Laird Hamilton paddling for charity
Hamilton, surfing for the
Beautiful Son Foundation
At 2 a.m. on a summer morning somewhere off the coast of San Clemente, California, professional surfer Laird Hamilton slices through the folds of the Pacific Ocean. He's on the final leg of a 110-mile stand-up paddle, ten miles out to sea, with no shoreline in sight. Aside from the glint of moonlight, visibility is low, but Hamilton, who routinely rides waves more than 80 feet high, thrives in situations like this. His all-night paddle, in fact, is merely a race to the starting line. Tomorrow he'll embark on a cycling competition from San Diego to Annapolis, Maryland, known as the Race Across America, and as signs of sleep deprivation and delirium have already begun to surface from 18 hours of paddling, one can't help asking, "Why?"

For charity.

"It gives us a purpose beyond our own personal achievement," says Hamilton, whose journey raised money for cystic fibrosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, and autism—conditions that have affected people close to him. "It's really about the causes; we've found that gives a drive and a motivation we might not have otherwise."

While Hamilton's commitment to philanthropy is impressive, it's increasingly common among his surfing colleagues. Surprisingly, the sun-streaked, stuttering-Spicoli counterculture widely regarded as apathetic to anything other than the latest wave report now includes some of the planet's more socially aware athletes. "I think there's something there genetically with us—somehow engineered into the way we live our lives," says nine-time world champion Kelly Slater, who started the Kelly Slater Foundation in 2007, and cofounded Surfing for Peace, which promotes constructive dialogue in the Middle East. (Slater also lends time and money to causes like Surfers Healing, which has taught more than 3,000 autistic kids to surf.) "Although we want to have waves to ourselves, I think we have a worldwide sense of community, and we tend to try to keep it that way when something comes along we can help with."

"Honestly, it's a no-brainer," says three-time U.S. Open of Surfing champion Rob Machado of surfers' propensity to give. As founder of the Rob Machado Foundation, he encourages ocean awareness in San Diego schools. "If you can reach out to kids and show them the right way, I think that's going to spread for years."