For Pro Women Surfers, Equal Pay Isn’t Enough

6 May

Early one morning in late March, Sophie Goldschmidt, the 44-year-old CEO of the World Surf League (WSL), settled back into a swivel chair in an empty, glass-walled conference room within the league’s Santa Monica, California, headquarters. She cradled a cup of tea and reflected on the day in the spring of 2017 that an unknown recruiter called her about taking professional surfing’s top position. At the time, the only thing Goldschmidt knew about the sport was what her boyfriend, also a surfer, had told her. “I’d heard of Kelly Slater and Bethany Hamilton,” she told me. “That was it.”

But the job intrigued her, and by that August, she and her boyfriend had traded their comfortable lives in London for Southern California and the wilderness of professional surfing.

In her year and a half on the job, Goldschmidt, who was born in Wimbledon, England, and previously worked as an executive for the NBA, England’s Rugby Football Union, and the Women’s Tennis Association, has overseen some sweeping changes in the sport, none more important than her announcement in September that the WSL would pay its women and men athletes equally. The decision, which came as a surprise even to the WSL’s surfers, made the league the first U.S.-based global sports organization to offer equal pay and among the first to do so worldwide.

At the WTA, Goldschmidt had brokered the biggest deal in the history of women’s sports up to that point—an $88 million, six-year contract with Sony Ericsson to be the WTA’s title sponsor. Billie Jean King, who Goldschmidt had gotten to know personally while working at the WTA, is one of her heroes. The deal with Ericsson, Goldschmidt says, felt inextricable from the strides King began making in the seventies. “The progress she made,” Goldschmidt says, “laid the foundation for that.”

For the WSL’s 2019 season, the league launched a sweeping Women’s Initiative. Outside the conference room, pinned on pegboards and walls were colorful printouts of marketing material and motivational catchphrases for employees. One Wave for Everyone was the guiding theme. But now there was another pivotal moment on the horizon that would be pushing professional surfing—which has long been dominated by men and plagued by sexism—further into uncharted territory.

In a few days’ time, the 2019 men’s and women’s World Tour season would begin on Australia’s Gold Coast. Before the competitions started, there would be an awards gala where the previous year’s world champions would be officially honored. Among those to be crowned was Keala Kennelly, who had clinched the title for the newly created Women’s Big Wave Tour. Kennelly, who is openly gay, had been pushing Goldschmidt and the WSL to clearly state that homosexual athletes were welcome in professional surfing.

Kennelly had some reason to be worried. On March 6, Goldschmidt had sent an e-mail to the tour’s women athletes outlining the WSL’s 2019 Women’s Initiative. “The ocean doesn’t care who you are or where you came from, the color of your skin, your gender, or about other personal choices you make,” she wrote. That Goldschmidt had not written gay or LGBTQ, instead chosing the ambiguous phrase “other personal choices,” frustrated Kennelly. “Being gay is not a choice,” Kennelly says. Having to pretend to be straight to preserve your sponsors and standing in professional surfing, as Kennelly once felt she had to do, is a choice. “I’m hoping it’s just an oversight,” she said. “But it would be nice if they actually came out and said gay and LGBTQ.” 

On the surface, the WSL’s announcement of equal pay in September seemed as flawless as it was groundbreaking. But the news was followed by a damaging, 9,000-word article in the February issue of The New York Times Magazine, in which a group of women big-wave surfers, including Kennelly, outlined pro surfing’s longstanding, systemic sexism and homophobia and accused Goldschmidt and the WSL of proliferating these biases.

The group, called the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS) and cofounded by Kennelly and fellow big-wave surfers Paige Alms, Andrea Moller, and Bianca Valenti, along with Karen Tynan, a labor lawyer, and Sabrina Brennan, a commissioner with California’s San Mateo County Harbor District, had accused Goldschmidt and the WSL of being resistant to equal pay. The group asserted that if it hadn’t been for its public pressure for equity in pro surfing, in the summer of 2018, Goldschmidt would never have announced equal pay when she did. 

“Equal prize money was part of a long-term strategy and a natural next step for the WSL, given everything that we’d done over recent years,” Goldschmidt says. “We had plans to implement it for events beginning in 2019, and wanted to ensure it was announced at a time that made sense for the WSL, and were not going to be pressured into doing it due to other agendas.”

“I do believe that the WSL probably had long-term plans to do equal pay at some point,” Kennelly told me. “But us forming CEWS just applied some pressure and made it happen a little quicker.”

Exactly how much the pressure from CEWS factored into the league’s decision to announce equal pay when it did remains, for now, a secret. Nevertheless, Goldschmidt’s assertion that the WSL’s decision to award equal prize money was part of a long-term strategy is, as Kennelly pointed out, not wrong.  

In 2013, after the WSL took over pro surfing’s governing-body predecessor, the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), the women’s tour was on life support. Compared to the men’s 11 events, the women’s had been reduced to eight—an improvement from 2011, which had seven. The total prize purse per event for the women was $110,000. For the men, it was $425,000. The women’s winner received $15,000, while the men’s winner received $75,000. A cringeworthy example of where professional surfing culture stood in terms of gendered tone deafness was the webcast of the 2012 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, which featured cutaways and commercial breaks with the voice-over of a woman moaning sexually.

The WSL’s new management immediately began working to improve the women’s tour. Jessi Miley-Dyer, the women’s tour commissioner, was tasked with bringing the tour up to ten events and boosting the prize money. Still, in 2014, the men’s winner at each event got a $100,000 check, while the women’s winner received $60,000. Now, in 2019, the men’s and women’s event champions each get $100,000. Second-place finishers each get $55,000; third, $30,000; and so on down the line.

“To have a new management and ownership team who said, ‘Of course we’re going to do this for you’—we had never had that before,” Miley-Dyer said.

As Goldschmidt and I spoke in Santa Monica, the WSL’s offices gradually began to fill up. The waves happened to be good that morning, so many of the league’s 100 or so employees were running late. The WSL had recently gone on a hiring spree—its benefactor, Dirk Ziff, a publishing heir, and his wife, Natasha, were doubling down on their goal of bringing surfing into the mainstream.

