Imagine you and your friends could surf alone for an hour at one of the best surf spots on the planet, according to numerous lists: southern California’s Rincon, the Queen of the Coast. You deserve this, as favourable karma coming back because of the good you’ve done in the world.
That’s the idea behind the Rincon Invitational, organized annually by the Groundswell Society to recognize non-profit organizations, surf clubs and businesses for their public-service activities.
The event began eight years ago as the “Sharing the Stoke Invitational,” designed to promote a spirit of aloha in the surfing community. It’s an un-contest in which shared waves are scored higher than waves ridden alone.
Points are awarded for total waves ridden, total waves shared by one or more team members, and total number of surfers on the shared waves. Awards are also given for Best Wave and Team Spirit.
You might not be surfing alone, however, as non-participants are not excluded from the contest zone. In keeping with the spirit of the event, “playground monitors” help to keep things social. And dropping in on a free surfer carries a heavy penalty – ten waves subtracted from your team’s score.
The Rincon Invitational is held in the spring, a dicey time for surf conditions in southern California. Two years ago, I surfed Rincon for the first time as part of the San Diego Surf Ladies team.
My heart sank when I arrived at the beach and saw the tiny gutless waves, which were knee high at best. Adding insult, offshore rigs sheened the water with patches of oil, and sticky tar marred surfboards and wetsuits.
Yet the usual crowds stayed away, an upside to the lackluster conditions that maximized fun for party-waving participants, including my group.
Two of my teammates held hands as they rode longboards side by side, and another woman attempted a headstand on her surfboard. She didn’t pull it off, but the team cheered her anyway.
Partway through our hour, my internal frown had turned upside down and I was smiling, surprised at how much fun I was having riding little waves with my friends. We were all surfing with a true spirit of aloha, sharing and giving.
This year offered better surf for both days of the Invitational, with right-breaking peelers that were up to head-high.
Twenty-one teams were invited to participate, in recognition of their efforts to support nonprofit organizations like SurfAid and the Autism Society, and causes such as beach cleanups, village water purification, and special-needs children.
Participants found much to enjoy about the unusual event. Nicole Dodson, president of the San Diego Surf Ladies, enjoyed seeing the diversity of the clubs. Surfrider team member Bill Hickman said, “It was great to be able to surf a spot with nice friends that I rarely go to because it’s usually so crowded when good.”
For one of the organizers, Glenn Hening, the best moment of the event was Saturday afternoon, when the Best Day Foundation shared the water with California Adaptive Surf.
“Imagine a sunny Saturday afternoon,” he said, “Rincon, 3-5’ with bigger sets, and no one in the water except volunteers from an organization that brings challenged children to the beach – and guys who came down the trail in wheelchairs and were riding wave after wave! Now that was a singular moment that I will never forget.”
One of my San Diego Surf Ladies teammates, Susan Fosselman, agreed that watching the Best Day Foundation team was a particular highlight. “I saw a disabled man on a modified board wipe out,” she said.
“There were folks nearby waiting to rescue him, but the guy gave the ‘I’m OK’ signal. He struggled for quite some time to get back on the board. It was hard to watch in a way, but it was also inspirational to see how badly some people want to surf, even if they can’t stand up and can barely get on a board.
He finally righted himself and then he paddled back out and caught another wave. Seeing that was very moving.” The judges were also moved, recognizing the California Adaptive Surf Team with a Team Spirit award.
The San Diego Surf Ladies also received a Team Spirit award, for a heartfelt effort in the most challenging conditions of the day, which included a low tide, winds messing up the wave shape, and experienced local free-surfers in the lineup.
Team member Eva Thorn explained that, like some of her teammates, she has “never been the charger personality that paddles deep to get the wave if it’s crowded.” With the harsh penalty for dropping in on nonparticipants, this meant letting some waves go by after they were claimed by free surfers taking off closer to the main peak. Offering another reason for surfing with aloha instead of aggression, Thorn noted that “I still have all my teeth after 20 years of surfing.”
But again, this was not a contest, as Hening reminded me. Competition was not the point – it was all about sharing the stoke. And the event also raised almost four thousand dollars for the Rincon Enhancement Project, which will provide family-friendly and disabled access to one of the best waves in the world.
Shaun Tomson and Joe Flynn, surfing on the Surfrider Advisory Board team, weaved down the line to earn the Best Wave award. The Rincon Surfing Association claimed top honors for Total Waves and for setting a positive tone at their home break, sharing the award with the team from Project Save Our Waves.
First place in Sharing Surfers went to Third World Surf Company for tandem rides with children, and to the Santa Barbara Surf Club.
Shared Waves highest honors were awarded to the Malibu Surfing Association, which had seven surfers on one wave, and Surf Happens, a team of groms that showed surfing’s promise for the future. Still, for Hening, there could be “no greater award than the smiles and stoke that filled our weekend at one of the world’s best waves.”
The Rincon Invitational is truly a unique and uplifting event, an un-contest at an iconic wave that is big on sharing, giving, and a spirit of aloha, without the usual competition and necessary aggressiveness of a typical surf contest.
San Diego Surf Ladies team member Hilary Britten planned to carry away the spirit of the event. “We should always be looking for ways to share the stoke – in and out of the water!”