Surf Shacks 016 – Jon Rose

Jon Rose is a former pro surfer who founded Waves For Water, an organization dedicated to bringing clean water to those who need it all around the world. Jon is a simple man who lives a not-so-simple life traveling the world 3 weeks out of every month. His “home” consists of two locations: an apartment in New York City and a cabin in Topanga Canyon. It’s a bi-coastal lifestyle that has proven to be efficient and necessary to maintain stability in Jon’s busy life. We caught up with Jon in both his NYC pad and at home in Topanga to hear more about the crazy life he leads, and to hear how he likes to spend his few precious days at both his east and west coast homes. Check out the full interview and photo feature here:

Jon Rose is a former pro surfer who founded Waves For Water, an organization dedicated to bringing clean water to those who need it all around the world. Jon is a simple man who lives a not-so-simple life traveling the world 3 weeks out of every month. His “home” consists of two locations: an apartment in New York City and a cabin in Topanga Canyon. It’s a bi-coastal lifestyle that has proven to be efficient and necessary to maintain stability in Jon’s busy life. We caught up with Jon in both his NYC pad and at home in Topanga to hear more about the crazy (more on this later) life he leads, and to hear how he likes to spend his few precious days at both his east and west coast homes.

Who are you? Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Jon Rose. I’m a Pisces. I founded Waves For Water, I was a pro surfer before that, and I think that’s about it.

Where are you from?

I was born in Golden, Colorado. My dad was a ski instructor, my mom was into wellness, she was a massage therapist and a nutritionist. So I guess I had pretty hippy-ish parents. I moved to Southern California when I was about 2, San Clemente first then to Laguna. For the most part I grew up in Laguna Beach, I went to high school there and everything.

Where and when did you learn to surf?

I actually learned to surf in Mexico. My very first session – real session was when I was about 9 years old with my dad. We went down and lived in Sayulita, before it was a big tourist destination. We drove down in my dad’s pickup truck and stayed with my dad’s buddy who was like the first ex-pat guy living down there. We camped for about 3 months on his land and that’s where my dad first taught me how to surf. When we came back to Laguna after that 3 months, I was in like 5th grade and was super into it from then on.

My dad grew up in the South Bay of Los Angeles and surfed all those breaks up there from Manhattan Beach to Palos Verdes. He kinda got the ski bug when he was in high school, which made him want to move to the mountains and dedicate his life to skiing, but he grew up surfing, so that’s where I got it from.

How long have you been bi-coastal, splitting your time between NYC and LA?

I’ll always call my place in Topanga my home, since I am from Southern California, but at this point I think I spend more time in New York. That said, I spend more time on the road than either of the two places combined, so I guess my real home is out on the road.

I’ve been living in my Topanga home for about 6 years now. Then 3 years ago when Hurricane Sandy hit I decided to set up a comprehensive disaster relief program through Waves For Water in New York. It wasn’t really focused around water (the relief program), but I went over there because I had so much experience with disaster relief abroad that I figured I’d leverage the organization and do the best I could to rebuild and help those areas get back on their feet.

Because of that I stayed in New York for a year straight, fully immersed in those efforts. After that, I just kept my place there because New York is the “get shit done” capitol of the world. It seemed to make sense to have a presence or base there since so many other organizations, corporations and players who help support what we do are all close to the city. So after our Sandy efforts, it just sort of made sense for us to stay based in NYC and I have basically been bi-coastal ever since.

How often are you on the road these days?

I’m a minimum of 2 weeks out of every month on the road, but realistically I’m gone about 3 weeks per month. I travelled about 400,000 miles last year.

What are your favorite things about being home in NYC?

New York is all about work for me. I dig NYC and the energy there, but it’s not the kind of place I want to live full time or end up, so I’ve gotten to this point where I use NYC for what it is (to me). I go in there and I just power through work, I’m totally energized and turned on to be work-focused. I’m in that hustle and bustle state of mind while I’m there.

My place in NY doesn’t exactly reflect that though. I’ve made it pretty clean, mellow and quiet. It’s my little escape from the hustle and bustle around me when I’m there, it’s my little bubble. It’s really open and gets a lot of natural light, I’m a pretty minimal guy. Sometimes if I don’t have anything going on one day when I’m in the city, I’ll just chill and stay in the apartment all day.

I also have motorcycles in both NY and Topanga, which is great for when I just want to escape and clear my mind. Of course I’ll surf when I can too, but it’s really more about work when I’m in NY.

What are your favorite things about being home in Topanga?