I asked Goldscmidt if the league was ready financially for the shift to equal pay. “We’re making an investment,” she said. “I think sometimes it’s been lost on people that for brands and certain organizations, pay equity has to be affordable for it to be sustainable, and you need the investment to be able to do it.” I wondered if it wasn’t lack of investment in the first place that has caused women’s sports to be perceived by some leagues, companies, and fans to be inferior to men’s. “I think that’s a strong argument,” she said. “I’m very aware that there are huge discrepancies. Progress has been made, but my God, it’s been slow in a lot of areas.”

For Cori Schumacher, a former two-time ASP World Tour longboard champion, the progress has come too late. Like Kennelly, Schumacher is gay and has long been critical of pro surfing and the surf industry for their homophobia and disinterest in paying women fairly yet their insistence on advertising them as sexual objects. 

In 2008, Schumacher married her long-time partner and two years later won her second world title, becoming surfing’s first openly gay world champion, but the ASP barely acknowledged her. “I never received an invitation to go pick up my trophy at the awards gala in Australia along with every other world champion that year,” she told me. “It was never acknowledged, and I never received my trophy.” (Goldschmidt says she wasn’t aware of the circumstances behind Schumacher never receiving her trophy, but, she assured me, “the WSL will make sure she gets one.”) She walked away from professional surfing and entered politics as a city councilwoman in San Diego. Today she’s behind a proposal in the California legislature, Assembly Bill 467, which would require equal prize money for women and men at any sporting event on state-owned land.

Kennelly, who competed on the women’s tour between 1998 and 2007, described to me a similar experience to Schumacher’s. “When I first came on tour, I immediately saw how the ASP, how the other athletes, how the industry as a whole looked at athletes who they presumed to be gay,” she told me. “People talked about lesbians in such a negative way, and since I wanted to fit in and not draw attention to myself or ever have people question me, I would just jump on the bandwagon and do the same.”

Like Schumacher, Kennelly walked away from the tour. “I couldn’t deal with living a double life anymore,” she said. “I was lonely, I was depressed, I was suicidal at points. Winning a world title was my dream ever since I was a little kid, and when I left the tour, I felt like I’d completely failed at my dream.” In 2016, Kennelly was given a second chance. That year, the WSL created the Women’s Big Wave Tour. Coupled with equal prize money, Kennelly could finally have the opportunity to make a living off surfing.

For the WSL, Kennelly’s impending world championship also offered a second chance. “It’s time for surfing to come out,” Schumacher told me. “And for professional surfing to be the lead in this conversation.” 

At the awards gala on March 20, Kennelly stood at the podium, with the world-title trophy sitting next to her. She told a story about how, when she was 25 and had just fallen short of winning a world title, she’d thought her life was over. “I was hiding in the closet, soaked in shame, living in fear, and I hated myself, because I didn’t think you could be world champion and gay at the same time.” Now, she continued, “I get to be proud of who I am, and I get to love myself exactly as I am, not as people would want me to be. And it’s my hope that I’m going to inspire other LGBTQ athletes that are suffering in silence to live your truth.”

Unfortunately, no one else who took the stage that night had been as explicit as Kennelly. But the next day, the WSL published various clips of the awards ceremony on its website, and only one of the speeches: “Keala Kennelly’s Powerful Acceptance Speech” read the headline. I asked Goldschmidt to clarify her and the WSL’s position on LGBTQ surfers. The league’s Every Wave for Everyone campaign, she wrote to me in an e-mail, “is literally about what it says. Our initial focus has been around getting more women and girls engaged in surfing, as part of our overall strategy to further elevate women’s surfing. But we’re encouraging everyone to get involved; any gender, nationality, sexual orientation, or religion.”

A few days later, I spoke with Kennelly. “My feeling is, between Sophie and especially Jessi, that they’re really trying to end the discrimination against LGBTQ athletes and really change things on the WSL, so I’m trying to support them in that,” she said. “Baby steps, you know.”

From Alaska to Mexico. The Hard Way.

21 Jan

“Our tents are breaking down, the plastic racks that we strap the bags onto are damaged from a number of shore-break landings, and the bodies need a few days out of the water to heal up,” Ryan and Casey Higginbotham wrote on Instagram on New Year’s Eve. “Regardless, it feels damn good to be so close.”

The dispatch came from somewhere along the southwest coast of Baja California Sur, accompanied by an image of Casey leaning against his paddleboard, earbuds in, looking relaxed but spent. And rightfully so—it was nearly the end of a three-month, 1,100-mile prone-paddling odyssey that began at the U.S.-Mexico border and was set to finish in the shadow of the iconic rock arch of Cabo San Lucas on New Year’s Day. “We always say, ‘Algún día. Someday,’” Casey had told me on December 18 from a pay phone in San Juanico, a fishing village just over 300 miles north of Cabo. “You’ll be there someday. Keep going.”

This he knew from experience.

We have entered the age of corporatized exploration. Every day, it seems, we learn of some grand expedition being undertaken by another brave soul tormented by thoughts of living a pedestrian life. While these people’s desire to break records and push physical and psychological boundaries is real, it is also true that many of them are bankrolled by sponsors. And why not? Exploration is expensive. If slapping a corporate logo on your gear will help get you over the finish line, then by all means start crafting that marketing pitch.

Ryan and Casey Higginbotham’s journey, on the other hand, began unceremoniously and without funds. And also with a good buzz. Over a few beers in March 2015, the twins, then 22, simply decided it was time, as Ryan put it, to do “something beyond all the bullshit.” They settled on paddling from Ketchikan, Alaska, to the U.S.-Mexico border on lifeguard rescue boards, a 2,200-mile feat that had never been done before. When they reached out to companies for support, the response was, “Have you done something like this before?” They had not. “We were starting from scratch,” Ryan later wrote in an unpublished book about the expedition. They never set up a GoFundMe or Kickstarter page, and no corporate sponsor materialized, though some companies helped out with product—wetsuits, sunscreen, drybags, a mini solar panel. “We started selling things,” Ryan wrote. “We’d hit the local swap meet every other weekend to sell off clothes and items that were unnecessary.” They moved in with their parents. And finally, most painfully, they sold the 1994 Sea Ray speedboat they’d received from their grandmother.

