The Tides That Bind

When the waves they once rode turned deadly, surfers rushed to the familiar waters, this time to aid the tsunami's victims.

February 15, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN STAFF

Bobbing in swells some 40 degrees colder than those crashing the Sumatran shore, Chris Vaxmonsky couldn't lose himself in the frigid tranquillity of an early January surf session.

"When you're in the water, you can't help thinking about it," the Ocean City surfer later said. "The images you saw, the ocean heaving up in Thailand. It breaks open your mentality. We're all connected by the ocean."

That morning, Vaxmonsky turned to the surfer floating beside him, an old friend, and together they mapped a plan to help the communities in coastal Asia devastated by the tsunami the week before.

So was born the 2005 Frozen Surf Open, a contest held in Ocean City this month that raised about $2,400 in aid money and is still taking donations.

The competition and several other Maryland-area events are part of a global movement by surfers to relieve the tsunami-struck countries. Through surf contests, surf band battles, surf movie releases, surf art auctions, donations from surf apparel companies, cooperation from celebrity surfers like Minnie Driver and other methods, surfers across the world are raising funds for the disaster zone.

Their desire to help stems, in part, from the oceanic nature of the tragedy, a sense of solidarity evinced by the beach vigils and memorial "paddle-outs" many surf groups staged in the days immediately after the Dec. 26 tsunami.

After all, this was a wave, and surfers "understand waves more than anyone in the world," said Art Baltrotsky, director of the Eastern Surfing Association's Maryland district and the contest's other organizer. "They have the feeling of what can happen, the power of the ocean, the danger of the ocean."

And the tsunami struck a part of the ocean nearly sacred to surfers. Before the disaster, they were among the only Westerners who'd visited the most remote parts of coastal Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, places where perfect waves blown thousands of miles by arctic storms break on coral reefs. Surfers were in the water when the wave struck; had the tsunami come during the peak season of May to October, there would have been hundreds more.

Cultural change

But the surfing relief effort also highlights a subtler change in surfing culture, which was once defined - in the popular imagination, at least - by dissipation and dude-speak. The Endless Summer has ended: Surfers, it turns out, are increasingly socially responsible.

"Nobody can believe how organized we are," said Darryl Hatheway, a Silver Spring surfer who helps raise funds and lobby in Washington for SurfAid International, one of several philanthropic surfing groups providing tsunami relief.

"Organized" is an understatement. SurfAid - which will receive the proceeds from the Ocean City contest - has raised about $1 million in tsunami relief funds, and has been distributing food and supplies on outlying Indonesian islands since as early as Jan. 3.

"We were really the first NGO operation to respond, to go out to sea and do it," said Andrew Griffiths, the San Diego-based CEO of SurfAid, speaking from the operation's base in Padang, Indonesia.

Unlike many of the tsunami relief groups, SurfAid has been stationed in Indonesia much longer than a month. The nonprofit group was started four years ago when a surfer-physician embarked on a luxury surf tour, the sort that has become popular over the past decade, since remote parts of Indonesia first threatened to eclipse Hawaii as the surfer's mecca. Horrified by the lack of health care on the islands, the doctor started SurfAid to battle disease in local populations.

When the tsunami struck, SurfAid had the infrastructure in place to reach some of the hardest hit and least accessible islands. Using expensive surf charter yachts and navigation skills of their knowledgeable captains, the group managed to deliver 200 tons of food and supplies in January and - in anticipation of the so-called second wave of disease expected to hit the islands - to vaccinate thousands of people.

"No one's there besides these guys - only carrion birds," said Drew Kampion, the author of several surfing books, including Stoked! A History of Surf Culture.

Surfers have long supported coastal cleanup movements directly related to their sport, but the tsunami response underscores an emerging altruism that is increasingly palpable in surfing circles.

This fresh awareness is documented on surfing sites, which juxtapose absurdly sunny headlines ("Surf Divas Hang Ten in Costa Rica") with the gravest news bulletins about soaring global death tolls.

An adult sensibility has replaced the adolescent abandon of Gidget, Kampion said. Partially, this is because the surfer population is graying: Some of the original teenage surfer dudes who caught the wave in the late 1950s are still active in the sport.

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