Surf, jousting and rock ‘n’ roll: Switchfoot’s Bro-Am festival celebrates 15 years

Mike Coots leaps from his surfboard in an attempt to knock Switchfoot band member Jon Foreman off his board as they compete in the surf joust during the Switchfoot Bro-Am music and surf festival at Moonlight Beach on Saturday in Encinitas.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Success has hardly gone to the heads of the San Diego rock band Switchfoot, as they showed Saturday, June 29, at their 15th annual Bro-Am surf and music festival at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas.

The musicians mingled with youngsters flown in from across the country by the nonprofit Challenged Athletes Foundation, and with guests and lifelong friends, including professional surfer Rob Machado, a co-sponsor of the event.

“It’s the best day of the year,” said Chad Butler, the band’s drummer. “We grew up here. Music and surfing kept us out of trouble. We wanted to give something back to the community that we love.”

The first Bro-Am was just a surf contest on the beach. That night the band played a small concert at the vintage La Paloma theater on Coast Highway in Encinitas. The next year the band moved the concert to a stage on the beach and combined the two events for the first time.

“That became the framework that expanded every year,” said Mia Park, one of the original organizers of the Bro-Am and its manager for 11 years.

Professional surfer Rob Machado surfs with Cami Wood, 8, who lost her left leg due to a rare tissue infection, during the Challenged Athlete Foundation Youth Expression Session at the Switchfoot Bro-Am music and surf festival.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Park has known two of the band members, brothers Jon and Tim Foreman, since they attended junior high and high school together, she said. The band also includes Jerome Fontamillas and Drew Shirley.

For the first several years the Bro-Am was a fundraiser for Stand Up For Kids, an Oceanside-based nonprofit that helps homeless and at-risk youth, she said. Now there are six local youth-oriented charities involved.

Festival activities have spread out over a few days. Thursday night there was a VIP auction party for 500 attendees that was the biggest fundraiser of the weekend. Friday included a trip to a Petco Park, where the Foreman brothers threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Padres game.

The surf contest — which includes jousting on boards with soft lances — and beach concert have attracted between 16,000 and 18,000 people for the last few years, Park said.

A large crowd watches the surf joust contest during the Switchfoot Bro-Am music and surf festival.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The event has had its hurdles. About 10 years ago the surf contest was canceled because of an oil spill, and lifeguards said the water was unsafe. So instead the festival included a dodge ball tournament.

“That was a big moment for the event,” Jon Foreman told the Union-Tribune in 2014. “I realized that people weren’t there for just the music or surfing, per se, but for a bigger story than either of those things.”

On Saturday the usual June gloom lifted and the beach was sunny and hot.

The Challenged Athletes Foundation flew in 10 children from across the United States for a free three-day surf camp, which included attendance at the Bro-Am events and a trip to the San Diego County Fair.

Nine of the camp participants had never surfed before, include Cami Wood, 8, and her mother, Lisa Wood, who came from Indiana.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for us,” said Lisa Wood. “We would have never had the opportunity without CAF.”

Cami had her lower left leg amputated a year ago because of a rare tissue disease. Saturday she was bright and cheerful.

“I can jump up on my knees with the little waves,” she said, and she liked to paddle out past the waves and sit on her surfboard in the smooth water.

“I saw a baby seal yesterday,” she said.

Other Bro-Am beneficiaries included A Step Beyond, Feeding San Diego, the VH1 Save the Music Foundation and the Rob Machado Foundation. Over the years it has raised more than $1.5 million.

This year’s concert included singer-songwriter Lindsey Sterling, along with other guests and Switchfoot. Previous Bro-Am performers have included Jason Mraz, Needtobreathe and Lifehouse.

-- Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune