Waves are generally flat or small in Southern California during the summer months, as surfers await the pulses from Southern Hemisphere storms that start pumping in September, but the surf industry never slows down, and the premiere event of the hot months is a fundraiser called Waterman’s. I went to the first Waterman’s 29 years ago as an after-work gathering one night, back when I worked at Powder, which was part of Surfer Publications, and what started as an almost ad hoc effort has become a critically important engine to raise money for ocean causes.

To wit: Since that first little cocktail party, Waterman’s has raised $8 million dollars, which it gives to beneficiaries like Surfrider Foundation.

The 2018 edition of Waterman’s was held at the Ranch in Laguna Beach, where it’s been for the last four years, after being at the Ritz Carlton on the bluff above well-known OC surf break, Salt Creek, for a couple decades. The Ranch is located near the mouth of Aliso Canyon—the beach there features a pounding shorebreak frequented by skimboarders, while the upper part of the canyon leads to some of the best trail running and mountain biking singletrack in the area (frequently almost daily by yours truly).

Waterman’s is both a celebration of surfing culture and a rallying cry to protection the oceans from climate change, pollution, and development. Here are a few notes from this year’s event:

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• Let’s start with the thing that can’t be ignored: Surf industry people are gorgeous. Back when the event was held at the Ritz, Joni and I were sipping coffee in the cafe the morning after when a couple visitors from out of town walked past. “Was there a Hollywood premiere here last night? Cause I’ve never seen more beautiful people in one place.” At Waterman’s, the women are stunning, the men are studs, and almost everyone brings it with style. The dress is “beach formal,” which means pretty much anything you can imagine wearing. For women, that was translated in lots of long, flowing, summery dresses, jumpsuits, or wide-legged pants; for men, floral is expressed in everything from sport coats to full-on tropical-themed suits. It’s like the Met Gala South Pacific style.

• Speaking of wild outfits, the biggest peacock in the surf industry is Fernando Aguerre, who made his fortune as a founder of Reef sandals and now devotes his time to promoting the sport he loves. Aguerre was the driving force behind the effort to get surfing into the Olympics, and with the sport in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and a contingent from the Japanese committee on hand at Waterman’s, it was only appropriate that he wore a kimono for the night—though its subdued black and white pattern seemed disappointedly low-key for a man who can pull off Elton John-level flamboyance.

• Kelly Slater was there. The 11-time world champion’s presence always adds an extra note of royalty to the night.

• Funds are raised through ticket sales ($400 to $500 a seat), a silent auction, and live auction. During the live auction, with bidding for a gorgeous 10-foot Danny Hess gun, Slater went head to head another bidder, eventually helping drive the price up to $10,000 before bowing out.

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• The Waterman’s night is constructed around honoring luminaries with three awards: Environmentalist of the Year, Lifetime Achievement, and Waterman of the Year. On Saturday, those were Doug Tompkins and Kris McDivitt Tompkins, Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, and Dirk Ziff and Natasha Ziff of the World Surf League.

• Rabbit’s acceptance speech went on…and on, but it was endlessly entertaining. The 1978 world champ from Coolangatta, Australia, had stories for days, and mostly used his time on stage to thank and recognize the people who helped and inspired him. His charm stood in contrast to Dirk Ziff, a billionaire who purchased surfing’s professional competition circuit six years ago and who used his time on stage to attack critics of the WSL—a discordant tone for a night devoted to celebration and environmentalism. Just as he was addressing “haters,” his mic went dead—they take their 10 p.m. noise curfew seriously at the Ranch. “Dude was totally cut off,” I heard from two guys in conversation on the way out, “but he can blame Rabbit.” “Yeah, but Rabbit’s stories were awesome. I could have listened to him all night.”

