2013 SIMA Waterman's Ball

Tom Servais

Fernando Aguerre accepts his Waterman of the Year award from Bob McKnight and Paul Naude.

Standing in line to buy drink tickets, I found myself behind Social Distortion's Mike Ness. As a fan of the band for 25 years, I couldn't help myself. So I tapped him on the shoulder, said hello and thanked him for "The Story of My Life." He was gracious, introduced me to his wife, then asked if I was the musical entertainment for the night. High praise from Orange County's king of punk, but tragically misguided.

I was at the 21st incarnation of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) Waterman's Ball. And as much as I would have liked to be on stage ripping through a gritty version of "Folsom Prison Blues," there I was trying to figure out how Fernando Aguerre, a man who's spent the last year recovering from back surgery, could win Waterman of the Year honors. After all, the three previous winners of the award include Shane Dorian, Greg Long and Tom Curren.

Two weeks prior, I found myself sitting on Aguerre's back deck, which overlooks Windansea in La Jolla, Calif. With holes in my pockets and Mitt Romney's summer digs just down the street, I was feeling uncomfortable and out of place in the upper-crust neighborhood. But one of Aguerre's great talents is his ability to make one feel at ease, like an old friend. And so we sat in the sun on his deck and he confided, "You know, I'm very nervous about this Waterman of the Year thing. Bob McKnight and I will be the only two non-surfers to win this award since 1993. I mean, we are surfers, of course, be we are not Tom Curren or Kelly Slater or Laird Hamilton."

But therein lies the catch. One not necessarily need be a great surfer to be a surfer of great importance. Aguerre's always campaigned vigorously for the sport. Growing up in Argentina, "My family has always been revolutionaries," explained Aguerre, a portrait of Che Guevara hanging in the living room. He and his brother, Santiago, stumbled upon surfing in the mid-'70s, which at the time was banned by Argentina's harsh dictatorship. So they campaigned and they fought, and eventually the ban was lifted.

Then the brothers migrated north to San Diego for a brief stint running surf trips down to Isla Natividad in Baja Mexico. By 1984 they had scratched together enough seed money to fund a startup sandal company: Reef. And thus the "butt girl" Reef ad and surfing's most recognizable marketing campaign was born. In 2005 they sold to VF Corp for undisclosed millions of dollars. "Work" would become a relative term for the always-energetic Aguerre.

Since 1994, he has served as the president of the International Surfing Association (ISA). But after '05, with his hands clean of running Reef, he began the arduous process of rebuilding the fledgling organization. Viewing it as the one clear path to getting surfing into the Olympics, today the ISA boasts 74 member countries and, by Aguerre's estimate, we could see surfing in the Games as soon as 2022.

But it would be short sided of me to note only Aguerre's award. He wasn't the only one being honored. Peter "PT" Townend received the Lifetime Achievement award. From his days as one of the Bronzed Aussies ushering in the Shortboard Revolution of the '70s, to being surfing's first world champion, to founding the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA), along with myriad other accomplishments, Townend, aka The Mate, was in rare form. Dressed to the nines in his patented pink attire, he asked the question, "How do you give back to something that's given you so much? It's given me my friends, my family, my life. It's an honor to call myself a surfer and to have spent so many years with my feet in the sand."

Brandon Boyd and Incubus took Environmentalists of the Year honors. Lifelong surfers, in 2003 the band started efforts to benefit an organization to help keep our beaches and oceans cleaner. They've since given more than $1.6 million of their own money toward supporting non-profits. "We all know what the right thing to do is," said Boyd, "and if you have the resources and ability to enact change and make the world a better place, it's our responsibility to do so."

Somebody who's making the world a better place is Jon Rose, who was honored with a Special Achievement award. Rose has traversed the world, from disaster zone to disaster zone, doing his best to ensure that people have clean drinking water. When earthquakes hit Haiti and Indonesia, he was there. Most recently, when Hurricane Sandy laid waste to the East Coast, Rose posted up on the Jersey Shore and helped dig out. In the words of actor Sean Penn, "Jon Rose is a good man."

By the end of the night I never really did figure out why Aguerre was given the Waterman of the Year award and not the Lifetime Achievement award, but then that's not my decision to make. And it's like I said: You don't have to surf great to be a great surfer. I did find out that the live/silent auction at the Waterman's Ball raised $400,000 to donate to worthy causes. Plus, the ISA just announced they will be giving away 50 $1,000 scholarships to up-and-coming surfers around the world in dire need of the support. And while that may not be like having 11 world titles on your mantle, it has the potential to change lives in a more incredibly profound way.

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