Cliff Kapono's Important Travel Message After Horror Head Injury

Matt Rott

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Updated 21d ago

MSW's Matt Rott recently joined Cliff Kapono on a strike mission to the west Pacific, chasing a pulsing swell in search of those heaving azure kegs - and you too can keep on eye on the charts here. But tragedy struck when Cliff suffered a horror head injury on a reef in the middle of nowhere. Thinking he'd snapped his neck, the trip was cut short amid the types of waves we'd draw in sketch books as kids. Now, Cliff's got an important message to get off his chest. Here's their story.

Have you ever stopped to think about what exactly it is that we take away with us from surf trips? Many of us spend a lot of time, energy and money chasing swells, but years from now, when we look back at those strikes, what will we remember?

The waves? Sure, they are the main purpose of our travel, and a damned fine reason to drop money on an airplane ticket. But after a while, all of those rides start to blur together, and it can become difficult to recall what exactly all those hours of effort and obsession amounted to.

Cliff Kapono and a rather stunning colour palette.

Cliff Kapono and a rather stunning colour palette.

Perhaps it’s the cultures we experience that stick with us? Ideally our surf trips are about more than just surf, and we spend a bit of time immersing ourselves in the traditions, food, art, and music of the places we visit. But as the years go by and our passports fill up with stamps, even the local color of foreign lands can start to melt together.

More than anything, I’d argue it’s the people we spend time with that make our trips memorable. Operating outside of our comfort zones, yet also refreshingly free from the stresses of work and home, travel opens us up and puts us into situations that facilitate connection and cultivate relationships—and surf trips are no exception. As I look back on 20 years of surf travel, it occurs to me that while I may have been chasing swells, the one thing that I really remember is the friends I met along the way.

I didn’t know Cliff Kapono a week ago. I’d heard a bit about him—both from mutual friends and the publicity he’d gotten for studying surfer poop—but I didn’t really know anything else about the guy. But it’s funny what you can learn after a week together in a foreign country and a few days in a hospital.

Surprise! MSW's Matt Rott.

Surprise! MSW's Matt Rott.

© 2018 - Jonathan Barber

A unique storm was spinning in the west Pacific, sitting practically immobile for three days straight and predicted to spew energy south and east with a sustained fetch that is rarely seen with typhoon swells. I’d been wanting to check out a new zone for a few years, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity, so I called up a couple of buddies who lived in the region and we decided to do a strike mission. All three of us typically travel in the same style—alone and without a lot of fanfare—but we thought it might be fun to actually do a trip together, and pulled the trigger just as the forecasted storm began to form up.

En route to the island we were targeting, I bumped into Cliff, who also likes to travel solo, and who happened to be scoping the same area we were heading toward. By the time we all arrived, the first pulses of the swell were starting to filter into a heavy, shallow reef pass, and Cliff had become a full-fledged member of our ragtag crew.

The wave we were surfing was short but square—just the sort of setup we had hoped to find. And the conditions were flawless, groomed to perfection by seasonally offshore winds and a swell that never seemed to stop. But our wave was also tide sensitive, so we ended up with a lot of down time between sessions. And since we didn’t have access to social media, we spent that time socializing the old fashioned way, talking story and telling each other about the projects we were passionate about.

Straight out of a sketch book.

Straight out of a sketch book.

Junior Simpson told us all about his eco-factory where he made banana fiber paper, Mitchell Ferris regaled us with stories about tromping through Compton and knocking on doors to ask if he could skate people’s pools, and Cliff—well, Cliff talked about pretty much everything.

He told us about his Surfer Biome Project, and how important the healthy bacteria that colonize our bodies are to our well-being. He explained his ideas for mapping reefs and replicating them in wave pools, and the technology he used at Scripps to study bacteria living on coral reefs. He went into detail about the dangers threatening our environment, and how well-meaning-but-misguided environmentalists were focused on the wrong issues. And he discussed philosophical concepts like self-esteem and ego, and the false value we prescribe to the roles and titles that we identify with—roles and titles that actually have nothing to do with who we are on a foundational level.

Looking out.

Looking out.

What Cliff talked about more than anything, though, was what he referred to as “the underground”—a global group of wave riders that you and I have probably never heard of, but who rip as hard as anyone and then quietly go about life, in many cases making the world a better place.

See, Cliff doesn’t give two shits about being a sponsored surfer. His priority is people and the environment. Social change is what he’s all about—making the world aware of the environmental issues he discovered as he worked through his post-graduate studies. To him, a “career” as a surfer is little more than a means to an end, a stamp of credibility that he hopes will inspire action in people who otherwise might not pay attention to the issues that are important to him.

Cliff occupies a very small niche in the surf world—that of the highly educated athlete. In a sport where not a single world tour competitor has a bachelor’s degree, Cliff’s two master’s degrees and PhD in chemistry make him pretty unique. In fact, you’d have to look back as far as Ricky Griggs (a personal hero of Cliff’s) to find another professionally successful surfer with a doctorate of science. And as one of only 50 Hawaiians to have earned a PhD, Cliff is even more of rarity.

But that’s something he would like to see change. In addition to dozens of other original concepts and ideas, one of Cliff’s goals is to see the WSL motivate competitors to attend college by offering a high QS seed to the top-ranked collegiate surfer. If college could provide a fast track to qualification, perhaps we’d see more role models with degrees—something that Cliff thinks would be great for surfing. After all, kids often emulate their heroes, and a higher level of education tends to correlate to more awareness about environmental and social issues.

This awareness is the ultimate goal of Cliff’s current professional life, and that fact became readily apparent after he nearly suffered career-ending injury five days into our trip. Sitting in the hospital with a (thankfully incorrect) diagnosis of multiple cervical fractures, waiting for a medevac to get him off the island and to a hospital with a spine specialist, Cliff and I were going over his rescue and discussing ways it could have gone more smoothly. As the conversation wound down, he suddenly said, “You know, obviously we don’t ever want anyone to get hurt—but if someone had to, I’m sure glad it was me.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right, and asked him what he meant. “Well, the whole point of what I’m doing is to help raise awareness about important issues. And now this injury will give me a platform to talk about the importance of travel insurance, and being prepared with an action plan when accidents occur—and even how important the coral reef that I just cracked my head on is to our ecosystem.”

The trudge home.

The trudge home.

I shook my head in disbelief. Here was a guy who thought he had a broken neck, and who was happy about it because it provided him with an opportunity to remind others how important it is to be prepared, and to talk about how fragile the reef and ecosystem is. I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of athlete I want kids to look up to, and the friend that I want to have—and I’m pretty certain I’ll remember that conversation long after the barrels we scored have faded from memory.


Matt Rott

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