In 2010, Ocean Beach local Dirk Denny was surfing with his 13-year-old daughter at Drake’s Beach — his local break — while his family played on the beach nearby.

That day, as fate would have it, a retired fireman named Tim Ecke who had been surfing that break for nearly 40 years, was also in the water, along with his friend — a trained medic. As Ecke waited to catch his last wave of the day, he noticed a young boy struggling near a board. Making his way over, he saw what the boy was doing — pulling at the board’s leash — and began helping him, soon realizing there was a limp, unconscious man attached to it. That man was Dirk Denny.

Ecke’s training immediately kicked in, as he rushed Denny to the beach and began CPR, with help from his medic friend, and called for emergency rescue. Despite their heroic efforts that day, Denny did not make it. He was 49 years old.

fallen waterman's foundation

Paddle outs like this one that honor fallen watermen are what FWF wants to increase awareness around. Photo: Fallen Waterman’s Foundation

That story, as told to him by Ecke, is etched in Mark Hanley’s mind and is the reason he and a group of passionate watermen started what is today the Fallen Waterman’s Foundation. The 501(c)(3) was established 5 years ago to give back to families, who like Denny’s, have been faced with the unthinkable, and to pay tribute to the everyday heroes in these situations whose efforts deserve to be recognized.

“When I heard the story my heart sank at the thought of how Dirk's two daughters' lives had changed in an instant,” Hanley recalls. “My first thought was ‘How can I help his daughters and family?’ and that's how the FWF came about. I asked my friend Doug Palladini, who was president of SIMA at the time, if there was anything like the FWF, whose soul mission is to help the children of fallen watermen or women, and his answer was, ‘Sadly, there is not.'”

It was then that Hanley, who’s based in the San Francisco Bay Area, joined forces with Remington Hotchkiss out of Los Angeles, and Rob Green in Incline Village, Nevada, to elevate a cause that hits home for all three members.

Today, the organization seems to be making a difference on the ground in several regions, with the addition of its new digital presence and an increased awareness among communities, retailers and brands.

Fallen Waterman's Foundation

Fallen Waterman’s Foundation founder Mark Hanley and daughter Kelsey.

We had a chance to catch up with Hanley and hear how the foundation is currently making a difference. He says FWF’s stories are no different than many in our space, and hopes those whose lives have benefited from the gifts of the ocean will rally around its cause.

“We all have children of our own and can imagine what it must be like for a family to lose a parent. The FWF gives us a chance to give back in a unique way that will no doubt help the next generation as they start to become the leaders in our communities.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has your mission evolved since the organization was formed?

Our mission has literally evolved in just the last couple of months.

I finished a session at Fort Cronkhite in the Marin Headlands and was telling a guy in the parking lot about the FWF. He introduced me to a 20-year-old young woman who had lost her dad a few years earlier. He had taught her how to surf. I told her that she would be a candidate for a college grant from the FWF since her dad was a surfer.

Her response was that she was not ready to go to college. It was then that it dawned on me that some of these kids are possibly in need of counseling before they can even consider the next steps of their lives. A new goal of FWF is to find trained professionals that can help families move forward and work through their grief. The amazing part is that these professionals are stepping up and offering their services for free.

What are some of the ways you’ve been working to get the local surf community involved?

Fortunately, my 15 years at Vans has given me a number of connections in the Surf industry. These have helped me get the FWF message out through industry sites and even the North Shore News in Hawaii. The next step has been to start building our FWF community through social media. It's the fastest way to spread the word. Our goal is to have every member of the surf, diving and SUP/Sail/Kiteboarding community reach out to their friends and get them to engage with FWF.

The other critical piece is how we are building our FWF ambassador program. Instead of having chapters like the Surfrider Foundation, we are establishing ambassadors up and down the coast who are mainstays in their respective areas.

fallen waterman's foundation

Shaper Jon Berger is supporting FWF by placing its logo on each and every board he creates.

You mentioned a local shaper, Bald Jonny’s Longboards, is supporting FWF – how did he get involved?

One of my good friends at Vans introduced me to Jon Berger. He said that Jon is as committed to surfing as he is to skateboarding. That's all I needed to hear. Jon sells printers full time and shapes boards under his Bald Jonny's Longboards label. He came up with the idea to put the FWF logo on every board he sells and then he gives $50 per board to the FWF as a donation. Imagine if we can get Rusty, Channel Islands or Firewire to do the same thing!

How are you working to get other surf specific retailers on board with the cause?

I’ve spent my entire career calling on retailers, and I know that in most cases they become interested in a cause or a brand once they hear about it or are being asked for it by the customers that are coming into their stores. That's not a knock. It's about self-preservation. I believe it is better to start with a groundswell of interest in the community and then go to the retailers that would be good partners. This is accomplished through establishing our FWF ambassadors program.

Can you explain how the ambassador program works and how they are helping tell the story in their local communities?

We know how tribal the watermen community can be. That's why we network with our friends and ask, "Who do you know that would be a good ambassador?" We even take it as far as narrowing it down to specific surf spots. In Northern California, there is a completely different group of people that surf Fort Point versus Fort Chronkhite. Somebody that surfs the north side of Huntington Beach pier will probably not have that much success in Newport Beach. That's why we want ambassadors that are part of their specific community.

Our ambassadors help us reach out to those who can help with donations, create local events, and contact local companies that benefit from our passion for the water. We hope to identify groups that are interested in collaborating.

We’ve also talked to many restaurants along the coast that host paddle out ceremonies, and are willing to donate a portion of [reception] drink sales to the Fallen Waterman's Foundation.

We are also working to identify families in ambassador’s local communities who have lost a mom or a dad; the person does not have to have perished while they were surfing, diving or SUP/Sail/Kiteboarding. The FWF is there to support not just professional or sponsored athletes' families but also the everyday waterman or woman.

What has been the most rewarding aspect in FWF’s journey so far, and why?

The most rewarding aspect in the FWF journey so far is the feeling of doing something to help others, for no other reason than the fact that they need help.

fallen waterman's foundation

Celebrating the life of Fallen Waterman Craig “Cowboy” Mac Arthur, 1950-2016.

What can people reading this do to help support your mission? How can they get involved?

Our website is set up to accept donations with secure sources. We know that many people don't have time to get involved as ambassadors and, in most cases, that's where our donations are coming from.

Another way people can support our mission is to become unofficial ambassadors. Spread the word. Share our Facebook page with your friends. That's how things go viral. They can tell their local surf shop or restaurant about FWF or they can contact us to get their own companies involved. The more sponsors the better.

You'll see on our website a tab called "Talk Story." These are stories about water rescues that different people have been a part of during their lives. They are not lifeguard rescue stories, but instead stories that people can submit about what they did or how they were rescued by an everyday waterman or woman. These are stories of how a person becomes a hero helping somebody in their time of need.

The most compelling part is hearing about the lives they may have affected by their deeds. In every case, the rescuer walks away feeling like they were meant to be there at that very moment, and that perhaps they were given their skills and love for the water so they could help somebody else when they needed it most.

My goal is to collect these stories, put them in a book, and get it published, with the proceeds funding more college grants for the Fallen Waterman's Foundation.

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