Life in Salt: Jackson English, Paddleboard Champion and 2014 SurfAid Humanitarian of the Year

by Owen James Burke

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Photo Courtesy: Jackson English

Perspective is lost on many a modern day surfer: from the moment we’re out the door and in the shuttle to the airport, we can become preoccupied with hotel check-ins, surf reports, and scheduling around those surf reports. Scrupulous diligence is often required to catch “the wave” — the one on which a surfer can ruminate from their office desk until their next vacation, 6, 8, or 12 months out. This leaves precious little time and attention to acknowledge other conditions existing in the places we are traveling so far to surf. Many of these places are considered to be part of the underdeveloped, or third world (Indonesia, Central America, Africa, etc.), and wholly desperate for the things we are accustomed to having — or not having, as the case may be — ever-ready at our disposal. Maybe we take a mental image or snap a photograph of some haunting case of poverty we can’t even begin to grasp. We get home, upload the photograph, and stare at it for a moment, pledging quietly to ourselves that next time, we’ll do something about it. But a cold winter or 6, 8, or 12 waveless months go by, and we’re foaming at the mouth, chafing at the bit with nothing but the thought of putting ourselves into that perfect wave, which we somehow missed in the previous year.

Then there maybe comes a time, with any hope, when we become resolute to give aid to people in these desperate conditions, unthinkable to so many of us. Maybe it takes witnessing something so horrific, so saddening that it digs as deep as it has to until some circuitry is blown and we have to do something about it. Then maybe, we simply realize that we are able to help, and that taking simple actions before our trip even begins — which won’t bring down our precious wave count on that one vacation week a year — can make all the difference. This was the lightbulb that went off in the mind and soul of waterman, teacher and father of three, Jackson English, SurfAid’s 2014 Humanitarian of the Year Award recipient.

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Photo Courtesy: Jackson English

Jackson English is a native of Australia. He moved to Singapore 10 years ago to pursue a career in education, staving off his appetite for waveriding by taking intermittent surf trips to the famously far-flung and uncrowded Mentawai Islands. Most heavily traveled by surfers, this stretch of islands along Sumatra’s Indian Ocean coast is largely undeveloped, for better and worse.

While in the Mentawai Islands, English came across communities so remote and impoverished that young children were walking around with diseases that are so easily preventable. He was devastated — as a human being, but moreover as a father with three young children of his own.

English then returned to Singapore, a nation of wealth and medical facilities beyond anything communities in the Mentawai Islands could envision, and knew he had to do something. Then one day while doing laps in the pool at the United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA) in Singapore, the idea struck him to hold a swimming event to raise awareness and funding. Ten years later, between beach cleanups, swim events, barbecues and movie nights, he’s helped raise over $500,000 on behalf of SurfAid, making him their single-most “prolific individual fundraiser in the 14-year history of the non-profit organization.”

Mr. English is also a competitive swimmer, triathlete, and a world champion paddleboarder, having placed second and third three times respectively in the annual Molokai to Oahu paddleboard race — an exhausting 32-mile open ocean paddle between the two Hawaiian Islands. Though he still hasn’t won the race yet, he will. He holds one of the top ten record times for crossing the finish line in the event’s 18-year history.


What was your childhood like — did you spend much of your time near the water?

I guess surfing and the ocean have been in my blood since I was born on the New South Wales Central Coast nearly 40 years ago. My parents grew up on the sand at Bondi Beach (Australia) through the 60’s and their first date was to see Bruce Brown’s “The Endless Summer” when it came through Australia for the first time. I was lucky to grow up in a family where we were always close to the water either swimming, surfing or sailing. My passion for the sea grew out of being in it whenever I could. It became a place where I was able to enjoy myself no matter what it’s mood.

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Photo: Quiksilver Blog

Do you spend much time on the water with your family (or think you will, once the move home is made)?

