IT was mid-morning in the sleepy Mexican village of Barra de la Cruz and the streets were empty, save for the occasional stray dog and surfboard-toting gringo, the latter surely on their way to the same nearby pointbreak that we were heading to.
Jon Rose first came to this part of Oaxaca nearly 20 years ago, during a very different time in his life. “From 13 until my late 20s, surfing was really the only thing I ever thought about,” says Rose, now 41. “I had a completely one-track mind for a lot of my life, and that was the thing that made me most happy.”
Rose was born in Colorado, but after his parents split when he was young, he and his dad ended up settling in Laguna Beach, which is where he found what he thought would be his life defining passion for surfing. He was naturally gifted, got his first sponsorship at 13, turned pro at 18 and started chasing points on the World Qualifying Series before eventually turning his focus toward feral adventure and searching for empty waves off the beaten path. In the 2000s, Rose scored everywhere from Indo to Iceland, and you could often find him getting spat out of barrels and onto the covers and spreads of the world’s biggest surf magazines.
Today, however, no one would say that surfing is the thing that defines Jon Rose. In fact, even though Rose lived and breathed surfing for so many years, it has almost become a footnote in his life after a series of events was set in motion a decade ago.
As we drove down the winding dirt road through Barra, Rose told the beginning of his story as most people know it today. It’s a story that he’s likely told a thousand times over the years to friends and strangers, journalists and donors, CEOs and faceless crowds at public speaking engagements. Yet Rose’s manner changes and his expression sharpens in the retelling, as if it still transports him right back to that place and time. The place was Padang, Indonesia, and the time was 5:16 p.m. on September 30, 2009.
After Rose’s pro career wound down, he wanted an excuse to go back to Indonesia and decided he’d make his surf trip double as a humanitarian project. He’d boat through the Mentawai Islands for a stint before bringing water filters to a village he’d visited in Sumatra that didn’t have access to clean drinking water. But shortly after his boat made it back from the Mentawais to Padang, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake ravaged the city, leveling buildings, crippling infrastructure, killing over a thousand people and injuring many more.
“It wasn’t like I had some kind of moment of clarity,” Rose said as we crossed the southern edge of town and the small, cinderblock houses outside our windows gave way to dense Oaxacan jungle. “It was just common sense. I realized I probably wasn’t going to make it to the village I was planning on going to, and these guys needed the filters more anyway.”
If you were trying to make a case for the existence of fate, Rose’s story would serve as a convincing data point. He got a deckhand to take him to shore where he found a chaotic scene marked by burning buildings, rubble and frantic locals desperately searching for their loved ones. Eventually he made it to a local Red Cross relief tent, where he set up a filtration system using one of his filters so that the workers and wounded would have clean water for drinking and sanitation. Once the system was in place, Rose asked the relief workers if there were any more relief tents he could bring filters to. They told him there were nine others. He had brought 10 filters.
“That trip altered my life,” said Rose of the experience that led to him creating Waves for Water, an organization dedicated to providing people with access to clean water worldwide. “I learned a lot about myself in a really short period of time. I realized I had skillsets I didn’t know I had, because in those situations you’re tested in ways you’ve never been tested before. I’m somehow well suited for that type of work. The crazier things got, the calmer and more organized I became. I felt like I was flexing this muscle I never knew I had.”
As we came around a curve in the road just outside of town, a gap opened up in the tree line and we could see stacks of orangish boulders coming out of the sea and forming a massive, Martian-looking headland to the north. There was just the slightest breath of offshore wind and a few tapering walls of head-high south swell were wrapping into the point. With forest stretching as far as the eye could see on either side of the road, the scene probably didn’t look much different from when Rose first came here—well, except for the crowd of 30 or so people bobbing in the lineup.
For Rose, this trip seemed like a spiritual homecoming of sorts. In the last 10 years, surfing has taken a backseat in his life to running Waves for Water, which has distributed over 150,000 filters throughout the world, affecting an estimated nearly 4 million people. While the organization’s tagline, “Do what you love and help along the way,” might conjure images of a kind of noble surf junkie for a founder, chasing waves and providing clean water to nearby communities during flat spells, the truth is that Rose has spent much of the last decade doing humanitarian work in places like Haiti, Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan and dozens of other waveless locales. When he’s not on the ground implementing a clean water program, his time is increasingly consumed by meetings with brand partners and donors, strategy calls with his remote staff and the minutia that comes with running a non-profit organization as far reaching as his. Even during the rare stretches when Rose is at home in Marin, just north of San Francisco, California, he says he seldom has the time to make the drive down to Ocean Beach to surf.
But on the 10-year anniversary of Waves for Water, Rose wanted to reconnect with the roots of his organization, and, therefore, his surfing. So he picked a place that lacked clean water, but had an excess of good waves. He bought some filters and packed a board bag. He’d help along the way, sure, but it seemed especially important to do what he loved.
