FEATURED TIDE-CHANGER: PHIL BRESNAHAN


by Becky Mendoza July 06, 2018

We love following unique stories of fellow ocean-lovers who come up with original ideas for projects to raise awareness for our planet. Today, in our first-ever "Featured Tide-Changer" Series, we feature Phil Bresnahan, both an expert in oceanography and fan of surfing. Phil just wrapped up his first-ever “Bike to Surf Month” where he initiated a plan to ride his bike (rather than drive) to different surf breaks throughout San Diego County and blog about his experience every day in June with one goal in mind: to encourage people to protect the environment while enjoying the time spent with the nature at the same time. Phil has been using our #AdventureConsciously hashtag when posting his progress on “Bike to Surf Month” on Instagram too! 

Location: San Diego, CA (live near Mission Bay, work in La Jolla)

Occupation: Ocean Research and Development Engineer, Lead Engineer of the Smartfin Project

Instagram: @SUPScientist (though I rarely SUP these days—biking and surfing have taken over!)

CTF: Where are you from/how did you get where you are now?

Phil: I spent ~ 90% of my childhood in a little town 45 minutes from Philadelphia, PA, though many of my most formative memories are from Ocean City, NJ, and Jupiter, FL—both places where my grandparents live. I've been in and around the water a ton for as long as I can remember, mostly boogie-boarding, body surfing, fishing, and visiting what we called the turtle museum (actually the Loggerhead Marinelife Center) with my parents, grandparents, sisters, and cousin. I remember one trip to Jupiter when I was probably 10 or so and I kept begging my parents to take me kayaking through the mangrove forests; I'd never kayaked before but it really appealed to me for some reason. They were thoughtful enough to arrange a family outing and I immediately and permanently fell in love with watersports and ocean exploration. My favorite family present of all time (even though since it was a family present, I had to share it with my sisters...) was a double ocean kayak. The first big thing I ever bought for myself was a surfing kayak. The second big thing was also a kayak (a racing surfski). Keeping with the sitting-on-top-of-the-water theme, I was a rower in high school and college. I owned a surfboard as a kid and I even told people that I knew how to surf but when I eventually moved out to California to start grad school at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I realized I really didn't. Fortunately, I have some great and stubborn friends who kept dragging me out of my grad school office (not that I didn't want to surf, I just always felt so busy!) to get me in the water. Now I'm a Research & Development Engineer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the lead engineer for the Smartfin Project, so I spend most of my time either surfing or developing new oceanographic tools for recreational ocean-goers, especially surfers. The goal of much of my work is to learn more about the coastal ocean as well as to work with others who spend their time near the coasts to be better stewards of our environment.  

CTF: Tell us something people generally don’t know about you?

Phil: I got into endurance sports largely out of my love for golf and baseball. Which are arguably among the sports furthest from endurance activities (no offense—I still think they're fun sports!). I really enjoyed golfing and playing baseball as a kid and wanted to play at least one for my high school team. Being in PA at the time, I was stuck indoors for most of the winter and tryouts were coming up in the spring. I knew how out of shape I was (as out of shape as any fairly active 14-year-old, I guess). So I decided to join my cousin (who's also my best friend and someone I've looked up to since I was born) for rowing tryouts, which came a couple weeks before baseball which came a week before golf tryouts. I figured they'd whip me into shape through the rowing tryouts, cut me, and then I'd try out for the sports I actually wanted to play. The rowing coaches forgot to cut me and I ended up being one of maybe three or four guys who was among the hundred who showed up for those tryouts who was still rowing nine years later. Now I have something of a reputation among friends as an endurance athlete who runs, bikes, and paddles fairly long distances regularly but it's due to my love of golf and baseball (neither of which I play more than twice a year at this point). 

CTF: How do you like to spend your free time?

Phil: Outside. Doing just about anything. I'm not too rigid in my sports selection—which explains why I'm mediocre at a lot of things ;) —so I can always find something to do. When there are waves, I'll surf; when it's windy, I'll sail; when it's flat and calm, I'll run, bike, hike, or rock climb. Or roller blade—really just about anything. My wife, Shannon, and I recently adopted a dog so we spend lots of our time all together walking around Mission Bay.

