Throwing a stokefest for Ben Kelly: Shark victim’s loved ones pay tribute with inclusive ‘No Contest’

Ben and Katie Kelly, out enjoying nature as they often did together.
(Courtesy Katie Kelly)

Q&A WITH BEN’s WIFE: In a heartfelt conversation with Lookout, Katie Kelly talks about the daily difficulties of pushing ahead without her husband and the special memories and people who help get her through.

Katie Kelly isn’t the hardcore surfer her husband was, and probably never will be. But she’s found herself cradled in neoprene, paddling out into the chilly Pacific, laughing with friends far more often the past year.

“It’s connected me to Ben,” she said.

Katie has now grappled for a year with the unthinkable: Suddenly losing her best friend and soulmate to a freak accident. Ben Kelly was doing what he always did, surfing with a pack of friends somewhere a little off the beaten path, purposefully seeking out lighter crowds and better vibes.

A shark bite to the leg, striking a crucial artery, ended the life of the 26-year-old known to everyone he met — whether as a small business-building guru, a surfboard shaper or a guy in line at the coffee shop — as “Salt of the Earth” epitomized.

Ben Kelly was always on the hunt for waves off the beaten path, often with friends in tow.
(Courtesy Baker Carroll)

Katie has been splitting time between Orange County — where she has family and Ben’s family lives — and Santa Cruz, where the couple had launched a company called Authentic Approach to provide affordable marketing to the many small businesses in the area and where the circle of tight-knit friends she and Ben had cultivated has only grown tighter.

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In honor of the one-year anniversary of Ben’s death and part of city- and county-proclaimed Ben Kelly Day festivities, there was a surf contest at Pleasure Point on Saturday. Only this surf contest was called the No Contest.

And Ben Kelly, far from a surf contest kinda guy, would’ve loved it.

No intense head-to-head “paddle battles” and jockeying for waves with the singular intent of compiling bigger numbers on judges’ scorecards. If anything, that’s the kind of mentality Ben could never quite square up with his own love of surfing.

The No Contest instead brought together groups of five friends who signed up to surf a contest “heat” together, riding different styles of surf craft (shortboard, longboard, fish, foamie and a wildcard of choice) — a fitting tribute to a surfer whose perception of a good day was measured by waves given or shared rather than taken for himself.

A single winning wave from the five friends was chosen each heat with loose creativity points at the discretion of the judges. Winning waves even involved some hijinks, turning the proudly individual — some might dare say selfish — sport more into the stoked-out free surf Ben was always chasing.

Ben loved goofing off, doing party waves, seeing people stoked.

Katie and friends at the paddleout they held for Ben in San Clemente.
(Courtesy Katie Kelly)

“Ben loved goofing off, doing party waves, seeing people stoked” Katie said.

How popular was the concept of the No Contest? Once it hit social media channels, it was sold out 12 hours later. “People were bummed,” Katie said. “We’re gonna try to make this an annual thing and see if we can make it a whole weekend.”

Special attention — and awards — were paid to the future good vibesmen of the water, the groms: The Ben Kelly Character Award, the Ben Kelly Stoke Award, the Ben Kelly Creative Young Entrepreneur Award.

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Katie was there to celebrate and honor the spirit of her husband, who would’ve turned 28 on Friday. The turnout and vibe were beyond anything Ben Kelly probably could’ve imagined.

Katie spoke to Lookout about the challenging year she’s had and how, with the help of some really good family and friends, memories of her husband all around and a rock-solid faith, she keeps pushing onward.

Have you done any extra heavy reflecting on the one-year marker?

I’ve done heavy reflection all year long (laughs). The one-year has been heavy but it’s also been kinda like every other day for me. For others it’s like ‘Oh, this happened a year ago,’ … they have the luxury — and that’s great for them — of Ben’s passing not affecting their regular daily living. For me it’s like day 365 and then day 366, day 367, and so there’s a lot of built-up emotion. And when I start to think back ... I try not to because when I think back like, ‘Oh, this is what I was doing a year ago, this is what happened a year ago,’ all the emotion and the horror of those feelings come back.

Friends met up in Ventura to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Ben Kelly's death.
(Courtesy Baker Carroll)

Your group of friends gathered in Ventura last weekend to celebrate Ben, right?

Yeah, we all met up in Ventura at Ben and I’s favorite camp site. We spent the whole weekend surfing and hanging out together and it was so good I didn’t have to spend (the anniversary) alone. It was really nice to just be there with friends. I’ve had such a supportive community around me.

You’ve been posting some really touching memories of Ben on Facebook lately. It seems like a heavy but important thing for you to do.

