Longboard Luau: La Jolla surfing event has funded cancer research for two decades

If you go


Luau and Longboard Invitational


Sunday, Aug.18 (surf contest 7 a.m., luau fundraiser at noon)


Surf contest near Scripps Pier; luau at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 8622 Kennel Way, La Jolla Shores


Surf competition is free, luau fundraiser is $150 per person


(858) 246-1230 or

By Pat Sherman

For the past 20 years the annual Luau and Longboard Invitational fundraiser and surf competition at Scripps Institution of Oceanography has brought scientists, surfers and entrepreneurs together to raise nearly $6 million for the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center.

Each year the proceeds provide seed money for the kind of groundbreaking research that turns ideas into life-saving innovation.

The event features some of the biggest names in surfing. This year’s participating surf legends include Robert August, star of the 1966 surf documentary “The Endless Summer;” Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association; Jericho Poppler, a cancer survivor and pioneer of women’s professional surfing; Rusty Preisendorfer, founder of Rusty Surfboards; and Kathy “Gidget” Zuckerman, the inspiration for the fictional surfer played by Sally Field in the 1960s sitcom, “Gidget.”

The event starts at 7 a.m. near Scripps Pier, and progresses to a Hawaiian-themed Luau on the Scripps campus at noon.

Organizers hope to raise $300,000 for research during this year’s event.

Event co-founder John Otterson, who returns this year to co-chair the 20th anniversary Luau and Longboard Invitational, said some of the most difficult fundraising is for seed money that helps launch research projects in their earliest stages. The start-up money helps researchers with crucial preparations needed to request more substantial grants from funding sources such as the National Institutes of Health or National Cancer Institute.

“It might take $50,000 to pull together the requisite information, data and planning for a seed effort,” said Otterson, a partner in SVB Capital, which supports start-up and emerging growth technology and life science companies. “That is extremely hard to raise money for … and sometimes (the research) doesn’t work.” However, Otterson added, “Some of our most important discoveries have come from that effort.

“It’s not like putting your name on a building, but we think it’s extremely meaningful,” he added.

Moores Cancer Center Director and


Jolla Light

columnist, Dr. Scott Lippman, said the event has helped fund pilot projects at the center that led to breakthroughs in cancer treatment, such Technetium tc-99 tilmanocept, a radio-isotope tagging imaging dye that more efficiently identifies and maps cancer cells during surgery. The technology, designed and developed by researchers at Moores Cancer Center, received FDA approval this year.

Sam Armstrong, an investment advisor with Wells Fargo, helped co-chair the first three events with Otterson, and is also returning as co-chair of this year’s event.

“We have some of the most famous surfers alive today coming in from around the world for this event,” said Armstrong, who has served on the Moores Cancer Center board of directors for more than 25 years (on which Otterson also serves).

The morning surf competition is comprised of teams that have been sponsored by corporations such Qualcomm, Cymer and this year’s title sponsor, Pfizer La Jolla. The competition includes surfers from the local biotech and scientific research community, as well as cancer survivors and entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

Rell Sunn Award

Each year, an award is presented in the name of Rell Sunn, a U.S. world surfing champion and a pioneer in women’s surfing who died in 1998, following a more than 15-year battle with breast cancer. She was one the surf legends who participated in the first Longboard Invitational.

Through the years, the Rell Sunn “Queen of Makaha” Award has been given to pioneers such as J. Craig Venter (2002), one of the first people to sequence the human genome; Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Roger Tsien (2012), who helped discover and develop green fluorescent protein, which can be inserted into cells to help scientists view changes and mutations in real time; and John Otterson’s father, Bill Otterson (1998), a tireless advocate for cancer research who died after a nearly two-decade struggle with multiple myeloma.

Armstrong recalled how, as chair of the cancer center foundation board, Bill Otterson once chided him, “ ‘You’re never going to raise any money from surfers; everybody knows surfers are a bunch of bums.’

“Of course, he knew his son (and I) were working together on this,” Armstrong said. “We met his challenge and then some.”

This year’s Rell Sunn Award will be presented to Kary Mullis, bringing the event full-circle. In 1993, Mullis won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction, considered one of the most monumental scientific techniques of the 20th century.

An avid surfer, Mullis also took part in the first Longboard Invitational, and served as its honorary event co-chair. (Mullis and Sun surfed on a team together that first year.)

Armstrong said Mullis, Venter and Tsien are “the cornerstone” of today’s microbiology-biotech revolution.

“These are the guys that are really the foundation of all of it,” he said.

The 24-Karat, gold-plated Rell Sun Award is made by Chicago-based R. S. Owens & Company, which makes the Oscar statuette for the Academy Awards. It includes the inscription, “From Whence We Came,” taken from John. F. Kennedy’s speech to the America’s Cup crews in 1962.

Charity auction

One of the items up for auction during this year’s luau is a private tour for up to 10 of the new J. Craig Venter Institute on the UC San Diego campus, led by Venter himself.

Additional auction items include surfboards designed for the event by some of the most renowned shapers in the business, including those by Larry Gordon of Gordon & Smith Surfboards, and a joint creation by Steve Walden and Al Merrick. Their long- and short-board combination, titled, “The Long and the Short of It,” is an homage to Merrick’s 8-year-old granddaughter, Daisy Love Merrick, who lost her battle with cancer in February. The inside of a daisy that spans both boards includes the names of all the professional surfers who have participated in the event through the years.

In addition, the Healthy Foods Kitchen at Moores Cancer Center will prepare a feast featuring organic produce and foods packed with cancer-preventing nutrients.

Entertainment includes a performance by Hawaiian folk rock singer Anuhea, and traditional Polynesian dancing from Heali’i’s Polynesian Revue.