A Peace Corps for surfers
POSTED: Thursday, May 07, 2009
When Jafar Alam, a surfer from Bangladesh, landed in Honolulu last week, he was immediately enthralled. But not by the scenery or the waves.
THIRD ANNUAL FREEDOM SURF CONTEST
» Where: Kuhio Beach
» When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. tomorrow
» Cost: Free
» Info: www.hsblinks.com/9f
Surfing The Nations
It was the Kapahulu Safeway that most impressed him.
"I couldn't believe it!" he said in heavily accented English. "Everything is there. Even chicken!"
Alam is one of the estimated 250 to 300 surfers competing in the third annual Freedom Surf Contest tomorrow at Kuhio Beach. Surfing the Nations, a Christian nonprofit group focused on keeping surfers drug-free and mobilizing them to give back to the community, is presenting the event. The organization's clean message is evident in the family activities (music, tug of war, relays, etc.) that will accompany the professionally run contest that marks the beginning of the summer surfing season on Oahu's South Shore.
Tom Bauer, director of Surfing the Nations, says the mission of his organization is to share Hawaii's gift—the most positive, eco-friendly, responsible, community-oriented side of surfing—with the world. This involves taking the lifestyle sport to places where it is not yet popular. In fact, Bauer has identified 182 nations and territories that are "surfable," but whose residents might not know it yet. Recently, he organized the first surf contest (to his knowledge) in Egypt.
Started in 1997 by Tom Bauer and his wife, Cindy Bauer, Surfing the Nations recently moved from its longtime Kalihi base to Wahiawa, where it now inhabits the former Top Hat Bar. Inside the new headquarters, a broken surfboard Tom found on the North Shore earlier that day leans against a pillar; the rest of the open space is in a partially finished state of disarray. But it possesses enormous potential for the community center that Bauer envisions.
"Our whole motto is 'surfers giving back,'" he says from one of the tired couches. Bauer, a longtime surfer who admits his drug-free message came after some experience on the other side of that ideal, now leads an organization that is one of the largest private contributors of Hawaii Foodbank supplies, serving approximately 3,000 people each week. On occasion they host barbecues and events for the homeless population or working poor. They also train surfers for community service and Christian outreach, traveling to locations such as Israel, Hong Kong, China and Sri Lanka (which has a representative in tomorrow's contest). On the road they always bring donations of clothing and used surf equipment to encourage participation. Bauer likens the effort to a Peace Corps for surfers.
"It's not surfers reaching out to surfers," he says. "It's surfers giving back to the community."
It was on one of those trips that Bauer discovered Alam trying to ride a 5-foot-8-inch board with no wax or leash. Alam, now 27, is a lifeguard at Cox's Bazar, the world's longest beach, which stretches unbroken for more than 77 miles and is listed as one of the new seven Wonders of the World. While on that beach in the mid-'90s, Alam saw an Australian surfer riding waves and thought, "How is possible?" He had to try.
Alam offered the equivalent of about $15 in his local currency for the board. That didn't work. But he persevered, and eventually got damaged goods and zero tips for how to use them (he was the first surfer in Bangladesh, so mentors did not exist)—until Bauer showed up in 2001.
With wax, a leash and few instructions, Alam's skill improved rapidly. He began traveling with Bauer, and eventually returned to Bangladesh to lead a surf school. Now 40 youngsters are adopting the sport and its drug-free, humanitarian message. On land some of their activities include providing food to Burmese refugees.
In addition to plenty of time on the North Shore, Alam's two-month stay in Honolulu will encompass training to polish his mentoring skills. Some of the proceeds from the Freedom Surf Contest will go toward Alam's surf club in Bangladesh.
"This is to get the average kid involved in surfing," adds Bauer.
Though he acknowledges the unfortunate reputation that has occasionally stained the sport of surfing in the past, he believes the positive elements far outweigh everything else.
"So many kids say that surfing has saved their lives."
The grass-roots effort of Surfing the Nations relies on word of mouth and donations, but mostly they count on people stepping up to volunteer.
"We want people to get emotionally involved," says Bauer. "When we go to these places, we invest in the kids' lives."