From Andy to Aunties, Sebastian Zietz Channels Hometown Mana to Become Kauai's Next Superhero
By Matt Pruett
Sebastian Zietz can afford to be a little smug right now. He's just dodged a bullet. Well, not a bullet exactly, but certainly a ticket or three.
Leaving a Kauai secret spot, "Seabass" gets pulled over by Kauai police for failure to wear a seatbelt. A hulky mass of tattoos, muscle, and badge requests the standard license and registration, and the 24-year-old explains that he left his registration at home, he can't find his insurance card, and he's never had a license in eight years of driving on the island. "I travel a lot for contests and just never got around to getting it." Seabass is apologetic, respectful and honest, but doesn't sweat a thing. Thus, neither does his interrogator.
After bringing another officer on the scene and running a background check, the cop writes Seabass a ticket but holds onto it, promising to issue an affidavit dismissing all charges once the surfer provides proof he's gotten legal. "You really gotta do this, brah. Good luck in South Africa." In most mainland beach towns, this kid would've been hauled into a jail cell with only his soaking boardshorts to keep him warm faster than you could say, "Brah, wot?" A couple shakas later, Seabass is free as a breeze.
Afterward, he stops by the DMV as promised. But he's forgotten his ID, so he can't go in. That evening, we return to his car after surfing to find his doors unlocked, his windows down, and his ATM card in plain sight next to a wad of cash (Benjamin on the outside—total rookie maneuver in the street-smarts department).
Seabass is not a flake. It's just that all these trivial conventions—driver's licenses, bank accounts—don't always factor into the wholesome trinity that fuels the 24-year-old's spirit: Family. Surfing. Travel. Everything else is bullshit. "Sebastian is the least bummed person ever," asserts older brother/ sparring partner Billy Zietz, who became Seabass' official manager last October once a booking biff caused him to miss the Azores Prime. "He doesn't care about fame or where surfing's gonna take him. He just wants to have a good time. It's hard getting him into a competitive mindset to beat people because it's so unnatural for him. But at the same time, he has no nerves because he's so laid-back and appreciates the simple things."
That's a virtue. Coveting isn't. Ultimately, the things we keep are never the things we hold in our hands: Love. Wisdom. Faith. Once we liberate ourselves with that concept (usually through losing a bunch of stuff or never having much to begin with), we're free to focus our life's work toward what truly matters. Only then does our world become divinely uncomplicated. Calling Seabass simple is like calling astrophysics complex, but life wasn't always easy. In fact, while he might indeed be Kauai's answer to the ASP World Tour's post-Irons incarnation, Seabass was denied his destiny—twice—before he even got started.
Contrary to rumor, Sebastian Zietz wasn't born in a boat, or a bathtub, or some hippie tent. He was born at home on February 6, 1988, one of nine children: half brothers Josh, Max, and Billy; older brother Dusty; older sister Hailey; and younger sisters Sandy, Sarah Jane, and Ginger. There are nine grandchildren. And not an unattractive Zietz in the tree. The story goes like this: Their patriarch, Paul Zietz, was captaining his brother's 103-foot schooner in Key West, Florida, when 19-year-old Joanne, vacationing from Maine via Virginia Beach, sat down next to the dock—clearly enamored with the 33-year-old's lean physique, gorgeous yacht, and three adorable sons. Like the Brady Bunch on barnacles, the quintet sailed up to Rhode Island together, conceiving two children before Paul and Joanne married two days prior to Dusty's birth.
A hardcore Texas surfer, Paul had wired breaks from Galveston to South Padre Island before first visiting Kauai in 1970, where he lived for a spell at the famed countercultural beacon, Taylor Camp. Eight months before they could move the Zietz tribe to his Hawaiian ideal, Paul and Joanne had yet another baby to deal with in Fort Pierce, Florida. "The hospital was across a drawbridge from North Hutchinson Island that was always up," Joanne remembers. "So we prepared for a home birth. We studied up, got a kit from the head paramedic, had an ambulance close by, and delivered Sebastian with just the family. He actually came out humming."