The Higginbothams grew up in the small, foggy town of Pismo Beach, on California’s central coast. Life there was safe and easy and revolved around the ocean. In their teens, the wiry, identical towheaded twins were in the ocean almost every day, swimming, surfing, rock-jumping, cave-diving. They became swim instructors and then lifeguards, which led to an interest in prone paddleboarding. It wasn’t until the end of college, in 2015, that all of this suddenly seemed like child’s play. They’d grown up hearing their grandfather talk about crash-landing in World War II. Robert, their father, had ridden broncos and fought in Vietnam. To the brothers, these experiences offered the kind of adventure that a million rock jumps or cave dives could never touch. They were young, fit, and good at most anything they tried—what they still needed to test, however, were not so much their physical limits as their psychological ones.

What Ryan and Casey did have plenty of was competitive drive—directed mostly toward each other. “When we were little kids, it was always, Who’s going to jump off the higher cliff?” Ryan told me. “When Casey was 19, he did an Ironman, and I was like, What do I have to do to top that?” On Christmas Eve 2015, toward the bottom of a bottle of Jim Beam, the brothers got into a fistfight—over what, neither can remember—in the kitchen of their parents’ house. Blood from a well-placed elbow to Casey’s forehead splattered the floor. In March of 2016, as the boys set off for Alaska, their mother, Shelly, worried not about the brutal elements killing her sons but about her sons killing each other. “It can suck when your life is a competition,” Ryan said. “But we decided to work together to see what we could achieve.”

To train, Ryan found an old how-to guide for the famously grueling 32-mile Molokai 2Oahu paddle race and followed it step by step. Still, they never trained with the gear they’d need for the real thing. Perched on their 18-foot Bark paddleboards would be 70 pounds’ worth of essentials—a cookstove, sat phone, extra rudders, medical kit, tent, sleeping bags, an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon), flares, and a 12-gauge shotgun and a box of shells (in case of bears).

Both brothers described the Alaska part of the trip as a combination of the “highest highs and lowest lows.” On day four, Ryan lost his wetsuit glove while trying to take a photo. He hadn’t packed a second pair. “You sandbagger,” Casey snapped. “You fucked up the whole expedition.” The next day, they were sidelined by heavy wind and rain. Everything settled into a cold dampness. Two months into the journey, as they crawled south along the Washington coast, Casey developed severe muscle pain in his back that no amount of stretching could abate. They tried to stay within a mile of the coast, but during bay crossings, their distance from the shore was greater, and land disappeared behind the fog. “It would come in waves,” Casey wrote in their book about the 218-day journey, “blanketing everything in whiteout.” 

(Colin Nearman)

When the fog did clear, the wildness and solitude enveloping them was so immense it felt medicinal. The agony from the incessant paddling evaporated. Before reaching the United States’ populated West Coast, they often slept on tiny islands dotting the Alaskan and Canadian coasts. They’d wake up to sheet-glass conditions padded by a thin fog bank, and the snow-covered Coast Mountains on the eastern horizon. Perfect strangers could be just as soul-saving. In British Columbia, a woman who was working on her sailboat when the twins paddled up to her dock, soaked and bedraggled, drove them into town to pick up food and supplies.

Seven months after they’d left Ketchikan, their journey ended at the thin, incongruous black fence reaching into the ocean at Border Field State Park, in San Diego. Border Patrol agents shook their hands. Family and friends gave them hugs. But after it was over, Ryan described that last day as a “melancholic shadow.” “Looking down the coast,” he wrote in the book, “I realized that I will always want to see what lies beyond the next point. The daily struggle is over, the constant need to find solutions to accomplish this goal, and right now all I want is more.”

It didn’t take long for Ryan and Casey to decide they would do another paddle, this time from the border to Cabo San Lucas, 1,100 miles down the Baja peninsula. For the next two years, they worked odd jobs to save up for the trip. They traveled to a trade show in Munich to talk about the “AK to MX” paddle.

On October 12, 2018, the twins found themselves once again dragging their paddleboards across the sand at the border—this time, not away from the ocean but toward it. Again there was little fanfare, no corporate sponsors, and a measly 5,000 or so Instagram followers. They paddled 14 miles that first day, a solid start. “We made it to Rosarito and it feels good to be back on the water,” they wrote on Instagram. “The body is going to take some time to adjust to this on the daily.”

Compared to the seven months it took to complete the first trip, this journey would be complete in less than half that time. The brothers had refined their launching technique through rough shore break, which had cost them gear and damaged their boards the first time around. They ditched the heavy boots and Gore-Tex rainsuits for much lighter warm-weather gear. No shotgun, either. Nevertheless, there was plenty of risk. The majority of Baja’s Pacific coast is desolate, so they’d driven supplies down ahead of time and buried them in the sand, hoping they’d still be there when they returned. The desert winds could be relentless, maddening. Whereas the cold threatened frostbite, the heat threatened dehydration. And there were the sharks and the banditos—themselves.

“There’ve been times when we wanted to beat the hell out of each other,” Ryan said from the pay phone on December 18. “But having that goal, and knowing that I’m relying on Casey and he’s relying on me, supersedes that desire.” Just a couple days before, they’d been sucked into a lagoon south of a windswept headland called Punta Abreojos—“open-eyes point”—and lost an entire day of progress. “When you’re in those moments, you have to let the emotion go,” Ryan went on. “We couldn’t quit on each other.”  

(Colin Nearman)

Between San Juanico and the arch of Cabo San Lucas, the twins had about 330 miles to cover and exactly two weeks to make it in time for New Year’s Day. But at the last minute, they decided to arrive in Cabo a day late, in order to accommodate some friends who wanted to be there for the twins’ landing. Both Ryan and Casey already seemed serene about the whole journey, unbothered by the few hundred miles still standing between them and their goal. I wondered if they were pondering future projects. “Casey’s got three pretty terrible ideas written down,” Ryan said. “One of them is going to happen.”

On January 2, the twins passed the arch, several cruise ships, and too many sightseeing boats to count before landing at a beach crowded with idle tourists baking in the Mexican sun. The brothers were greasy haired, bearded, and taut with muscle. Some of the tourists looked up from their books or magazines or conversations to stare at the two bedraggled, towheaded boys who had emerged from the ocean. Others went on without notice. The twins were eager to escape such a “shit show,” as Casey called it.

Later I asked Ryan if the melancholic shadow had returned. It had. “When you’re out there, you have a lot of time to think, and you build up a narrative of what life will be like when you get back—what you’re going to do, expectations about your personal relationships, how you will feel different on a day-to-day basis,” he told me. “Then once you get back, the narrative is never a reality.” But, he said, the shadow will pass, and the desire to go again will return.

2018 Is Pro Surfing’s Year of the Woman

28 Nov

Last week, the chatter among pro surfing’s ranks centered on a massive swell steaming toward Maui, where the waves would converge with two of the most watched events of the World Surf League’s 2018 season. By Monday morning, at the infamous big-wave break Pe’ahi the ten women set to compete in the Jaws Challenge were staring down 50-foot mountains of raw, wind-shorn swell. Over the next few hours, the world witnessed Hawaiian Keala Kennelly lead the women through some of the biggest conditions ever seen in the sport’s history, period. Meanwhile, 30 miles away at the Beachwaver Maui Pro, Australian Stephanie Gilmore was painting the idyllic blue walls of Honolua Bay with the smooth lines she is famous, and envied, for. By sunset, Gilmore had secured a record-tying seventh world title.

This year has been groundbreaking for women’s surfing. So it was only fitting that 2018 would culminate with Gilmore being crowned world champion. Gilmore, who is 30, now ties fellow Australian Layne Beachley for the most ever women’s world title victories. By this past July, Gilmore had already foreshadowed greatness when she won her 29th tour event, more than any other woman. Surfers have a tendency to overuse the word legend to the point of meaninglessness, but when it comes to Gilmore, there is no better descriptor.

That the world’s best women surfers were dominating the airwaves on Monday no doubt deeply gratified the WSL’s new—and first woman—CEO, Sophie Goldschmidt, who announced in September that beginning next year, the WSL will be giving equal prize money to its male and female athletes. Equal pay had been one of Goldschmidt’s key mandates when she took over the WSL in 2017, along with getting surfing into the 2020 Olympic Games. To have Gilmore win the title was just the kind of you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up artistry that Goldschmidt needed to cap off 2018.

For Gilmore, the crowning marked another rebirth in a career full of them. She began her pro career as a twiggy 19-year-old in 2007, when she dominated formidable veterans, among them Beachley and Kennelly, to win her first world title at Honolua Bay, which has long hosted the women’s tour’s final stop of the season. No rookie in women’s pro surfing had ever accomplished such a feat. The perpetually sunny Australian—branded Happy Gilmore by her then main sponsor Rip Curl—continued winning for the next three years. Her ascent marked a transition in women’s professional surfing, as Beachley, Kennelly, and other old-guard athletes retired and a new crop of young surfers (like Hawaiian Carissa Moore) entered the fray, more talented and competitive than their predecessors had ever been.

Suddenly, 23-year-old Gilmore was the tour’s grizzled veteran. Personally, Gilmore saw herself similarly. This new, more serious mindset didn’t jive with the youthful, airy one she’d been wedged into by Rip Curl. In 2010, she walked away from a lucrative re-signing offer to become the first woman ambassador and team rider for Quiksilver, which had always only sponsored its female athletes under its Roxy label. Gilmore embraced the confident, socially conscious, fashion-centered role that Quiksilver had tailor-made for her. The transition, however, coincided with a brutal, random attack outside her home in Coolangatta, Australia, that left her with a broken wrist and lingering psychological trauma. At the end of 2011, Gilmore had slipped to third in the world tour rankings—a disaster by her standards.

In a way, the attack and subsequent loss of the world title allowed Gilmore to take a step back and explore her form in the water. Where Beachley embraced her competitive ruthlessness and Moore her unrivaled power, Gilmore perfected a smooth, knock-kneed style that lent a grace to competitive surfing that’s rarely been seen on either the men’s or women’s tours. She traveled around, rode retro boards, and played guitar with Jimmy Buffet. In between, she won two more world titles, in 2012 and 2014.

For the next three years, Gilmore bounced around the rankings. But when the 2018 season kicked off in Australia this past March, she settled into a scorched-earth campaign, winning three of the tour’s ten events and taking runner-up in two others. Gilmore’s confident reemergence was only accentuated by Goldschmidt and her own ambitious mandate to bring the world’s best women and men surfers to the Olympics—equally.

More than anything, Gilmore’s seventh world title feels like the people’s victory. Coupled with Kennelly and the women of the Jaws Challenge, it’s a monumental win for progress and for female athletes of every stripe. It’s also a clear sign that a record-breaking eighth title is on the horizon.

The Ocean Cleanup Launches System 001

17 Sep

It’s around 11:45 a.m. on September 8, a perfect-as-usual Saturday along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. The waterfront is already packed with tourists, their happy chatter intermittently overtaken by the barks of the famous sea lion horde over on Pier 39’s K-Dock. Nearby, a crowd of some 30,000 has gathered for the Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice March, an event that will culminate with the Global Climate Action Summit. The smell of pot meanders through the crisp air as convincing Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un impersonators pose for photos.

This is a big day for Boyan Slat, the 24-year-old founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup (TOC), a Netherlands-based nonprofit that wants to rid the oceans of plastic pollution. TOC has chartered the rusty, austere Harbor Emperor ferry to shuttle about 100 journalists out into the bay, where it will follow the Maersk Launcher, a 296-foot offshore tug whose day job is hauling oil and gas platforms to the Golden Gate Bridge. Today, however, the Launcher is towing TOC’s long-awaited, multimillion-dollar System 001—or “Wilson,” as Slat and his young team of more than 100 engineers, scientists, PR savants, and volunteers have nicknamed the boom-like contraption.

