The Steward of Stoke

Jim Benning's last article for the magazine was a profile of wave forecaster Sean Collins

To Pierce Flynn, for whom surfing is nothing less than a form of prayer, the rise overlooking Trestles is sacred. Early most mornings, he pedals through empty San Clemente streets, surfboard riding shotgun on his mountain bike, to this bluff above one of California's most popular surf spots. On days with curling waves, he'll cruise down the dirt trail, tug on his wet suit, paddle out and picture in the distance the big change about to unfold here. Soon, despite the intense lobbying of Flynn and his flock at the Surfrider Foundation, the Marine Corps will build housing on this chunk of coast within Camp Pendleton. "Our kids won't be able to look down and see the waves breaking," Flynn says. "It's sad."

In Flynn's world, the act of surfing is linked to the battle to preserve beach access, clean ocean water and unspoiled coastlines. Waves, this mellow Southern California native will tell you, deserve the same protective status as gnatcatchers and condors. To promote this agenda, Surfrider practices a brand of environmentalism that Flynn calls "surfer-bohemian-hip." It's a term that also describes Flynn--a tan, youthful 44-year-old PhD who thwacks around the small nonprofit's San Clemente headquarters in flip-flops and counts among his passions Zen and traveling by plane, boat and skiff to hell-and-gone surf breaks around the world.

These days, Surfrider is riding a swell into the mainstream, and Flynn is out front on the nose. Propelled by recent victories against polluters, Surfrider, now going on 15, has won the attention of many government and industrial leaders on the both coasts. Despite having taken some media hits for playing loose with the facts, Flynn has delivered Surfrider's gospel to America's masses. He has courted the support of--and surfed with--such recording artists as Chris Isaak and Eddie Vedder. Pearl Jam's front man donated cash as well as tracks for one of the CDs that Flynn co-produced as fund-raisers. And Flynn helped smooth-talk MTV into airing a short video that coolly spelled out Surfrider's causes.

All this hype has fueled a hint of fear that the organization is straying from its core, surf-inspired mission. But even the grumblers concede that Flynn is a charismatic, brainy, media-savvy leader, equally at home in the boardroom and on the ocean. Put him in front of a TV camera and he really turns it on. Says Steve Barilotti, a Surfrider member who writes a monthly column about the environment for Surfer magazine: "He's the master of the sound bite."

Surfrider's headquarters consumes part of the second floor of a rustic three-story office building about a mile from the San Clemente shoreline. A stack of surf magazines teeters near the front door. Hanging surfboards cover one wall. Flynn, who moved around as a kid, living with his doctor parents in Westwood, Redlands and San Bernardino, recalls how he got to Surfrider in 1992. The organization had just won a major settlement from two Humboldt County pulp mill operators that had been dumping millions of gallons of untreated waste into the ocean each day. The group tapped Flynn, then a communications consultant, in part to relieve internal squabbling over how to spend a $300,000 windfall in legal fees from the settlement. He loved it. "I thought, this is a real good vehicle for me," he recalls. "I can serve and give back. It was very meaningful."

Drawing on his background in media relations and academia--he has a doctorate in ethno-methodology, or the study of knowledge, from UC San Diego--Flynn made friends quickly. In three years, he made the leap from communications manager to executive director, which pays $65,000 a year, learning about the ocean as he went. He met his fiancee, coastal scientist Melissa Gordon, at a meeting in Washington, D.C.; their wedding is next Sunday.

Flynn spends much of his time talking on the telephone to Surfrider constituents, discussing policy with board members and brainstorming PR schemes with record producers and entertainers. (His Rolodex includes Woody Harrelson and Tom Hanks.) In the afternoon, he might meet with a geographer or an oceanographer for a briefing on a coastal issues, then finalize a grant application. Flynn moves easily from the role of inspirational leader to stoked surfer. "We want to reinvent democracy," he'll say one minute. Then, the next: "We receive so many bitchin' letters."

Flynn wants the organization to become more sophisticated. "We're probably coming into young adulthood from adolescence," he says. "I'm trying to be a maturing agent." His goals include adding to the membership of 25,000 and finding ways to make the chapters more self-reliant. "We've been reactive, putting out environmental fires," he says. "Now we need to look ahead."

While organizations such as the American Oceans Campaign and the Center for Marine Conservation focus on a broad array of issues involving the ocean, Surfrider homes in on the coastal zone, a narrow strip that begins 10 miles inland and extends three miles to sea. Its tactics are decidedly nonmilitant.

Since winning the second-largest settlement in history in Humboldt County, under the federal Clean Water Act, Surfrider has kept up the heat. Its lobbying efforts led to a finding from the California Coastal Commission that a rock groin built by Chevron Corp. in El Segundo had damaged the surf break. For the first time, some say, the government has recognized waves as a natural resource. All of this has been accomplished without loads of money, on an annual operating budget of about $1 million. Flynn attributes the organization's impact to its nearly 40 grass-roots chapters--small but devoted bands in the United States and abroad that pick up trash, test ocean water for contaminants and fight developments they deem harmful. Of Surfrider's membership, a "gnarly" 10%, including lawyers and scientists, are hard-core volunteers; the remainder are less active supporters.