At every opportunity my kids are on or in the water. We spend a lot of time in Singapore in the pool or down at the beach paddling around. There are no waves here but it’s fun to play in the water on the right day. The kids are able to paddle or sail and it’s lots of fun. When we are at the beach we can’t keep the kids away. They love it and so do I. My eldest daughter is hooked on surfing and there is nothing better than seeing her so excited at the end of a wave and coming back out for more. She has claimed two of my boards as her own and covered them in Roxy stickers and dreams to one day be like her idol Stephanie Gilmore.

Are they involved with SurfAid, too?

The kids have been involved with SurfAid very actively. Between the three of them they swim laps to raise funds, participate in SurfAid activities at school and help out when events are being organized. Helping others has become a part of their life that I hope will continue to grow as they get older.

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Mr. English receives SurfAid’s 2014 Humanitarian of the Year Award. Photo: Tim Bonython/SurfAid

When did you find out about SurfAid? Why, initially, were you compelled to work with them?

Before moving to Singapore in 2004 I knew about the work that SurfAid was doing in the Mentawai Islands but not much more. At the time, I was more interested in getting out to the Mentawais and surfing as much as I possibly could. When I started to work at the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore I quickly became aware of the role I could play to become an active contributor to the communities I was part of. One morning whilst doing some laps in the pool, I came up with an idea to host a swim event in the College pool where we open it for 24 hours and invite members of our community to come along and swim as many laps as they could to help raise awareness and funds for SurfAid. Our first swim in 2006 was such a success that we ended up raising over $40,000 for SurfAid who were able to purchase mosquito nets as part of their “Malaria Sucks” initiative. Since then we have held 8 swim events, beach clean ups, BBQ’s and movie nights at the College and have raised over $500,000 for SurfAid and their programs. Earlier this year we had over 1500 people swim during the Swim 4 Life event over a 12 hour time frame.

What have you valued most about working with SurfAid?

There is nothing better than seeing a community come together to help others. Our swim events bring family and friends together to support the incredible work that SurfAid are doing. With three healthy, happy children of my own under the age of ten it breaks my heart to see young kids suffering from easily preventable diseases that are so prevalent in third world countries. Working with SurfAid is the least that I can do.

Paddleboarding is somewhat obscure as far as board sports go; who or what got you started?

During my teens I was involved in the Surf Life Saving Association at Avoca Beach in Australia where I competed in all forms of races either swimming or paddling. Paddling on a board was something I really enjoyed and it gave me an opportunity to get out onto the water when the waves were small. There is nothing better than being out in the ocean gliding along open ocean swells. I really enjoyed the racing in and out of the beach but wanted something more. In 1997 a small group of Hawaiians, Australians and Californians paddled across the Ka’iwi Channel between the islands of Molokai and Oahu in Hawaii, a distance of 32 miles. I heard about the race not long after Australian Mick DiBetta won it for the first time. Mick came back to Australia telling everyone how incredible the paddle was – 25 knots of wind and 6-8 foot of open ocean swells for miles. It was after hearing Mick talk about the race that I decided I had to try it for myself. Two years later I competed in my first Molokai to Oahu paddleboard race.

I remember enjoying about half of the race and absolutely hating the rest of it. I had no idea what I was getting myself in for and when I finished, I vowed never to paddle a board ever again. Not long after coming home I started thinking about doing the race again. Since then I’ve crossed the Ka’iwi Channel 9 times where I have finished second three times and third three times. The race takes about 5 hours to complete on my 18 foot Joe Bark paddleboard. I like to say it’s 3 hours of fun and an hour of pain followed by an hour of absolute misery. With about an hour to go in the race I wonder why I ever decided to do the race again but there is something about it that keeps me going back. There is more to going across the channel that just the race. For me, it’s about the people, the stories and the aloha.

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Photo Courtesy: Jackson English

After 10 years in Singapore, you and your family are moving back to New South Wales, where you’re from. What triggered the move?