Meanwhile, the elder Zietz boys received invaluable mentorship and sleek blades from one of Paul's closest buddies, Impact Surfboards shaper Charles Williams, who coached the kids to early ESA success. Billy actually won his district's Menehune division the year Paul relocated the family to Kauai. The sheer beauty of the island and aloha of its inhabitants mitigated any culture shock the kids might've felt. "The locals related to us because we had a big family and weren't rich, but still made it over here," Billy says. "A sixth-grader at Hanalei School, I couldn't believe how laid-back it was. Nobody even wore shoes. Andy [Irons] came up to me right away the first day, like, 'Hey! Do you surf? What's your name? Come stay at my house this weekend!' We were close friends from that day on."
Seabass had been experimenting with a boogie until Billy shaped his little brother a crude surfboard. By all accounts, the four-year-old was instantly trimming down the line. Within a month he was carving rail turns. By the time he was eight he had a distinct style, a magic 4'8" and a sponsor (Rip Curl). Everything Seabass needed either grew on the trees, swam in the ocean, or fell from the sky. One thing he didn't need was an intermission. When you grow up in heaven, hell doesn't necessarily look like a Clive Barker movie. On a nice day it can look a lot like the East Coast.
"It was supposed to be a month and a half, and we were gone four years," Seabass recounts. "Billy, Max, and Josh stayed on Kauai while the rest of us flew to the mainland. We took a Winnebago from California to New Hampshire to collect an inheritance from a dead uncle—which [the widow] took us to court for. We were stuck. With no money to move home, we posted up in New Hampshire for two years. Then while we were gone, our house in Kauai burned down, so we had nowhere to move back to. What little inheritance we got would've been eaten up by plane tickets, so my parents decided to relive their glory days and sail down the East Coast to Florida."
A North Atlantic hell-trip ensued with a couple near-death experiences for Paul and lots of seasickness for the kids. But while the Zietz children missed a few toys and meals, they were compensated with honesty, love, and an education like no other. Upon arriving in abysmally flat Key West, Seabass worked at a supermarket and dug holes with a pickaxe to pay for Greyhound rides up to Fort Pierce, where Charlie Williams bestowed upon him the same shaping and coaching tutelage he'd given Paul's older sons a decade prior. Although he could only surf during contest weekends, Seabass started winning immediately, which quenched his thirst until Joanne made enough money selling artwork to shuffle everyone back to Kauai. Seabass was thrilled, but as his competitive peers began earning publicity and refining their skills abroad, Seabass found himself at the back of the bus.
"When you have a baby at home," Joanne explains, "you have to register the newborn at a hospital or clinic right away, which we did. But the clinic in Florida was pretty ghetto and they lost his paperwork, so we couldn't get his birth certificate. That really hurt Sebastian once he needed to travel."
"In a way it was a blessing," Billy interjects. "He had this huge obstacle to surpass and so much built-up tension fueling his fire to break out. What blew me away was when he came back, he'd barely surfed at all, and within a week he was blowing tail. I couldn't believe his natural ability was still where it was, and he was getting better with every wave. When he was 14, my parents decided to move to Key West again, and I wouldn't let them take Seabass. 'You gotta leave him with me!' I begged. 'You don't understand how good he's getting.'"
For the next two years, Seabass lived on the floor of Billy's, and wife Juliet's, tiny apartment. Without a passport, he couldn't travel like other fast-track groms, so he plunged himself into Kauai's wild wonderland of world-class waves: reef passes like Tahiti, beachbreaks like Mexico, reef points like Indo, dry slabs like Oz, pier wedges, deadly waves, playful waves…
"I was finally back!" Seabass says. "And I swear I surfed more than anybody—all day long, no sunblock. Dustin Barca got me sponsored, bought me a board, and totally took me under his wing. He taught me about respect, hounded me to clean, and hyped me up to sponsors, so I couldn't let him down. At 16 I moved into his closet, worked as a dishwasher/busboy at night, and every day Billy was drilling into my head: 'You're gonna f—king rip! I didn't take you for nothing.'"
