The first time Shama Beckford felt weightless was as a child, floating atop a surfboard off the shores of Bull Bay, Jamaica. As he drifted near a beautiful but impoverished island paradise, he found freedom in the arms of the ocean.
“I just remember lying on the water and hearing ripples hitting the bottom of the board . . . getting pushed into the first wave and riding the board all the way down onto the rocks and getting cussed at for almost breaking the fins,” says the young surfer born Elishama Jeshurun Beckford. “But from the first day, I was hooked. It was an incredible feeling.”
Now 22 and living in the same house he grew up in, Beckford can still look out and see the ocean from his bedroom window. Those waves were the start of his professional surfing career that allowed him to carve out his own path. Since he began as a pro five years ago, Beckford has emerged as one of the most decorated Jamaican athletes in the sport. In 2017, he made history as the first Jamaican surfer to conquer the infamously dangerous Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii.
Beckford’s skills have taken him all over the world, including the beaches of Orange County, where the waves of San Clemente have become his home away from home since first visiting California in 2016. He has since struck up a whirlwind relationship with the OC-bred surf giants at Hurley, Active, Haydenshapes Surfboards, Future Fins, House of Marley, Sympl Supply and Sun Bum, racking up a fistfull of sponsorships. From documentaries about his life and career to designing a new Jamaica-inspired clothing line for Hurley, Beckford is well-positioned to help his home country’s surf scene gain some long-awaited recognition.
Along with Icah Wilmot (brother of his childhood friend and fellow surfer Ivah), Garren Pryce, Amani Green and Ronald Hastings, Beckford is bringing Jamaica to the world stage with the country’s first pro surf team, just in time for the sport’s debut at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“It’s like going against all odds,” Beckford says of his chosen career. “This is my passion; I want to go for this. I don’t care that there’s never been a legit pro surfer from [Jamaica]. You have a dream, and you just keep going for it without doubt.”
* * * * *
Most surfboards in Jamaica are heavily battered hand-me-downs. With no shops or board retailers on the island, a local’s best bet is to find one left behind by a tourist.
Despite being a popular destination for surfers all over the world, few realize the country’s surf culture goes back decades. In the 1970s, surfers such as Billy “Mystic” Wilmot (father of Icah and Ivah, as well as founder of reggae band the Mystic Revealers) led the charge. As boards were found on the island and carted off to households near the coast, they’d eventually make it down to kids from Beckford’s generation.
When Beckford first started surfing, he would beg other kids to borrow their boards. “I remember standing on the shoreline just waiting for people to lend me their board, and then I’d get to catch maybe four waves,” he says. “They take a break, and then I come back in after four waves and give them the board back. And I used to always think, ‘All right, I only have four waves. I have to be very, very selective.’”
As luck would have it, one of the best places to learn to surf was right behind his mother’s house. After his parents separated, his mother moved him and his older siblings (five sisters and a brother) from Kingston to the sleepy seaside town of Bull Bay, a 15-minute drive that felt like a world away from the grimy heart of Jamaica’s inner city.
Beckford was infatuated by the surf and skate culture adopted by his new town’s older kids. Among his early teachers were the boys in the Wilmot family. Billy Mystic had passed his knowledge down to his four sons, who were already known at that time to be the best surfers on the island. As groms (inexperienced, young surf rats), they’d practice riding the waves every day after school. Decades later, they’ve become pros alongside one another.
* * * * *
Beckford wasn’t just good at surfing. The athleticism he gained in the water made him a natural at just about everything. Excelling at swimming, soccer, track and water polo (becoming captain of his high school’s water polo team after one game), he had already been training for his future nickname, “Superman,” at a young age.
“People who surf and skate are usually good at a lot of different things,” Beckford says. “I don’t know if it’s because of the fast responses or instincts that come with being in the moment. . . . Every surfer I know has a wicked side talent.”
But it was on the waves that Beckford would garner the most success.
After high school, Beckford and his wave-riding Rat Pack—the Wilmots, Pryce, Green, Hastings and Shane Simmons—became one of the first established Jamaican surf teams with enough chops to enter the competitions in such places as Lima, Peru, in 2011. But they were still riding the same hand-me-downs they’d been using for years.
“I’m there—this small, skinny kid—riding a 6-foot-2 board because it was the only board I had,” Beckford says. “We were traveling to the games in Peru, and we each had one board, and it was even our correct dimensions. When it comes to entering games like that and you don’t even have good equipment, it already feels like you lost mentally. I went to those games three times, and all three times, we didn’t have proper equipment—this was before I had any sponsors.”
What Beckford lacked in new equipment he made up for in style. Soaring off the crests of waves and busting out board-flipping 360s and aggressive antics similar to street skateboarding, he set himself apart from the other surfers. “Growing up here in the back yard, surfing by myself with no real outside influence, I kinda developed my own style,” Beckford says. “Then I realized how much style plays into surfing.”
The approach came in handy as he and the team pressed forward, cutting up the competition in other places, including Nicaragua, each time garnering plenty of buzz from fellow surfers and fans watching them do their thing. “It was always a good experience and a good vibe and to see the way the people received our energy,” Beckford says. “I’ll take those moments with me for life.”
Growing up together, Beckford and his surfing buddies always knew they were talented, but getting exposure for their skills in a country dominated by soccer took a long time. Even today, the waves of Jamaica are more of a destination for tourists than the locals.
