Grieving surfer takes hundreds of strangers’ missing relatives for one last ride
As a child, he loved going to the beach and cycling along the coast with his father, Karl Fischer. So when he lost his father to pancreatic cancer and his 15-year-old dog, Rudy, died soon after, he turned to the healing power of water.
Earlier this year, Fischer wrote his father’s name on his surfboard and took it out to sea in Newport, Rhode Island. His father’s name shone in the sun on what felt like a shared adventure, he said.
Inspired, Fischer made a video and posted it to social media the same day.
“If you love the ocean, or know someone who loves the ocean, or maybe you’ve lost someone who just loved[d] being outside…comment this video with their name and a bit of their story, and I’ll put their name on my board here, just like I did with my dad beforehand,” he says in the video. “And I’ll take them to the ocean for you.”
A community of strangers heal together
About two months later, Fischer received over 5,000 names and wrote most of them on two surfboards. The first two surfboards ran out of space – he is working on getting more. He has surfed the boards several times.
With his silver marker, he writes the names in crisp letters on the surfboard and covers them with a layer of clear acrylic so they won’t come off. Sometimes he makes a video or takes a photo of a name and shares it with the person’s relatives. He also posts photos of the surfboard with the names on social media.
After mourning his father alone during the pandemic, which began about two years ago this week, Fischer started the One Last Wave project to exchange stories with a community of people going through the same pain. They essentially heal together, he says.
“You feel like you’re the only one going through this. Even though you know it’s happening to other people, there’s a feeling of loneliness,” Fischer says. “And when I was able to be vulnerable in those times and share my grief with other people, it allowed other people to break down that barrier of feeling alone and being able to share their loved ones as well.”
Fischer, 42, started surfing at a young age and has rekindled his passion in recent months to cope with the loss.
“Surfing is so healing. You’re so deeply connected to the ocean and nature, and the immersion in salt water kind of takes away all the negativity that’s going on inside of you,” says- he.
Although many people have been dealing with grief during the pandemic, Fischer was stunned by the responses that poured in.
“If I could have helped one person or one person shared their name, that would have been enough for me,” he says. “But I was blown away – not only by the number of people who were sharing, but also by the depth of the stories and the love they shared.”
Messages arrived from all over the world
Fischer lives near several Newport beaches and spends a lot of time in the ocean. Most of the time, he decides the best time to surf based on the ride and the configuration of the waves.
He also spends a lot of time these days going through the comments and direct messages he receives on social media. He has received requests from as far away as New Zealand and South Africa, he says.
Most of the posts involve someone who had a deep love for the ocean. Others had longed to go to the beach but hadn’t had the chance to go before illness struck.
“We get messages from parents who have lost kids who always wanted to learn to surf, or who had such fond memories of being at the beach and building sandcastles,” says Fischer.
“People who are in palliative care who never had the chance to be there or someone’s last wish,” he adds. “I had someone who was in the hospital making a medical decision to end their life. And one of the family members reached out and asked if they could be part of the project. And of course , I said yes.”
A girl’s memory lives on
Chicago resident Jennifer Lawnicki came across Fischer’s post on TikTok in January. His daughter, Peyton Avery, died at the age of 4.
Peyton was diagnosed with leukemia aged seven months after becoming lethargic and was rushed to the emergency room. Doctors didn’t think she would survive the night, but she defied expectations and lived for several years.
She loved dolphins and the ocean, and although she spent most of her short life hospitalized, her mother took her to the beach whenever she had the chance.
So when a stranger posted an opportunity to connect his daughter to the ocean she loved so much, Lawnicki was among the first people to message Fischer.
For Lawnicki, the thought of a complete stranger taking the time to write Peyton’s name on her board and make a video about her was overwhelming.
“I know she was with him that day. I can’t explain the connection I now feel with Dan other than great appreciation and love,” she says. “We’ve stayed in touch and I’m trying to send him words of encouragement and support, letting him know that this small but incredible gesture has a big impact on people.”
Lawnicki has a picture of the chalkboard with her daughter’s name sitting on her desk. Fischer says Peyton’s story was among the first submitted for the One Last Wave project, and it confirmed her belief in continuing.
What’s next for the project
Fischer hopes to expand the project to reach even more people.
“It had a very profound impact on me,” he says. “Being able to combine a passion for surfing and helping other people heal is something that has taken precedence over everything else in recent weeks.”
“I say that very clearly every time someone says, you know, how can I donate? I want them to know that I don’t want them to feel like they have to donate. to have their loved one there. That’s never what it was about, and it never will be,” he says.
Fischer will continue to take loved ones of strangers out to sea, one wave at a time. And he plans to take his project around the world and connect with even more people — through shared grief and the power of the ocean.