Boyan Slat talks to the press on the day of the System 001 launch. (Pierre Augier/The Ocean Cleanup)

Over the next two weeks, the Launcher will tow the 2,000-foot, 380-ton apparatus 200 nautical miles offshore, where its survivability and efficiency will be tested for the first time in the Pacific’s tempestuous waters. If it passes this stress test, it will be pulled for another couple weeks farther west into the heart of the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces—250 million tons—of plastic trash swirl, like a great, nebulous smog. The goal is to begin cleaning up this monumental man-made mess. If it does, TOC hopes to deploy 59 more Wilsons, which they say could clean up 50 percent of the garbage patch within five years.

It seems an impossible task, but Slat faces it with a nonchalance that has become TOC’s brand. With his shaggy hair and lingering adolescent lankiness, Slat has been compared to a boy-band star. Indeed, as Slat speaks to the press on the Harbor Emperor, wearing his untucked baby-blue button-up shirt, tightish charcoal pants, and scuffed Vans, one journalist says, “Boy, he’s got great hair.” Slat’s style has become doctrine—his team, all young, all with great hair and great clothes, work happily and doggedly for the cause, seemingly unflustered by the enormity of their mission.

In 2016, I joined Slat and his team on the North Sea for the media-hyped launch of System 001’s first prototype, which resembled a 328-foot high-density plastic sausage string. It looked nothing like the giant, sleek, ray-like design that Slat had first imagined on a restaurant napkin when he was 16. Slat, who told me he designed and built “a very functional” wooden chair at age two, was confident that the prototype would work but was careful to remind me this was just a start. He had described the process of getting to that point as “throwing spaghetti at a wall.”

Back then, the United States and Europe seemed to be naturally moving toward an era that embraced the bold, if expensive, dreams of young environmentalist entrepreneurs like Slat. Today, the world—but particularly the White House—has changed, and ideas like Slat’s feel more distant. This past June, for example, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a UK-based anthropogenic climate change–denying think tank, published a report condemning plastic recycling. “Plastic pollution has become the favoured cause of environmentalists,” Breitbart wrote in an article about the report, “as it finally dawns that the public is heartily sick of being lectured about ‘climate change.’”

The Launcher heads out to sea. (Pierre Augier/The Ocean Cleanup)
The Launcher heads out to sea. (The Ocean Cleanup)

Despite the shifting political and cultural winds, TOC has raised some $20 million from donors that include the Dutch government and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. But they’ve also faced myriad engineering setbacks. Out in the green-brown bay, near the sandstone cliffs of Alcatraz, as the Launcher comes into view, Wilson in its wake, it is clear that both the beautiful ray design of Slat’s 16-year-old imagination and the sausage-string prototype have been mutilated at the hands of engineers and reality. Since 2016, TOC has conducted some 300 scale-model tests and six multimillion-dollar research trips, by air and sea, to the garbage patch. Now, System 001 resembles an enormous polyethylene fire hose with a heavy nylon geotextile screen dangling ten feet beneath it. Nevertheless, it has arrived—and two years ahead of schedule.

Ambling through the friendly crowd of journalist-fans on the Harbor Emperor, as we follow the Launcher ever closer to the Golden Gate, it is difficult to imagine Slat and TOC having detractors beyond the Breitbarts of the world—but there are many. Within the scientific community, criticism ranges from Slat and his team’s youth to System 001’s inability to capture harmful microplastics to a question of execution. Wouldn’t it be easier, one popular argument goes, to implement systems at the source of the plastic pollution, like rivers?

I put this question to Laurent Lebreton, TOC’s lead oceanographer, who is, of course, young, a surfer, and wearing a stylish short-sleeve button-up with little octopuses printed on it. Lebreton, like Slat, doesn’t dispute the importance of stopping plastic before it enters the ocean and hopes that, one day, TOC can tackle that problem as well. But for now, he says, the team is focusing on the ocean. “We don’t want to be garbage men forever,” Lebreton tells me.

Another argument is that, especially today, TOC should be using its fundraising prowess and popularity to influence policies that could curb industry’s metastasization of plastics, especially of the single-use ilk. Slat has long held the opinion that it’s not an either-or question, that there is a place for both TOC and the other solutions. But by creating something bold like System 001, which the media and rich donors have gobbled up, “we can make a lot of people aware that that this problem exists,” Slat says. “We can give it a bit of hope.”

Boyan Slat watches the launch. (Pierre Augier/The Ocean Cleanup)

As a believer in the power of policy, I’m not sure I can count myself as one of the journalist-fans onboard the Harbor Emperor. But in this current world of bickering, posturing, and feasibility study after feasibility study, I have to admit it’s refreshing to see a kid just going for it. “What I hope is that the Ocean Cleanup can become this example of how you should solve a problem,” Slat says as the Launcher slips beneath the shadow of the Golden Gate. “Instead of trying to complain or protest about something that you don’t agree with, try and build something that you do agree with.”

The wind turns cold and gusty, so I head down to the galley for coffee. A journalist next to me also orders a cup, then asks for a lid. The galley hand points to the little station with sugar packets, powdered creamer, wooden stirrers, and, well, plastic lids. Without thinking, I hand one to her, but she recoils. “It’s plastic,” she says. Worldwide, in the two hours we spent out on the bay, millions of pounds of plastic had been dumped into the ocean. I turn to the galley hand and say, “It’s so difficult.” He shrugs. In the distance, the Launcher has crossed into the Pacific, plowing into a stiff headwind, but plowing nonetheless.

The Surfer Who Swapped Waves for Humanitarian Aid

6 Mar

It was just before midnight on September 19, 2017, in the town of Christiansted, Saint Croix. Outside the yellow concrete walls of the Caravelle Hotel, Hurricane Maria was hurtling toward shore with Category 5 force. Jon Rose, who had come to the area to implement water-filtration systems in communities already devastated by Hurricane Irma, seemed less alarmed than amused. Since founding his nonprofit, Waves for Water, eight years ago, the 39-year-old had experienced the aftermath of 19 natural disasters, but he’d never been on the ground before one of them struck.

Rose stood outside, in an open stairwell, and held up his iPhone so that he and longtime friend and fellow former pro surfer Ben Bourgeois fit in the frame. Instagram needed a video update. “We’re here,” Rose said, squinting into the wind and chuckling. “Still standing.” He panned the scene. Palm trees heaved in the distance. Heavy rain streaked through the fluorescent light of a streetlamp. In a second video, Rose led the camera into his hotel room, focusing on clumps of ceiling panels that had fallen into the puddles on the floor. “It’s all water,” he said.

