Glenn Hening strives to keep the ‘selfish’ out of surfing

Courtesy of Surfrider Foundation
Volunteers pick up trash at San Clemente State Beach in San Clemente, California.

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Surfing is not just a sport for many surfers; it’s a way of life. Glenn Hening has been working for decades to make sure that ecological activism and community spirit are part of the surfer’s code.

He started the Surfrider Foundation in 1984, which has bloomed into a national nonprofit for protecting the ocean, and in 2000 Mr. Hening started the Groundswell Society, which promotes inclusion among surfers. He’s been in the game for a long time, and at 70, says he’s better than he ever was.

Why We Wrote This

For decades, surfer Glenn Hening has pioneered volunteer organizations that capture the spirit of the sport, channeling it into a holistic vision for the health of the ocean and the people who surf it.

His holistic vision for the health of the ocean and the people who surf it offers a peek into how the love of a sport can feed activism for good.

“Bring all of that that the ocean taught you, and gave you, that improved you,” he says, “and bring that back to the other side of the coast highway, and bring it to the benefit of people besides yourself.”

Glenn Hening has surfed the perfect wave many times.

There’s a moment of warped relativity in the tunnel. He’s standing on his board, flying along the surface of the wave, just keeping up momentum. Something shifts, and the end of the barrel is moving faster and farther away. From his board, Mr. Hening feels as if he’s moving backward.

“There’s an experience of time standing still,” says the lifelong surfer, ocean activist, and math teacher. He’s sitting outside his apartment in Oxnard, California, but his eyes gaze through the tube of the wave that he shapes with his hands in the air.

Why We Wrote This

For decades, surfer Glenn Hening has pioneered volunteer organizations that capture the spirit of the sport, channeling it into a holistic vision for the health of the ocean and the people who surf it.

It’s a mesmerizing pursuit, but it drives many surfers to localism, says Mr. Hening. Put bluntly, “Surfers are primarily selfish.” It’s in the nature of the sport, he says, where surfers are plenty and good waves are few.

“Who deserves the wave?” he asks. In answer to his own question, Mr. Hening has spent nearly 40 years trying to build a spirit of generosity among inherent competitors. He has advocated a better environment for the sport, for both the health of the ocean and fellowship among surfers in the often insular community.

He started two influential organizations: Surfrider Foundation, a nationally recognized ocean ecology advocacy group; and Groundswell Society, a group promoting surfer camaraderie through competitions.

“Glenn is like this riptide that rips us along in a positive direction,” says Shaun Tomson, 1977 World Surf League champion and a good friend of Mr. Hening since he got Mr. Tomson involved in saving Southern California’s Rincon Beach from sewage leakage in the ’90s.

Jules Struck
Glenn Hening reflects on what’s been important to him as a surfer. Over time his focus expanded to include encouraging a culture of care for the natural environment and surfers as a community.

“You can’t see this energy moving, but you can see the effects of the energy,” says Mr. Tomson, who first wrote his Surfer’s Code, a list of life lessons famous in the surfing community, for the Rincon Beach campaign. “He’s one of these, I think, mavericks in the way he approaches surfing and also the way he thinks about the world.”

Mr. Hening established Surfrider Foundation in 1984. The organization has mushroomed from a scrappy group of West Coast surfers into a sleek national organization with 81 chapters and over 100 high school and college clubs from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The younger and more under-the-radar Groundswell Society encourages surfers to share the joy of surfing with their peers, regardless of skill level.

“If Surfrider is about surfers getting sick from the ocean” and the harmful effects of pollution, “the Groundswell Society is about surfers getting sick of each other,” he says.

Mr. Hening credits volunteers like 14-year-old Olivia LaRiccia in Fairfield, Connecticut, for picking up the mantle of his legacy after he left the group in 1986.

Olivia was unhappy with the mounds of plastic trash she collected at a 2019 Surfrider beach cleanup, so when the Connecticut chapter asked her if she would speak at a local community forum in support of a bill to limit plastic straw use in Norwalk, Connecticut, she said yes.

