Thursday, July 9, 2009

ARTICLE: From Gulf War Syndrome to Green Surf Boards

Written by Leslie Berliant, Celsias.

Todd Patterson was a Gulf War Veteran and competitive martial artist working in the entertainment industry. In 2002, he found himself getting sick all the time and in constant pain. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. “Here I was, this competitive go, go, go guy and I was bed ridden,” he tells me, “and I didn’t know why. It was the most suicidal I’ve ever been in my life.”

One day his wife met someone from the Veteran’s Administration and got to talking about her husband’s health issues. She came home sure that she finally knew what was wrong with Patterson; Gulf War Syndrome. “She ran down the list and every symptom described me,” Patterson says. Shortly after, he discovered on a vacation trip to Maui that the only activity he could enjoy pain free was scuba diving. When he got back to Los Angeles, his friend Greg Provance suggested he try surfing. “Greg took me out surfing and I was hooked,” Patterson says. “It saved me.”

Patterson was concerned about any additional exposure to toxins, though. And in researching surf boards, he discovered that most boards are made with toxic materials and processes and so-called eco-boards often address one of these processes but not all of them.

Along with Provance and another surf buddy, Trevor Watkins, he decided to start a company, Synergy Surfboards , that would make environmentally friendly short boards, the kind that professional surfers use. “High performance short boards are the biggest offenders,” Patterson says, “because they’re thrown away after a few uses. They’re not designed to last.”

It wasn’t an easy process making an eco-friendly board. The first challenge was replacing the fiberglass that coats conventional boards. “Fiberglass is the thing that will never be green,” Patterson tells me. “The amount of resources it takes is unbelievable. It has to be stored at temperatures that are higher than volcano lava and spun at a rate of 60 miles a minute.” They tried hemp, hemp silk and other renewable materials, but nothing worked.

“At times we thought about just using fiberglass,” Trevor Watkins, a partner in the company who also learned to surf from Greg Provance, tells me. “People said, ‘just do it the regular way and tell them you’re doing it green’.” But Patterson was adamant. “I’m suffering from toxic chemical poisoning, I don’t want to poison myself any further.”

Then one day, about three months ago, they stumbled on the answer; bamboo fabric. They didn’t have enough for the original demo board, so they pieced the material together. They also use plant based resins and recycled EPS foam for their boards. Professional surfers that have tried the board rank it among their favorites. And so, an eco surf board company was born.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Synergy Surfboards is that they want their boards to be price competitive with conventional boards. Most eco boards are in the $1500 range and out of reach for a lot of surfers.

“None of us are tree huggers,” Patterson explains, “but the more we’ve gone this direction, the more aware we become of our environmental impact and the more aware we want to be. Doing this has made me a greener person.”

“There’s no need to make new materials,” Watkins adds, sounding a lot like a tree hugger, “we’ve got plenty already.”

Synergy recently participated in the disabled vets surf camp organized by Operation Amped . And Watkins wants to do more, “I want to educate, volunteer in other countries and spread this knowledge that we have,” he tells me. “It’s not cool to not give away how much surfing has enhanced our lives,” Patterson adds.

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