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Waving In the Wet Set

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As a sold-out swarm of 900 surfers, environmental supporters and their friends descend upon the grounds of the tony Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dana Point tonight to schmooze, rage and raise thousands of dollars for the ocean’s health, Susan Crank can finally exhale a sigh of relief.

Whether she does or not, of course, remains to be seen.

As this year’s president of the group responsible for planning the annual Waterman’s Ball--among the nation’s most significant environmental fund-raisers in terms of donations and profile--Crank is still wishing she could have accommodated the other 150 requests from friends and associates who waited too long to secure their $175 entry to the gala.

Hosted by the Environmental Fund arm of the Dana Point-based Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn. (SIMA), the Waterman’s Ball is also among the key social events in the surf community. Office uniforms of T-shirts and shorts are exchanged for party formal wear. Peers are honored. And business and pleasure mix swimmingly.

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So well, in fact, that the ball, which began nine years ago as a way to unite players in the surf industry, has grown threefold and now includes lawyers, record executives, real estate brokers, CPAs and magazine representatives on the invitation list. Their presence is as much about their environmental interests (many of them surf) as it is about networking with current and prospective clients.

That’s fine with Crank. Their support will help raise the more than $200,000 she expects, for a combined excess of $1 million since the first ball.

This year’s beneficiaries are the Orange County Marine Institute, which teaches schoolchildren about the ocean ecosystem; the Surfrider Foundation, a San Clemente-based beach conservation and advocacy group; the American Ocean’s Campaign, a lobbying group pushing for legislation to standardize beach water quality monitoring on a national basis; and the Hidden Harbor Marine Environmental Project Inc., a Florida-based sea turtle rescue center.

Crank has spearheaded a ball that balances its growing size and role with its original spirit of camaraderie and warmth, say board members and volunteers, who have invested thousands of hours to ensure its success. (So humble is Crank about her contribution, however, that she cringes at her peers’ praise of her efforts.)

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“So many people are now interested in the coastal environment for a number of reasons,” Crank said Wednesday from her Anaheim-based company, Lunada Bay, a design house that licenses swimwear for Mossimo, GirlStar and XOXO. “This is a fun way of showing their support.”

Greeted at the entrance by traditional Hawaiian musicians and dancers, guests will be treated to live music, dinner, a goodie bag and a silent auction--as well as all the dancing, partying, gossiping and networking they can muster.

Attendees have also become highly competitive in the fashion department: Gone are the tuxedo short pants and thongs and in is a tasteful mishmash of high-end designer duds and flashy vintage-wear.

The fun factor, though, took a few hits in the last two years, tarnishing the ball’s standing among many of its longtime attendees. After balls hosted under the stars at the California Scenario (Noguchi Gardens) in Costa Mesa and atop Pelican Hill in Newport Beach, last year the party went underground in a Costa Mesa hotel’s subterranean ballroom. Guests complained about the location, the food and seating arrangements that forced them to eat with co-workers and the boss. In the past, buffet-style stations and open seating allowed for greater socializing and a looser vibe. That--and a way to address an environmental issue that could affect their way of life--inspired the first Waterman’s Ball in 1990, said its founder, Gotcha president Michael Tomson.

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“In the beginning, it was a little more than this industry get-together. We put a lot of work into the aesthetics of the event, decorating it really heavily and sending out these really trippy invites,” recalled Tomson, also a former SIMA board president.

Though the first ball was actually held indoors at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel, he believes an intimacy flavored those early balls that has since faded as attendance has swelled.

Others in the surf industry have griped about the rising ticket price, which was raised $25 this year. Who was going and who wasn’t dominated the buzz among the 1,000-plus folks at another formal event this week, Surfer magazine’s 26th annual Reader’s Poll Awards at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana on Wednesday.

Nearly all companies are paying for fewer employees to attend. Spouses were counted out. And many designers, marketing planners and sales representatives who’d shelled out in the past opted not to this time around.

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“It’s a rip-off,” charged one designer, requesting anonymity. She and other dissenters plan to throw an “anti-ball” at a local bar. Joining them, they say, are athletes in town this week for the Op Pro surf contest in Huntington Beach who found the ticket price too steep--or simply couldn’t score a ticket to the sold-out fete.

But the ball is not an after-party to the surf contests, emphasized Tomson: “This is a fund-raiser for some very good causes. It has to be expensive and exclusive because its goal is to raise money. I’m very proud of how it’s helped the environment.”

Michael Marckx, associate publisher at Surfing magazine and a ball board member, said, “We sell out every year and right on schedule. And we’ve worked hard to kick up the complexion of the event this year a notch.”

For starters, open seating is back. Then there’s the setting, the Ritz-Carlton, which offers a view of a cherished surf break.

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The new digs means the ticket price barely covers the event expenses, said Crank. She spent four weekends earlier this summer hunting for a florist who would provide services for free. Proceeds will be generated by a silent auction and from advertising sales in a calendar planner. This year, the calendar’s ads brought in $150,000. The silent auction, offering everything from surfing memorabilia to walk-on parts on hit TV shows, is expected to bring in $90,000.

Among the retailers, fabric mills, financial institutions and manufacturers hawking their wares and services in the calendar--at $3,500 to $14,000 a pop--are accounting firms Deloitte & Touche LLP and Moss Adams LLP.

“We usually buy a table and advertise in the planner because it’s good for the firm,” said Chris Schmidt, managing partner in the Costa Mesa office of Moss Adams, whose clients include local active-wear companies. He also provides pro bono tax and financial work for the SIMA Environmental Fund, as do many attorneys and other professionals.

But the “suits,” as surfers call them, attend the ball for more than business or charity reasons. John Virtue, a Laguna Beach-based commercial real estate broker who surfs and counts many surf company owners among his pals and clients, offered his thoughts.

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“I’ve always been a little jealous of their jobs and lifestyle,” said Virtue, who will make his fifth appearance with his wife, Becky, at tonight’s ball. “If I can’t live it, I might as well join them in celebrating on behalf of a good cause.”


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