Because most of my work is done while I’m on the road or in NY, Topanga is more like my retreat. It’s in the woods, I have no neighbors, it’s so quiet at night, and that’s all by design. If I’m gonna be doing the hustle & bustle grind in NY and also going out and working all over the world in really intense environments – I’m not going to Bora Bora on vacation, I’m going to the interior of Africa where it is hard, what I want when I come home to Topanga is purely lifestyle based. I want to be able to ride my motorcycles through the canyon, I want to sleep really well, I don’t have cell service at my house, I want to surf, I want to be in nature, but I’m also still somewhat connected to reality because it’s only a 20 minute drive down the canyon into the heart of Los Angeles if I need to be there.

So I have really created these two different spaces, which I feel like are the only way that I could do it all, to sustain my work lifestyle.

Nice, it seems like you have it all pretty dialed at this point.

Well it’s not by accident, it’s been very much thought out and considered by me getting burnt out and making mistakes along the way. Things have gotten more clear for me over the years about where I want to be and how I want to live and exist in the world.

Where are your favorite places to surf near both of your homes?

My favorite places to surf while I’m in NY are in New Jersey actually. Sam Hammer is a good buddy of mine and he keeps me pretty tapped in whenever I’m in town and there’s swell. I definitely miss a lot of good sessions back east though and I’m the first one to admit it, but I am mostly working when I’m there.

When I’m at home out west I’m usually surfing Topanga or Malibu. Topanga because it is literally 6 minutes down the hill from my doorstep and it’s such a fun, rippable right point break. I’ll also surf Malibu quite often because it picks up a little bit more swell. Then I like going north too above Zuma, all those little nooks and crannies. Then Oxnard to Ventura when there’s more swell, there are so many fun waves around here.

What made you decide to start Waves For Water in the first place?

The simplest way to put it would be that I was already traveling around the world a lot as a pro surfer and had been to many of these places that had a lot of needs. I wasn’t focused on that at the time, it wasn’t something I was passionate about at that point in my life, but I did see it and was exposed to everything. I think that stays with you subconsciously.

It was at a time when I started to transition out of my surfing career and try to figure out what the next chapter of my life would be. It’s crazy, when you’ve been just doing one thing your whole life, your number one focus ever since you were a kid, then you realize that all the other kids are better than you and you just have to stop and assess things. I was always very much a realist about my surfing career. I was grateful to have it for as long as I did, but I wasn’t in any sort of delusion or denial that I was slowly being phased out. At a certain point in time, I knew that the ride would be over. And when it did finally start to look that way and contracts with sponsors began to get smaller and smaller, I had the idea to start an organization.

In all honesty, at the time it was somewhat selfishly motivated. I thought, whatever it is or ends up being, I will have it on my resume for my next job or whatever and be able to tell my boss that I had this organization that I started and I go to Indonesia a couple times a year. It was very genuine in it’s initial intent, it wasn’t a scam or anything, but my passion for it in the long term wasn’t as deep as it is now. I knew I could rally my whole crew and generation from surfing to get behind it and still get to surf and travel, but at the same time be able to help wherever we were in these places we love.

So that’s basically how it got started. I bought a bunch of water filters and went on a trip to Indonesia on a surf trip, and thought I’d train these villagers and donate the filters. But while I was there, a huge earthquake hit – it was like a 7.2 on the richter scale. This was the big one in 2009 that completely leveled Padang. So I became the first responder there by accident and I happened to have a real, viable way to help.

That experience was pivotal for me and it completely changed everything, it changed my life. The experience of being there alone was intense, but the realization and the epiphany of being able to see how much you could make a difference on your own, without even thinking that you are doing much at the time. Those filters really helped a lot of people and I got a crash course in a lot of different things – from clean water and everything related to that cause, to disaster relief, and also my own character, values and skill sets. I learned skills that I never thought I’d have.

It was the “ah ha!” moment for me. I’m not traditionally a religious person, but to put it in those terms, it was like a divine intervention type thing. And from that point forward, I was basically obsessed. I haven’t been able to focus on anything else since then. Everything became clear to me and I realized this was my calling in life.

You guys are not just doing foreign aid in 3rd world countries though. Tell us a little more about how you helped out in NYC after Hurricane Sandy.

So as an organization, we are are primarily focused around providing access to clean drinking water, that is what we do. That being said, we do a lot of disaster relief that may or may not revolve around water. Before Hurricane Sandy hit, I had already responded to 9 or 10 disasters since I started the organization. I lived in Haiti for 2 years, I responded to the tsunami in Japan and Indonesia, the earthquake in Chile, pretty much all the big ones. Because I had responded to those – even though I was focused on water programs, I was really immersed in all aspects of the recovery.

So when Sandy hit, there wasn’t really a need for our water programs, but I just felt like I had the experience and expertise in the whole recovery process. I knew what to do and I had the experience, so I just decided to leverage the organization and tap into everyone who had ever supported us.