“When I got there, I was freaking out a lot,” says Olivia. But then she stood at the podium. “I wasn’t as nervous, and I realized that I was changing opinions of other people and helping the town.”

Volunteers beget action

Mr. Hening recalls Surfrider’s first success, a story that mirrors Olivia’s advocacy.

In 1984, state officials planned to drain part of Malibu Lagoon State Beach, also known as Surfrider Beach. Mr. Hening talked legendary surfer Lance Carson into speaking out against the plan at a public forum.

That speech, says Mr. Hening, along with the throngs of beachgoers who showed up in protest, halted the dredging.

“Most surfers actually love the ocean,” says Chad Nelsen, Surfrider Foundation’s CEO. “They’re super in touch with what’s going on because they’re out there all the time.”

The parking lot at the organization’s offices in San Clemente, California, is empty on a Saturday afternoon, except for Mr. Nelsen’s car, which is rigged on top with a paddleboard.

Mr. Nelsen grew up mucking around in the touch tanks at his father’s work at the Orange County Marine Institute. Recently he has steered such projects as halting a toll road through Trestles Beach in San Clemente, and researching the economic value of surf spots to their communities. In 2004, he helped establish a marine reserve in Puerto Rico.

Courtesy of Surfrider Foundation
Near Imperial Beach, California, debris overwhelms the Tijuana River Watershed catch basin, one target of the Surfrider Foundation’s San Diego chapter and its Clean Border Water Now campaign.

The foundation is an institution on the West Coast, where Surfrider Foundation beach clean-ups are ubiquitous and cars zoom down the highway sporting Surfrider bumper stickers.

Among the foundation’s ambassadors are Shaun Tomson and Tokyo Olympics shortboard gold-medal winner Carissa Moore.

Mr. Hening co-founded Groundswell Society in 2000 with pioneering surfer Jericho Poppler, the winner of the first women’s World Pro Tour in 1976; and entrepreneur Matt Meyerson. The group fundraises college scholarships and holds a yearly team competition for which judges are picked based on their public service record rather than on how many medals they’ve racked up. Longboard Magazine called the group “surfing’s new voice of conscience” in 2002. Their motto: “Sharing the stoke of surfing.”

“We just decided that, hey, we’ve got to get to the core of who we really are” as surfers, says Ms. Poppler. Taking care of the ocean means “a lot more than just showing up in certain clothing and having a snazzy surfboard to look the part,” she says.

The waves can be an unfriendly place for new or inexperienced surfers when locals stake their claims, says Mr. Hening, but surfers can “flip that on its head” and turn the waves into a welcoming place instead of an aggressive arena. “If they’re lucky enough to be a surfer,” says Mr. Hening, “they should also accept some responsibility for the environmental conditions of the surf zone.”

“Besides yourself”

Anyone can be a steward of nature, adds Ms. Poppler. Those who have never experienced the euphoria of speeding along an indigo swell can think of waves like they think of Yosemite or Yellowstone, she says. “Just go into nature,” she says. “That’s what we’re preserving – to go into our nature.”

Mr. Hening is as skilled a surfer now as he’s ever been, he says. But being good means something different to him now than when he was in his 20s and catching perfect waves every day off the coast of El Salvador, where he lived for five years.

The surf world still needs to improve, he says: Most professional surfers and sports brands have fallen short of substantively supporting the environment – ecological or community – of surfing.

With surfing as an event in the Olympics for the first time, Mr. Hening watched closely. He says he has heard of Olympians of all sports facing a moment of “absolute panic” after earning a gold medal. Sometimes their first reaction is to be lost about what to do with the rest of their lives.

He proposes a solution to that existential crisis: “Bring all of that that the ocean taught you, and gave you, that improved you, and bring that back to the other side of the coast highway, and bring it to the benefit of people besides yourself.”

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