• At times Waterman’s, like so many such events, can feel self-congratulatory. Lost in this year’s event (though noted in the program) are the beneficiaries of all that largess. This year, 15 environmental groups will receive funds:

5 Gyres Institute
Assateague Coastal Trust
Clean Ocean Action
Environmental Defense Center
Heal the Bay
North Shore Community Land Trust
Ocean Institute
Orange County Coastkeeper
Santa Barbara Channelkeeper
Save the Waves
Surfers Against Sewage
Surfing Education Association
Surfrider Foundation
Wildcoast
Wishtoyo Foundation

• One of the country’s least heralded environmental heroes is Paul Naude, who ran Billabong’s US division for many years and then launched his own surfer brand, Vissla. As head of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association Environmental Fund, Naude is the major force behind Waterman’s. He isn’t the only one, but his status in the industry opens doors and checkbooks. He cajoles, arm-twists, and works the partnerships that make the event what it is. (Example: Audi donates at vehicle for the live auction every year.) Beyond his time, though, Naude is generous with his fortune: Whether it’s the Waterman’s underwriting party or the live auction, Naude puts many tens of thousands of his own into the kitty.

• An Audi S3 e-tron that retails for $47,000 was sold at the live auction for under $40,000. Wait, what? A vehicle that gets 85 mpg combined goes for $8,000 below market and is tax deductible?

• Kelly Slater’s man-made wave machine, which we covered in Adventure Journal 09, is the hottest ticket in town. At the live auction, an exclusive day at his Surf Ranch (not to be confused with the Ranch where the Waterman’s was held) for you and nine friends went for $40,000—and three high bidders each won a day at the Surf Ranch, raising $120,000 for ocean causes in one swoop.

• Slater had the best line of the night. When he was talking about the development of the wave machine, which is located in California’s dry and dusty Central Valley, he shared how the first time he surfed the wave, “I flew from Fiji to surf in Fresno.”

• The coolest element of the silent auction is the wall of art curated by Will Pennartz, who founded and ran the Surf Gallery in Laguna for many years and now works in marketing for Danner boots. This year’s art included a nice mixed-media piece by Thomas Campbell, photography by Art Brewer, and a typography print by genius Jeff Canham. Joni and I are passionate about outdoor and surf art, and because pieces will often go below market rates, and because it’s for charity, we feel good about bidding. The last couple of years, though, the starting prices were kinda high and so we ended up skunked. This year, the pricing was more reasonable and we bid on three pieces, not really expected to win any of them…and certainly not winning all three as we did. Yikes!

• Our American Express balance isn’t happy, but our walls are, as we got two Matthew Allen prints and an Aaron Draplin.

• The art is a fun personal highlight, but the emotional highlight is always the Environmentalist of the Year award. Waterman’s has selected both worthy and head-scratching environmentalists, from Ted Danson to Dave Rastovich to Eddie Vedder (whose acceptance speech was amazing), but this year’s honorees belong in the pantheon of environmentalists: Doug and Kris Tompkins. Doug, as you probably know, was the founder of the North Face who passed away in a kayaking accident in 2015, but Kris, who was CEO of Patagonia, has continued the couple’s work preserving land in South American and fighting development in untouched Patagonia. Together, they are credited with preserving more land than any other private individuals.

• Rabbit Bartholomew may have had the most words, but Tompkins had the most inspiring and I would argue the most important: “The daily onslaught of industry and converting wild nature to production, everything we can do as fast as we do it is never enough, and I think you know this, but you have to live this,” she said. “We’re in a race. We are working with a sense of urgency, and I think SIMA and many of you are. It’s almost impossible to get ahead of this runaway train, but this is what it’s going to take. We have to protect the masterpieces of this territory, the nursery of the seas, the true course of a river, the cry of the hawk, and the gravely, pulsating, guttural warning of our beloved jaguars, this you have to fight for…May the soulfulness that you bring to your sport drive you to get out of bed every bloody day and do something that nothing to do with yourself and fight for the things that are wild, that are beloved and that are irreplaceable. Thank you very much.”

For a full gallery from Waterman’s, visit Shop-Eat-Surf.