There were 50 or so people huddled under the palapa fronting a small, simple home in Barra de la Cruz. The house belongs to a woman named Victoria, who wakes up before dawn every morning to prepare a large pot of atole—a traditional morning beverage made from corn and served piping hot—which she then sells door-to-door in the village for the equivalent of 25 cents a cup. She lives there with her family, which includes her grown children as well as their children, with a total of 10 people living in the cramped structure. Victoria and her family, as well as all the families that had gathered under the palapa, typically got their drinking water from a nearby well before boiling it to make it potable. All too often, however, bacteria or parasites persist, leading to waterborne illness in the village. This, of course, is where Rose comes in.
Rose stood at a table in the center of the crowd, communicating through his translator, local surf guide Gil Cardenas, how to assemble a filtration system—a simple setup consisting of a 5 gallon bucket, a rubber tube, a Sawyer filter and some gaskets—and how to use them. Rose has his spiel down cold, getting the essential information across, like how the filters work because bacteria and parasites can’t pass through its hollow fiber membrane, but he also cracked jokes to keep things from getting too dry.
“This filter looks very durable, and it is,” said Rose. “But you still want to be careful with it. Try not to hit your husband in the head with it, even when you really want to.” The crowd of mostly young mothers laughed and exchanged knowing nods.
Throughout the demonstration, Rose was conscious to involve the locals as much as possible, asking questions and calling up a volunteer to assemble a system herself. Rose could easily show up to villages like Barra with completed systems, hand them over and wish the locals luck, but he says it would never stick—people need to feel like they’re doing it for themselves, not being told what to do by some outsider with no personal stake in the community.
Instead, Rose asks them to meet him more than half way, to not only participate, but to take charge of the situation.
“I always work on a 10 percent ratio,” Rose later told me. “If you’re teaching 10 people, you need one to buy in and become an advocate, and then they’ll get their friends onboard, and so on.”
Rose took certain steps to insure this would happen, visiting the village a few months prior to “plant the seed,” which is when he met Victoria and helped her set up a system for her household. Her son-in-law, Hugo, runs a small palapa-turned-surf-shop on the beach at the bottom of the point, selling wax and T-shirts to visiting surfers when he’s not tearing up the break himself or tending to his family. When the demonstration finished, Hugo and a few of his friends were on hand to help the others build their systems, who in turn helped others, until everyone had a system. By the time we crossed the village to the baseball field, where another group was waiting for the demonstration, the locals from the first group were practically running it themselves.
“You see how now the locals have taken charge of it?” Rose asked. “That’s what you hope for. It’s not just about clean water, but also about empowerment. You want to work yourself out of the equation, because we don’t live here. It’s all about them taking ownership. That’s when the program does the most good.”
Rose says that he learned many of Waves for Water’s community engagement tactics while working in Haiti. In January 2010, just a few months after Waves for Water’s inception in Indonesia, Haiti was devastated by a 7.0 earthquake, which killed an estimated more than 100,000 people and destroyed much of the nation’s capital of Port-au-Prince. In the aftermath, actor Sean Penn got in contact with Rose, offering to fund a Waves for Water initiative in Haiti. Penn, a man curiously famous for both playing a stoned high school surfer in film and for personally pulling people from rubble amid natural disasters, had heard about Rose’s work during the Indonesian quake and wanted to know if what he’d done there could be viable in Haiti. Rose told him it was and agreed to head to Haiti.
“I thought we’d be in Haiti for 2 weeks,” says Rose, “but I ended up staying for 2 years.”
In Haiti, Rose camped with the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army and got to observe how they operate, which informed the way he approached the logistics of his clean water initiatives as well as the way he engages local communities. (Later, it also gave him the idea to start the Clean Water Corps, a branch of Waves for Water employing military veterans—a program that Rose describes as being as much about rehabilitating soldiers as it is about hiring effective people.)
“That was a really heavy time, but it was also really cool to be focusing on just the core intention of what you’re doing,” says Rose about his work in Haiti. “I wasn’t stopping to wonder, ‘Where is this going? What is this organization, exactly?’ I was just laser- focused on the job at hand and learning so much every day.”
By the time Rose left Haiti, Waves for Water was a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a small staff and contracts to do humanitarian work for the United Nations and the U.S. Military. Since then, the organization has responded to nearly every major natural disaster worldwide, from Hurricane Sandy in New York to the Gorkha Earthquake in Nepal. Aside from disaster relief, the organization has partnered with huge companies like PayPal and BMW on corporate social responsibility initiatives, bringing clean water to areas where those companies have interests. And Waves for Water’s Courier Program, in which volunteers can buy filters and implement them independently (like on a surf trip, for example), broke down barriers to aiding people across the world with water needs both large and small.