With Billy in his ear and Barca in the industry's ear, the grom soon earned sponsorship from Oakley, who sought to step up his contract with some high-profile trips. Seabass couldn't stall any longer. A frantic bureaucratic race resulted in a passport six months after his 18th birthday, initiating a legendary house party with Seabass' favorite people singing and dancing around the shiny, blue booklet. A jarring trip to 30-foot Mexican beachbreak with Oakley masochist Brian Conley immediately resumed. Then Tahiti, an Indo boat trip… And Sebastian Zietz was off to the races.
He charged the large stuff, too, which surprised no one. After all, Seabass had long since built a reputation for chucking himself over the ledge on Oahu—the only surf trip he'd ever been allowed to take until now. "At 19 he had a breakthrough year on the North Shore," Billy recalls. "Instead of dealing with the crowd at Pipe, he started pulling into everything he could at Off The Wall and Rockpile. Seabass likes stand-up time. He wants to get as many waves as he can without hassling anyone. He has no ego, so he's completely non-confrontational." Or, as Seabass puts it: "I've never been in a fight in my life."
"Wake up, brah. Waves won't be good 'til later. Let's go do some tourist shit."
There are some whose glass is half empty, some whose glass is half full. Seabass' glass is overflowing, spilling on the floor, bouncing off the wall, and forming a shredable side-wedge—so I start stretching before even getting out of bed. Seabass' close friend Josh Rex joins us on what I expect to be a boring haole tour of the Garden Isle's spellbinding North Shore.
Seabass doesn't do boring.
There's seemingly a waterfall or natural pool or cavernous abyss every hundred yards, and they chauffer me to all of them, dropping accurately pronounced historical insights along the way. We scale sheer natural bridges and leap off 50-foot cliffs, shallow-dive rivers, and play "Dorian at Jaws" inside subterranean blowholes. It's a morning of nonstop visceral adrenaline.
Then we go surfing. Twice. And this is where his brightness really burns. In short, Sebastian Zietz is a Hawaiian who froths like an East Coaster—finding potential in the torrential, stoke in the joke. No lineup's too beat, no wave too shitty. "Over it" isn't in his vocabulary. This particular lefthander is just bad: wrong wind, wrong tide, no swell—a reform of a reform, really. But Seabass catches a hundred waves in the first 20 minutes, inebriating me with dizzying backside pop and beyond-vertical snaps. By the half-hour mark, he's riding switch and boosting little grabs, s-carving the backwash out to sea, skimming shorepound.
This is what a Fun Bender looks like in Seabass' world. He insists we have time to motor around Hanalei Bay in Billy's boat, but maybe we should dig out the river for a standing wave then shoot hoops later… Hallucinating with exhaustion, I recall a homegrown promo DVD I'd seen, where a teenage Seabass hams it up for his friends on Oahu. He's wearing a Santa hat, bouncing on a trampoline, and playing with an RC airplane at the same time. It's like he's got ADD, but instead of getting pumped full of drugs and rules, Seabass was prescribed love and saltwater. He never really needed anything else.
Doused with kaleidoscopes of color, Hawaii's oldest island defies its geologic age of six million years with more open-ocean exposure and break variety than neighboring islands, inviting all shades of youthful bravado—so long as you live here. Outsiders are treated with suspicion, if not hostility, the tough local sentiment reflecting a defiant ancestry. Kauai was the only Hawaiian island to resist Kamehameha's consolidation efforts until the 1820s (Basically, the currents and locals told the King to beat it.) And there's a lot to preserve here. If you could concentrate the sensuous magic of this 5,200-foot extinct volcano into a microgram of rainbow syrup and drop it on your shaved ice, you'd be tripping your face off through a psychedelic experience more powerful than LSD and less harmful than rainwater.
