Ben Fortun is a talented young surfer from the South Bay area of Los Angeles. Displaying both power and grace in his surfing, Ben is an outstanding example of someone who lives with aloha and is always striving to do his best. We spoke with Ben to learn more.
What was your childhood like?
My childhood was anything from average. My father was a semi-professional windsurfer and surfer and he opened a surf shop in Torrance, California. My earliest memories were from that shop – all the boards, customers, and team riders that hung around the store. I was lucky to have both of my grandparents very close to where I lived.
I spent many of my days at either of my grandparents houses because after my dad’s surf shop closed down, they worked full time at LAX for United Airlines. Spending time with my grandparents really groomed me to become a well-behaved kid – I never got into trouble and I had very good manners.
Because my parents worked for United Airlines, we would travel a lot. We would frequently visit Hawaii, New York, Boston, London, and San Francisco. I made friends overseas in Europe, I traveled to Spain, France, and Italy. My mom signed me up for the Cub Scouts when I was in 3rd grade, and I ended up becoming a Boy Scout and earned the Eagle Scout award, which is the highest rank in scouting.
I remember the morning of the September 11 attacks and remember being very confused. The toll that it took on this country was huge and many Americans felt the repercussions first hand. Unfortunately after those attacks, United Airlines had to file for bankruptcy and my mom was laid off of work. This meant that for a few years we struggled financially. Raising two kids on a minimal income was difficult for my parents. We all managed to pull through it and as a result, we came out of it stronger. That’s when I started focusing on surfing. It was cheap entertainment. While my peers had the latest video games or computers, my dad would take us to the beach and we would surf. He would get up at 3 a.m., work, get home at 1pm, and then would take us surfing. I was very fortunate.
When did you get your first surfboard?
My first “real” surfboard was a 10 foot longboard that my Dad shaped me. He didn’t think it was that great of a board, but I loved it. It had my Hawaiian name on it, “Makani” which was also the name of my Dad’s company. It was a tri-fin board, but with a traditional glass job and outline – all of which was a popular concept for that time. I still have the board, but I hardly ever ride it.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
I honestly can’t remember the first time I stood on a board, but I can remember a wave that my dad pushed me into at Cove Park in Maui when I was about 8. I remember he kind of just let me go and the wave made it feel like I was rolling down a hill. I had a lot of speed – and I rode it straight into a rock! I was so crushed because it was my Dad’s board and I had just destroyed it. He really wasn’t mad. I think he understood that I had no idea what I was doing.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a child?
My grandma, my dad’s mother, was an incredible woman. She was blind but she would go to her music room and play organ and piano and it sounded amazing. She was very musical and she taught me notes and how to memorize songs. She really contributed to my interest in music. My grandfather was very inspirational to me as well. He grew up in the Philippines during WWII and would tell me stories of how he would smuggle American POWs a radio so that they could signal for rescue. After the Japanese military destroyed his village, he had to live in a swamp and survive by eating snails and lizards. To think that he went through all of that and still able to become a successful electrician in America is just incredible to me. I am in the process of writing a book that tells the story of his life. I also really admire my parents because of their perseverance and dedication to help myself and my brother to succeed.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
I have been to many places in the world: Micronesia, Europe, and Hawaii. But nothing can duplicate the experience I had in Cuba. It’s a Communist country, but that didn’t stop my brother, uncle, and I from travelling down there to explore the culture. We stayed in a “casa particulare” or a family’s house that has a government certificate to house tourists. We could afford the nice hotels, but we opted to live like the Cubans. At airport security, I was held in interrogation for about two hours. They thought my shoes (navy oxfords that have a big heel) contained something. I was surrounded by AK-47s, drug sniffing dogs, and an old man who kept yelling things at me. They stabbed my shoe to the point-of-no-return! When they found nothing, they quickly smiled and said “Bienvenidos a Cuba”. After that experience, I feared we had made a wrong decision. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The people of Cuba love Americans and have a rich and beautiful culture. We made many friends, and we brought a huge package of donations to give to the Cuban people. Baseballs, shampoo, first aid kits, toilet paper, batteries, car supplies, and toothpaste. It was the best experience I have ever had in my life.
Who/what inspires you?