Yeah, it’s tough even being down here in Southern California where we met because I’ll stumble across a beach where all these memories start flooding back of our college years when we started dating. It’s hard to see those things and be like ‘I was so carefree back then, no worries in the world.’ But I’ve seen so much beauty in emotion and feeling through this whole process and I really have seen God there and he’s comforting me and giving me miracles. And I know Ben and him are there, and Ben is alive and I’ve really felt that so strongly and that is a gift. I’ve never really been a Facebook person but lately it’s helped me with the process and I think it helps other people see how I’m going through this. I’ve just started this little “This is Ben” series because I don’t want to forget the little quirks that Ben had that are some of the things I loved most about him.

Katie & Ben
(Courtesy Katie Kelly)

What’s been the biggest takeaway for you in the process?

Ben was just so genuine, so authentic to himself. And I think that’s because he didn’t have to prove anything to anybody, and was because he was so confident in who he was, his identity, what his passions were and what God gifted him. Ben loved business, loved encouraging others and that was something that he really found a lot of joy in. He was very big on not doing things to people please or because people will think it’s cool.

I remember meeting Ben in the water once and getting that kind of vibe, like someone you knew even though you didn’t know them.

With surfing, it was really hard for him seeing the Santa Cruz mentality because he was like, “we’re all here to just enjoy the waves” any he really struggled with how possessive people were with waves because he’s say “Everybody’s here to have fun, we don’t own the waves, it’s like a playground for us.” And so he really tried his hardest to be kind; he valued kindness in the water.

It’s a very complex sociological experiment any time you enter the ocean here.

Yeah, and Ben just wanted to stoke everyone out. Ben just loved the joy of surfing and so it kind of took the joy out of surfing for him when there was that kind of vibe.

Katie Kelly, carrying one of her husband's handshaped surfboards, negotiates her ocean entry.
(Courtesy Amy Buller)

Where does surfing fit in for you?

Well, there were a few articles that said I was an avid surfer just because there was a picture with me holding a surfboard so I’m pretty proud of myself. (Laughs) I mostly longboard. Ben made himself a longboard so he could longboard with me but he mainly liked to shortboard. I’ve been going out actually a lot this year because it has connected me to Ben. He loved surfing so much that it has been like this connecting piece. I wouldn’t surf unprotected areas, like it feels safer in the Point, 38th area.

Kelp is your friend.

Yes, now kelp is my friend. I didn’t love it before and now I’m all for it. (Laughs) So I’ve been surfing quite a bit and Ben’s friends are the sweetest. They are constantly watching out for me when I’m in the water like they want to take the place of what Ben would be and so if like the waves are big and I’m struggling getting out there, they’ll push me out and help get me back in. (Laughs) I have a good crew of girls. But I’m honestly more of a fair-weather surfer. When it’s warm, and the waves are a nice two feet... (Laughs)

This contest seems like the perfect ode to Ben and what he was all about.

Yeah, he never loved surf competitions for the fact that they were so competitive. It ruined the joy of surfing for him. So we made an event honoring Ben set up in a way he would’ve absolutely loved to surf in. Everyone’s cheering each other on, you’re not stealing waves from each other, you’re not getting mad at each other.

At the paddleout for Ben in Santa Cruz.
(Courtesy Edin Markulin)

There’s an emphasis on the groms too right?

Yeah we really wanted to get the kids out. There’s one team of just kids, no one over 13. Ben really saw that through the kids you could change the culture.

That group of friends you and Ben were lucky to have seems pretty unique.

I’ve never seen so much sacrificial love, so much unconditional love and I’ve really seen God’s love through this whole thing because of friends and the community. And I think that’s the importance of friendship and community. It’s for these kinds of hard times. That’s how I’ve gotten through.

How much do you look ahead these days?

I’m really kind of trying to figure out what my next steps are. The past year it’s been really good for me to be surrounded by family. I don’t want to ever burden my friends but family is different. It’s been really sweet to be around Ben’s parents. They’ll have mannerisms just like him that are really comforting to me. It will be like ‘Whoa, that is exactly what he does.’ It’s been a mutual benefit for both of us to spend time together and grieve together.

The money seems to keep coming into the GoFundMe account even a year later from all over the world. Could you have ever imagined the reach of Ben’s story?

No, never. But there is this beauty in it. So many people have reached out from all over the world, with stories of how they’ve been affected by Ben’s life. I’m gonna start crying but it’s been the biggest blessing to me. To have someone from France reach out and say how they never even met him but how Ben changed their life. I’ve had multiple emails and messages come through with similar messages. Like ‘I know Ben must have made such an impact while he was alive because through Ben’s passing he’s impacted my life.’ It’s just like, gosh ... we had no idea the impact Ben had on people just by his simplistic way of life.

Ben & Katie
(Courtesy Katie Kelly)