While it might seem odd to some that a former pro surfer could have created a humanitarian organization with such far-reaching impact, Rose thinks that on some level, surfing prepared him for this type of work and inspired his “guerilla humanitarian” approach.
“When you’re a professional freesurfer, you have to be a logistics guy,” he explains. “Before Google Earth, you had to study maps and ask around. You got intel on the zones you were trying to surf, so you knew this farmer was cool with you crossing his land, or to stay away from this other area because it’s known for narcos, all the while being exposed to different people and cultures. You’re doing civil affairs without even knowing it, because your goal is just to go surfing.”
While many of those lessons still apply to the work that he does, however, it’s been a long time since he’s used them for the goal of just going surfing.
“When I went to Haiti, I knew I’d surf again,” Rose says. “But it was also the furthest thing from my mind, and, honestly, I haven’t prioritized it since then.”
WE could see that there were waves of some kind breaking off the end of the point, but with no one out, the size and speed of the surf was impossible to know for sure. The lack of crowd was the reason that we picked this particularly obscure break, far from many of the area’s more esteemed and dependably-perfect points, but we were almost certainly sacrificing quality.
Rose had made some comments during the trip about how slow he felt on his feet these days, how much his old injuries nagged. It was clear that although he was determined for this to be a proper surf trip, he had no illusions of reliving the glory days of his pro career when he frequently scored the world’s best waves in their very best form.
“I’m at the point in my life where I’d just rather surf worse waves without the crowd,” Rose had said with a laugh the day before while we made plans for the swell. “I just don’t have it in me anymore.”
When Rose paddled out a few minutes ahead of me from the base of the point, I guessed that the waves were about head high and a little too fast. By the time I was halfway to the lineup, however, I realized my estimations had been a little off.
I watched as Rose paddled and airdropped into a solid, 8-foot wave, casually blending a bottom turn into a check stall and then disappearing completely. After a few seconds he emerged wide-eyed, looking unsure of whether or not that had actually just happened—then another section pitched ahead of him. He was dangerously deep but moving at incredible speed, which easily took him straight over a churning foam ball and onto the shoulder. It was a perfect wave, and it had been surfed perfectly.
“Hooo-leee-shit,” Rose said as we paddled back out. “That’s probably the best barrel I’ve had in 10 years.”
It didn’t make any sense. With each set, a series of dreamy barrels stacked up on the sandbar, and with few exceptions they were all makeable. These were the types of waves that only pro surfers typically get, as said waves require a constant finger on the pulse of swells and a life structured completely around chasing them. In our case, we’d booked our tickets for a time that worked with Rose’s busy schedule, which was too far in advance to see any potential swell activity. Even after we landed in Mexico, we hadn’t paid too much attention to the swell chart as we’d been busy planning and implementing the filtration systems in Barra.
“Karma chips,” Rose said with a laugh, paddling back out from a particularly lengthy tube. I asked him what he meant by that and he told me a story about a Waves for Water trip he did to Liberia several years ago with then-Surfing Magazine editor Taylor Paul. He said that they’d been in Robertsport, an area that was still recovering from back-to-back civil wars that spanned the late ‘80s all the way to the early ‘00s. Rose had worked with the locals to help get filtration systems to those who needed them before heading to the nation’s capital of Monrovia to catch a flight home. Killing time before their departure, Rose and Paul had gone to a casino in the city.
“I was just messing around and put down $5 at a blackjack table, and by the time we stood up to leave I had about $500,” Rose told me. “Taylor didn’t do so hot, and he just looks at me and goes, ‘Fuck you and your karma chips!’ I thought that was hilarious.”
It was funny imagining some kind of cosmic scale where Rose continually weighed down one end with seemingly-altruistic acts, which the universe then had to balance by occasionally sending him a series of winning blackjack hands—or perfect waves. It reminded me of something else Rose had told me days before, after the implementation in Barra, which was that he doesn’t do humanitarian work for the “greater good,” but rather does it “for totally selfish reasons.” Although I was sure that didn’t mean “karma chips,” after our session seemed like an appropriate time to ask Rose to clarify.
“Well, that’s not completely accurate,” Rose said. “Of course I feel driven by the impact that the organization is making and the help that it’s providing for others, but it’s not just that. It also provides me with a sense of adventure, exploration, excitement—even when we’re nowhere near waves. We’ve done work in places like Afghanistan where there’s no ocean and few people who aren’t military ever go, and that’s dangerous, but it’s also very exciting. There’s a lot at stake, you can’t just be aimlessly floating through these situations, you have to be 100 percent in the present moment. In that way, it’s kind of like surfing, actually.”
Before, when talking with Rose about his surfing, I had thought that “Do what you love and help along the way” was just a clever way to market Waves for Water and its Courier Program, even if the slogan didn’t necessarily apply to Rose at this point in his life. For Rose, however, maybe “what you love” never really meant surfing at all. Perhaps the helping has always been an end unto itself.