But as beautiful as Kauai is, it's also dangerous: flash floods and mudslides, falling boulders and slippery paths, sketchy roads and faulty structures, the occasional hurricane, gravity… You could die checking your mail here. Like an exposed tooth with roots extending to the heavens and a gnarled, coagulated network of cavities and lava crowns plunging the Pacific, Kauai's hazards are legion. And that's before you even get in the water. Let's not forget this is the same neighborhood where Bethany Hamilton lost an arm to a 14-foot tiger shark; where the Irons brothers, the Wolf Pack, and much of the Pipeline Posse first saw their balls drop as pups. Few places on Planet Earth breed such fearlessness.
Seabass himself wears no badge. No inked-up island entitlement. No metrosexual hipster façade, He's just a surfer—trunks and sandals, shades and shakas, and not much else. "Sebastian's definitely not hung up on that trip where it's cool to be an asshole," Paul says proudly. "He gets along with everybody and is comfortable in any situation," Billy adds. "It's tough to show up somewhere without sufficient rest and then wake up nerve-free for a heat. But Seabass can put everything aside and have fun with it. His low stress level is pretty key, but beyond that he's got a good soul. It's contagious, like, 'Seabass, where you at? Bumming over here. Come hang out with me.'"
The only spoiled bone in his body is his third thumb, an innocuous mutation on his right hand, and he claps and snaps it all day long to beats both real and imagined—from Top 40 chick-flick radio vomit to that one funky track in his head. But while personality and gimmicks make him marketable, his surfing makes him watchable. Former TransWorld SURF intern Aaron Leiber first relayed Zietz's surf-and-dance act to the celluloid world in his 2008 movie The Pursuit before Lachlan "Peanut" McKinnon compiled enough clips to get him a part in Taylor Steele's second Innersection.
But within the nexus of professional surfing, nothing's more ephemeral than celebrity. While action models are a dime a dozen, legit athletes are far more expensive. And rare. All the fruity cocktails and groovy headgear and big-breasted arm candy might look cute on a blog—hell, it might even sell some clothes—but in the end it has nothing to do with a person and their surfboard.
With no NSSA career to speak of, Seabass' most memorable competitive achievements arrived via the 2007 Etnies Goofy vs. Regular contest, where he cashed an $8,000 first-place check for soul-arching epic Oceanside barrels, and the 2008 Oakley Pro Junior at Trestles, his first major (ASP) victory. But the real revelation happened in Huntington Beach. "I beat CJ Hobgood twice in one day," Seabass remembers. "That's when I decided, 'It's time to rise to the occasion. It's time to step it up and be known more for being a good surfer than a dancing dipshit.'"
"It's time to get on tour."
"I don't like to drink unless I've surfed at least twice," Seabass admits. "Doesn't even taste good." It's June 10, Kamehameha Day, and with two sessions down, Seabass is clear for beers. We're eating fresh ahi sliced off a 153-pounder and talking story with Gavin Gillette, JD Irons, and assorted heavies when someone mentions Andy.
Andy (nobody here refers to him as "AI") is everywhere in Kauai. His name isn't brought up in hushed undertones as much as salubrious laughter. The anecdotes aren't always tragic: That week when Andy showed up at Seabass' at 4:00 a.m. like clockwork to take him surfing. How Andy would rather bleed than forget a stranger's name. How he loved people and hated being alone. "The saddest thing for me is remembering him surfing at home," Seabass says with a sigh. "Whenever you pulled up and saw his truck, you just knew it was on. You didn't even want to surf, you just wanted to watch. He was so beyond. To never see that again…sucks."
Up until now, it's easy to fancy Zietz a free spirit who loves surfing more than being someone's surfer—like Kauai's surfer or Oakley's surfer or the ASP's surfer. This is the first time he acknowledges desiring a Dream Tour berth for any other reason than spending as much time in the ocean as humanly possible. "After we lost Andy, I felt like I had to step it up to show Kauai still has shredders," he says. "I got inspired in heats with, 'Okay, what would Andy do on this wave? Where's that Andy hack section?' I don't expect to be anything near what he was, but I do want to be feared in a heat like he was. Put pressure on people."
