Rebuilding Vanuatu with Firewire Surfboards and Share the Stoke Foundation

The groms of Vanuatu get styled out with some fresh sleds courtesy of Firewire. Photo: Ted Grambeau Photography

The Inertia

When it comes to surf travel there are two kinds of journeys—the personal journey embarked on by the solo surfer and the collective journey in which we share in our experiences. Kelly Kingston shares in the vision of changing surf travel for the collective by empowering groms in 3rd and 4th world communities across the globe. Her tribe of participants that make it all possible range from international surf companies to high schoolers. Those on the receiving end of the stoke are youth that typically live in volatile and high-risk environments.

Through a partnership afforded to her by Firewire Surfboards’ Social Outreach Program, Kelly’s South Florida-based non-profit, Share the Stoke Foundation, has donated 600+ surfboards to groms in 20 different countries. The formula is such that her team identifies a need somewhere in the world and they aim to fulfill their mission by partnering with a local organization on the ground to distribute the surfboards in library check-out fashion (organization stores the boards and the kids come check them in and out).

Recently, Kelly approached me for an extemporaneous sponsorship opportunity to help support a trip to Fiji alongside Nev Hyman’s Nev House Project. Our team at Surfr was delighted to support the trip. Upon her return we wanted to try to help people understand what it’s like to walk in her shoes on a Share the Stoke mission.

How did the invite from Nev come about and what did he say? 

I got an email from Nev Hyman, founder of Firewire, talking about how much he liked what we do and that he would like to collaborate in the future.  I was beyond stoked! I was all over it.  I replied and said anytime.  He mentioned a huge event was taking place in Vanuatu on April 23rd, a little over a month away from when we started talking and we were invited.  That was when I dropped everything and put all my focus on making this trip happen.

How did you feel after reading the email?

After reading the email I was really excited.   Actually I was honored to be considered included in his project for Nev House (Ever since Cyclone Pam ravaged Vanuatu in 2015, the Nevhouse team has been committed to re-building the homes, schools and medical clinics that were lost. Here we tell the story of a sustainable development project undertaken on Tanna Island.)  It validates what Share The Stoke Foundation has been doing all these years, especially when someone like Nev wants to collaborate.

There are a lot of logistics involved in traveling the way you do for STSF. Take us through your thought process and check list when planning a trip like this.

Most trips we take are super easy and relaxed…well, to some degree.  Maybe that is because we have done so many, but this one was an entirely different beast.  My first thought was, “Dang this is far and this one is going to cost a pretty penny.”  I started researching flights to see different ways to get to Vanuatu. I found out we could either go past Vanuatu to Australia and do it or swing through Fiji and do it. Backtracking seemed to make little sense and the thought of doing an impact in Fiji started to become really interesting.  Because the trip was so far I wanted to make sure that we got to Vanuatu days before the big event so that we would be functioning at 100 percent and not messed up with the time difference, so that was also a consideration.  Then I started thinking about who I like to travel with and who can add to the trip.  I like to bring people on the trips who are doers, who don’t complain and good at seeing what is happening and pitching in. I want people who are outwardly focused and primarily thinking about Share The Stoke Foundation and not how much they are going to get to surf on the trip.  From there I think about how many boards we can handle based on what airline we use.  By this time I knew that we would be charged for boards on the way out to Cali and then on the way to Vanuatu.  This was a double whammy!  Once I book the tickets it really is go time trying to plan and organize the events with the kids in all of the places we were going.  Luckily I had really good contacts from Nev that made this part of it easy.  Then it is time to try and figure out where we want to stay based on where we are doing the impacts.  This one was tricky because we ended up staying in four different hotels when usually we are only in one.  After that is dialed in it is time to think about what we need to take on the trip other than the surfboards.  Since this was a long trip it required more thought about clothes and personal effects.  Finally about three days out I like to go to storage and pick out the boards we are donating and get them all stickered up with our sponsors logos and put them in the board bags.  With the Firewire Surfboards, FCS fins, leashes and traction pads and Sticky Bumps Wax we fly barely below the allotted weight limit.  The day leading up to the trip you try and think about what you are forgetting, freak out because it is actually here and usually don’t sleep a wink because of the travel anxiety about the surfboards making it in one piece , let alone making it at all.

