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John Kelly

“Big fish eat little fish...until little fish get organized!”- John Kelly

Born in 1919, John Kelly lived and led by example.  He was known as a decorated sailor, big-wave pioneer and activist. During his lifetime, Kelly formed a grassroots environmental organization called Save Our Surf (SOS), which brought the local community together to preserve local surf sites, temporarily halting the rising tide of development. His work with SOS paved the way for organizations like The Surfrider Foundation. Kelly excelled in many things, but he is best remembered as an environmental champion.

Throughout his life, Kelly never shied away from a challenge. Instead he faced each obstacle he encountered with steadfast determination and relentless passion.

Surfing was always a passion of Kelly’s. His earliest surfing adventures took place near Black Point, where he would occasionally play hooky from school in order to catch the irresistible waves. In 1963 he designed the first hydroplane surfboard, which he called his “hot curl” board in order to pioneer the big waves at Makaha.  His “hot curl” board is atestament to Kelly’s creativity and his determination to face obstacles head-on. Kelly continued surfing until he was in his 70’s and was featured in a documentary called Surfing For Life

Kelly witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor and served in the Navy during WWII. His skills as a free diver and his courage earned him a Navy-Marine Diver medal of valor for his voluntary aid in retrieving submerged and undetonated torpedoes off the coast of Kaho'olawe. It is interesting to note that he retrieved the torpedoes with nothing more than goggles, rope, and a tremendous sense of courage. When the Chicago Daily News War Service interviewed Kelly about his heroic actions he explained, “Any islander could have done it.”

In 1946 Kelly became concerned when developers threatened the reefs near a popular Waikiki surf site. Driven by his passion for the sea, Kelly founded the grassroots environmental organization SOS in order to protect the Waikiki site. He structured SOS around the following three principles: respect the intelligence of the people, get the facts to them, and help them develop an action program. Kelly was determined to succeed and overcome the constant threats of new developments. He designed and printed the flyers and brochures on his own family printing press in order to promote the efforts of SOS. His hard worked paid off and the Waikiki surf spot was saved. SOS harnessed the collective power of the "little fish" and went on to preserve roughly 140 more surf sites and coastal areas.

Building on the success of SOS, the Surfrider Foundation's Oahu Chapter recognizes and continues his legacy of protecting local beaches, surf spots and coastal areas. In 2003 Kelly became the first recipient of Surfrider O'ahu's John Kelly Lifetime Achievement Award.Each year the Surfrider Foundation hosts hosts their annual John Kelly Environmental Awards Party as a way of honoring his memory and continuing his efforts to protect the environment.


 The chapter nominates and awards environmentally conscious individuals and companies in order to foster and perpetuate Kelly’s legacy. The awards are divided into the following categories: Lifetime Achievement, Professional Surfer, and Local Company.  Following in his wake, Surfrider volunteers continue his grassroots activism in organizing the "little fish" in their fight to protect what they love.