“If I had a dollar for every…” It’s an easy expression to throw around when life gives you any one thing in abundance. But what would you do with each of those dollars if the universe did decide to pay you, on rate commission, for every wave? Better yet, what if you got paid by the foot on those waves you surfed? Yup, that’s where most of us wouldn’t be able to quit our day jobs. Breaking the bank on that business proposal is suddenly reserved for an elite few, and starts to look a lot like the real world economic stratification between Average Joe and the one percenters. But like I asked, what would you do with those dollars?
In this sense,Torsten Durkan is trying to break into the upper class. Except he’s not cashing any big checks to pad his own bank account. He’s a naturalist for the Pacific Whale Foundation, giving marine education talks and reef tours, all while waiting for the thumbs up on his applications to med school. As an undergrad at the University of Hawaii Torsten worked for the Pacific Biosciences Research Center as a research assistant, conducting native Hawaiian terrestrial snail conservation projects. “Not the most charismatic group of animals,” he says. Torsten’s also one of those people who will do anything and everything to be in the ocean, even when she’s in her most furious moods spewing 50-foot bombs onto Jaws or pushing monsters through Waimea Bay. Big wave surfing became an obsession of Torsten’s during those college years and today the 24-year old simply looks for ways to push the thresholds of what he considers to be “big.” When he took six months away from work last year to backpack through Europe and do some soul searching Torsten had a funny realization. As an unsponsored surfer he had no financial incentive to chase down the Nazaré monsters he knew he’d find in Portugal. “I wanted to make my surfing more meaningful than just risking life and limb for the pursuit of an adrenaline rush, all at the expense of family and friends worrying about my safety,” he says. So on that trip he decided his big wave pursuits wouldn’t be for his own glory, rather the benefit of something else he loves and dedicates himself to: Mother Nature. It was the birth of Surfing Be Cause. That idea was simple: fundraising by asking individuals and business to pledge money, per foot, of the biggest wave the Maui surfer rides. Whether pledges are $1 a foot or $100, a 50-foot bomb at Mavs or Todos Santos this winter, or even at home surfing Jaws or hopping over to Waimea Bay, becomes a healthy drop in the bucket to preserve coral reefs and raise awareness of coral bleaching – per pledge.
The fact that the inaugural Surfing Be Cause fundraiser has kicked off in an El Niño winter is no coincidence. “Surfers usually only attribute it to a good surf season,” Torsten says. “However, the same warming of waters in the Central and Eastern Pacific characteristic of an El Niño that cause larger more powerful storms also cause the endosymbiotic algae within coral polyps to leave their bodies, leaving them white and bleached looking and ultimately killing them if conditions persist for too long.” He also says scientists understand that man’s impact on climate change is making El Niños more frequent and stronger. Again, it all sounds great for surfers and people like Torsten who will have more opportunities to surf massive waves and fundraise at the same time, but it’s also a product of something that’s damaging to the place we love most. So he’s teamed up with Dr. Ruth Gates, who selectively breeds corals and compiles stocks that are resistant to the climate change that threatens some reefs today and in the future. The money Torsten raises this winter will go to Gates’ work, and eventually toward saving our reefs.
So Surfing Be Cause is now a new concept in big wave surfing, spearheaded by a charger you might not have heard of, whose childhood dream was to play in the NHL. Now he plans to find a new environmental or humanitarian cause every year, hopefully bringing along some of the sport’s biggest names to get involved in their own projects. Now imagine those headlines: Keala Kennely’s Waimea Monster Donates $120k to F*ck Cancer, or Shane Dorian’s 40-foot Jaws Air Drop Raises $100K For Shriner’s Hospitals For Children. Laird Single Handedly Saves California’s EndangeredGuadalupe Fur Seal Population. Plenty of surfers jump on board with passion projects every year and use their super human abilities to make the world a better place, but watching them fundraise by the foot is a refreshing addition to the testosterone filled pit that is big wave surfing. For now the entire project rests on the shoulders of one surfer hoping to make a positive impact for a single cause. Next year it could be something different, and another cause the year after that. And with any luck his determination to make surfing a pursuit meaningful to somebody other than himself will be the status quo during XXL Awards season.
See? Surfing doesn’t have to be a completely selfish obsession. Now if only we all had a dollar for every time we thought that.
Editor’s Note: Donations to support Torsten’s inaugural Surfing Be Cause campaign can be made here. Both pledges and flat donations are accepted and appreciated, from $1 – whatever the heck you feel like offering. Durkan’s largest wave of the winter will be determined via photograph and measured by a professional, with the final announcement coming in March.