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Being a Good Surfer

Glenn Hening

We all remember our first beach. It was where we first fell in love with the ocean. Surfrider’s first love began at Malibu. It was here, in 1984, that a trio of rebel surfers created surfing’s first grassroots environmental group. To honor places and the people of Surfrider, we’re gathering a series of stories taking us along the shores of the Southland. We’re stoked to have Glenn Hening, a founding father of Surfrider, begin the series for us.

Since founding Surfrider, Glenn has lived a full life that keeps growing fuller. With three teaching credentials, and more than twenty-five years of teaching experience, Glenn also co-founded the Groundswell Society to “share the stoke of surfing” through conferences and the annual Rincon Invitational, a team surfing event recognizing surfing organizations for their public service efforts. Of course he still carves out time to surf. But claiming himself as “allergic to traffic,” Glenn seldom surfs Malibu now. It’s too crowded, he says. These days he surfs in Ventura County and Rincon. He can reel off his list of boards –from 6’9” to 9’3” and, he’ll note, “only one of them is a long board.”

On a day when Malibu was serving up decent sized waves, Glenn walked along the lagoon, and then the shore, pausing here and there to pick up a piece of plastic, or watch a wipeout or appreciate a long boarder’s elegant ride. While the talk wove from surf sessions to enviro sessions, Glenn’s gaze remained on the horizon and the future of the surfing community. 

The following interview was conducted and edited by Jennifer Allen, a journalist and an author, most recently of Mālama Honua – Hōkūle’a – A Voyage of Hope, published by Patagonia. 



I GREW UP IN BRONXVILLE, New York, and, as a kid, we would go to Jones Beach and see waves from time to time. When we moved here, I had no consciousness of waves or surfing. Coming out here was a complete revelation. This was the early 60s. I was about eleven years old, and my dad would bring my sister and me out to the Malibu pier to go fishing. Standing on the pier, I’d watch guys riding waves. This was a revelatory experience that became very engrained in me. One day my dad, seeing on how entranced I had become with the waves, said to me, “So you want to be a surfer?”

And then he laid out the rules:

“First you’re going to have to buy the surfboard yourself. You’re going to have to have all your chores done all the time. You’re going to have to get yourself to the beach. You can’t go surfing on Sundays. You have to keep your grades up and you have to get a lifesaving certificate so that your mom will know that if you drown, well, at least you knew how to swim!”

My dad created all these barriers, these challenges, creating almost rites of passage for me to have to step through just to be able to surf.

My first surfboard, I bought myself. I would watch surfers to figure it out all by myself. It took me all summer to be able to get to my feet. I can still remember my very first wave, just north of the Santa Monica Pier. Then I really started to surf at State Beach, right below Santa Monica Canyon. This was also my chance to watch Mickey Dora and learn more about style and the Cat’s version of being a surfer.

In that day, being a surfer meant you had a board that didn’t fit the waves very well, so you had to have a wave that could move the board along well.   That’s where Malibu came in. Malibu is the best wave along the California coast because you can stand on a surfboard and, without having to move a muscle, ride a really long wave. There are very few places you can do this in the world. This is one of them.

But my parents were worried that I was going to become, as my mom would say, “an itinerant vagabond,” a drifter entranced by the chase of this perfect wave. Beyond that, what was I going to have to show for myself? How could I take the blessings I’ve received from surfing and translate it into something that benefits somebody beside myself?

Ask any surfer: If you could have your perfect surfing experience what would it be? They’ll tell you, “Well, to have perfect waves all to myself.” And I ask, “Well, to what end?”  So the whole idea of what surfing was to me, right from the beginning, has stayed with me all my life. My relationship with ocean started with responsibility.

I’VE SEEN THIS BEACH CHANGE in many ways over all the decades and yet the shape of the wave hasn’t changed all that much. The Malibu watershed is responsible for the shape of the waves. The Malibu creek flows into the lagoon and then the lagoon spills into the ocean and creates like an alluvial fan, a reef of stones, that creates such a unique natural phenomena: a wave breaking almost perfectly.

You look at these waves breaking, and think, “Well, I wonder what Malibu looked like on July 4 1776?” and then you realize, “Oh, that’s right, there were waves then, there weren’t just waves when surfing started!” This place has been magical for thousands of years.  

When we first started Surfrider in 1984, we were originally going to create a Service Club called “The Soul Survivors.” One of the requirements to enter was you had to be a good surfer before leashes. We had seen what happened when people started wearing leashes, because up until then, when a big set would come through, people would either lose their boards, or they’d take off, and the line up would get cleaned through. But for the first time ever, after a set would come through, everybody would still be there. That changed surfing, that changed your responsibility to your board, and that changed your responsibility in the surf, too.

We were nonplused by the explosion of professional surfing and surf contests. Suddenly there was the OP Pro, the professional surfing circuit, and surfing trade shows. We were dissatisfied with what was happening with surfing. We wanted to create a different version of surfing. We had some big ideas: let’s take inner city kids to the beach, let’s create more surf spots so more people can understand the energy of riding the wave.

Around this same time, we started to see increased pollution problems throughout the Malibu watershed. And then State Parks wanted to create a Malibu Lagoon State Park, and so they carved a series of channels on one side of the lagoon. Prior to their project, the creek would flow and go out to the ocean. But when they created the channels, the water became sidetracked across these channels and that stultified the flow process between the creek and the ocean to the point where these channels became very polluted. It was like a giant petri dish.

With these new channels, the lagoon would fill up. Then they would carve a channel across the beach, and drain the lagoon into the ocean. They were draining it straight out into First Point and it ruined the shape of the wave. Our first challenge was not just about pollution, it was also about the shape of the perfect wave at Malibu. Of course, the pollution issue became paramount in subsequent years, but Surfrider really started with trying to protect the shape of the perfect wave.

The original Surfrider logo was about being inside the wave – the courage, judgment, brains, maturity, timing, fitness, everything it took to experience inside a wave – so you take all of that and you translate that to a life of service on the other side of Coast Highway that benefits some body other than yourself. That was the original idea of Surfrider Foundation.

Back in 1990, we stood in front of bulldozers right here, when they were going to open the lagoon into the ocean because it wasn’t breeching naturally anymore. And our protest stopped them.

That same year, we challenged the Tapia Waste Water Treatment officials to check the way they were treating their water and how they were adding it back into the Malibu creek.

What my parents taught me early on really stayed with me. Don’t become so entranced by this wonderful thing that you refuse to accept your responsibilities to this place or to the community around you.

RIGHT NOW, THE ISSUES aren’t surfers so much getting sick in the ocean; as they are getting sick of each other. The most important thing is getting along with each other. That’s the key fact in thinking about what kind of world are we leaving for our children.

This place has taught me to be tolerant. And that comes with a lot of memories of not being tolerant, of being tribal, of being selfish. If you constantly do the same thing over and over again simply for the pleasure of oneself – that’s wrong. Malibu taught me what it means to be selfish and it also taught me what it means to be unselfish.

Surfrider has been a wonderful part of my life but I’ve only been a small part of this group. There are so many others who have worked and volunteered all these years. And yet sometimes they don’t realize what they’ve accomplished. So many of us are still living in fear. I don’t think people should need fear anymore to motivate them.

In the long run, of course, plastics in the ocean, carbon loading in the atmosphere, development and population control: everyone on the planet will be dealing with these issues for years.

I’d like to see environmentalists promote more hope and stop using fear as a fundamental motivator. Most people are awake now – and promoting the victories will build morale in many ways. I think that’s how the environmental movement will be well served. The future of environmentalism is really simply about being responsible and being a good human being – and these were the founding core values of Surfrider.