CTF: What inspired you to start your Bike to Surf Month and what equipment did you use (surfboards/bikes/racks etc…)?

Phil: Since moving to CA in 2009, I have surfed Scripps Pier for probably 98% of my sessions. It's an incredible privilege to work and play here but it's also a little limiting to my development as a surfer (a self-inflicted limitation because I refuse to drive my board and wetsuit around too much). So I decided this year that I really wanted to check out Southern California's iconic surf spots and started scheming up ways to do so but they mostly involved spending time in my car which I really didn't want to do. My research is on ocean acidification (carbon dioxide pollution from our cars and factories dissolves in seawater and makes it more acidic which is bad for lots of marine life) so doing an ocean-focused activity that burned more fossil fuels just didn't make sense. And I've been a pretty avid bike commuter since my first day in San Diego. I think it was the first thing I bought here. I didn't own a car for my first two years, just biked (or begged for rides (thanks, Alan and Brianne!)) everywhere. And I'm not the best at social media but I thought it would be pretty cool not just to bike and surf from time to time for my own sake but to make it a dedicated activity that I documented on a blog and Instagram in addition to adding my data to an interactive map that I programmed. Ultimately, I did this little adventure with the hope that the message that it's really easy to get around by bike, at least from time to time, and that adventures can be found or created without all that much gear or distant travel inspired a few more people to get out there and adventure consciously.

I’m riding a Surly Cross-Check with Schwalbe Tires (extra durable!) and a Jones H-Bar for great lateral stability and a zillion hand positions. I put my (usually Firewire) board on a Carver Surf Rack with a front block extension, again for added stability/reduced wobble. In the rear basket, I carry my wetsuit, a towel, and, since I’m, like, super hip, a fanny pack for valuables that I wear while surfing. That's right: I wear a fanny pack while surfing. Somewhat surprisingly, only one person asked me about it in the water the entire month. Plus lunch and a change of clothes if it’s a work day, a multi-tool, and two locks. I thread the cable lock through my helmet and holes that I paranoiacally put in my shoes, so pretty much everything is locked up or attached to me. And I have my Smartfin for environmental data collection and a Garmin Vivoactive HR watch for GPS tracks. Water bottles, sometimes coffee, and never as much food as I end up wishing I’d brought. So it’s a nice light ride. I'm not sponsored or anything, despite how that previous paragraph may read! 

CTF: What are you hoping to accomplish with this project?

Phil: The original goal was admittedly selfish: I wanted to discover more of San Diego's surf breaks and paths and do it in a very deliberate way. But what kept me going and getting up every day was the idea that maybe I could inspire one or two people to undertake their own local adventures. I think we're all born adventurers; every kid, as far as I know, goes on countless journeys whether in a backyard or an indoor room. Everything is epic to a kid with a vivid imagination. But for some reason, most of us seem to either forget our adventurous roots or get intimidated by the idea of adventure, thinking it requires a long flight to some remote location and all sorts of fancy and expensive gear, not to mention years of training. I wanted to prove (to myself, even if no one else) that adventures could be found quite easily from one's own doorstep with just a modest amount of gear, no time zone changes, and not even all that much planning. I wanted to set an example for ocean stewards, especially those who live along the coasts, that demonstrated that fossil fuels don't really need to be a major part of enjoying the ocean. That we don't always need to drive to get somewhere "better."

CTF: What have been your biggest challenges with this project?

Phil: Going home at the end of the work day. I found enough inherent motivation in getting up early (I woke up before my alarm almost every morning), biking to the break , surfing, and biking to work. But when I looked at my bike in my office at 7 pm, I wanted nothing to do with it. But it was really just a mental thing. As soon as I changed out of my work clothes, into my bike clothes, and got moving, I enjoyed that part too! 

CTF: Tell us about your best 3 surf sessions this month, ie where were they and why did you love it?