I wrote up a big multi-phased road to recovery, put it out there and said, “I know what to do, it doesn’t mean I’m not gonna make mistakes, but let’s do this.” What it entailed was everything from supply distribution, to localized relief centers in all the hardest hit areas, which would then be the distribution hubs of all those supplies we were getting – like baby supplies to  toiletries, clothes, demo tools & materials, anything you can imagine. We created this whole network of supply distribution locations in the first phase, then the second phase was rubble and debris removal – which was literally renting a bunch of dump trucks to clear streets and clearing old houses. Then the third phase, which is still going on, is rebuilding. We have helped rebuild hundreds of homes, schools, firehouses. We even served 40,000 hot meals from a food truck we did with another partner. So it was a really comprehensive response to all of the needs related to that disaster.

This was basically an anomaly for us – it’s not really what we normally do, but it really struck a chord personally for me because of where it was, so I felt compelled to step in and get involved. I’m really proud of the impact we had though.

Hurricane Sandy was clearly a little outside of what you guys are normally doing with W4W. Tell us more about what you do on a more regular basis.

When we go into countries (in Africa or Asia for example) that are more under-developed and don’t have the environmental regulations that we have here, it’s less about things like drought and more about pollution for instance.

We do a lot of earthquake relief related work in Haiti, probably 10 programs with the UN, which are not really disaster related. Everything from a cholera relief appeal in response to a cholera outbreak.

Clean water is basically preventative medicine, it’s like kryptonite to something like cholera. We work hand in hand with a lot of medical organizations for that very reason. So if a medical organization goes into Haiti to work with a certain region, 90% of the stuff that they’re working on daily basis are water-related illnesses. And they are fairly – actually, very preventable. This is proper international aid and development, you’re going in and you’re supplementing a missing piece of infrastructure. In their case medical, in our case, water and sanitation.

We are working in collaboration with these other groups, together so the greater good is met. So if we go in and do our program, that cuts down all those cases of illnesses. They are serious cases because of what they can lead to. A lot of places we work in have a 50% infant mortality rate, so half of all babies die because they don’t have the intestinal fortitude and immunities to combat e coli, salmonella, cholera, giardia, typhoid. When we go in and do our program it prevents all those cases from having to be treated by the medical groups. Then the medical groups can go in and really treat the more serious, more acute issues that they are coming across down there. Together we are really improving the quality of life in the area by working in conjunction with medical groups.

We also partner with educational groups, like in Sierra Leone for instance. We partnered with a good local organization there who is focused on education, building a school and setting up a good curriculum. We supplemented their efforts by building rain catching systems all around the school and filtration systems at all the homes of the villagers. By the time we were done, they were completely sustainable in terms of clean water. In places that are developed, that kinda stuff is taken care of, that choice has been made for you. You can go over to your sink, turn on the water, drink it and you won’t get sick because it’s treated. But in these places that doesn’t exist. By creating the rain catching system, we are creating a source of water for them, but it’s not necessarily clean or safe. So then you do the filtration systems for the families, and the combination of the two has them completely dialed. Now that little piece of infrastructure that’s missing is now there. That’s an example of a more long term, sustainable, development initiative that we do.

So how are you targeting these areas for your initiatives? Are people reaching out to you from these places or are you identifying areas that you think need more help than others?

It’s a combination of all of it really. To be honest, when you do this kind of work you are always in these regions and the need is seemingly endless. We have programs in about 15 countries and if we just stuck to those regions alone, we’d be busy for the rest of our lives.

If it’s mother nature related (so if there is a disaster), that puts the focus on one place in particular sometimes. They may have already needed our help, but now it is super urgent. Or if we have been to an area before and know that there is more work to be done there. Or sometimes it’s partner-based, like the UN for example. Maybe they already have a program in motion, but need our programs to be implemented as part of their larger initiative.

We live in a time where we are seeing a lot of extreme weather due to climate change. What do you see as some of the biggest challenges we face in the near future and what is your take on the current drought situation in California?

The earth provides enough water for everyone, period. It’s a fact that the earth provides the same amount of water, always. There’s not a water shortage, it’s just that there is an imbalance. It’s how we receive that water that is making the difference.

People around the world for thousands of years have been collecting rainwater, it’s an old practice. I think we need to look toward that. Even if you live in a place that doesn’t rain much, if you catch it when it does rain, you can have enough. All you need to do this is have surface area and a place to store the water. We have been taught in our society that when it rains, that’s bad. When it comes to building and stuff like that, we design things to shed water so that all the water gets away from the structure. There needs to be a whole re-education of that process so that we are designing buildings to capture the water and use it. That’s something that I think would be really cool – not so much of an innovation, but it’s more of a return to that way of life and what we have done in the past and what you find people doing in rural areas all over the world.

So there’s that, and there is also of course being more conscious of conservation in more imbalanced, heavily populated areas. Just the awareness in larger metropolitan areas like Los Angeles for instance is key.