My wife Anna and I moved to Singapore before our eldest daughter Grace was born and she turned 10 last week. Since then we’ve had two more kids (Lily, 7, and Max, 5). We’ve had such an amazing time and have been fortunate to experience the wonders of differing cultures and people across Asia and Indonesia. Our kids are seasoned travelers who have inquiring minds and are able to appreciate what is around them. Having said that, after ten years living abroad it is time to go home and live in our house we have never lived in and be closer to our extended family. We want the kids to live more of an outdoor life and have their feet in the sand and bodies in the ocean. Personally I want to get back in the ocean more and be able to jump in for a surf, swim or paddle with the kids after a day at work.

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Photo Courtesy: Jackson English

Do you plan to continue to work with and/or promote SurfAid in New South Wales? If so, how?

Being involved with SurfAid is something that I know I will continue to do. Fortunately at UWCSEA we have a sustainable group of students and teachers who support SurfAid and the work they do. In May next year there will be another Swim4Life event with the support of Quiksilver. The students will organize and coordinate the event themselves which is great to see and what we want them doing.

Personally I have a dream to paddle and surf my way across the Mentawai Island chain. I’d love to start at Nias in the north and paddle between all the islands and surf on the way until we reach Palau Pagai-utara in the south. I’m also keen on a few other events on the east coast of Australia where I can continue to raise awareness and funds for people in Indonesia, a place I love.

What would you say to engage other world-traveling surfers’ interests in contributing to SurfAid, or even spearheading similar organizations in other parts of the world?

When traveling the world, make sure your eyes are open to what is going on around you in environments that are so different and diverse to the one you come from. Be open, be giving and challenge yourself. Don’t forget to tell your friends that when they travel, they should do the same.

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Photo Courtesy: Jackson English

Who are some of your heroes, and what are a few of your favorite books about the sea?

I have lots of heroes across many different walks of life. Anyone who is able to move out of their comfort zone and challenge them self to do something they have never done before is a hero. My wife and kids are my heroes and teach me new things about myself everyday. My father was a hero and I think about him every day. He passed away from cancer over 20 years ago when I was 18. I never once heard him complain. He fought to the last second and not once did he give up the fight.

In the sporting world, I think Kelly Slater is the best athlete we’ve ever seen. More than 20 years after his first world title he is still pushing himself to be the best he can be. Guys who are innovative and challenge the status quo such as Laird, Kalama and Shane Dorian are people I greatly admire as well. I love watching elite athletes from all sports train hard and achieve what they set out to do.

I recently read the book That Summer at Boomerang by Phil Jarratt and it left a strong impression on me. It’s about Duke Kahanamoku, his life, and his trip to Australia and New Zealand in 1914/15. His love for the ocean and willingness to share it with as many people as possible was extraordinary. I would have loved to have been around at that time and be part of something so new.

One of my favorite books about the sea is Born to Win by Australian John Bertrand. The story is about him skippering Australia II to victory in the 1983 America’s Cup. The determination he showed to overcome the arrogance of the New York Yacht Club and the adversity they faced to win left a long lasting impression on me to always try your best and never give up not matter what is being thrown at you.

As a waterman, any favorite tools, gadgets or pieces of equipment to bring with you on the water?

We are in the process of packing up all our gear in Singapore and last week I sat with my kids and worked out how many pieces of surfcraft we have. It turns out we have about 18 boards ranging from a 6″0 Dick Van Straalen fish to an 18 foot Joe Bark Paddleboard and everything in between. I’m lucky to have a range of boards for differing conditions and try to use all of them as often as possible. Sometimes though I love jumping in the water and bodysurfing with one of my kids on my back.

When paddling I use a GPS (Garmin Forerunner 310XT) to track distances and speeds but that is about it. For me being in the ocean is about being away from everything on land so I try to keep it as simple as possible.


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Photo: Quiksilver Blog

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