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Surf Passage

An interview with Jocko Willink.

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Among wave riders, when it comes to preparation, organization, readiness, and knowing just what the hell to do when a plan breaks down, few possess the real-world experience and knowledge of Jocko Willink. 

A lifelong surfer, Willink earned his Navy SEAL trident at the age of 19 and spent the following 20 years deployed around the world. In 2006, Willink led Task Unit Bruiser, the most highly decorated Spec Ops unit of the Iraq War, at the Second Battle of Ramadi, where the SEAL lieutenant commander conceived and executed a plan to attack enemy safe havens. He was awarded the Bronze and Silver Stars for “exceptional leadership, operational vision, and courage under fire.” 

When he retired from the Navy in 2010, Willink formed Echelon Front with fellow SEAL Leif Babin to teach leadership and accountability to civilian students from all walks of life. Extreme ownership, one of Willink’s core philosophical tenets, refers to the courage of responsibility and what legendary Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz described as, “courage in the face of a moral danger.”  

“The most important lesson, which was crystallized in my mind during the Battle of Ramadi, was taking ownership of everything in my world, the good and the bad,” Willink explains. “This became clear when, a few short weeks into the deployment, we had a mission go horribly wrong. Mistakes were made. Men were wounded and men were killed. I could have looked to blame other people, but I knew in order to maintain my integrity as a leader and as a man I could blame no one but myself.”

Willink is also the author of a number of New York Times best sellers, including Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual, The Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win, and Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual, and is the creator of the wildly popular Jocko Podcast. His Twitter account, boasting nearly half a million followers, describes him as “Leader; follower. Reader, writer. Speaker; listener. Student; teacher.” 

Today, Willink lives with his family in San Diego where he surfs as regularly—and as clandestinely—as possible.

Willink, in action. Photograph by Jon Steele.

PM Where and when did you first surf?

JW When I was a kid, my dad worked at a summer camp up on the coast of Maine. There was a guy there named Mark Seeley, who was a lifeguard, swim instructor, surfer, and a real waterman. One day when I was 10 years old there were some good waves, and he came up to our little apartment and said, “Hey, come on, I’m gonna teach you how to surf.” He had a bunch of old boards, and he gave me one—a Robert August swallowtail. We went up there in the summers, which usually aren’t too cold. But we’d also go up there in the early spring and in the late fall, and that was where I got my initiation into walking through snow to go surfing.

PM And what was your impression of surfing and surfing culture then?

JW It was just fun. The cool thing about surfing up in Maine was that nobody surfed. When you paddled out, there’d only be three or four of us, maybe five of us, and you knew everyone. Nobody really wanted to surf because it was cold. So it was a challenge, I guess, as a kid. We didn’t have good wetsuits. I had an old, beat-up Farmer John that I wore. Eventually, I got a real wetsuit. It had a drysuit zipper and a built-in hood. I felt like I was the king of the world when I got that thing.

PM How old were you when you went into Basic Underwater Demolition School?

JW I was 18 when I joined the Navy. I was 19 when I showed up at BUD/S.

PW Did you take surfing back up when you went out to Coronado for BUD/S?

JW Yes. One of the main reasons I joined the Navy was because I knew that the SEALs were stationed either in Virginia Beach or in San Diego. I’ve wanted to be some kind of commando ever since I was a little kid, but I also wanted to surf. If you look at the other organizations in the military that are in special operations, none are better stationed for surfing than the SEALs, so that ended up pushing me toward the Navy. Plus, I loved being in the water and I was comfortable in the water. I knew that the SEALs worked in the water, so it was a pretty easy choice.

PM Were there any instructors who were surfers?

JW You know, there were all kinds of really great watermen in the Navy and in the Teams, guys who grew up surfing and swimming. I know you wrote that story on Ivan Trent. On my first deployment to Guam in 1992 or 1993, one of the few pictures they had hanging up on the wall was a signed photo of Ivan dropping in on a bomb at Waimea Bay. That shows you the respect the SEAL Teams have for the water and the ocean. It was later that I made the connection that he was Buzzy Trent’s kid, which I thought was really cool. The ocean is part of our life in the Teams. It’s part of our culture. It’s what we do. 

PM Did you have any big swells during “surf passage” in BUD/S? [When inflatables are paddled through the surf as a training exercise. —Ed.]

JW I certainly did. There are some classes that get really lucky, or unlucky, depending on how you look at it. Maybe there’s not a big swell during your first phase, where you do a lot of paddling on those boats. But generally, during those eight weeks, you’re going to catch something and get crushed.