“Being from Jamaica, you always have pro surfers who come down here and say things like ‘Bro, you rip; you surf so good.’ But you almost don’t know what to think of that,” Beckford concedes. “Yeah, you’re stoked on a compliment, but you don’t know if they really mean that or if they’re just being nice.”
* * * * *
The one way Beckford knew he could truly test his abilities was to come to Southern California to try out the legendary surf he’d only heard about, giving himself the opportunity to trade sets with the best. To pay his own way to the West Coast in 2016, he decided to enter a few surf competitions: an international pro contest in Jamaica and another in Barbados. The prize money would fund his plane ticket.
“I remember starting to train for it months before it came around, and I told myself, ‘I have to win this. It’s not even an option,’” Beckford says.
He trained behind his house every day before the contest, where he won both divisions, the Junior and the Open Men’s final. He then bought a plane ticket to Barbados for another tournament, where he got to the quarter final. When he went back home with his prize money, he started looking into trips to Southern California and, more important, opportunities to surf.
One of the first events the then-19-year-old found was the Volcom Totally Crustaceous Tour, a ProAm (professional and amateur surfers) contest at Lower Trestles.
“I called up some guys who had just traveled to Jamaica from Southern California. I [had] met them only once, and I asked if I could stay with them for a week while I was doing this contest,” Beckford says. Luckily, his American friends, based in Encinitas, gave him a room to stay in.
Within days, he was in the Volcom tournament, competing in six rounds (or heats) of competitive surfing. He made the finals, coming in at sixth place.
“At that point, I realized I really can do this,” Beckford says. “I just competed against some of the top kids from California and made the final; that was huge for me. That was the point where I knew I could pursue this as a career. So many people were coming up to me going, ‘Where you from? I’ve never seen you before. I really love your style!’”
One of those people was Pat Towersey, a representative from Hurley. A fan of Beckford’s skills on the waves and in one of his demo reels, Towersey offered him a sponsorship last year.
“When I first met Shama, I knew he was special,” Towersey says. “He carries himself in a humble yet confident way and has an amazing soul that shines through in everything he does. When I saw him in the water, my jaw dropped; he is the real deal. There are very few athletes on his level that are relatively unknown, and Hurley is committed to bringing his surfing to the masses. Look out, world: Shama has arrived.”
At that point, Beckford realized his life was about to change—and that his trip to California had been too short. He vowed to come back as soon as possible. One of the people to help him was his now manager, Kertia Marley, the wife of Stephen Marley, who he met in 2017.
“In surfing culture and Hawaiian culture, there’s so much of our culture woven into these cultures and subcultures, and we’ve never had an authentic representation of our culture in these worlds,” Marley says. “So for the first time, I recognized the situation where there’s an individual who can fill that role.”
Marley explained to Beckford how the flavors of Jamaica—the colors, the style and music—loom large in the world of surfing. In many ways, his rise in the sport goes a long way in acknowledging the importance of his home country and to give its culture the credit it deserves.
“That’s part of the reason why I was received so well, I think,” Beckford says. “It’s cool to see how the Jamaican culture influences [surf] culture, and the fact that I have the opportunity to represent that is next level.”
* * * * *
Beckford has found ways to represent his country beyond his work on the waves. Shortly after landing the sponsorship deal with Hurley in 2018, he teamed up with the label to develop a fashion line, which is slated to make its debut Thursday, July 25, just before the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing, at a pop-up shop inside Los Angeles streetwear outlet Undefeated, with the intention of bringing Bull Bay to LA. Simply dubbed the “Jamaica Collection,” the line of island-inspired sports- and casual wear incorporates the rasta color palette of red, gold and green onto hoodies, shorts and soccer-style jerseys emblazoned with the popular saying Wah gwaan (Jamaican slang for “What’s going on?”) on the back.
“The line is like a whole vibe,” Beckford says. “It brings the energy of Jamaica and embodies it.”
Though he’s currently nursing an ankle injury and won’t be competing at the U.S. Open this year, he’s certainly going to be looking forward to the event and plans to be able to participate next year should his Olympic training schedule permit. They’ll be coached by champion American surfer Ben Bourgeois.
Going up against the top surfers in the world is an honor he and his teammates don’t take lightly. “We just try to be as calm as possible; we try to think of it as a win-win situation,” Beckford says. “Going and representing is already a victory; we definitely want to put on a good show. We want to have good equipment, [stay] healthy, and we stay positive. . . . It’s pure enjoyment for us.”
Since Beckford’s first years paddling out, a lot has changed for the surf scene in Jamaica. Through charity surfboard drives, the power of the internet and social media, and role models such as Beckford, the young groms on the coast of Bull Bay now have more inspiration than ever. Whether he’s wowing people on the waves of Bull Bay or OC, Beckford is helping the island’s unsung heritage of dreadlocked wave riders to rise like the tide.
“So many kids [in my country] are getting into skating and surfing, and to be the one to inspire the next generation, it feels so good to have kids coming up to you because they’ve seen you do it,” Beckford says. “It opens up so many doors for people. This is just another avenue for people to get involved in something new.”
More than the new things he’s learned from the sport, Beckford is grateful for the old lessons surfing taught him: humility, perseverance and self-reflection. “The sports that are big in Jamaica are so competitive, whereas surfing is like art. It’s so fun; everybody does it differently,” Beckford says. “Jamiacan people need that—they need that touch with nature. I look forward to seeing more kids surfing here.”