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  • Jacob Aere

Masters of the Waves

Luau & Legends of Surfing Invitational

When Sam Armstrong became president of the board of the Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health in 1993, he and fellow board member John Otterson didn’t want to settle for another Halloween party as a cancer fundraiser. Both avid surfers, the pair had a shared vision of incorporating their friends within the surfing community in their fundraising efforts. William Otterson, John’s father and the director of UCSD’s CONNECT business assistance program, challenged the two to prove that a bunch of “surf bums” could make a difference. What ensued was the first Luau & Legends of Surfing Invitational.

Carl June, Sam Armstrong, and John Otterson

When first floating the idea, Armstrong recalls hearing of a “surfer girl” who might help. She turned out to be Surfing Walk of Fame legend, World Champion, and Surfer Poll Winner, Debbie Beacham. American Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Kary Mullis also contributed, helping to make the first year’s event a hit. “It felt like a perfect wave,” recalls Armstrong. “[We] hardly had to paddle.” Now, 25 years later, the event has contributed more than $8 million to the Moores Cancer Center. The organizers tout it as one of the most successful surfing fundraisers worldwide and the event still combines “surf legends, scientists changing the world, businesses behind the [cancer fighting] drugs, and the patients,” says Armstrong.

The Luau & Legends of Surfing Invitational has gathered a “who’s who” list of the surfing and cancer research worlds. Surf legends have included Rob Machado, Mickey Muñoz, Greg Noll, Corky Carroll, and many more. Companies like Hurley and Rusty also support the event. And, in 2017, 11-time World Surf League Champion, Kelly Slater, was the honorary chair.

Armstrong recalls one of the most inspirational moments from his years at the event, when a man approached a group that included people from the biotech company, Biogen. The man asked for autographs. Then-president Greg Gorgas, said that they weren’t the surfing legends he might be looking for. The man responded by saying that they were the legends he was looking for — he was fighting cancer and they helped save his life.

This year’s public event takes place on August 19 under the Scripps Pier in La Jolla, with Armstrong and John Otterson returning as chairs for the fifth time. “Everyone is affected by cancer in some way,” says Armstrong. Four of the event’s chairs throughout the years have battled cancer themselves. The Luau & Legends Rell Sunn Award honors the memory of cancer victim Rell Kapolioka’ehukai Sunn, known as the “First Lady of Surfing.” Sunn surfed on Armstrong’s team at the first event. When plans were made to craft a board to commemorate her life, she asked for the words “Queen of Makaha” to be inscribed — an homage to her hometown in Hawaii. Now, this award is given to those who help make a significant contribution to the ongoing battle against cancer. “Life is full of things beyond your control,” Armstrong says, recalling Sunn’s positive spirit. “Don’t fight the wave, use its energy.”  Jacob Aere

Participants of the 2015 Luau & Legends of Surfing Invitational

Wave: Courtesy photo     All other photography by Jennifer Nelson

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