Where did this trip take you?

This trip took us to Port Vila, Vanuatu.  We had three days there to acclimate and plus you have to fly to there to get to Tanna.  We spent two unforgettable days on Tanna which is also in the Vanuatu island chain.  We also spent five days in Fiji.  Two of those were on Viti Levu, the main island and three on Malolo, a smaller, nearby island.

What were the people like?

Each place that we went to was unique.  In Port Vila, Vanuatu we got to surf with a bunch and I mean a bunch of young surfers at a place called Fat-Far.  It was a reef break that you paddle out to from the shore.  The kids were the highlight of this place because they would get so stoked for each other when they got a wave.  Also, working with the crew at the Vanuatu Surfing Association was also a highlight as these core guys have the best intentions for the young surfers on the island.  Tanna was like stepping way back in time.  To the time where people wore outfits made from the earth.  There were some super Net Geo moments there to be had.  Another highlight from Tanna was the Tommy Tanna Nev Cup surf contest.  There is a pretty big surf scene there that Nev started only a few months ago.  The kids rip!  It was certainly the first time these kids got to surf in a contest jersey and show off their skills for all of the village.  Fiji was incredible!  We met up with Ian Muller, owner of Fiji Surf Co. and local surf legend.  He took great care of us and made sure we had the best waves.  The island in itself is full of happy people and picture perfect waves.  We certainly want to head back there next year if we can.

Talk to us about the experience on the ground with the locals and specifically the impact you saw from Nev House, Share the Stoke and the local community organizations.

The experience on the ground was out of this world.  I am speaking about our time on Tanna with the NevHouse crew.  I did write a blog about that experience which gives a good detail of what it was like but in a nutshell the locals are what made the trip so memorable.  They were so kind and loving.  They made me feel so welcome and so loved by them.  I have never experienced this kind of love so strongly before.  I was literally on the verge of tears for two days.  Getting to see the Nev House work was so epic.  So far they have built several houses, a school and a hospital that welcomes all people on the island.  One of the best parts of these new structures is that they can withstand the energy produced from a category five cyclone.  So the one that decimated the villagers houses in 2015 will be a thing of the past.  These structures are made out of recycled plastics that are purchased and turned into this hybrid material that is super solid and indestructible with high winds.  But more mind blowing than all of that is what Nev House has the potential to create.  Because these houses are made with recycled plastics that are purchased, when this gains momentum, people in the world will have incentive to clean up the planet because their plastics will be able to be bought.  This is kind of a win, win, win!  Nev Houses get to keep making their killer houses while people with no jobs now can have a way to salvage plastics and sell it allowing them to put food on their table and in the end our planet will be cleaner.  This is massive!

I saw you journaled a couple sessions at Cloudbreak on Surfr, tell us about your most memorable session from the trip.

Yes I did!  I logged a few sessions at the world famous Cloudbreak.  It was the only place we surfed.  The first day we surfed it it was tiny, like maybe waist high.  The next day it was on!  It was way overhead and breaking top to bottom on super shallow reef.  It was heavy.  I was scared for sure and only got a few waves that day but guys were ripping and getting massive barrels.  It was a heck of a show!

If you could give the people reading this one action item based on your experience last week, what would you tell them?

I would encourage people to travel, to see the world.  I think experiencing different cultures is such a powerful experience and certainly gives me a fresh perspective on my life and how I live it and how I want to simplify it.

Do you have any pending needs, dreams or ideas that you’d like to execute or fulfill at STSF throughout the rest of 2016?

We always have financial needs that sometimes lighten but never go away.  We are continually traveling to places that request our support and that takes time and money. We often get emails from people telling us about really cool remote places who need surfboards but we keep them waiting until the resources allow us to make it happen.  In a perfect world I would love to have the means to be able to ship boards to places whenever a request is made and after we have researched who they are and the work they do.  For example, there is a great group in Ghana that is working with young surfers who need support but getting boards there for them is certainly not an easy task.  I suppose a great international shipping company would be worth its weight in gold to us.  Know any?