Phil: Jeez, I honestly don't know how to choose! Plus it probably goes against some surfers' code to talk about the best spots but I'm pretty sure San Diego doesn't have too many secret spots left so I'll give it a shot ;) Here are a couple in no particular order...I think one of my favorite things in surfing is when you expect the conditions to be mediocre or worse and you show up to find them to be pretty good. They don't even have to be phenomenal but when you're not expecting much, decent conditions can be incredibly fun! On June 17th, I biked up to Beacon's and passed a couple dozen really awful looking breaks. It was fairly windy and choppy and small everywhere I looked but when I pulled into the small lot on the top of the cliff, I saw some really nice lines rolling in. To make matters way better, I ended up sitting in the lineup next to a guy talking to his friend about his upcoming bike trip across mainland Mexico and he was trying to figure out how to bring a surfboard; I got really excited and interjected. I ended up talking to the two of them for the rest of the session and having a blast. I'm usually pretty shy (I am a scientist, after all) but I couldn't just sit there and listen to a surfer talk about biking with surfboards and not jump in and I was really glad I did! Early in the month (day 2, to be exact), I met one of my best friends at Boneyards, again expecting little to nothing. The waves weren't that big but it was really clean and so much fun to be with my buddy who now lives in Seattle. I've probably had a half a dozen surf sessions with him during his visits to SD in the past couple years where I expect almost nothing out of the ocean and still manage to have an incredibly fun time. He has that effect on everything and everyone, I think. For my third favorite, I think I have to pick 15th St., Del Mar, which I hit on probably the best swell of the month and with another friend.

I surfed the two previous days in pretty choppy but big conditions on a board that I'm not very comfortable on and swapped it out on this day for a board (a really beautiful and fun fish) belonging to the guy who dragged me out of my office to make me learn to surf and then amazingly left me with when he took off for a postdoc in Europe. The board is just the perfect shape for where I am with my surfing and the conditions could not have been much better in my book. Sets were a bit overhead but breaking softly and at long enough periods that paddling out was pretty easy but it really delivered some great rides! And a couple other days with smaller but clean waves were surprisingly fun too! I'm writing about every day on my blog at https://supscience.com/bike-to-surf-month/ also :) 

CTF: We noticed you’ve been using the hashtag we created #AdventureConsciously! What advice would you give to others looking to 'Adventure Consciously'?

Phil: Start. Just start. That's advice that I received from a great friend, Tim, when we were talking about how to connect our passions for outdoor sports with oceanography and science communication. I was trying to devise some sort of grand plan to fix all of civilization's problems through surfing, paddling, and ocean sensors (still haven't quite worked that one out...) and he basically shook me and said, "just do something. It'll help." It doesn't have to be grand to be an adventure and perhaps by just going for it, we stand a chance at doing it more consciously by the simple nature of the fact that we don't spend all our time buying gear, airplane tickets, four wheel drive vehicles, and a million Clif Bars so that we're prepared for every possible situation. Don't get me wrong, I definitely used some solid gear out there and spent a little bit of time planning, but Tim's wisdom has served me well throughout my career and adventures so far.

In my first project as a wannabe adventurer/scientist, heeding this advice resulted in me ratchet-strapping a fairly large and heavy ocean acidification sensor to the bottom of my stand-up paddleboard (hence the @SUPScience handle). I quite literally fell flat on my face when I tried to take the first paddle stroke in breaking waves and the board didn't move due to the enormous drag from the sensor. Just starting seemed at first like a complete failure, but it taught me enough to make a few modifications to the setup and actually make it through the whitewater a few weeks later. That setup still wasn't great but I was lucky enough to find an intern who was interested in redesigning the sensor and I had a PhD advisor who was willing to support me in this endeavor. The final design worked so well that I was able to go for a paddle the morning of my thesis defense and collect more data to put into my presentation just a few hours later and now, a couple years later, I'm the head of R&D for a project (Smartfin) whose technological underpinnings are sensors on surfboard/paddleboard fins. But if I'd tried to plan those parts out from the beginning instead of just starting, I'd probably still be staring at my notebook.

Lastly, I think that many of us dramatically overestimate our "needs" when planning for various aspects of life, perhaps especially adventure. I'm by no means a perfect minimalist but I've made it through four work weeks with all of the stuff I need for the day, including everything from a surf to business meetings to lunch, in the rear basket on my bike rack. So do you really need that gas-guzzling SUV just for commuting to and from work? Or a plane ticket just to find fun? Maybe sometimes (at least for fun if not necessity and none of us are perfect), but, I dunno, seems like a lot of us would be fine with less. That's what I'm trying to teach myself!




Becky Mendoza
Becky Mendoza

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