Surfing is no longer a solitary activity for Dan Fischer. When he catches a wave off the coast of Rhode Island, he looks at a surfboard covered in the names of people who have died and who shared his love of the ocean.
His father’s name is the guiding light at the top.
“It’s a very different experience for me than it was when it was just me and the board,” he said this month after surfing in Newport. “Now it’s kind of me and all of these individuals. I feel a commitment to helping their families and honoring them every time I go out.
Fischer, 42, created the One Last Wave project in January to use the healing power of the ocean to help families cope with loss, like him. He engraves their beloved’s name on one of his surfboards and takes them to the ocean, in spirit anyway, for “one last wave”, as a way to commemorate them in a place that has meaningful to them.
Many died of cancer. Ashley Sexton, from Cincinnati, contacted Fischer after seeing a post on social media about the project because her daughter loved the ocean so much she begged her family to move to Florida. Kinley died in 2019 at the age of 6 from a very aggressive brain tumour.
Fischer’s first two charts were complete, with 1,500 names on one and 2,000 names on the other, but he was working on a third.
Fischer added Kinley’s name to the third chart just before Memorial Day and planned to take her surfing with him over the holiday weekend. Sexton said the timing was so perfect that Kinley must have contributed to it. The third anniversary of his death is Tuesday.
“It means the world to us and I know she would just think it’s the best thing ever. The beach was her corner. That’s where she was meant to be,” said Sexton, who created a foundation in Kinley’s honor to raise awareness and fund research into diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma.
Fischer continues to accept names via email and social media. He plans to continue making surfboards for as long as it resonates and helps people.
Fischer’s father, Karl, grew up in Hungary and became a successful architect in Montreal and New York. He died in March 2019 at his farm in Montgomery, Vermont, after an eight-year battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 70 years old.
A few months later, Fischer’s dog, Rudy, whom he had as a 5-week-old puppy, died of cancer at age 15. Fischer has felt lost and isolated as he cries during the pandemic. He lived in Newport and worked from home for a company that helps students access top MBA programs.
On January 4, Fischer wrote his father’s name on a sticker and affixed it to his surfboard before going surfing. They shared a love of the ocean and adventure, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and paragliding in Alaska together, playing on the same hockey team and cycling up Alpe d’Huez, one of the emblematic of the Tour de France.
“Having him there on one last adventure finally made me feel connected to him again in a positive way, not through pain,” Fischer said. “It was at the height of COVID, there was so much isolation. I thought maybe people felt the same way I did.
Fischer made a moving video on the beach. He shared it on social media, offering to engrave other names on his board in order to connect and honor the people they had lost. He was inundated with names and stories.
He chose the phrase “one last wave” for the project because surfers often say so. There’s always another wave to catch before you get started, just like there’s always another opportunity to honor a loved one, Fischer said.
Jonah Raisner learned to surf after his father died in 2009 because his father loved surfing. Adam Raisner, of Newton, Massachusetts, died of an aneurysm at age 43, when Jonah was just 7 years old.
The 19-year-old student met Fischer at Newport Beach on May 17, Adam Raisner’s birthday.
Jonah Raisner took the board with his father’s name on it and Fischer took the other board. It was the first time anyone other than Fischer had used one of the boards. They paddled away from shore together.
“I thought it would be more of a photoshoot to commemorate my dad. But once I was there, reading all those names, I really felt like not just my dad, but everyone was out there surfing with me,” Raisner said. “It was real. I really felt his presence.”
Raisner said he thinks One Last Wave is helping many people find the solution.
“Dan’s decks are very special,” Raisner said. “I’m so grateful that I got to get my dad in the water. I felt like I was making my dad proud that we did this for him. I felt like we made him happy and gave him a happy birthday.