For me, it’s always trying to improve my health and fitness. North Shore of Oahu goes pretty flat this time of year because it’s our summertime. So I got a mountain bike yesterday that just came in. I’m going to try to dive into that whole journey. I am a complete beginner and have no idea what I’m doing. A buddy of mine talked me into it and a bunch of my neighbors are always going up the hills.
So I’m going to dive into a nice program of riding bikes and also being a better dad. My daughter turned three two days ago. As she’s three, it’s crazy to see how quickly that happened and how I still feel like I have no idea what I’m doing.
I’m a new dad, and you’re just right into it and almost like that she’s three. I’m like, wow, I just want to be better for her and you know, set her up to have the best life she possibly could have. So that’s been a gift for me this time of not getting on a plane, not jumping anywhere else and waking up and starting the day with my daughter has been a blessing.
Joe: You know, I’m not trying to force that whole thing. She is in a stage where she is enjoying the water a lot. She doesn’t really like to put her head under that much and I’m not trying to force her to do it. So she’s in this natural little rhythm of watching kids around her swimming a bit more. We went to Waimea for a birthday. It’s completely flat and it just has this little push of a shore break so that she can gently just jump into and kind of body surf onto the sand and I was just so proud of her. She was just keeping her head up above the water rolling up on the sand and she did it like 1000 times!
I like her progress where she’s comfortable because the last thing I want is for it to be a scary day and not wanting to go back. So I’m just letting her kind of call her shots with her progress in the ocean and right now it’s an insane amount of fun. So that’s really cool.
Joe: If anyone wants to talk I’m on Instagram. I don’t post as much as I used to but I check it frequently.
I’m on Facebook too. I don’t check that as much. So Instagram is probably the best way to go. You can send me a message there and we can chat for sure.
Joe: Awesome. Oli, thanks so much for having me. So great to see you as well. I think in a couple weeks, we’ll have a better idea of what’s going to happen this year. I hope so, we’ve had a lot of calls so I’m ready. Maybe in July we’ll get back into some heats or at least know the game plan.
Missed the last episodes? Check them out!
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