Surfing Madonna charity postpones beach marathon to March 2021

Artist Mark Patterson installed the Surfing Madonna on a wall next to Surfy Surfy surf shop on North Coast Highway in Leucadia on Monday, June 25, 2012. Patterson said the location was perfect fit for the piece that was originally under a train bridge in Encinitas.
(K.C. Alfred)

Nonprofit withholds refunds, saying the proceeds already have been spent


The Surfing Madonna Oceans Project has canceled the Encinitas Half Marathon & 5K beach run it was scheduled to host this weekend, but organizers have resisted returning the money participants paid in advance.

Instead, charity officials Robert Nichols and his wife, Megan McCarthy, have been telling ticket buyers that the money already has been spent and the race has been rescheduled for March 2021.

“Our event, along with all events across the country that take place in March, have been canceled by their state and county health officials,” Nichols said in an email. “Races across the country all have a strict no refund policy because of unforeseen circumstances that could take place, such as this pandemic and completely bankrupt that organization or company.”

The decision to withhold refunds has upset some race participants who would rather get their money back than wait a year for a rescheduled event.

“My initial reaction is I was frustrated,” said Matt McClure, a student teacher from Rancho Bernardo who paid $100 plus a processing fee to run in the event that was supposed to happen Sunday, March 29.

“It’s a year from now,” he added. “I’ve been training and talking with my friends, but I don’t know what I’ll be doing a year from now. I’m getting my teaching credential now so I’ll be looking for a job and I don’t know where I’ll be next year.”

McClure told McCarthy he preferred a refund, but the charity official said the money was already spent.

“Here is the long answer on our no refund policy. Hopefully this sheds some light onto our seemingly unjust policy,” she wrote by email. “When a person registers, that money is spent almost immediately.”

McCarthy said the funds pay for sponsors, permit fees, shirts, medals, traffic control, staff and other costs that start piling up a year ahead of the event.

“Registration fees pay for all of the costs all year long with zero ‘profit’ being made,” she said. “Your registration fee isn’t sitting in an account somewhere being hoarded. That is why we state very clearly the no-refund policy in the waiver that must be scrolled through and clicked.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported in January almost one-third of the $676,000 in revenue reported by the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project in 2018 was paid directly to Nichols and McCarthy.

The salaries paid to the charity leadership increased year after year even though donations made by the organization in 2018 declined by tens of thousands of dollars compared to the prior year.

Nichols said the payments to him and his wife were approved by other board members -- and they were not involved in salary-setting decisions. He also said the organization has distributed more than $600,000 to community groups since it was established nearly a decade ago.

The charity was set up in 2011 to maintain a 10-square-foot mosaic by artist Mark Patterson. It features the Virgin Mary on a surfboard with the message “Save the Ocean” running along the side.

After the Union-Tribune report on the escalating salaries paid to Nichols and McCarthy, Encinitas city officials withdrew permission for future beach runs after the Half Marathon & 5K, saying there had been a years-long pattern of abuse by Nichols in his dealings with city staff.

In response, Nichols has threatened to remove the popular artwork from the side of a pizzeria along Encinitas Boulevard and either place it into storage or move it to a city that would permit future beach runs.

An Encinitas city spokesman said parks and recreation officials have already approved the proposed postponement date.

-- Jeff McDonald is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune