Tristan Boxford, CEO, Waterman League
Tristan Boxford has never been the type to sit still, but he’s had his hands full even more than usual since founding the Waterman League, a global platform at the cross section of ocean sports. With an advisory board of some of the world’s most respected ocean sports figures, the league set out to promote the relatively new sport of standup paddling, with the goal of creating a world championship tour for the sport. The league is based at Turtle Bay, where the organization runs all elements of production and delivery of events and media.
The fact that Boxford is trilingual has certainly come in handy along the way, whether during meetings with potential investors in Hong Kong or during the competitions themselves, which the league hosts against backdrops as diverse and sublime as desertscapes in Patagonia and medieval ruins in Italy. There’s also the fact that Boxford is a waterman in his own right. He was a professional windsurfer through the ‘90s and early 2000s, claiming the British and European championship title and finished fifth on the Professional Windsurfers Association World Tour.
But Boxford eventually grew weary of competing in the same events in uninspired locations and began getting more and more involved in media projects focusing on adventure travel. He worked on projects for MTV Europe, Transworld and other television channels and wrote articles for the likes of GQ and Traveller as well as dedicated windsurfing publications. He started developing events for media in 2004, beginning with a reality TV project involving the world’s top windsurfers. The project led to the launch of the Ocean Games, an X Games of the ocean held in Maui in 2007 and produced for NBC, which was the foundation of what would become the Waterman League.
In 2009, the league hosted an exhibition event at Tahiti’s infamous surf break Teahupo’o to set a new standard for the sport and provide a taste of what was to come, changing people’s perception of what standup paddling was all about. This led to the full launch of the Stand Up World Tour in 2010, with the historic World Tour Opener at Sunset Beach on O‘ahu, followed by events in France, Tahiti, Brazil and the Big Island. The Waterman League crowned the sport’s first-ever world champion, Maui upstart Kai Lenny, in 2011.
The Waterman League launched the Stand Up World Series in 2012, introducing a groundbreaking new contest format as the world’s best top standup paddlers battled it out for the world title in racing. Boxford and his team also launched a women’s division in 2013 and expanded its world tour and world series events to include stops in 14 countries, crowning world champions in both the men’s and women’s categories in surfing and racing.
The Waterman League hosts trial events in conjunction with all events with the goal of embracing new talent coming into the sport. The league initially focused on maintaining an elite feel, but now embraces participation at all levels, from entry level racing to open fleet, and runs youth clinics and other programs, including work with local nonprofit Na Kama Kai, an organization founded by champion longboarder Duane DeSoto.
The league manages the technical direction of the events to provide a professional and consistent playing field for the athletes, working with local partners for all other elements. The league has a close and growing relationship with the International Surfing Association, working toward the unified growth of the sport, and launched an all-new rule book that provides a comprehensive guide to both the surfing and racing competitions.
But it’s hardly been smooth sailing. “We grew this from the ground up without seed capital, so it wasn’t easy,” Boxford says. “We were at the mercy of all elements as we built it, from late payments, to no payments, and so at some point this does create growing pains, as much as we tried to avoid them.” The league has often been forced to delay prize payments but has never left a debt unpaid. In 2014, the league awarded over $250,000 in prize money to its athletes.
The Waterman League has gone on to produce the European Cup, which consists of a series of high-profile European events, as well as the World Challenger Series, a second-tier series of competition, sanctioned by the league and hosted around the world. “We produced out first Location X in 2012 in the British Virgin Islands. Location X for 2014 was in Mirleft, Morocco. It was beautiful—untouched, virgin territory and wave rich, so an exciting destination for us, to say the least.”