"Seabass is pretty much the opposite of Andy," Billy admits. "He isn't aggressive, but his competitive strategy is hilarious. He'll sit down next to his opponent on the beach and copy the guy's stretches. He takes things so lightly it just blows their mind. And he loves drawing big names. He just needs to take certain parts of the contests more seriously and develop his man-on-man strategy. He's been winning smarter heats, though: getting scores with one second left, making guys chase him, tactics like that. And when he's home he can surf specific spots to train for every spot he'll find on tour."
Plus, Seabass has that turn: a mamba-quick, full-rail frontside whip straight out of Fanning The Fire. Speed, power, style, and commitment all blurred by one violent blast of ergonomic fluidity. It's the kind of turn that, if you got it in your bag like maybe 10 people do, you can religiously translate it to fit any arc at any speed on any wave in the world. When applied right, it's impossible to ignore or underscore. "Nowadays it seems like a lot of guys surf the same," says Dustin Barca, who competed on tour in 2009. "Seabass puts that little extra twist on it. Kauai's like the Malibu of Hawaii—everybody's a style weirdo around here. Seabass is a perfect fit to represent Kauai on tour because the waves he grew up surfing and the people he grew up surfing with are what made his style what it is today: original. He's been groomed for the tour because he's creative in all types of waves."
While the past two years have thrown some bogging sections Seabass' way—broken foot and sprained ankle—he recovered smoothly in 2012, dumping his girlfriend and flying to Oahu to go mad at the Da Hui Backdoor Shootout. He calls that "the best contest ever," but his best result happened this May in Brazil, where he gained 3,320 points for a quarterfinal finish at the Quiksilver Saquarema Prime, vaulting him to 44th on the World Ranking. He travels with fellow Hawaiians Kai Barger and Granger Larsen but is rarely alone. If it isn't industry entourages on the road, it's the aunties at home, whom Seabass never wastes an opportunity to chat with on his way to the water.
Once immersed, Seabass morphs into a more sinister animal. You barely see him—just tail and fin and spray in the periphery. And you never hear him—only the thwacking displacement of seawater. He picks off insiders to get loose, methodically sending his wave count through the roof before slithering over and ruling the peak. Then he spins on a surprise bump on the way back out, grabs another set, and another, and so forth until he's hammering the flaccid whitewash to the sand. Growing up in tight quarters with a huge family before choosing a career based on visibility—this is the only place where Seabass is ever alone.
"Surfing's not a social sport for me," he admits. "I'd rather just cruise by myself, catch waves, and not talk or think. That's my happy place." Other than the money to pay the family's power bill this morning, Seabass has no idea how much cash he has in his pocket of the same boardshorts he's worn for two weeks straight. As his mother Joanne chimes in, "Sebastian's no material girl. But he can dance to it."
"Having so many siblings," he explains, "anything I ever cared about, a sister would steal or a brother would break. My parents always had that objects-are-nothing mentality. One time on the boat, we had a Super Nintendo. My sister and I started fighting over it, so my dad unplugged it and threw it overboard, like, 'There goes your fancy video game. Now you can back to rock-paper-scissors.' After a while, you just learn to be happy with what you got."
Seabass is playing on the floor now with his tiny nephew Hayden, which frees up Hailey, herself a former Olympic-trained athlete, to answer the million-dollar question: Can someone so carefree and social summon the killer instinct required to compete at the sport's elite level? "I think Sebastian not having those issues and stressors actually gives him an advantage," Hailey says. "His mind is clear of clutter, so he can channel everything into surfing."
Sebastian doesn't hear us talking. He's busy training for South Africa. Little Hayden's not exactly a bocce ball, but he's a pretty heavy airplane in his uncle's arms. "Ring Around the Rosey" isn't MMA, but when you attack family hour like the Zietzes—who still pay rent but own the rights to love and laughter—you will break a sweat.
Make no mistake, this is serious stuff. This is important. "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands…"