PM My friend who went into the Teams got his front teeth knocked out during his surf passage, but he wasn’t really a water guy. It can be a pretty steep learning curve. Did being a surfer help?

JW It’s a real advantage to be a surfer going through basic SEAL training and in the SEAL Teams, especially when you’re working on the water, going in and out of the surf on Zodiacs, or swimming in and out through the surf. Understanding how to read the waves, look for rips, sensing when a set is going to come—it just makes everything so much easier. The poor guys from Iowa or Nebraska who have never been in the ocean before just don’t have the same level of competency out of that gate than some kid who grew up surfing does.

PM Did you ever surf when you were deployed?

JW Yes. On my first deployment to Guam, we actually surfed a lot. My next couple of deployments were shipboard deployments, meaning I was a SEAL in a SEAL platoon based on a ship. We barely got any time on land, so I didn’t surf much. That was in the Persian Gulf and Europe. I did surf in Sri Lanka, where we were helping out during their civil war. We had some downtime, found some boards, and had a great day surfing really fun waves.

PM What’s your favorite spot to surf today? 

JW I live in San Diego, so there’s a lot of spots down here. I generally don’t talk a lot about them—you know the rules. Sometimes, I’ll go to Malibu or Rincon or other spots up the coast.

PM Do your kids surf?

JW Yes. I have three daughters and one son, and they all surf. But my son is a straight-up waterman. He’s a really good surfer and is on the high school surf team. He spearfishes and dives for lobster, too. He and his friends are in the water all the time. 

PM What boards are you riding? 

JW It just depends on the waves. I’ve got a bunch of boards that were made by Gene Cooper, old-school designs and single-fins. I’ve got some of Josh Hall’s boards as well. Josh grew up under Skip Frye’s wing. He’s carrying Skip’s torch. He just made me a really beautiful glider, it’s 11’6″. It will catch anything, even when there’s 6 inches of swell. John Holly is another legendary San Diego shaper who made me an awesome fish. It’s a quad with side-bites on it, and I ride that when the waves require more turns and movement. It’s an honor to have a board shaped by him. I’m lucky to have the quiver that I do. I have way more boards than I should ever have. 

PM You’ve obviously been in some scary situations. Have you ever had any heavy experiences while surfing?

JW There was one day in Guam that was probably the biggest, hairiest day that I’ve ever been out. It was during a gale. I was in the lineup with one other guy, and I remember thinking, “Maybe I don’t belong out here.” 

It’s a real advantage to be a surfer going through basic SEAL training and in the SEAL Teams, especially when you’re working on the water.

PM This might be a hard question to answer, but do you find surfing to be a reprieve from what you experienced in the service?

JW On those classic California days when there’s a good swell, there’s either no wind or a really light offshore wind, and I’m surfing with friends from the Teams or my son—those are the days I live for. I once did a trip up the coast with one of my best friends, Seth, from the Teams. We drove my RV northward and hit every spot on the coast, and we got some good solid waves. He died a few years later, so I’m glad we had memories of that and not just of war. 

PM You come from a world of truly dangerous men. Do you find surfers to be oddly aggressive?

JW I would say yes. There’s definitely some aggression in surfers. I think that the perception of surfers as being super laid-back hippies is inaccurate. I would say that, you know, in San Diego and in Southern California, there’s a little less of that relaxed attitude than people imagine. And the lineup can be pretty gnarly. I grew up on the East Coast, but I’ve been surfing the areas I surf in San Diego for a long time, 30-something years. Where I surf, I pretty much know everyone and everyone knows me. But outsiders get viewed as outsiders. They’re not going to get the same number of waves. People tend to protect what is theirs. That’s just the way it is. I think localism is kind of required in this day and age. Somebody has to regulate what’s going on in the lineup, otherwise it can be dangerous out there. On a big day, if you’ve got people doing dumb things, it can get dangerous. People get hurt. Lifeguards have to rescue them and put their lives at risk. I think localism has its place and its reasons. 

PM Has anybody ever tried to hassle you in the water?

JW Not really. People don’t really talk to me very much. You know, I’m a bigger guy. I train jiu-jitsu. I mind my own business. I pay attention. Like I said, I surf the same spots a lot so I know everybody. It’s funny, because I can drop in on my buddy all day long and he can drop in on me, and there’s no problem at all. I drop in on my son like it’s my job. But if someone you don’t know drops in on you or one of your friends, it’s a problem. Respect the spots. Respect the people that live there. Respect their rules.