The next morning, Rose and Bourgeois, along with Waves for Water’s Haiti director, Fritz Pierre-Louis, stepped outside and into an almost unrecognizable landscape. “It was like a bomb had gone off,” Bourgeois told me. “The island had lost all its green.” The damage was just as severe in Puerto Rico, where Rob McQueen, field operations director and head of the organization’s Caribbean Hurricane Relief Initiative, and his team of three were located. Almost the entire island had lost power, and more than half the population was without clean water.

Rose’s special-ops-inspired response teams began working their contacts: friends in the Caribbean surfing community, Pierre-Louis’s Rotarian connection in Saint Croix, locals willing to ignore emergency curfews to reach isolated areas. McQueen led the overall operation, which initially consisted of just eight people, from Puerto Rico. “We did everything from connecting private-plane and helicopter owners to couriers, to flying in people with water filters,” he told me. “Finding ways to get things from outside normal channels is what we do.”

Rose in Ecuador in 2016. (Dylan Gordon)

Within the first 72 hours, nearly all the 500 filters the teams had managed to pack in their checked baggage were being distributed across Saint Croix and Puerto Rico. After three weeks—as the U.S. government came under increasing fire for its ineffective disaster response in Puerto Rico, where 29 percent of the population still lacked potable water—Waves for Water had set up 3,600 filtration systems across seven islands, aiding an estimated 100,000 people. The group had even rented a 50-foot yacht, La Vagabond, to reach Dominica, 250 miles to the southeast of Saint Croix. By October 20, the Caribbean initiative was on pace to be one of Waves for Water’s most successful projects. Through partners and individual donations, it had raised nearly $300,000. Rose credited the organization’s success to its “breed of guerrilla humanitarianism.”

Last November, I met Rose at NeueHouse, a swanky co-working space off Park Avenue in Manhattan. It was just before lunch, and the palatial World War I–era building was bustling with young men and women direct from urban-creative central casting. I found Rose sitting on a window seat in front of his MacBook. One of NeueHouse’s original members is a friend, so Rose gets a discount on membership, which can run as high as $4,000 a month. “I think they like the idea of having a resident humanitarian,” he told me.

I’d met Rose in 2012, when he came to New York to help friends who lived in communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy. His curly dark brown hair, while still full, was now grayer. In the field, Rose always wears a pair of brown leather boots. (“It’s a psychological thing about safety. You don’t have control over anything external, but you have control over your response to it, so I’m going to wear boots.”) Now he wore high-top Vans, black jeans, and a black leather jacket over a gray hoodie. As always, he was eager to talk about Waves for Water, though his glassy blue eyes suggested that he could use some extra sleep.

A lot has happened since Sandy, when Waves for Water was barely two years old. Catastrophic floods in Brazil, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the Nepal earthquake, Hurricane Matthew in Haiti—Rose personally responded to all of them and more. The global water crisis has also grown ever more dire; today nearly one in nine people, some 783 million, are living without access to safe water, while the average American uses about 100 gallons every day.

Such statistics, and Waves for Water’s reputation for coming through with filters and aid in the most extreme conditions, has attracted partnerships with BMW and PayPal, as well as the United Nations and the U.S. military. Rose’s organization now raises an average of $2 million annually—not only to respond to natural disasters, but also to help people in regions where access to clean water is difficult. Rose moves fluidly around the world on a comfortable salary, split 25-75 between Waves for Water and the clothing company Hurley, which pays him as a brand ambassador. The nonprofit has ten full-time employees, including McQueen and Pierre-Louis, who work remotely from locations around the globe, and about 15 part-time employees, though that number can rise depending on funding, partnerships, and unforeseen disasters.

At NeueHouse, Rose’s iPhone wouldn’t stop buzzing with notifications. When he’s in New York, which is rarely for more than ten days at a time, he’s buried under the daily responsibilities of heading up an international nonprofit. There are phone conferences with the organization’s four directors around the world. There are potential partnerships to explore, often involving meetings with corporate suits in sparkling high-rises.

“I’m ready for a break,” Rose said, then clarified: “From a certain aspect of the work.”

Before September 30, 2009, Rose could never have imagined running a global humanitarian-aid organization. That day he was sitting on a boat moored off the city of Padang, Indonesia, just after a surf trip with friends. He was 31. He’d just retired after 13 years as a professional surfer. He and his wife, who he’d been with for eight years, were headed for divorce. Their Laguna Beach, California, condo, which Rose bought at the peak of the real estate bubble, was in foreclosure. As Rose put it, his mind was “a whole world of scrambled eggs.” And then a magnitude-7.6 earthquake hit Padang, reducing much of the city to rubble.

Rose’s father, Jack—a carpenter who started a nonprofit to help communities in Kenya and Uganda build rain-catchment systems—had encouraged his son to give back, and the trip to Indonesia seemed like the perfect opportunity. So Rose had packed ten palm-size ceramic water filters, which he intended to donate to a Balinese community he’d visited in the past. He’d even incorporated his mini-initiative, naming it Waves for Water. In Padang, however, Rose found a Red Cross center in desperate need of clean water for treating wounds, so he volunteered his filters. “I found a clarity that I hadn’t had in years, or maybe ever,” he said. “I was like, this is what I’m going to dedicate myself to.”

Less than four months later, in January 2010, Rose landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a few days after the deadliest earthquake in the history of the Western Hemisphere, on his first official Waves for Water disaster -response. A private donor had read a news article about Rose’s experience in Padang and offered him $40,000 to rush 4,000 water filters to Haiti. Waves for Water didn’t yet have 501(c)3 status, let alone 4,000 filters, but Rose said he’d do it anyway. He followed a ragtag group of responders to a Port-au-Prince home that had been arranged by the donor and started picking up on the lingo of the international-aid community. The “structure” had been “compromised,” so he pitched his tent in the yard. The stench of decomposing bodies hung thick in the air for weeks.

