Surf Veterans Create Business for Profit and Cleaner Water


For graying surfers Glenn Hening and John Van Hamersveld, the endless summer has given way to the winter of discontent.

Their home waves off Malibu beach are almost as crowded as the freeways, and the perils of riding them now include not just the dreaded wipeout, but the risk of infection from polluted water.

But instead of simply bemoaning what has happened to the waves, Hening and Van Hamersveld are doing something about it. They have formed an information and licensing company, Geo Surf, which they hope will provide common ground for surfers, environmentalists, makers of wet suits, developers and everyone else with an interest in the state of the waves and beaches. A portion of any money the company makes, the men say, will be used for projects to enhance coastal health.

Cowabunga! Corporate surfer activists? Yes, indeed, say Hening and Van Hamersveld, who believe surfers are in a unique position to appreciate that the waves and beaches constitute an endangered natural resource. They see their company as evidence that surfing is growing up, looking beyond the perfect wave for practical solutions to the pollution, overdevelopment and other complex problems that threaten the pastime they love.

"Because we're surfers, people aren't going to expect this from us," said Hening, 38, a former competitive surfer who wrote computer code for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and now does curriculum development for the Oxnard Union High School District. As founder of the Surfrider Foundation in 1984, Hening was one of the first to realize that the world's estimated 3 to 4 million surfers constitute more than a market for boards and sunscreen.

Personally, Hening said, he wanted to be proud, instead of embarrassed, to say that he was a surfer. Other surfers, too, he felt, needed an outlet for their mature, even educated concerns about the environment in which they play.. Today the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation has 5,000 members and a full-time staff. The Huntington Beach-based foundation takes legal and other action to protect surf spots, water quality and coastal access.

Hening has experienced surfing as an obsession--in the 1970s, he lived on a beach in El Salvador, making and selling peanut butter to support his wave-riding habit. Van Hamersveld, too, invested large chunks of his youth in obsessively riding the waves off Palos Verdes Cove with board maker Phil Becker and others who would become surfing legends.

A graphic designer, Van Hamersveld, 48, created one of the genuine icons of the surfing craze in 1964--the Day-Glo poster for Bruce Brown's movie "The Endless Summer" that is now in the permanent design collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps best known as the designer of album covers for the Beatles ("Magical Mystery Tour"), the Rolling Stones and other rockers, he also created trademarks for the beach-influenced sportswear lines, GOTCHA and Jimmy'Z.

A major difference between Geo Surf and the Surfrider Foundation, the men say, is that the new venture is a business.

"We're taking a corporate approach," said Hening.

The first venture of the new company, still in the process of being incorporated, will involve packaging and disseminating information, according to its founders. Its first "product" will be a Geo Surf symposium, to be held in July on the campus of Pepperdine University.

The symposium is designed to bring together all the major groups with a personal or commercial interest in the surf, Hening said. The conference, which its creators hope will become an annual event, will allow participants to "share and acquire new knowledge concerning the issues, the science and the magic of waves and beaches," according to a conference brochure.

Hening said that he hopes the conference will allow for "the mature exchange of ideas" among all the groups that need the beaches.

"We're not saying the lion will lay down with the lamb, but we're very interested in seeing professional surfers in the same room as real-estate developers," he said.

Geo Surf is not categorically anti-development, according to Hening. He sees the company's willingness to give a hearing to all groups with an interest in the surf, including businesses, as evidence of its maturity and of his own. (He used to be appalled, he recalled, at any attempt to commercialize surfing, which he saw as essentially a spiritual activity.)

Van Hamersveld has designed a red and blue logo for Geo Surf, which the men are registering as a trademark.

Eventually, they plan to license the name and logo. Van Hamersveld said his experiences with "The Endless Summer," GOTCHA and Jimmy'Z have persuaded him of the commercial power of surf-related licensing. The Geo Surf imprint, for example, might appear on a TV project, a film or on more conventional products, such as sunscreen, he said.

There are other possibilities: Geo Surf might serve as a consultant to companies that want to tap into the surfer market. It may also market a computerized surf information service.

The founders say that at least half of the profits from such ventures will be plowed back into pro-surfing projects, such as building artificial reefs or blocking development that would harm existing surf spots. Van Hamersveld said he especially likes the idea of raising money for good works through the sale of products that are beneficial and allow "consumers to support environmental causes in a direct way."

One immediate goal of Geo Surf is a selfish one: to save the men's own surf spot, off Malibu's Surfrider Beach. Over the years, both men continued to be passionate surfers, despite occasionally being treated like old coots as they queue up to surf traffic-jammed Third Point.

But two years ago, Van Hamersveld had to give up the sport because he began to have skin eruptions after surfing, caused, his physician advised him, by viruses in the water. Although he continues to surf, Hening, too, is appalled by the water quality off Surfrider, especially since it became his 4-year-old daughter's surf spot.

Surfrider is especially unsavory whenever water from Malibu Lagoon, polluted by sewage and bird droppings, is flushed into the sea by acts of man or nature. This occurs after high tides, heavy rains or the intervention of a Department of Parks and Recreation bulldozer, which regularly cuts a channel between the lagoon and the ocean to keep Malibu Colony septic tanks from backing up.

"Malibu: The Microcosm for the Future of Surfing" is prominently featured on the program of the upcoming Geo Surf convention. As a first small step toward improving Surfrider, the men believe the surf-using public should be informed of lagoon bacteria counts and bulldozer arrival times. "We've got a real personal stake in this," Hening said. But beyond that, he believes Malibu could serve as an attention-getting case study of how a troubled beach can be turned around.

"This is a very good place to set an example," he said.

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