If surfing has caught a new philanthropic wave, Shaun Tomson is riding right on top of it.
The surfer stereotype — a self-indulgent, unemployed dude living in a Volkswagen bus emblazoned with peace signs — is outdated, Tomson insists.
"The surfer's code is all about giving back," he says.
Tomson should know. At age 55, he has transitioned from world-renowned, prize-winning board rider to board director at the Surfrider Foundation, his sport's most respected nonprofit group.
While feeding Luke, his 1-year-old, at home in Santa Barbara, Calif., Tomson says prime examples of today's "evolved" surfers will be front and center at the Surfrider Foundation Celebrity Expression Session in Malibu on Sept. 11. There, they'll be volunteering their day of showmanship.
The charity event coincides with the 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance. In its observance, thousands of Americans are devoting their time and energy to projects that will pay back to society and pay respect to the terrorist attacks' victims, survivors, families, rescue workers and volunteers. At the Malibu event, Hollywood celebrities such as host Christina Applegate will join the surfers — on the beach — in raising awareness and money for the foundation's pro-environment mission.
Recruiting top-rung talent for a fundraiser aiming to protect the sea posed no challenge, says Tomson, who won the World Pro Title (the sport's highest) in 1977, 19 other major titles and the Environmentalist of the Year award from the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association. In the water, "surfers are the canaries in the coal mine. If something is going wrong with the ocean, we are really the first to get impacted — from the effect it is going to have on our health to on the environment," he says.
No matter how phenomenally the surfers perform on Sept. 11 in the name of ocean purity, the specter of the recent spoilage in the Gulf of Mexico will hang over the beach. The destruction infuriates Tomson.
"It's greed," he says. "And there will be more until we realize that life is not about getting ahead at the expense of others. That is why the whole notion of connectivity and compassion, all of us being joined together by one ocean, is so important to my life. And I am just hoping that, in some ways by people giving back, they can realize this."
The volunteer surfers are certainly there to do good. But they are sportsmen, not saints. So are the many pro football, baseball, basketball, hockey and NASCAR personalities who, all year long, spend much of their off-the-clock time "paying it forward."