As it would be in Puerto Rico after Maria, the relief effort in Haiti was bogged down by the bureaucratic red tape of government and large NGOs, which left swaths of the disaster area totally ignored. “I was a one-man show,” Rose recalled. “I wasn’t competing against other organizations, I was competing against the crisis.” He gravitated to other independent responders, like the two paramedics from Florida who commandeered an ambulance to locate the injured and deliver them to hospitals.

Rose’s most important connection was Pierre-Louis, a Haitian businessman who seemed to be in possession of the only working BlackBerry in the country and who could coordinate relief to the hardest-hit neighborhoods. It was with Pierre-Louis that Rose perfected the strategy of going directly to needy communities with the filtration systems, each of which involved a filter connected to a five-gallon bucket by a tube and an adapter. (Today, Waves for Water utilizes the same system, made by Sawyer Products, which contains a microfiber cartridge that can catch 99.9 percent of the common bacteria, protozoa, and cysts that cause things like cholera, botulism, typhoid, and dysentery. The filters don’t need to have their cartridges changed and can function for years.) “The difference between Waves for Water and a lot of large organizations is that when there’s a catastrophe, we don’t spend time in meetings,” Pierre-Louis told me. “In two days, we are on the ground and getting to the people who are really in need.”

Together, Rose and Pierre-Louis identified community leaders and taught them how to assemble and maintain the filter systems, to ensure that they would remain effective for years to come. This is how Waves for Water still operates today. “We remain small on purpose,” Rose told me, referring to the crisis-response teams, which rarely have more than four members. “The goal for any aid organization should be: have the least amount of international people and the most amount of nationals.”

Waves for Water is no megalith, but it’s having an impact. In eight years, Rose and his teams have distributed more than 150,000 filter systems in 44 countries, helping an estimated seven million people.

Though it’s difficult to find, there has been criticism of Rose’s go-with-anybody approach to aid work. Some people denigrate him for partnering with the U.S. military. “It’s taboo,” he said. “In the minds of some aid providers, they’re saving the world and the military is killing it.” Rose also isn’t opposed to teaming up with companies that many other nonprofits refuse to work with. “If a mining company is willing to throw down and millions of people are going to benefit, I’ll take it—I have an agenda, too.”

With the exception of Hurricane Sandy, Waves for Water hasn’t responded to any disasters in the United States, a decision that has also sparked disapproval. After deciding to sit out the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Rose had to issue a statement. “The last thing we want to be is an ‘ambulance-chaser’ type org,” he wrote. Additionally, Waves for Water filters were not effective against the heavy metals in Flint’s water, he noted, and fixing the problem—repairing contaminated pipes—was something that the U.S. government could address.

In the remotest corners of Puerto Rico, where help from FEMA was minimal, Waves for Water’s response, led by McQueen, has been textbook guerrilla humanitarianism—and incredibly effective. Last winter, months after the hurricanes and the media attention that came with them, Waves for Water teams and their networks continued to expand their efforts. In Puerto Rico alone, over 6,000 filters had been distributed to 78 communities. Another 1,700 filters had been implemented across the Caribbean islands, and donations, most of them from individuals, surpassed $620,000.

Rose, however, was not there. He and his girlfriend, Loriann Smoak, who works for a retail tech startup, were spending the final weeks of 2017 in Colorado before signing a lease on a place in Marin County, California. After eight years of working nearly every day, Rose was taking a sabbatical. He loved New York for the “energy of its hustle,” and I wondered if—and how—he could truly unplug living in the Bay Area. “That’s the cool thing,” he said, as if on cue. “From a business-development standpoint, it’s a market we haven’t even scratched yet.”

Andrew S. Lewis (@andrewscottlewis) is a writer in New Jersey. He wrote about Dutch engineer Boyan Slat in January 2017. Joe Pugliese is an Outside contributing photographer.

Three-Time World Champion Surfer Mick Fanning Retires

28 Feb

In November 2016, Mick Fanning, the three-time world champion surfer from Australia, who had spent the last two decades competing feverishly, was nowhere near Hawaii’s North Shore for the final leg of the world tour season. Instead, he was in Norway, at the tail end of a six-month sabbatical, sleeping in a tent and surfing a freezing, empty point-break under the aurora borealis. “I don’t think I’m well,” he joked to a filmer documenting the trip. “I can go anywhere in the world. But no, I come here.”

Recent signs, in other words, pointed to the 36-year-old's days on the WSL World Championship Tour being numbered. On Wednesday, he made it official. “I feel like I’ve just lost the drive to compete day-in and day-out,” Fanning said in a statement. “I’m just not enjoying it as much as I was in the past.” The second event of the 2018 season—the Rip Curl Pro, held at Bells Beach, Australia, between March 28 and April 8—will be his last.

Fanning burst onto the world stage in 2001, when he won the Bells event as a 19-year-old wildcard. His incredibly fast yet fluid style signaled a new era in pro surfing. Along with peers Joel Parkinson, Andy Irons, and Kelly Slater, Fanning melded classic power surfing with modern above-the-lip finesse, cutting against the conservative lines that had dominated competitive surfing in the 1990s. Not long after his win at Bells, Fanning, with his mop of natural bleach-white hair, was given a nickname by the media: “White Lightning.”

Despite his early dominance, Fanning didn’t achieve his life goal of becoming a world champion until 2007. His win followed a shift in his approach to competition. Fanning went from heavy partier—his other nickname, this one given by friends, was “Eugene,” for the Mick who came out after a few drinks—to fitness freak. He hired a full-time coach and committed to a grueling training regimen. The decision proved both effective and influential. Two more world titles—2009 and 2013—inspired yet another philosophical shift among his peers. Overnight, it seemed, every pro was lugging a coach and a fitness ball around the world.

Fanning’s incandescent career has not been without dark moments. In 1998, Fanning’s brother Sean, who was also an up-and-coming surfer, was killed in a car crash. While celebrating his second world title at a victory party in 2009, Fanning got into a verbal altercation with a surf journalist, reportedly calling him “a fucking Jew.” Fanning came under fire in Australia, where surfing is hugely popular and Fanning a high profile figure, and had to issue a public apology saying “I acknowledge that my decision to use words that were inappropriate...was misjudged and wrong. I don’t have or condone, any form of racist or, more particularly, anti-Semitic view.” In 2015, Fanning split with his wife, and later that year his other brother, Peter, passed away from natural causes.