But Surfrider has failed to stop development of the bluff overlooking Trestles, a popular surf spot near San Clemente. Citing a housing shortage, the Marines in 1996 announced plans to build more than 100 units for junior officers on the Camp Pendleton site. Surfrider filed suit to kill the project, arguing that it would damage wetlands. Flynn repeatedly described the area as "the Yosemite of surfing." Although the California Coastal Commission first sided with the surfers, it reversed itself, finding that the Marines had satisfied state environmental requirements and had explored alternative locations. Surfrider concedes that its appeal also may fail.

Flynn has a knack for enlisting the aid of rock stars. Besides Vedder and Isaak, dozens have contributed to two Surfrider benefit albums. Over the years, he has surfed with Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction and Beach Boys member Bruce Johnston. When Pearl Jam rolled into San Diego several years ago, Flynn paddled out at Pacific Beach with Vedder, who would eventually give more than $50,000 to Surfrider. Over breakfast later, "we just brainstormed about how we could affect popular culture," Flynn says. "We plotted out the 'MOM' albums."

"MOM," or "Music for Our Mother Ocean," is the title of two albums that since 1996 have raised nearly $400,000 for Surfrider. A third is in the works. Help on those projects also came from another Flynn surfing buddy: Surfdog Records owner Dave Kaplan. The San Diego producer often has joined Flynn on trips to meet with musicians. "It's very difficult for an outsider who hasn't been around music to be comfortable speaking to musicians," Kaplan says. Not so with Flynn. When the Surfrider leader made his pitch to the musicians, Kaplan recalls, "it was almost a slam dunk. He's oozing with spirituality and goodness."

Surfrider's rock 'n' roll approach to coastal activism has won the organization many fans, including Sierra Club board member and former president Adam Werbach, who complains that environmentalism is frequently a grim practice. But Surfrider, he says, knows how to have fun. "It's lively, full of music and kick-ass," he says. And sometimes, as Werbach learned, it can be dangerous. After paddling into big surf with Flynn and other members at a rally in support of the Clean Water Act a while back, the beginning surfer insisted on catching a wave--against Flynn's advice. Werbach wiped out badly and washed onto the sand with a bloody nose. "It was one of the best days of my life," Werbach recalls, laughing. "I joined Surfrider the next day."

But as Surfrider becomes more accessible to the mainstream, it has left some members wary. Founder Glenn Hening says Surfrider is backsliding from its original purpose. "The idea was to really say something serious about the values of serious surfing as it benefits our society," he says. Hening wanted to introduce surfing to inner-city children. But with the passing of time, he says, the group has become less concerned with riding waves.

Hening was particularly annoyed recently when Surfrider's 15-member board of directors voted to remove a line in the group's mission statement calling for the "enhancement" of surfing spots, which could mean using sand bags to create new wave breaks. Some in the group felt the move contradicted the group's goal of preserving wild beaches. Flynn believes that more research needs to be done. Hening's mind is made up. He still supports Surfrider--he recently helped raise $7,000 for the Santa Barbara and Ventura chapters. But to him, the vote exemplified Surfrider's push toward the mainstream.

Flynn shrugs off the criticism. He's used to hearing complaints about the group's vision and educational materials. Some observers say Surfrider at times overstates health threats posed to swimmers and surfers. And Surfer magazine recently chided Surfrider over a press release calling the embattled Trestles one of the 10 best surfing spots in the world. "I guess that is a relative call," Flynn says. "We don't say we're perfect, but we're working to be perfect."

The group's commitment to protecting and restoring beaches is stronger than ever, Flynn says. Surfrider's Blue Water Task Force program, which includes storm-drain stenciling to warn people against dumping pollutants, as well as water testing to monitor quality, has been widely praised. Republican Congressman Brian P. Bilbray of San Diego recently co-authored a bill to establish a national ocean-water quality standard, which, he says, was inspired partly by Surfrider's activism. And the group is documenting physical characteristics of beaches around the country to help gauge changes along coastlines. "This is a first-of-its-kind grass-roots beach-mapping program," Flynn says. "We're arming the volunteers."

Flynn, as part of that effort, is developing a program to teach the volunteers skills such as campaign planning, media relations and fund-raising. The program will lead to a greater show of force around the country, Flynn says. "These people are getting positively politicized."

Another Flynn goal, doubling Surfrider's membership over the next few years, might be hard to achieve. The surfer-bohemian mind set is antithetical to joining, some argue. "We used to joke that trying to organize surfers is like trying to herd cats," chuckles former board member Ward Smith. Flynn says that although that may be true, Surfrider will sign up anyone who enjoys swimming at their local beach--or even carving up epic waves faraway, as he did recently. He looks across his desk and grins.

"Did you see it?" he asks, referring to a photograph of him in the curl of a Fijian wave on Surfrider's Web site, "That was the best barrel I've had in my life. I free-fell down the face and pulled into the pipe," he says. He gestures wildly, forming wave shapes with his hands, struggling to describe the indescribable. "I remember the sound, the vortex. It was an awesome experience. I close my eyes and can feel the thing."

Flynn leans back in his chair and shuts his eyes. "The longer you live, the more you realize that a [good] swell is a very rare and precious thing," he says. "You don't want to miss that."

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