First and foremost, Mike Purpus. Mike is a legendary surfer from the 60s and 70s, and he has direct influence on the way I surf. He has pushed me to do contests, surf more, try new things, and give back to the community. He’s also in his sixties and still surfs like he’s twenty! Vic Otten is a local shaper who has been extremely generous in passing on his knowledge of board design to me. He continues to shape me boards and is never annoyed by my bombardment of questions. John Leininger, the longtime manager of Becker Surfboards and previously Rick Surfboards. He is one of the nicest human beings you will ever encounter. I strive to have the same outlook on life as John has. And there is Ryan Shaver, one of the most knowledgeable persons I know. He rides old boards, drives old cars, and listens to old music. He is a main influence on my style in and out of the water. He and his wife Stephanie have always been extremely kind and generous to me and they have passed on the habit of having an optimistic outlook on things.
Outside of surfing, I really enjoy the outdoors. Backpacking, camping, and fishing have all been a huge part of my life, and I enjoy it all as much as I enjoy surfing. Jazz music really inspires emotionally. I played guitar in Jazz Band in high school and I am a huge fan of Charles Mingus.
But I think my main source of inspiration is Phil Comito. Mr. Comito was my AP US history teacher during my Junior year in high school. He convinced me to start a club at Redondo Union High School called “Ohana O Kekai” or translated, “Family of The Sea.” It is a club that teaches the history and safety of the ocean and surfing while giving back to the community. Mr. Comito is the definition of a great teacher. His patience, kindness, and knowledge was respected by every one of his students. I surf with him a lot and he has inspired me to make a career choice to become a teacher. I remember once in class he gave us an article that said “You have the choice of your own destiny, mood, and success”. That quote is burned into my memory. He made us all more likely to succeed – instead of being plagued by apathy and cynicism. Because of Mr Comito, there are many students who will greatly succeed.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
The greatest thing I have ever learned is simple: “Treat everyone with kindness.” I feel that this is an elemental truth for society today. I strive to pass along kindness and courtesy to everyone I encounter. I feel everyone should do the same.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
I really have no regrets. I am very content on my state of being right now. I guess if I could have done things differently, I would have done them better. I’m always striving to be better.
What are you most proud of?
I am very proud of some of the awards I have received in my life. I have obtained the highest rank in Scouting, the Eagle Scout Award, a Congressional Award for Leadership, and the Ian White Award. Ian White was a very close friend of mine in Scouting, and unfortunately he passed away from cancer. The award was given to the Scout who best embodies the spirit of Ian and I was the first recipient. I am very proud of that.
What meaning does surfing hold for you?
As corny as it sounds, surfing to me means family. I enjoy going to the beach and surfing with all my friends. Putting aside localism, competitiveness, and greed – and just having a good time. Riding different boards, and getting away from any problems I may have on land. It’s what I look forward to every morning.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
I love helping people – whether it’s organizing events to donate money to charities, to holding a door open for an elderly woman in a store – it’s a great feeling. It’s even greater when there are people out there who might want to do those things for me.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
In an age where there are a lot of huge surfing corporations and the commoditization of surfing, a surfer named Brian Bent runs a small operation called United 50. It’s his idea to sell American-made clothing that incorporates his art into the designs. I am heavily influenced by his idea. He has a thriving grassroots product, but in a corporate medium. It’s refreshing to see that. I also really enjoy seeing pros who give back to the world. Professionals who take their time and money and donate it to a good cause. They are influencing the average surfer to help the people around them. In the South Bay, Peter Venardos. He’s a great surfer who is spreading a positive vibe and inspiring people to ride various forms of equipment.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surfspot?
My favorite board right now is a 9’7″ Gato Heroi “Smooth Operator,” shaped by Robbie Kegel. It’s so different from anything I ride. It’s essentially a displacement hull longboard. It is 17″ in the nose, and 16″ in the tail so it’s really narrow, but it surprisingly noserides really well. It sits on top of the water instead of sinking, so it’s almost like riding a magic carpet.
My favorite surf spot is Sapphire Street Jetty in Redondo. Unfortunately, they recently dredged it, which killed the waves for a long time, but it was a great spot. It was a great left off the jetty, that went into a channel. Pass the channel there was a right, and everyone always had a good time there.
What’s your favorite meal?
Island Style Loco Moco. Rice, a hamburger patty, gravy, and a sunny side up egg. Probably shouldn’t eat it more than once a year!
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
I wish I had an iPod! I listen to a lot of CDs though. Currently I bounce from Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Nashville Skyline” to Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” and The Clash’s “London Calling”. But I don’t go a single day without listening to the “Pet Sounds” album by the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson, in my opinion, is the greatest musician in the last 100 years. I just have to listen to that album every day. It is so complex that you can hear something different every time.
What are you most grateful for?
My family, friends, and the liberty of being an American.
What’s next for Ben Fortun?
Passing on the aloha to everyone I meet.
Photography by Adam Reynolds of BHB Surf.