But no moment in Fanning’s career could eclipse his run-in with a great white shark on live television, while competing in the final of the 2015 J-Bay Open, in South Africa. The encounter, in which Fanning was violently bumped but never bitten, is the first result that comes up on YouTube when searching “surfer shark attack.” It’s been viewed 5.2 million times. Fanning’s Wikipedia page even has a whole section devoted to the incident. For mainstream American television audiences, this was how they first came to know White Lightning.

As early as the end of the 2013 world tour season, Fanning had begun considering retirement, but 2015 proved to be the breaking point. His six-month hiatus from the competitive grind—which included the Norway trip, as well as the discovery of a new wave in an undisclosed location—proved to be just the salve he needed to officially hang up the jersey. “The tour has given me so much,” he wrote on Facebook today, “but I need a fresh challenge.”

So Long, Pipe Masters?

21 Feb

Since 1971, Pipeline, on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, has hosted men’s professional surfing’s most prestigious—and ultimate—contest of the year, the Pipe Masters. For athletes coming into the event low in the world tour ratings, Pipe is a last chance to secure a spot on the following season’s tour. For world title contenders, the event offers the chance for a career-defining performance in some of the most difficult and dangerous waves on the planet. “Pipe is our Madison Square Garden,” former world champion C.J. Hobgood says. “It’s what our sport is built around.”

But beginning in 2019, the Pipe Masters’ place as the Decider will be no more. Last summer, the World Surf League, the governing body of pro surfing, began planning a major scheduling overhaul for the men’s 2019 world tour—the most significant being the decision to switch the Pipe Masters from the season closer to its opener. To make that change, the WSL had to amend its annual permit application to the City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Parks and Recreation by November 9, 2017. Although the WSL filed applications for its six traditional North Shore events by that deadline, the league didn’t inform the department that it intended to move the event to February 2019 until December 13. The department rejected the WSL’s request, leading to a row between Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt.

According to a source familiar with the WSL’s negotiations, in the last several months of 2017, phone calls, emails, and other attempts at communication with Caldwell’s office went unanswered. Caldwell’s spokesperson, Andrew Pereira, disputes that. “I did respond to several text messages, I think some phone calls, emails to Jodi Wilmott [WSL Hawaii/Tahiti general manager] regarding this matter,” he told me.

Whether Goldschmidt directly communicated with any city and county official is unclear. On February 2, Goldschmidt traveled to Honolulu in an attempt to persuade officials to grant the WSL the permitting change for a February 2019 Pipe Masters. Goldschmidt arrived at the mayor’s office that same day, along with Wilmott and former world champion and Hawaiian Sunny Garcia. Pereira says that even though the city wasn’t aware the WSL representatives were coming, he and a Parks and Recreation official met with the group for “a good half-hour, maybe a little bit more, listening to their concerns.” Goldschmidt wanted to speak with Caldwell in person, but, Pereira says, the mayor was away at the time of her visit, testifying at the state capital.

Frustrated, Goldschmidt went to the press, threatening to pull all of the WSL’s Hawaiian events. “If we can’t get these minor administrative changes made,” she told the Honolulu Star Advertiser, “we won’t be able to come back in 2019, and if that happens, the likelihood is that we won’t be able to return for years.” Goldschmidt noted that while the WSL spends around $7 million annually on its Hawaiian events, generating about $20 million in economic impact, the state offers no funding in return. In response, Caldwell says he felt strong-armed by the WSL. “That’s not how we do business in Hawaii,” he says. “That isn’t pono [right].”

In the past, the WSL might have been more delicate when faced with an issue as serious as the potential loss of the Pipe Masters. But Goldschmidt, pro surfing’s first-ever female CEO, represents a new, bolder chapter in the league’s long—and yet to be fulfilled—journey to financial stability. The WSL has struggled to acquire and maintain lucrative sponsorships, mostly for the simple reason that broadcasting surfing events on live television is next to impossible. (Mother Nature brings the waves when she’s ready.) Goldschmidt, who came to the WSL last July after a career in the Rugby Football Union, Women’s Tennis Association, and the NBA, is now tasked with fixing this problem.

While a major overhaul of both the men’s and women’s world tours has been Goldschmidt’s most public accomplishment, there have also been changes internally, including to staffing, which one insider suggested to me may have contributed to the confusion over the North Shore’s surfing events permitting rules. “I don’t think [the WSL] has all the answers,” says Hobgood, who spent 17 years on the world tour and served in an advisory role as a surfers’ representative. “But it’s not financially sustainable to keep doing what they were doing.”

Almost two weeks after Goldschmidt’s visit, during a February 14 press conference to address the dispute, Caldwell, who has been the Honolulu mayor since 2013, seemed to be backing down. “My request to the World Surf League…is please don’t yank your contests,” he says. “We’ve heard your concerns, and we’d like to see what we can do to make it better in the future, but let’s not hurt folks in the short term.” To allay future conflicts, Caldwell called for the creation of an advisory committee to oversee the surfing events permitting process, which would include key players from Hawaii’s surf community and—potentially—amend the rules so that legacy surf competitions, like the Pipe Masters, would require a permit only every three years or so. Pereira also stressed to me that there is nothing stopping the WSL from holding the Pipe Masters during its traditional, end-of-season timeframe in December 2019. “We’re willing to fully work with them,” he says.

But Goldschmidt is holding her ground. The WSL declined to comment for this article, but in a press release on February 15, the WSL said it “will pursue alternative options to open the season next year.” As of now, there will be no Pipe Masters—“one of the best shows on Earth,” as Hobgood puts it—in 2019. Hobgood remains mixed about the WSL’s search for a new Madison Square Garden. “It is a letdown if the season doesn’t finish at Pipe,” he says. But “Sophie needs to just seize the opportunity,” he continues. “The old way’s not working, so change it up. What’s the worst thing that could happen—that this new strategy doesn’t work either?”