The other thing is that we live here in Southern California, which is a desert climate. We siphon water from Colorado and all these other sources to make it look like it’s not a desert, to make it feel like an oasis. Whoever the powers that be were at the time thought that’d be a good idea and it’d be attractive for more people to come out here. And it worked.

But the drought and all the stuff we are going through now is nature correcting itself in a sense (in my opinion). There is a very high likelihood that we will go to our faucets at some point soon and nothing will come out. But it also doesn’t mean we are doomed either. It’s just that the powers that be now will need to re-think everything and start to get creative with making new ways to receive that water.

I think it’s a combination of everything, from consciousness, preservation, awareness, re-thinking the old models, and how we can harness what water is there to help our cause.

The global water crisis is two-prong though, there’s the environmental side and the humanitarian side. The environmental side includes the drought, etc. We at W4W speak more to the humanitarian side, which is basically water-born illness and trying to mitigate the sickness and death that come as a result of that. It doesn’t mean those issues don’t cross over, but we will not have a humanitarian crisis here (in the US). We may run out of water, or we may not have a lot of it anymore – we may have to change, like only take showers once a week or something. But we are a developed country, we have infrastructure and we are gonna have access to safe water in some capacity.

How can someone get involved with W4W?

There are a bunch of different levels of participation. One thing you can do is just go on our site a donate to one of our projects.

We also have built a crowdfunding platform on our site. So you can just donate to the organization directly, or you could actually create a fundraiser (like a CrowdRise or Kickstarter) and crowd fund through your own network to support our projects. So it’s a little more of a personal way to direct your support toward our specific projects that resonate with you.

Then a step further, another higher level of participation would be going out there and doing it yourself. We call it the Clean Water Courier Program, it’s sort of our version of a volunteer program. You can still set up a crowdfunding project that will help generate the funds for you get filters for your trip. The idea was that we wanted to piggyback on travellers that were already going places, and then we’ll be there to guide them and be their ongoing resource throughout the process for them to be able to go do this effectively. The idea is that it’s this whole decentralized, DIY, guerilla mentality of saying, “I’m going on a surf trip or even on a work trip (like if you work in fashion for instance), and I have to go to Thailand to visit the factories that make our clothes, but I want to also help the local community while I’m there.” Our whole tagline is “go do what you love and help along the way”, so we want to encourage people to go out and travel, do the things they love, but try to do a little good along the way by getting some filters and offload them wherever they’re going. It’s just about doing their part in these areas of the world that need help. They don’t need to try to save the world or anything, but just craft your own experience. We are going to give you the tools and the know-how to be able to engage in these places a little bit more than you would normally. And collectively if everyone does that – I mean, let’s say a million travelers did that with one filter each, it would actually change the global statistics in a significant way.

Any parting thoughts or words to live by?

The one thing that comes to mind for me lately has been the whole notion of “being crazy.” For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had friends or people around me jokingly or in a light-hearted way be like, “Jon you’re crazy.” Whether that has been because I wanted to ride my motorcycle down to Baja or going to Afghanistan to do a project with the US military, or going to North Korea, or whatever. For more adventurous people it’s not crazy, but for most of the people around me, they think it’s “crazy”, I hear that a lot.

And I always thought that it doesn’t feel crazy, that’s just who I am. If you want to call that something like being a thrill seeker, fine. But I just always felt like what has generated the most passion in me was that sense of exploration and discovery. Not just externally (like going out there and exploring and discovering places), but internally too because by doing that you learn more about yourself.

I remember being in Haiti a couple years ago at this voodoo pilgrimage with about 20,000 Haitians and I was like the only foreigner there. It was intense, there were voodoo ceremonies going on everywhere and I was sitting in the back of this pickup truck on this really crowded street corner in this village somewhere. I was sitting with this local Haitian guy taking it all in and I just said, “This is crazy!” He then turned to me and said in really broken English, “Jon, the crazy, to the world goes.” Basically what he meant was that the ones who are considered crazy are the ones who really get to see what this world has to offer. So in other words, the world goes to the crazies.

That just has always resonated with me ever since and actually inspired me to be more crazy… I guess the main takeaway is that if someone tells you that what you’re doing is crazy, then you know you’re doing the right thing.

To find out more about Waves For Water and how you can get involved, please visit:

Waves For Water


/ New York Photos by Pat Dougherty
/ Topanga Photos and Interview by Matt Titone

Check out more Surf Shacks here.

Matt Titone

A goofy-footed graphic designer who hails from the first state, Delaware. After attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL then graduating from SCAD in Savannah, GA with a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration, Matt moved to NYC and found work as a freelance designer and art director. In 2006 he moved west to Venice, CA where he co-founded ITAL/C Studio and now resides a bit further north in Oxnard.

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