“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
– Thomas Campbell
For 20 years, Jane Roberson has been keeping her son’s memory alive, not only in the hearts of the surfers he left behind, but also in the waves they ride.
On January 16, Roberson oversaw the 20th Annual Ho’okipa Surf Classic. The contest began in 1990 as a way to commemorate Justin Roberson, a gifted professional surfer on the World Qualifying Series (WQS) who died in a tragic alcohol-related traffic accident at the age of 19.
“Most everything I’ve done since then is in memory of my son,” explains Roberson. “For as long as I can remember, Justin was a waterman. Once, when he was four years old, he did not have a board with him at Lahaina Harbor, so he dragged a log off the beach and knee paddled it out to catch waves. People in the line-up noticed and started making boards for him.” Roberson cracks a pensive smile at the memory.
Justin would take those surfboards to new heights. Along with friend and fellow competitor Christian Fletcher, Roberson was instrumental in the aerial surfing movement born out of the late 1980s. His progressive style gave him a competitive edge that won him corporate sponsorships from Quicksilver, Gerry Lopez and Da Kine. But in the worst close-out imaginable, fate came crashing down on Roberson during his first year on the WQS, ending his dreams of becoming the first Maui boy on the World Championship Tour (a title taken by Lahaina’s Dusty Payne in December).
It’s said that bad things come in threes: 10 years after Justin’s death, the island’s surfing ‘ohana lost another of its own, with the untimely death of 18-year-old Eric Diaz. And in 2004, legendary aerial master Steve Cooney was killed in a single-vehicle accident at the age of 30.
“All three of these boys died too young by making poor choices,” explains Roberson. “They took chances with their lives and lost it all. But I am dedicated to keeping their memory alive. And the best way for me to do that is by taking care of the beach park they loved.”
In 2000, Roberson’s kuleana led her to become executive officer of the Surfrider Foundation, Maui Chapter, where she has donated countless hours to protect and preserve surf spots throughout the island.
In 2003, Maui was the first chapter in the state to implement the Blue Water Task Force, the Surfrider Foundation’s water-quality monitoring, education and advocacy program. In the same year, Roberson removed a landfill at the entrance to Ho’okipa Beach Park and used the space for a student native Hawaiian plant restoration project.
Roberson’s plant projects at Ho’okipa have won several awards, including the 2007 International Society of Arboriculture Award for Outstanding Landscape of a Public Space, the 2008 Scenic Hawaii Award for Outstanding Landscape Activities and runner-up to the Pacific Whale Foundation for MauiTime’s 2009 Best Environmental Non-Profit.
“The Surfrider Foundation has been an exemplary partner in the establishment and care of native vegetation,” says Maui County Parks and Recreation Director Tamara Horcajo. “Many groups offer to plant trees or plants in our public park areas, which is appreciated. However, the ongoing upkeep and maintenance of these plants is difficult for our minimal park maintenance staff.”
Roberson was the philanthropic voice of the surfing community when the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) was trying to expand Maalaea Small Boat Harbor, which would have interfered with Maui’s famous “Freight Train,” the fickle behemoth of a barrel that pile-drives onto the shallow reef at Maalaea Harbor. The spot is known by surfers as “the world’s fastest wave.”
ACE sought to improve the harbor’s entrance navigation and decrease surge by building a break-wall that extended 620 feet into Maalaea’s primary swell direction, threatening the wave and 11 acres of its precious coral. With a grant written by Roberson from the Ford Foundation, Surfrider hired a marine consulting firm to review the project’s Environmental Impact Statement. The results of the firm’s study contradicted ACE’s claim that the break-wall would significantly decrease surge. The Corps went back to the drawing board and the Freight Train chugs on—for now.
“As recently as March 2009, Ms. Roberson brought together approximately 30 representatives of the Maalaea community to openly share their concerns, issues and considerations on Maalaea with the Corps,” explains ACE biologist and project manager Cindy Barger. “Sharing information in this format with the Corps has allowed us to better understand the community and create a more collaborative process during the development of the reevaluation report.”
Roberson’s tireless efforts continue to have an immeasurably positive impact on the ‘aina. But like any strong leader, Roberson has run into her share of criticism. She is strong-minded, determined and ran Surfrider according to her singular vision. At the end of 2009, she stepped aside as the chapter’s executive officer.
In the view of Stuart Coleman, Hawaii Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, Roberson “realized that the chapter needed to move in a new direction.” But, he adds, “she is now working with a younger generation of leaders focusing on a wider range of issues.”
“I ran it to the best of my ability when nobody else wanted to step up as executive officer,” says Roberson, who is consulting with the new board in an ex-officio capacity.
Roberson’s plans also include starting a new non-profit, The Friends of Ho’okipa, which will oversee the fundraising and maintenance of the native plant restoration project.
The 20th anniversary of the Ho’okipa Surf Classic marked the event’s final year. Roberson is ending the contest, hoping to spend more time with her four young grandsons: Justin, Eric and Steve (named in memory of the three lost surfers) and Rider Maka’i whose name roughly translates to surf rider.
But so much for the tragic rule of three: in 2007, celebrated Maui artist and surfer Ron Cassidy died while surfing Mexico’s Puerto Escondido. Hauntingly, Cassidy once produced a painting of Justin Roberson.
To most surfers, the only thing more hallowed than the waves we ride is our relationships with the people we love. Jan Roberson says she can’t have one without the other. “I guess I’m still a protective mother of sorts,” she says. “Doing my best to save these waves is how I continue to care for my son, and also remember the other surfers that Maui lost too soon.”
For volunteer information, contact Jane Roberson: [email protected]